Did the Midwest Ever Have Strong Coastal Connections?


Pete Saunders recently described how, after being built in part with eastern money, West Coast outposts like San Francisco and Los Angeles never relinquished their East Coast connections. This created bi-coastal connectivity that continues to play dividends for both coast at the expense of relatively disconnected “flyover country.”

But I wonder: did most places in the Midwest ever have great connections to the East Coast (especially New York City) to begin with? It brought to mind William Cronon’s tour de force book “Nature’s Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West” in which he documented the rise of Chicago and the rest of the Midwest together as an integrated system. One of the things he did was try to trace financial flows. This wasn’t easy, but he looked at things like bankruptcy and probate records, as well as other people’s research into correspondent banking relationships.

What Cronon found is that Chicago served as the the gateway that connected the rest of the Midwest to eastern markets. This was true physically via the industrial works in Chicago that converted raw materials into finished goods, railroads, etc. But it was also true financially. Cronon notes:

By choosing Chicago to be the greatest concentration of railroad capital on the continent, and by giving Chicago merchants special access to credit and discounts that made wholesaling possible, New Yorkers and other eastern capitalists place it atop the western system at the very moment that settlement in the region began its most explosive growth


Canadian geographer A. F. Burghardt has used less grandiloquent language to describe this same process. In his phrase, Chicago became a “gateway city” by serving as the chief intermediary between newly occupied farms and town in the West and the maturing capitalist economy of the Northeast and Europe.

Writing specifically about finance, Cronon notes:

In 1884 a Chicago guidebook author could report, “Our banks are now depended on to a great extent to furnish Eastern exchange for other cities, and Chicago has become the recognized financial center of the West – bearing the same relation to the West that New York does to the entire country.”

If one moves further down the urban hierarchy, the implications of these banking linkages for Chicago’s regional hinterland become clearer still. By looking at medium-sized cities that used Chicago banks for their principal correspondent relations, one discovers that Chicago’s financial hinterland extended from Cleveland in the east to Denver in the west. Three decades later, in 1910, it extended all the way west to Seattle, San Francisco, and Los Angeles.

What this suggests to me, though I didn’t see Cronon explicitly state it, is that much of the Midwest may never have had much in the way of independent East Coast connections. Rather, their connections were with Chicago, relationships that definitely continue to the modern day. Thus it may be less a matter of Midwestern cities giving up East Coast ties as never having had much of them in the first place.

Chicago, by contrast, had not only its original East Coast connections, but also developed networks to the West. The persistence of these networks is one of the many factors that enabled Chicago to more readily adapt to the global era than other Rust Belt locales. Chicago may be the only Midwest city with reasonably strong coastal connections.

It would be interesting to study the development of financial relationships in cities over time. Saunders posited that New York money originally financed San Francisco, but Cronon notes the dominance of Chicago connections by 1910. San Francisco ultimately became the major west coast financial center in its own right and retains a significant finance center function through its venture capital concentrations.

Cleveland as the easternmost extent of Chicago’s hinterland is something we see today. Indeed, I’ve been told the west side of the Cleveland region tilts towards Chicago and the east side towards New York even today.

In any case, I’m not making definitive claims, just looking for potential explanations for the paucity of Midwest networks. Cronon basically makes the argument that Chicago and the Midwest were the original “megaregion” and as a result, perhaps Midwestern cities developed networks that were excessively Chicago-centric. Given the historic status of Chicago as a gateway city to national and global markets, my idea that Chicago should see itself as the Midwest’s global gateway seems directionally correct.

Aaron M. Renn is an independent writer on urban affairs and the founder of Telestrian, a data analysis and mapping tool. He writes at The Urbanophile where this piece originally appeared.

Photo by Doug Siefken

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Chicago's connection to East and West Cost by passenger traffic

By analyzing Brooking Institute's 2009 passenger traffic between US metropolitan area, Chicago shows quite strong ties to major metros in both East and West Coast.

4. Chicago-NY 4.7M
5. Chicago-LA 3.3M
21. Chicago-Denver 2.5M
24. Chicago-DC 2.4M
30. Atlanta-Chicago 2.3M
31. Chicago-SF 2.4M
33. Chicago-Miami 2.1M
35. Chicago-LV 2.1M
36. Boston-Chicago 2.1M

Richard Florida wrote in his March 2009 article as follows;

"Chicago has emerged as a center for industrial management and has rolled up many of the functions, such as finance and law, once performed in smaller midwestern centers".

How the Crash Will Reshape America - Richard Florida - The Atlantic http://bit.ly/12oLt2C

I've read about this before - really interesting

One of the most interesting books I have ever read, is "Replenishing the Earth: the Anglo World and the Settler Revolution" by James Belich (Oxford University). The sheer scope and breadth of Belich's treatment of the subject is breathtaking. He certainly discusses these "network connection" effects in growing new colonial economies; in fact they are central to a main thesis he presents. He shows that there are several phases that most such economies go through. Capital from, firstly, the colonising power (or international finance), and later from the maturing newly-established cities; are an integral part of each new growth phase.

Growth itself is what drives each new local economy initially, with exports being a kind of natural accident, but a downturn of some kind seems to always come before an "export led recovery", whereby the new city or region is forced to discover its competitive advantages and build on them.