I grew up in the Midwest. I was born in Peoria, Illinois, and lived there until I was 19. Go Bears. From there, I moved to Madison, Wisconsin, for a few years, and then to Sioux Falls, South Dakota, for way too long before finally fleeing the region for good in 2011. You can probably tell from the wording in that last sentence that the Midwest wasn't my favorite among the places I've lived.
That said, it wasn't quite as terrible as a lot of people who've never set foot in a "flyover state" seem to think it might be. It also wasn't (and still isn't) nearly as idyllic as people who imagine the Midwest as nothing but an endless stretch of farmland might expect. That's how being in the middle works, you see.
We talk about some of the more prevalent misconceptions about life in the Midwest on this week's Unpopular Opinion podcast, where I'm joined by comics Mo Mandel (Chelsea Lately, Mo vs. The World podcast) and Jeff May (reads a lot of comic books).
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Middle America is often associated with a nerve-soothing lack of criminal activity. If you've ever expressed an opinion like this to someone who's lived there, you were probably met with a defense along the lines of "Yeah, well what about Chicago?" That's a completely valid response. People haven't taken to calling it "Chiraq" for nothing.
There were more people killed by gun violence in Chicago than American soldiers killed in Afghanistan from 2001 to 2012. Just a reminder, we were at war with Afghanistan for every single one of those years. In case you're wondering, the Windy City's total was around 5,000, while the war claimed closer to 2,000 lives during the same time.
So, the Midwest "has that going for it" when it comes to crime, so to speak. It's also worth adding to that argument that frequent "Murder Capital of the United States" contenders like St. Louis, Missouri; East St. Louis, Illinois; Detroit, Michigan; and Gary, Indiana are all located in the central time zone as well.
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People are lining up to buy ($1,000) homes in Detroit!
Well, Detroit isn't, but it's still in the Midwest, so shut the fuck up, comments section. Anyway, with almost no exception, the kind of crime that causes murder rates like the ones those cities frequently experience is also the kind of crime that's pretty easy to avoid. A lot of it is gang-related violence that's contained to particular sections of the city. Once you hit those sleepy, rural areas where buildings and people are few and far between, things get a lot less terrifying, right?
Wrong. In fact, depending on where you are, it could actually be far worse. Like so many of life's other major calamities, the problem is oil.
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Watford City, North Dakota, is the new West Baltimore.
As it turns out, there's a ton of it in North Dakota. The Parshall Oil Field was discovered there in 2006 and immediately produced a glut of readily available, relatively high-paying jobs.
In a lot of ways, it's been a great thing. North Dakota currently boasts the lowest unemployment rate in the nation at a mind-blowing 2.6 percent, and its GDP is 29 percent higher than the national average. Fiscally speaking, things are good (to the tune of a $1 billion budget surplus), but in a lot of other ways, the state is falling apart.
See, a lot of those jobs that are available to almost anyone who wants them amount to not a lot more than extremely dangerous and therefore especially lucrative manual labor. For people with a lack of real-world work skills, like, say, hardened criminals, the opportunity is just too good to pass up.
People are showing up for work faster than places of employment can be built!
So, while wealth and prosperity are on the rise, so are crime rates. We aren't talking small increases, either. In the tiny town of Watford City, whose slogan promises that it's a place where you can "live the good life" and boasts a population smaller than that of the high school I graduated from (1,700 as of the 2010 census), crime is up by motherfucking 565 percent.
It's also bleeding into neighboring states. Roosevelt County in Montana has seen an 855 percent increase in arrests since the oil boom started. It's not just bar fights and property crimes, either. The website city-data.com ranks crime rates by city on a scale of 0 to 1,000, with 1,000 being the most violent. They list the national average for violent crime in 2012 at 214.0. How does Watford City compare? A little less than 300 points higher, with a relatively insane 502.7.
"It was the kind of town where no one even bothered to lock their doors at night ..."
That number doesn't put Watford City in league with the Oaklands of the world or anything, but it does put it ahead of New York City, Los Angeles, Boston, and plenty of other famous crime movie locations. In the name of saving the best statistic for last, have a look at how Watford City compared to the national average for violent crime just five short years ago:
Also, meth. It's always been a problem in the Midwest, and it's really a problem now that everyone in North Dakota can afford to smoke it without going broke. The drug trade in North Dakota is such that actual Mexican drug cartels have set up shop in that area. If that sounds like the kind of ghost story that authorities like to spread around to scare people without providing any real proof, direct your attention to Project Safe Bakken, a joint effort between the FBI and police in North Dakota, Montana, and Canada that's aimed at curtailing the boom in drug activity in the region. "Bakken" refers to the below-ground rock formation where the Parshall Oil Field was discovered.
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But it looks so safe already!
This might still seem like a distant problem that only impacts a small area of the country, but the Parshall Oil Field was discovered using methods we haven't always had at our disposal, and it's being used to look for oil in all sorts of Midwest areas (and possibly causing earthquakes in the process). It will work again somewhere else, and probably lots of somewhere elses after that one. If you think oil destroyed the country when we went looking for it in the Middle East, North Dakota is just a preview of how bad things are likely to get now that we're looking for it here at home.
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When I lived in South Dakota, without fail, the first thing a person would ask when calling from out of state was "What's the weather like there right now?" Of course, the expected response was something relating to it being significantly colder in my part of the world, and that was usually pretty close to the truth. Indeed, winters in the Midwest are fucking horrible, and the cold and snow are everything people make them out to be and more. Also, the further north you travel, the longer winter lasts. Snow in April is not at all unusual, just like the Prince song said.
This picture will probably get us sued!
That said, it's also hot as shit for a good part of the year. Summers in the Midwest are just as brutal as the winters. Since I've moved to Los Angeles, I honestly don't recall a single day when the temperature outside reached 100 degrees or more. It happened all the time in South Dakota. To give you an idea of how common it was, have a gander at this list of the hottest cities in America, ranked by the number of 100-degree days they experience each year. See how San Antonio, Texas, averages eight triple-digit-temperature days each year? In 2012, there were nine 100-degree days in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, and all of them happened between the months of June and August. That means temperatures hit triple digits an average of once every 10 days that summer. Fuck. That.
You could see Mount Rushmore in this picture before I cropped it.
Sure, 2012 was an especially hot year for everyone, but summers around those parts are generally terrible, even without record-setting temperatures, mostly because it's insanely humid. Have you ever been inside a sauna? It's like that, except you're wearing clothes.
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So like this, if she was wearing a parka and a meth habit.
For further proof that weather in the Midwest isn't a nonstop parade of single-digit temperatures, check out this list of the average temperatures of 100 cities. Sioux Falls' 73-degree average in July is enough to put it ahead of seemingly warmer locales like Reno, Nevada (71.3). If you move down to areas like St. Louis, which is about as south as you can get without actually being in the South, the averages are closer to the 80s.
So, you're wrong. The weather doesn't suck in the Midwest during the winter; the weather sucks in the Midwest all year long.
Yeah, so here is where the "What about Chicago?" defense is the only real option. Well, Chicago, Indianapolis, Minneapolis, St. Louis, Columbus (foreshadowing alert), Detroit, Milwaukee, and plenty of other smaller but still not farm-filled cities can be found in the Midwest. Almost every state has at least one relatively urban-ish city to its credit; some of them have a lot more than you probably realize.
Take Ohio, for example. That state doesn't decide so many presidential elections for nothing. A lot of people live there. I know, I don't understand it either, but it's true. In fact, if you remove their largest cities from the argument, you're liable to run into a lot more farmland in a state like New York than you would in Ohio. Check out this population comparison between the largest cities in Ohio and New York:
As you can see, among each respective state's next four most-populated areas, Ohio wins every time. I mean, obviously, Columbus is no New York City, though. Columbus is way more dangerous, for one thing. Here's another comparison of NYC and Columbus from a website called neighborhoodscout.com:
Again, the comedy writes itself here.
That "crime index" number in green works on a scale from 0 to 100, with 100 being the safest a city can possibly be. You'll note that, despite having one-tenth of the population of New York, you're a lot more likely to be the victim of a violent crime in Columbus, Ohio. How come John Mellencamp never sings about that kind of shit?
That's all beside the point, though, because we've already talked about crime. What really matters is this: Not everyone who lives in the state of New York can claim they reside in New York City, and once you're outside those boundaries, the rest of New York is a lot more Buffalo than Brooklyn.
Even that's probably a little too generous. I lived in upstate New York for about six months, and it was far and away the least "urban" environment I've ever called home. Nevertheless, I guarantee you approximately 99 percent of the people who live there not only assume 100 percent of the people in Ohio live on a farm, but that it's also somehow more of a farm than the one they live on.