Cedar Rapids is the second-largest city in Iowa, right after the capital, Des Moines. But here, as in anywhere in Iowa, you are never more than five minutes from a cornfield.
It can feel so small. But this closeness can be a comfort. I’ve lived in the middle of America my whole life, growing up in Texas, then moving to South Dakota, Minnesota, and finally to Cedar Rapids, Iowa, where I’ve lived for 14 years. I can walk into a restaurant on a Friday night and see any number of friends. My neighbors watch my house while I’m gone. I know that if I get sick or injured, someone will bring me a tater tot casserole.
A recent op-ed in the New York Times, titled “Move to your dying hometown,” told the story of a writer moving from Portland, Oregon, back to a small town of 14,000 people in central Minnesota where her grandmother was from. The writer, Michele Anderson, who is a white cis woman, argues that becoming a “homecomer” is part of a sustainable lifestyle that rejects the culture of chasing empty status and upward mobility of cities. “My work felt trivial and temporary,” Anderson writes about her career in Portland.
This article is one example of a larger narrative that fetishizes return as a way to revive America’s “dwindling” rural communities. In March of 2017, JD Vance, author of Hillbilly Elegy, wrote a similar op-ed extolling the virtues of moving back to Middle America. Like Anderson, Vance implies that his decision isn’t just good for him, but good for America. “Those of us who are lucky enough to choose where we live would do well to ask ourselves, as part of that calculation, whether the choices we make for ourselves are necessarily the best for our home communities — and for the country,” writes Vance. Living in the heart of America, they both argue, is the kind of noble choice that could bridge our nation’s deep divides.
But who is allowed to “move back?” Vance, like Anderson, is writing as a white cis person. For bodies that don’t belong — the queer, trans, disabled, person of color, or immigrant body — the close, tight-knit community that the Midwest prides itself on can be more isolating than uniting. It can mean violence, fear, and exhaustion.
The story of who leaves a place is just as important as the story of who stays.
Who’s allowed to “go home”
Much has been made of the outward migration from small towns in the Midwest to bigger cities. While urban counties are growing at the national rate of 13 percent, half of America’s rural counties now have fewer residents now than they did in 2000. And this loss is hitting small communities in the Midwest particularly hard, where there are often more deaths than births, and a large amount of out migration.
Even urban counties here, such as Cook County, Illinois, Wayne County, Michigan, and Cuyahoga County, Ohio, have experienced more population loss than their coastal counterparts. But most of these losses are focused in areas that used to be farming communities, where corporations and trade wars have devastated land-based economies. It’s easy to look at this problem and see it as one that can simply be solved with some goodwill and a moving truck. But it’s not that simple.
I originally moved to Cedar Rapids in the summer of 2005 for a relationship. When I got here, there were no free-standing Starbucks, and that fact alone made me cry — not because I particularly enjoyed Starbucks coffee, but because it felt to me like a marker of civilization.
Years later when we divorced, that Midwestern town closeness was a godsend. When I moved into my new home with two children in tow, a couple of beds, and very little money, the father of a friend brought over a brand new chair just because he heard I needed furniture. My therapist grew up with my neighbor, whose ex-wife was my friend, and whose lawyer is now my friend, and whose new wife is also my friend. And yes, they all know my doctor somehow.
In both of their essays, Vance and Anderson seem shocked that they have made comfortable, fulfilling homes in small towns that provide more of a sense of belonging than the coastal cities where they once lived. Their writing idealizes Middle America as a place that encourages community. But it’s not shocking that Vance and Anderson fit into Middle American cities as cis white people.
In reporting out my book, God Land: A Story of Faith, Loss, and Renewal in Middle America, I talked to many queer Midwesterners who told me stories of cruelty and bullying in their hometowns. Leaving allowed them to find safety and relationships. Matt Anderson, a gay man who talked to me about his experience growing up in Indiana, spoke of abuse, silence, and religious exclusion.
People of color told me that they often find themselves feeling like the only black person in town, bearing the weight of systematic racism. Only 20 percent of the LGBTQ population lives in rural areas, and they often find themselves isolated and targeted for slurs and violence, and are often afraid to come out to their doctors. Disabled people struggle with lack of public transportation, access, and support. While there are very racially diverse cities in the Midwest, rural counties only share 4 percent of America’s immigrant populations. To put it another way, 79 percent of rural populations are majority white. And this didn’t happen by accident.
To pretend that the segregation of our country is some sort of choice made by liberals who reside in liberal bubbles and really love avocado toast is to ignore the deeply racist origins of our cities. Sundown towns, so named because black people were not allowed there after sundown, practiced enforced segregation. These cities exist all over the United States, even in the Midwest, where they still carry the prejudice of their history into the 21st century.
In a recent tweet, Julie Rogers, a queer Christian and activist, observed, “Growing up in Texas and moving in evangelical spaces, I didn’t know much anxiety I carried in my body. I wasn’t aware of the depth of insecurity I felt in routine social interactions, always [self-conscious] about my clothes being too gay or my posture seeming too lezzy.” Rogers explains that just living in a place where others like her are visible has given her a confidence and lightness of existence she didn’t know was possible.
Who lives in a town is just as important as who moved away. And people deserve to live in spaces where they can walk down the street in their bodies and not worry about death or harassment, or at least know that if those things happen, they will be safe and find help. Not everybody can live in Middle America, just as not everybody can live in a city — America still needs farmers, ranchers, and all the land-based occupations, after all. To presume that the vitality of urban life comes at the cost of rural America is an oversimplification of a deeper problem.
This logic also sets up the divide in America as a strawman argument: We can solve it if only we just get along, as a popular Kenny Chesney song so glibly puts it. But the lived experience of “getting along” is only simple if you code as belonging: If you are white, if you are middle class, if you are cis-gendered.
Middle America defies labels
Vance and Anderson and others are often gamely shocked to find good food and culture in small cities in the Midwest, as if we have just been here farming and voting Republican and doing nothing else. And of course, all of Middle America is not a land teeming with prejudice and rage. Many of the states here have histories of progressive policies and politics, such as Wisconsin, which until Scott Walker’s terms as governor had a rich history of electing pro-labor union politicians.
But it is not a bucolic region of Jello salad and family values either. Fetishizing Middle America, and ignoring its complications, does no one any favors. Middle America is a dissonant space, pulled between the extremes of the coast. We have the reputation of being a moderating, milquetoast place, full of bland casseroles, and passive-aggressive assurances that we are fine. In the more elegant words of the Dar Williams song, “We don’t like to make our passions other people’s concerns.”
But to believe so fully in the bland passivity and unity of Middle America is to miss a more dissonant reality. Iowa was the third state in the country to legalize gay marriage, but also continues to reelect a bigoted man to Congress, Steve King. Places like Worthington, Minnesota, and Racine, Wisconsin, and Perry, Iowa, are deeply diverse, while each of those cities went for Trump in the last election.
Additionally, the “death” of small towns are often a result of the loss of farming and ag-based occupations, rather than some sort of liberal inclination to move closer to a Starbucks. As a single mom and a writer living in the second-largest city in Iowa, I struggle to find jobs. I worked four different jobs in town, before the 2008 floods and the recession caused massive layoffs. After that, I had few options, and my move to freelance was more of a necessity than a choice.
And is it a great place to raise kids? Maybe, but we are closing eight elementary schools in the next few years.
It’s easy enough to tell people to move back, it’s much harder to help them find a life, a job, and a sense of belonging once they get here. And often, those things are a facet of privilege in small towns where everyone knows everyone.
Where I live in Iowa, the land seems expansive. But the openness is a deception. I know that the places before me are filled with crops, commerce, fear, and expectation. The silence here is not an empty space, but one that is filled with expectations unsaid. The politics of our national divide are far more complicated than an American disavowal of our agrarian roots.
And narratives that presume that white people moving back to white spaces will solve a national identity problem ignore the realities of the racism, transphobia, homophobia, and ableism that exist across America. You cannot bridge America’s divide with bodies.
But the question of building bridges across America a fallacy in and of itself. The brokenness of America is something I feel acutely. I divorced an evangelical Trump supporter in the wake of the election. I had tried to make it work, compromising and bending my body over a divide too large for me to reach across. The moment I gave up was the moment I found relief.
I still live here in what is the opposite of a liberal bubble. I love it here. But I am not blind to the complications of this place. For some, the problems of America can’t be fixed with a moving truck or just by being “nicer.”
I no longer believe in bridges. I don’t even believe in fixing our divide. Instead, what I believe is that we need to together stare deep into the gaping hole in our country and have an honest discussion about the cracks in our nation. Which, by the way, has always been divided — it’s just that for too many of us, we were blinded to it by our privilege.
This essay is adapted from God Land: A Story of Faith, Loss, and Renewal in Middle America.
Lyz Lenz is a contributing writer to the Columbia Journalism Review. Her book God Land will be published on August 1, 2019. She lives in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, with her two children and two cats.
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