Saturday, August 11, 2018

Is Pittsburgh in the Midlands?

In the seven years since American Nations was published, most readers have endorsed their county's placement among the eleven regional cultures I write about in the book. Two locations have generated some sustained pushback, however, both of them border cities on the Midland-Greater Appalachia frontier: Columbus, Ohio (assigned to Greater Appalachia in large part because of lingual evidence) and Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania (a clear-cut Midland city in my reading of history, but surrounded on three sides by Greater Appalachia.)

This week, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette staff columnist Brian O'Neill revisited his city's regional identity in this column, where he emphasizes its competing influences and seems to concede that calling it Appalachia might not be sufficient. It's a nice synopsis from the field, and represents a bit of a shift from our friendly debate in 2013, when O'Neill lamented the city's Midland designation (it's "the Paris of Appalachia" he insisted.)

As for Columbus, I've heard both pro and con arguments from readers there for its Appalachian designation, but nothing from the city's intelligentsia. Let's hope they weigh in one of these days -- the Cleveland Plain Dealer did in regards to the Western Reserve's Yankee character in comparison with southern Ohio's Appalachian one -- but not a word from the Dispatch.

[Update, 1/1/2019: O'Neill revisited this topic again in December.]


  1. Colin, former Columbusite here. If I recall accurately from your book, you actually correctly pointed out (albeit indirectly) that Columbus is a true border city, culturally and politically divided by US 40 (the old National Road) that slices through Franklin County and the metro as a whole. I can attest from firsthand obervation that, generally speaking, there is a marked cultural and economic divide between the communities and neighborhoods located north of US 40 and those situated to its south.

    As a native Midlander, I found the wealthy suburbs that arc the northern portion of the metro to be almost culturally indistinguishable from those of the southwest Kansas City suburbs (also Midland) that I grew up in, where a spirit of political moderation, high-ish property taxes to support a robust local government, and an understated social conservatism and a general skepticism of state and federal authority prevailed. Contrast this state of affairs with the Appalachian communities on the other side of the highway: Property taxes were generally lower and public investments (from what I could tell) were generally less flashy, Baptist and Evangelical congregations outnumbered mainline and Catholic churches something like 2:1 (the inverse was true up north), and fall harvest festivals featuring double-fried Snickers bars and bike shows predominated in lieu of community-sponsored farmers’ markets, to mention a few potential indicators...

    As you have acknowledged previously, even your meticulous, county-by-county distinctions between the various American Nations are often not granular enough to tell the full story. My opinion is that Columbus’ cultural landscape both anecdotally validates your research and demonstrates that the narratives of these competing cultures can often only be fully-fleshed out at the sectional or even quarter-sectional level.

    1. Thanks kindly for your very interesting feedback. Columbus is one of the most argued-about areas on the American Nations map for this very reason. At the county level it definitely seems to have a split identity; if I recall correctly, it's categorized w Greater Appalachia because of dominant speaking dialect.