Robert Wuthnow


On his book Remaking the Heartland: Middle America since the 1950s

Cover Interview of April 26, 2011

A close-up

One of the best examples of how the heartland is changing can be found near Kansas City, in Johnson County, where builders are putting together new housing developments and constructing highways at a frenetic pace.

Since 1970, Lenexa has grown from about 5,000 to almost 50,000, Leawood has climbed from 10,000 to 32,000, and Olathe has soared from 18,000 to more than 125,000.  By 2040, Olathe’s population is expected to top 300,000.

This is hardly what one would expect in a state with fewer than 3 million people, where 70 percent of the towns were smaller in 2005 than they were in 1980.

But Johnson County is the home of high-tech companies like Sprint and Garmin and scores of pharmaceutical and bioscience firms; it headquarters dozens of major retail, warehousing, and distribution companies.  Johnson County is a magnet not only for well-educated young people with small town roots, but also for migrants from other regions.  Nearly half of its population was born in another state.

Growth like this is happening throughout the heartland—in Minneapolis and St. Paul, along Interstate 70 west of St. Louis, near Omaha and Tulsa, around Des Moines, and in northwest Arkansas.

Entrepreneurs like Sam Walton, John Tyson, Warren Buffett, and David and Charles Koch are part of the story.  And yet, there is another story that involves visionaries a century ago—those who experimented with engines and aviation, who planned street car lines, and who benefited from even earlier efforts to start schools and found colleges.  It was those early institutions that provided the groundwork for the more recent transformations.