Currently in Madison. There is something like a gentle culture shock, to go from Little Rock to Madison. To put what one sees from Little Rock to Madison into context requires asking questions and examining one’s observations.
To start, what are the borders of the Southern United States? I don’t mean Texas and Arkansas. I mean instead the ineffable essence that is the South. Its attitude and its history. Its horrible problems, and its charm. Where does it begin and end?
In Texas, I have a rough idea of its boundaries. Houston is a border town between the South and the Spanish-speaking Southwest. On Interstate 10, the Southwest peters out somewhere around Anahuac. Beaumont is definitely the South. It has the racial dichotomy and all that comes with it. Meanwhile, on I-10 again, the South peters out near Columbus. San Antonio is definitely Southwestern. It has the Spanish history and linguistic pre-dominance.
From Houston, headed north on I-45, the Southwest ends somewhere around Huntsville. From there, it’s the South all the way up to Dallas. Fort Worth is the West.
On US Highway 59 from Houston, the Southwest ends somewhere around Splendora. From there, it’s the South all the way to Little Rock and Memphis and then...that’s where I lose certainty.
North of the Arkansas side of Memphis, once you’re out of the Ozarks, is as flat as you can imagine the Great Plains to be. But, this is the Mississippi Delta region. Definitely the South. But, what about southeastern Missouri? Headed north on I-55, references to crawfish fade almost immediately. References to Southern Cooking fade gradually.
About halfway between the Arkansas border and St. Louis, German place- and business-names become more common. Highways in Arkansas are dedicated to fallen policemen and soldiers with decidedly Anglo surnames. About halfway to St. Louis, the surnames become Germanic.
Perhaps, it is the halfway-point between St. Louis and the Arkansas border, where the South fades, and the...Midwest?...Breadbasket?...region begins. Where beer-brewing has a history and a gusto that just isn’t so in the South.
St. Louis itself looks like it has a history of industry that no place in Texas has. Smoke stacks are made of concrete or bricks, unlike the shiny metallic ones in Houston or Pasadena, TX. By the way, the St. Louis Arch, as viewed from the freeway, is worth it. It looks just like it does in the pictures.
Going back to the regionalism topic, what about the Rust Belt? It seems like something that you would recognize immediately upon seeing it. Well, here’s the thing. Individual cities and towns can be Industrial or Rust Belt-y, but smaller towns and farmland usually aren’t. If the Rust Belt has a theme, it is: Industrial Past, and Decline Ever Since. For the Breadbasket: Farming Past, and the Factories Never Arrived. The Rust Belt has experienced a slow-motion apocalyptic decline in population. The Breadbasket has experienced an even slower-motion, far steadier decline in population. Notwithstanding the university towns in both regions.
That said, I put St. Louis in the Rust Belt. It has seen better days. For that matter, everything from St. Louis to Rockford, Illinois, is Rust Belt. An awful, but truthful way to know if a place is in the Rust Belt is this: did the town or city experience white flight on an almost grand scale? A more subtle question might be: did the town or city experience its heyday in the 1920s?
Madison, based on my limited reading, does not have the history of Rust Belt cities like its neighbor Milwaukee. It never experienced a decline in population, least of all since the 1960s. It never industrialized in the way that Milwaukee or Chicago did.
If Madison had its heyday, it never ended.