Ohio with Palm Trees

Let’s do a quick demographic survey of the Tampa Bay area:

How many people from Ohio have you met? From the Midwest in general? Children or grandchildren of Midwesterners?

I’ve counted 64. Make that 65, counting myself.

In fact, it seems that just about everyone I meet here is originally from Ohio, Illinois, Indiana, Wisconsin, western Pennsylvania, or western New York state. Although Tampa Bay is about as far south into the continental United States as one can get geographically, it feels in many ways like my hometown of Highland Park, Ill., in suburban Chicago—but with palm trees.

Professional demographers say that there are at least 27 identifiable ethnic groups in the Tampa Bay area, and I believe them. But still, I know when I’m back home. Most people I meet seem friendly, smile, say “please” and “thank you,” and don’t litter.

My wife Amy, who has roots in D.C. and New York City, finds these instances of civic virtue a constant source of amazement.

For me, it’s simply how daily life once was in this country, and how it sometimes still is.

Last year, I dined with a fellow late 50-something Midwesterner who is a truly gifted poet and performer. Although he looked and played the part of the aging hipster, I knew from his recent performance at the State Theater in St. Pete that his wildly imaginative torrent of words was grounded in workaday reality and traditional American morality.

He rhapsodized and ranted at a huge, variegated audience of hundreds of tattooed and pierced 20-somethings and more conventional gray-headed baby boomers. He spared the delicate feelings of no one in the auditorium. In a nutshell: life is hard; marriage is difficult; raising kids is tough; a job will wear you out; an honest dollar is hard to come by in both the rust belt of the Midwest and in Florida.

But that is how it is. So suck it up and get back to work and your obligations.

Here was a man who was groomed from childhood to assume adult responsibilities as both a reliable worker and engaged citizen. There is a nobility to this that dwarfs the self-involvement and narcissism of so much of American life and careerism for the last thirty or forty years.

After exchanging the usual “guy” chitchat about our kids, our wives, our athletic prowess and injuries, we settled into an unexpected conversation about how great it was to have grown up in the Midwest in the ’50s and early ’60s.

We conversed nostalgically about how normal, secure, safe, and community-centered our young lives seemed back then. There was time to build snow forts and tree houses after school. And there were often sit-down family dinners without a blaring TV.

Then came the 1960s with the assassinations of JFK, RFK and MLK, the tragedy at Kent State, the Vietnam War, urban riots, Mai Lai, Watergate, The Pill, The Beatles, hippies, sex, drugs, rock ‘n’ roll, and the first signs of the coming de-industrialization of our once-great manufacturing nation. Fast-forward 30 years. By the mid-90s, many of us were chronically worried working stiffs. We quietly fretted about job security, paying for our children’s college tuition, insanely inflated home prices, escalating energy prices, and the chaotic state of the world.

The bubble burst in the Midwest just like everywhere else across the country.

Our youthful hopes and idealism seemed to have evaporated from our collective baby boomer brains. We weren’t able to live the lives our parents had in the suburbs of Chicago, Des Moines, or Toledo.

So now you might be expecting some sort of self-righteous sermon about how everything was great in “Leave it to Beaver Land” and that now the country is going to the dogs.


Nostalgia is most often the unconscious reframing of unpleasant memories and feelings from the past into something more palatable. The fondly recalled golden dreams of youth are perfectly harmless occasional entertainment. But realistically, things were never that great in the past nor are they so terrible in the present.

In any event, the new millennium is different and more complex than the old. And we must cope with a global economy and multiracial society as it is, and not waste our precious time daydreaming.

The Tampa Bay metropolitan area embodies the New America, with all its warts and promise for the future. I-75 permanently connects the core values of this region to the geographic and spiritual center of the United States.

I believe that this deep and dynamic connection to our national heartland will be the anchor chain of our civil society in the tumultuous and surprising decades ahead.

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