Why I Don’t Love Richard Florida

My real quarrel might be with the zeitgeist, the mysterious force that transforms a mere journalist or academic into a pundit, someone whose nutshell-size perspective is suddenly ubiquitous. In the 1990s I kept tripping over Joel Garreau, whose 1991 book, Edge City, said that we should take those suburban agglomerations of shopping centers, offices, subdivisions, and parking garages—Tysons Corner, Virginia, for instance—more seriously. Because he was writing at a moment when it seemed as if the American city was once again on its last legs—about to be rendered obsolete by telecommuting—Garreau became the prophet of disaggregation.

Garreau didn’t invent the phenomenon that spurred clusters of developments on the fringes of metropolitan areas. He just named it and gave it a pleasing new context. He turned sprawl, something bad, into Edge City, something good. Instead of these noncities being a symbol of dumb, heedless development, Garreau recast them as symbols of our ingenuity—our ability to carve really good shopping out of useless farmland.

Now cities are back in fashion, thick with new museum buildings, loft-style apartments, noodle bars, and boutique hotels. This trend naturally has its own pundit, Richard Florida, a professor of regional economic development at Carnegie Mellon and swami of the “Creative Class.” Like Garreau, Florida has come along to codify and capture a movement already in progress. He seized on a process that’s been playing out in American cities really since they hit bottom in the 1970s: the Soho phenomenon, where artists reclaim undervalued real estate, give it a new purpose and value, and make it appealing to the real estate industry again. The influx of artists, culture, and hipster enterprise has now remade so many urban places large and small that it’s possible to forget that the Edge Cities and their denizens are still out there (except, perhaps, at election time). But we don’t talk about them anymore. Instead we talk about the Creative Class.

And so lately wherever I go I run into people paraphrasing Florida. His book The Rise of the Creative Class came out in paperback last year. And I should be thrilled because it is all about how cities have been reinvigorated by and for people like me. He argues that the old standard-issue tools of economic development—such as stadiums and convention centers—were not terribly effective to begin with and are now passé. Florida routinely invokes Jane Jacobs in his arguments for multitextured urban life, and he brings to the table his own unique set of tools, indexes that rate cities on overall creativity, tolerance, and gay population. Gays, like artists, he says, are one of those groups that fix up disused urban places. Again, this is hardly news, but Florida wraps it in the kind of language that is essential to successful punditry. Throughout the book he promotes the “3 T’s of economic growth—technology, talent, and tolerance.”

Maybe Florida bugs me because I lived for a time in 3 T’s central, San Francisco, from the pinnacle of the dot-com boom to the bottom of the bust. I lived in a place that was so perfectly attuned to the needs and desires of a particular creative class that hardly anyone else could stand it (or afford it). The Bay Area figures prominently in The Rise of the Creative Class. San Francisco is the prototype for the kind of city Florida is selling. It’s up there with Austin and Seattle at the top of his “Creativity Index.” But I’m not sure that San Francisco—sweet and willfully oddball—should be regarded as a model for anyplace else. Ditto Austin and Seattle.

Recently I attended a conference in Montreal in which representatives of cities in Europe and North America talked about how they had used design and the idea of design to revive their urban centers. Saint-Etienne, Glasgow, and Lisbon all had design institutions and/or design biennials front and center as part of their plans to bring new economic life to old cities. Florida wasn’t speaking in Montreal but he should have been. His name came up often enough.

At the conference I ran into my old friend John Thackara, who founded the Netherlands Design Institute and currently runs the Doors of Perception conferences in Amsterdam and New Delhi. We had a series of tortured conversations about how design is being deployed in increasingly predictable ways. Eventually Thackara got around to pinning the problem on Florida. “It’s all kind of tied up to the notion of a creative class,” he remarked. “For good or ill, design sits bang in the middle of that category. It’s quite remarkable how many city planners and developers I’ve met over the last couple of years who walk around either carrying or quoting this book as if it were a bible of how to make their city hip and modern and successful.”

Finally the zeitgeist won. I read the book, and all the way through I kept trying to understand how 30 percent of workers could be part of this booming creative class. A third of Americans are earning a living at self-expression? Or is it just that 30 percent of us own iPods or prefer Chipotle burritos to McDonald’s burgers? In the back of the paperback edition I found the fine print. Florida breaks the Creative Class into a smaller subset—the “Super-Creative Core”—which includes the fields of computers and math, architecture and engineering, the social sciences, education, arts, design, entertainment, sports, and media. This core group—which already represents a very generous definition of creativity—constitutes a little under 12 percent of the workforce. Then there’s the larger component known as “creative professionals,” which encompasses management, business and financial operations, law, health care, and high-end sales and management. This mixed bag of professionals represents the majority of the so-called creative class. I’m not saying that an accountant or a corporate manager can’t be creative—surely the Enron debacle proves otherwise—but when you read how Florida defines this Creative Class, it’s hard to distinguish them from our old friends from the 1980s, the yuppies.

Clearly I’m not the first person to notice this similarity. In a wholesale rebuttal to his critics, Florida wrote in the journal The Next American City: “The Rise of the Creative Class has little to do with making cities yuppie-friendly, though leftist critics have tried to frame it (and belittle its message) in that way.” No, Florida insists, “My core message is that human creativity is the ultimate source of economic growth. Every single person is creative in some way. And to fully tap and harness that creativity we must be tolerant, diverse, inclusive.”

Well, yeah. And apple pie and motherhood are pretty good too.

In other words, Florida has taken something qualitative and turned it into something quantitative. That’s what social scientists do. It’s their special form of creativity. But in his argument in favor of economic development based on the arts and on businesses favored by the kind of people who enjoy the arts, he seems to have exaggerated either the size or the creativity of his Creative Class. I don’t have any more faith in the prevalence of Florida’s class than I do in the so-called values voters who cropped up after the elections. Both groups exist in nature but have been somewhat inflated for the sake of argument.

These days every time I walk down, say, Rivington Street, on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, or Fifth Avenue, in Brooklyn’s Park Slope, I notice how the distinctions between the hip places are beginning to blur. One cool business district looks pretty much like the next, just the way one suburban mall looks pretty much like the next. And once you start thinking about creativity in terms of class, hipness as a monoculture seems like the inevitable outcome.

As for the zeitgeist, I don’t think there’s a developer alive who doesn’t think that the way to give a slow-moving property some cachet is to install a gallery or a few artists’ studios. Which is to say that I don’t think Florida is wrong. It’s just that his distillation of creativity into the kind of prescription routinely proffered by management consultants makes me fairly sure that what he’s selling is not the virtues of creativity but rather the ingredients of a formula.

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