Wednesday, August 3, 2016

flyoverland before airplanes

It crossed my mind the other day that the Midwest played a very different psychological role in this country before  cross-country air travel became common. The term flyoverland originated, I believe among entertainment executives who routinely flew back and forth between Los Angeles and New York. They would be up in the air for three or four hours and would occasionally look down at this checkerboard of farmland tens of thousands of feet beneath them. After a few seconds of idle speculation along the lines of, 'Do people actually live down there? What could they possibly do?', they would return to their inflight movies or laptops. They evinced no interest in the region beyond that.

Before air travel was common, though, the Midwest was, psychologically, the great stable and powerful center of the country. The breadbasket, of course, but also the industrial heartland, with great factories churning out products that the rest of the world bought. The Midwest was the heart of American prosperity. And Chicago in particular was the great metropolis of this heartland. All railroads led there, and passenger rail was, of course, the mode of transcontinental travel of choice for those who didn't have to 'go Greyhound.' It was the nerve center for transportation, but also a great regional capital, city of the broad shoulders, where all the wheat from Kansas and Nebraska and corn from Illinois and Iowa was traded at the Board of Trade. It even spawned a great school of regional architecture, the Prairie School, and its primary exponent the genius Frank Lloyd Wright. With its long horizontals and overhanging eaves, it was a perfect expression of the solidity and strength of this region.

Now the Midwest is not only 'flyoverland,' but the Rust Belt, and Chicago in particular has become a much more parochial place presided over by ethnic politicians interested only in balancing off their different neighborhoods and groups-- and, of course, getting their share of the gravy along the way. The Chicago of the Columbian Exposition and 'Make no little plans' has certainly left its mark, along with the architecture of Louis Sullivan, Wright, and Mies van der Rohe. But it just doesn't have that feel of being the great capital of the Heartland any more.