The Nation's Pulse

The Heart of the Heart of the Country

A dignified calm in the face of economic stress.

By 8.11.10

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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.

I lost a prosecuting attorney's race in St. Louis county, which I managed in 1976, because a ballot proposition, supporting Right to Work in the state, was solidly defeated by a massive labor turnout motivated by the campaign theme, "Right to Work is a Ripoff." Oh, irony of ironies.

One encounters friends and family members with businesses struggling, law firms downsizing, some out of work, trying to reconstruct their lives, struggling to pay college tuitions, and kids moving to Chicago to find work. In a comfortable suburb of St. Louis, you can find many vacant storefronts in relatively new shopping malls which were perfectly timed to collide with the Great Recession. The same is true with various and sundry shops in our small village in northern Wisconsin near our place on the lake. The local parish up there is putting out the SOS for support due to escalating costs and Sunday collections that have stayed flat now for a decade or two.

Yet, no one is jumping out of windows. Amongst our crowd, most marriages still endure. Parents still pray for their wayward children with a few actually growing up and coming to their senses. People are realistic about the prospects of recovery but hopeful at least in an eschatological sense. As my father, who with my mother, now resides in a nursing home, used to say, "The situation is hopeless but not serious."

As I mentioned, I was able to attend the ordination of one of my wife's relatives in Wisconsin. This was my first and a moving experience it truly was, especially given the scandals impacting the clergy and hierarchy these past few years. To my knowledge, no one has been ordained a priest in either of our families until this, the fifth generation -- a long drought for sure. There are now two more ordinations likely in the family in a very short time. So maybe the situation is more hopeful than hopeless. May it ever be so.

The new priest was devout, handsome, and in love with the Lord and his Church. At the conclusion of his first Mass on the Sunday after, he presented his stole from his first Confession to his father and the purificator with which he cleansed his hands of the oil of ordination to his mother. He told his parents, "These will be buried with you so that when you meet the Lord, you can tell him that you gave him your son." This wiped out the first four rows of family members who were reduced to uncontrollable sobbing, crying, and nose blowing. I swear I could hear my stoic Norwegian brother-in-law sniffling down the pew.

Hope, as they say, is a theological virtue, not derived from reason but faith. Such virtue, I am pleased to report, is still to be found in the heart of the heart of the country. 

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About the Author

G. Tracy Mehan III served at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in the administrations of both Presidents Bush. He is a consultant in Arlington, Virginia, and an adjunct professor at George Mason University School of Law.