My American Unhappiness by Dean Bakopoulos

From Chapter One: Zeke Pappas is off to the Rotary Club luncheon.

Nine years ago, in the summer of 1999, I was hired to be the director of the Great Midwestern Humanities Initiative (GMHI), a federally funded program designed “to foster a greater sense of community, increase public literacy, and strengthen levels of civic engagement in the American heartland.” The program was typical of the projects launched at the end of that optimistic and high-rolling decade, as its founders believed it could cease or at least slow the brain drain that was occurring in that region of the country, both the crumbling Rust Belt and the blighted Grain Belt. I was raised in Madison, Wisconsin, and I still live there, a city full of transplants where everybody’s optimism about the heartland seems to outpace the reality of our condition: we are dying.

People have been leaving the Midwest for decades and they still are many decades later and nobody is particularly surprised. From the streets of Cleveland and Detroit and Gary, to the fertile fields of Wisconsin and Iowa and southern Indiana, the young people flee. They go south and west, to the newly cosmopolitan and sprawling cities like Atlanta and Orlando and Salt Lake; they deal with the heat—it’s worth it to them. I can imagine them sweating, those exiles, in newly purchased summer suits of linen and seersucker, in dresses that bare their still pale and overly broad shoulders. Some of the exiles head west to the great mountains and the deserts and the outdoorsy, freestyling existence that such places as Boulder and Bozeman and Tucson seem to promise. They go to sunny and arid places with high-tech corridors and solar energy projects. Some go directly to the coasts: to San Francisco or New York, those hubs of artistry and commerce with their diverse and teeming neighborhoods, the magnetic bustle of business and action, the sounds of foreign music and unknown spices wafting out of the windows and into the sky and streets. They do not stay here in the Midwest with its sagging and empty auto plants, steel factories running at half power, and farms plagued by unprofitable hogs, underpriced grain, silos in sore need of repair.

Excerpted from My American Unhappiness by Dean Bakopoulos, copyright ©
2011. Reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing
Company. All rights reserved.