A dignified calm in the face of economic stress.
This summer found me traveling into the heart of the heart of the country, the place of my birth, the great American Midwest. This is not a journey of dark despair, notwithstanding the collapse of manufacturing in the region, but one of encounter with a dignified calm amidst economic stress, uncertainty, and life’s slings and arrows.
Business, a priestly ordination (my first), and a bit of vacation, drew me to Missouri, Wisconsin and Michigan this summer with quick stops in Ohio and Indiana.
The first thing that strikes me is the number of American-made automobiles on the roads, a big change from Washington, D.C. and its suburbs where I have resided these past nine years. Stopping for a red light, say, in Bethesda, Maryland or McLean, Virginia, you are struck by the fact that very few residents of the Beltway drive American vehicles, including this writer.
The second thing that strikes me is the absence of many immigrants, although I found a robust Hispanic community in Milwaukee, a significant contingent from the Middle East in Dearborn, and a lively contingent of Bosnians in South St. Louis, my hometown. Evidently, the Bosnians have cornered the market on house painting in River City.
Generally, these Muslim immigrants are well received since they “keep up their property,” as old-time German-American burghers might say. However, early on, their tendency to slaughter and smoke animals in their backyards did cause quite a stir, resulting in some new ordinances, or so I am told.
In the Midwest, as in other parts of the country, there are still Anglos working in food service and happy for the opportunity, although you can find Russians aplenty working in hotels and motels, say in Marquette, Michigan.
In Fairfax County, Virginia, 100% of the jobs in food service, hotels, landscaping, retail, and other miscellaneous occupations are immigrants, reflecting a high-end job market in which even middle-class teenagers are not commonly employed in summer jobs. I do not exaggerate. This results, no doubt, from the continued growth of the federal government and its supporting contractor base. Nine-eleven came along, and the federal government expanded. Then, the Great Recession came along, and it expanded some more.
As a friend of mine noted wryly, Washington is a good place in which to ride out a recession. It is also one reason why denizens of the Beltway may be losing touch with the rest of America. But let’s not go there.
St. Louis, my hometown, is similar to Baltimore, another border-state city, with a kind of binary demographic of mostly Caucasian- and African-Americans. St. Louis has completely lost its French connections and most of its German heritage, although it has an astounding number of world-class Italian restaurants which rival much larger cities.
You can still find a good German restaurant or three in Milwaukee, and the Third Ward is a hopping, exciting area just south of downtown.
Historians used to call Cincinnati, St. Louis, and Milwaukee the German Triangle. My Irish-American grandfather came from Cincinnati, married a St. Louis German-American woman. I married a Irish-German-American woman from Milwaukee, hitting the third point of the triangle. Irish-German inter-marriage is another interesting aspect of Midwestern culture.
There are still a lot of wealthy people, say, in Ladue and River Hills, suburbs of St. Louis and Milwaukee, respectively, and on the Gold Coast of Michigan, i.e., the Lake Michigan coast, where Detroit, St. Louis, and Chicago money still vacations, along with the very, very wealthy hanging out in Harbor Springs on Little Traverse Bay in the northwestern part of the state. Cruise ships used to bring summertime residents from all over the Great Lakes region. Today, they can fly their own airplanes into the local airport on Friday night, spend the weekend with the fam, and fly out Monday morning. The town is manic about historic preservation and has a draconian building code which mandates that even new homes are authentic replicas of 19th century Victorian mansions. But cost is no object for most of the residents there.
That said, Michigan City, Indiana, situated near the magnificent dunes at the southern end of Lake Michigan, a short commute from Chicago, struggles to gentrify itself. My wife and I had the strange experience of patronizing a discount mall in the shadow of a cooling tower for a nearby nuclear power plant. Nevertheless, this strange juxtaposition is a sign of progress in a community that has seen very hard times.
I gave a talk to a business environmental meeting at the Lake of the Ozarks, with 1,150 miles of shoreline snaking through numerous Ozark valleys and hills. It still draws in vacationers and time-sharers with many boats, even “cigarette boats,” party barges, and jet skis in tremendous quantities. This is not a controlled Army Corps of Engineers’ lake, but one developed by a private electric utility company years ago, which put a dam on the beautiful Osage River, creating a Wild West real estate development boom. I do not think you could ever see more boats crowded into one place outside the Strait of Gibraltar.
You don’t have to visit Detroit, Flint, or Saginaw, Michigan to see the signs of economic distress in the Midwest. The auto industry is almost wiped out in Missouri, once ranked with Michigan and Ohio in auto production. Anheuser-Busch is now a Belgian operation, and the heyday of the F-16 and McDonnell-Douglas is only a memory. Like Pittsburgh, St. Louis focuses on health care, education, transportation, and the Cardinals (doing much better than the Pirates, praise God). Like Michigan it is not a Right-to-Work state and suffers for it dearly in comparison to Texas, Alabama, Tennessee, and other points south.
A man of faith in a godless age is hitting Americans where it hurts.
Mr. and Mrs. American Spectator Reader, let P.J. O’Rourke talk sense to your kids.
In Britain, defending your property can get you life.
It won’t take long for conservatives to scratch this presidential wannabe off their 2008 scorecard.
Was the President done in by the economy, or by the politics of the economy?
H/T to National Review Online