Later this month, Frank’s Kraut will officially name Omaha “The Home of the Reuben Sandwich.” While this title may seem like a humorous footnote in the city’s story, I would suggest it is indicative of the changing nature of Midwestern cities’ identities.
Omaha’s first identity was as one of the Gateways to the West. The city’s nicknames changed as Omaha’s position in the national economy shifted from gateway to a regional industrial center, earning titles such as “Porkopolis” and “The Magic City” (because the city’s seemingly instant growth was magical). However, Omaha’s magical period has ended. Though Omaha’s future may not depend on its position as “Home of the Reuben,” it certainly reflects the reality of the city’s changing economy. A national culture that renders many cities’ local experiences similar leaves urban areas looking for the things that maintain some individuality and might even bring in visitors. Just like Omaha, my hometown of Grand Rapids begun to change its identity in the past few years. Though once the Furniture City, Grand Rapids emphasizes other aspects of West Michigan life as furniture production waned, including its new (shared) position as Beer City USA.
Now it is possible that these slogans stand out because I’m just in the mood for a good beer and sandwich. However, I think there is a distinct shift towards cities appealing to identities less in the past manufacturing golden ages, which even have become baggage for cities within the Rust Belt. For example, Pittsburgh still has the Steelers, but the city no longer leans on its industrial heritage. The banner on the city’s webpage touts Pittsburgh as “A most liveable city.” The front page of the 2012 visitors guide highlights the city’s history as “The Birthplace of Pop Culture” and “Home of Art & Innovation, Celebrity, Entrepreneurial Spirit and The Andy Warhol Museum.” Just as Pittsburgh transitioned from one of the cities claiming to be the Gateway to the West to the Steel City (or rather, one of the Steel Cities), it is now changing its image to better fit the post-industrial economy of innovation and start-ups.
Omaha may not be planning on constructing an elaborate Reuben-centered city identity, but its efforts to highlight the city’s individuality do reflect other cities’ attempts to reinvent themselves in the new global economy.