A google image search of “US cultural regions” brings up many interesting maps:
But they’re all (as of this post) quite presumptuous in one respect–they all show neatly delineated regions, when in reality cultural lines are much more fuzzy and cultures overlap and combine in interesting ways. So I decided to make my own map, because:
- I wanted to settle the issue of defining America’s cultural regions once and for all
- It’s fun to make both maps and assumptions about things you’re barely informed on
As you can see from my beautiful map, that I spent a grueling five minutes making, there are several advantages to this style:
- Accuracy is not sacrificed for the sake of neat, clear borders
- Prevalence/influence of a culture can be conveyed by varying color intensity
- Overlap can show how cultures combine, and form subcultures and subregions
Now, I am not even remotely an expert on U.S. cultures. I would love to see a map like this made by someone who is an expert on the matter, or at least a map that uses their data. But since this is what we have, lets use it as an example of what kind of information this type of map can convey, along with some extra commentary, bearing in mind that my premises and conclusions are most assuredly all wrong.
- Pacific culture is strongly centered on Seattle and Portland. It extends down to Southern California, and inland to lend just a touch to Las Vegas.
- Its experimental, independent, liberal tendencies are rooted in its more recent settlement and development compared to most of the country, and also its sheer distance from the rest of the American population (80% of Americans live in the Central and Eastern time zones). It is significantly influenced by its history of Asian immigration and Native American cultures. The people tend to like all things green, including their cars, their trees, and their trees.
- Alaska and Hawaii share much of its characteristics, but are unique enough that they get their own subregions (because it totally wouldn’t be fair to give single states their own regions).
- Mountain culture is centered on the Rocky Mountains, running from New Mexico up through Idaho and Montana.
- It is for the most part sparsely populated and conservative, with Denver and Salt Lake City being the only major cities, but also has some of that wild west independent streak.
- It combines with Pacific culture in eastern Washington and Oregon, where there is a mix of coastal liberalism and inland conservatism that pretty much cancel out and leave its inhabitants with no identity at all, and in a state of perpetual existential crisis.
- Southwest culture is centered around Arizona and New Mexico, with strong influence from SoCal to Texas, and up into Colorado, Utah and Nevada.
- It is heavily influenced by Mexican and Spanish history in the region and by its large Hispanic population, evident in architecture, cuisine, and the large Hispanic population.
- It combines with Pacific culture in California and Vegas, both unique melting pots in their own right, and combines with Mountain culture in Utah, Colorado, and New Mexico, where I have nothing interesting to say.
- Southern culture is centered around Mississippi, Alabama, and Georgia, and runs from Texas to Florida, and as far north as the Ohio River and into West Virgina and Maryland.
- It has large black and white populations with their own subcultures, is very conservative and religious, and has a shared history as former Confederate states. They really like BBQ and fried food, even more than the average American, which is a lot.
- Florida shares Southern culture, but South Florida, centered on Miami, has a unique identity, stemming from Caribbean and Cuban influence and Spanish colonial history, unique enough for its own subregion. New Orleans and it’s unique culture and French colonial history also warrant a subregion.
- It combines with Southwest culture in the great big, pointy state of Texas, where we get Southern conservatism, delicious Tex-Mex cuisine, and a proudly independent cultural identity.
- Midwest culture is centered around the Great Lakes, and extends into the central plains states.
- It has a history as both a center of industry (rust belt) and agriculture (corn belt) that shape its identity. It’s settlement in the years after the formation of the U.S., and lots of German immigration then and thereafter, have also shaped it. Fun fact: Domestic reaction to the World Wars reduced the prevalence of German language and culture in America, which was much more widely spoken and displayed prior.
- It combines with Mountain culture in the Great Plains states, where things are pretty conservative and full of corn, and combines with Southern culture south of the Ohio River in West Virginia and Kentucky, and west through Missouri and perhaps a bit of Arkansas, Kansas and Oklahoma, where there is also a lot of conservatism and corn, thankfully in the form of delicious bourbon.
- Atlantic culture extends from Massachusetts down the coast to the Carolinas, and is centered around the major cities: D.C., Baltimore, Philly, New York, and Boston.
- It has a longer history than the cultures to the west, being the home of the original European colonies, and ever since then has been the center for the political elite. Apparently lizard people thrive in the cool, salty air of the coast, and don’t venture inland. The major cities each have a distinct culture, are diverse, and are filled with brash but sincere people, as in they sincerely hope you piss off.
- It combines with the Midwest and Southern cultures along the Appalachian Mountains, which are conservative and a lot like the South, but more mountain-y.
- New England culture is pretty well defined as the 6 northeastern states.
- They have long had a political and culture identity distinct from the rest of the country, originating with the English Puritans, some of the earliest American settlers, and through significant immigration of Irish, Italians, and French/French-Canadians. They value their independence, and aren’t afraid to throw a tea party to prove it.
- It combines with Atlantic culture along its southern band, from Boston through Rhode Island, Connecticut, and into New York City, where it is more heavily populated, and where it has stronger cultural and political ties to New York and Washington D.C. Or maybe it doesn’t, but that’s what this map I made tells me, so until someone makes a cooler map, I’ll keep believing it.
See? Wasn’t that interesting?! Doesn’t all that information and its more accurate style of visual accompaniment leave you feeling much more misinformed about the cool ways American cultures combine?
In all seriousness, overclassification is a problem not only in mapmaking and defining geographical regions, but in many scientific and cultural endeavors. I think we have a natural or cultural tendency to find comfort in neatly organized, delineated systems. There is certainly utility in such systems. But indulging that comfort, and being too focused on the utility, can deprive us of seeing the more nuanced–and more interesting–reality.
Species, languages, cultures, cuisines, social classes, genres of art and music. All these things would be difficult to talk about if we didn’t break them down into distinct categories. Those distinctions, however, are merely helpful illusions, and they unfortunately mask the richness of the underlying information, of the fluid relationships and overlap, of the continuum of change between entities. With the right tools, namely creative visualizations and experiences, we can more easily gain an intuitive understanding of that richness, and of the true relationships between things that we otherwise think of, or want to think of, as distinct.