The Ruse of the Creative Class

In April 2006, the Richard Florida show arrived in the Southern Tier of Upstate New York. It was only one of the scores of appearances this decade by the economic-development guru, whose speaking fee soared to $35,000 not long after his 2002 book The Rise of the Creative Class made him a star on the lecture circuit. Cleveland, Toledo, Baltimore, Greensboro, Green Bay, Des Moines, Hartford, Roanoke, and Rochester were among the many cities that had already shelled out to hear from the good-looking urban-studies professor about how to get young professionals to move in.

Of course, none of these burgs has yet completed the transformation from post-manufacturing ugly duckling to gay-friendly, hipster swan. But middling results elsewhere did not keep people in the greater Elmira area from getting excited about Florida's visit. They listened as, in his stylish suit and designer glasses, he related his blue-collar upbringing outside Newark before segueing into his secrets of urban success in the 21st century: the "three T's" of technology, talent, and tolerance. If cities could make themselves appealing to the Web designers, architects, biomedical researchers, and other innovators who are now the drivers of economic growth, then they would also attract the businesses that want these footloose pioneers to work for them. "If we do all of the above," reported a columnist with Elmira's Star-Gazette who attended the speech, "we can be creatively chic without having to move to Boulder, Colo."

Inspired, Elmira's newly elected mayor, John Tonello, hung artwork on City Hall's walls, installed "poetry posts" around town featuring verses by local writers, and oversaw the redevelopment of several buildings downtown. "The grand hope was to create retail spaces that would enable people to make money and serve the creative class Florida talks about," Tonello says. The new market-rate apartments filled up quickly, but the bohemian coffee shops the mayor fantasizes about have yet to materialize.

As Elmira and other cities on Florida's circuit dutifully carry out his instructions, though, the guru has grown less confident in their prospects. In a warm-up to his next book -- The Great Reset, due out in April -- Florida has been arguing that the recession has so decimated many cities and regions that it's time for the country to cut its losses and instead encourage growth in places that are prospering, like Silicon Valley, Boulder, Austin, and North Carolina's Research Triangle. And the rest? In his much-cited cover story in the March issue of The Atlantic -- "How the Crash Will Reshape America" -- he delivered the harsh news: "We need to be clear that ultimately, we can't stop the decline of some places, and that we would be foolish to try. ... Different eras favor different places, along with the industries and lifestyles those places embody. ... We need to let demand for the key products and lifestyles of the old order fall, and begin building a new economy, based on a new geography."

He was even more direct in a May blog post. "We can confer subsidies on places to improve their infrastructure, universities, and core institutions, or quality of life," he wrote. But "at the end of the day, people -- not industries or even places -- should be our biggest concern. We can best help those who are hardest-hit by the crisis, by providing a generous social safety [net], investing in their skills, and when necessary helping them become mobile and move to where the opportunities are."

In other words, Elmirans might have to move to Boulder after all. John Tonello, who is taken aback by this message, has no intention of moving. And despite his city's population losses, plenty of the remaining 30,000 residents aren't leaving, either. "People aren't just going to pack up and go to some sunnier spot," he says. "It's not practical for communities that are 200 years old to just fold up and go away. People are clamoring for ways to make their communities relevant, because they made choices to live there and want to see their community thrive. ... And I want to preserve that community as long as I can."

Florida, 52, now head of the Martin Prosperity Institute at the University of Toronto's Rotman School of Management, is a relentlessly genial fellow who tries to disarm skeptics by accepting their points in good cheer, as if to suggest there is really no difference of opinion at all. But in a telephone interview, he disputes that ill will could exist in cities that paid handsomely for his insights, only to find themselves declared beyond repair a few years later. "I've never tried to sugarcoat the message to any of them," he says. "I've given them the facts ... about what they were up against. I never tried to give them false hope. I encouraged them to work on their assets, but I tried to be honest and objective in helping them engage their problems. I hope they don't feel let down."

His former tour manager, Rodgers Frantz, is blunter in defending Florida. Frantz, who was replaced as manager by Florida's wife in 2007, recalls fondly how Florida, then a professor at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, lit a fire with his call to move economic development beyond sports stadiums, tax incentives, and stodgy chamber luncheons. Many cities were so swept up that they asked for more, and Florida obliged by partnering with the consulting firm Catalytix, which charges up to $250,000 for its reports, though they differ little from city to city in their "focused impact areas," "success factors," and "tactics and action plan." He also founded another firm, now called Creative Class Leadership Program, that guides cities through year-long planning initiatives for which Florida himself does not necessarily appear in person.

The capacity-crowd speaking tours were electric (so electric, in fact, that they reminded Frantz of his rock-star days as front man for the Urban Verbs, a lesser-known cousin of the Talking Heads). And they were lucrative. During his five years as Florida's manager, Frantz estimates that Florida spoke in several hundred cities. Several overseas visits reaped well above the usual $35,000 or $40,000. His fees were typically paid by local foundations or by ticket prices that could range above $100, for crowds well into the hundreds. So frequent were the speeches that in 2004 Florida had to leave his job in Pittsburgh for George Mason University outside D.C. partly to be nearer to a major airport, Frantz says.

"There was a tremendous money-generating aspect to Richard's work," Frantz says. "We did it in a grand way. We traveled in style. We stayed in boutique hotels in most of the places we were working." But it is wrong, he says, to see any conflict in Florida's dire pronouncements on the places that bankrolled this success, because he hadn't promised prosperity in the first place. "He wasn't really making prescriptions," Frantz says. "This wasn't Jesus Christ throwing the money men out of the temple; this was an academic. He was a fucking college professor, and you're hoping to resurrect Canton, Ohio? Yeah, good luck with that."

***

There is a long tradition of charismatic economic--development troubadours. In the 1990s, it was Michael Porter, a Harvard Business School professor who swept into inner cities with his theories of industry clusters. But Florida has taken the art to a new level, wielding his "creativity index" and making each city feel that, whatever its shortcomings, it has the potential to move up the ladder.

In Louisville, Florida held up the Louisville Slugger museum as a potential creative-class magnet. He lauded Columbia, South Carolina, for its location in the midst of the "Charlanta" mega-region. In February 2008 he told the residents of Sackville, New Brunswick, population 5,000, that they were in a "cosmopolitan country town" with obvious advantages over Toronto -- never mind that he had been praising Toronto to the skies since being lured there in 2007 from George Mason University with a $346,000 salary and his own think tank. "My students in Toronto are complaining about the erosion of natural amenities in Toronto. ... People are looking for places that they can go and work and chill," he said in Sackville. "What I see here is a place that's at the cutting edge."

His salesmanship extends to his literary output. After the phenomenal success of The Rise of the Creative Class, he followed up in 2005 with The Flight of the Creative Class, which warns that post?September 11 nativism is hurting the United States in the war for talent. In 2008 came Who's Your City, essentially a how-to book for choosing a place to live. Florida is candid about his business plan -- when he plugged his second book on The Charlie Rose Show, the host asked, "Don't you think we've milked this for about as much as we can, Richard?"

"I hope not, Charlie," Florida said. "I hope not."

All along, his detractors have been chipping away. Geographer Jamie Peck penned the most exhaustive broadside, Struggling with the Creative Class, in 2005. Conservatives have questioned Florida's elevation of gay-friendliness as an economic driver and noted that, by some measures, yuppie idylls like San Francisco and Boston have lagged behind unhip, low-tax bastions like Houston and Charlotte, North Carolina. Liberal critics have noted that his creative hubs suffer high inequality, and argued that other cities should develop their own human capital -- including that of the low-income minorities who have little place in Florida's universe -- instead of chasing a finite number of laptop professionals.

In a standard version of this critique, Amy Liu of the Brookings Institution -- with which Florida was once affiliated -- praises him for debunking "smoke-stack chasing" as economic development but says he has replaced that with another flawed "attraction" strategy. "The problem is that he omits a whole group of cities and parts of the country that would never be magnets for talent," she says. "Most of the places that really need economic development are cities that must grow skills and talent from within."

With Florida now taking a more portentous turn in declaring the demise of whole swaths of the country, skeptics are marshaling a more urgent case against him. It was one thing, they say, to be selling cities on a creative-class pitch -- even though it was of little use to many of them and led some of them to misguided investments, it's a free market and the cities were willing buyers. But it's another thing for Florida now to be declaring, from his high-profile perch, that many of these same cities are not part of the country's strategy for future growth simply because their prospects as creative magnets are too daunting. There is no question, the skeptics say, that hard decisions will have to be made in post-recession America that will reawaken the debate between those who favor "people centered" and those who favor "place centered" approaches to social uplift. But, they argue, these decisions are too serious and complex to be guided by breezy pronouncements about failed industries and regions. A tautology lies at the heart of Florida's theory that has limited its instructive value all along: Creative people seek out places that draw a lot of creative people. Florida has now taken this closed-loop argument to another level by declaring that henceforth, the winners' club is closed to new entrants.

The most obvious problem with this regional fatalism is where to draw the line. In the 1970s, many were declaring Massachusetts the new Appalachia. "And look at us now," former Massachusetts governor and Democratic presidential candidate Michael Dukakis told me recently. "The idea that you abandon these places is crazy." Meanwhile, closer to the old Appalachia, Asheville and Chattanooga were written off before the former became the hippest town in the region and the latter a magnet for German companies. For years, Florida used Pittsburgh as his primary example of a city hampered by uncreative "squelchers." Now, like so many others, he holds up the city as a postindustrial phoenix. Says Richard McNulty, the head of the Partners for Livable Communities and a onetime Florida ally, "It's funny that the roots [of his argument] were in Pittsburgh -- which is now lauded as the only [city] that believed in itself enough to reinvent itself."

More troubling, his skeptics say, is the way that Florida's embrace of the "new geography" precludes any real grappling with the factors behind the trends he describes -- say, the effect of the Chinese currency and lack of a U.S. industrial policy on American manufacturing, or the effect of consolidation in farming and livestock production on shrinking prairie towns. Florida does not ignore the downsides of the shifts he describes; he just accepts them with a Panglossian shrug. Is income inequality increasing? Well, that's because the upper echelon benefits from "creativity," when in fact Florida's "creative class" is defined to include essentially everyone in the highest-earning third of the work force -- including the titans of finance, whose "creativity" has turned out to be deeply destructive. Are good factory jobs melting away? Sure, but that just means the country needs to make service jobs better paying and more fulfilling.

In his 2004 preface to The Rise of the Creative Class, Florida declares that there is no reason why work such as cleaning offices and delivering food "has to be rote" and that the country needs to "more fully tap the creative talents of the legions of people who work in hair salons." He has since repeated this formulation without elaborating on how this elevation of service work would occur. (Organized labor and wage laws are rarely mentioned.) In May, he wrote on his blog that he spied the answer at P.F. Chang's, the Asian restaurant chain, where, it seemed to him, "happy and engaged employees [are] the key to more continuous improvement." But in our interview, he concedes that the service class remains a conundrum: "To be honest, this is not something I've figured out," he says.

To John Russo, co-director of the Center for Working-Class Studies at Youngstown State University in Ohio, this all amounts to normalizing -- a benign gloss that casts instability as mobility and regional decline verging on total erasure as a side effect of progress. "He's always seemed to me an apologist for what's going on," Russo says. "[He] ignores the kind of decisions that put us in this whole problem, and by ignoring that, he solidifies the real class divisions that are out there."

Now, by declaring cities or regions to be relics, Florida is denying any agency on the part of local leaders to stem the tide, says Karl Stauber, president of the Danville Regional Foundation in southern Virginia. "It's very easy for people to adopt the victim position: We're screwed and we can't do anything about it," he says. "My fundamental problem with Florida is that he reinforces the victim mentality." At the same time, Stauber says, Florida's regional determinism overlooks the role that specific decisions and investments have played in making some places thrive. It's no accident, for one thing, that many of his most "creative" cities are home to public universities. Why assume that new investments might not prop up other places as well?

"Where we make public investments makes a bigger difference over a period of time than what strikes me as Florida's more romantic view of how communities are transformed," Stauber says. The difference that smart investment and leadership can make is laid out in a new book by the University of Chicago's Sean Safford, Why the Garden Club Couldn't Save Youngstown, in which Safford contrasts the decisions made in the city of the title with the shrewder leadership in Allentown, another steel town that has rebounded better. Florida's creative-class theory "is bad because it distracts from what's important," Safford tells me.

Most confounding to some Florida critics is how he both extols the importance of place and declares that many Americans' best option is to move elsewhere. If the power of place is enough to draw one person to Austin, might it not also be enough to make another stay in Buffalo? "What it ignores is that [bypassed] places have sunken infrastructure -- not just in roads and buildings and sewers but the stuff that matters," says David Lewis of the University of Albany's department of geography and planning. "Given that he talks so much about the value of place, I'm surprised that he ignores that no matter what the situation is in a community, there's still a value there. It ignores the reality that some people are attached to their place."

In Who's Your City, Florida casts this in economic terms. Those who resist the pull of opportunities in creative cities and remain rooted in their hometowns are "perhaps ... intuitively aware of the economic value of close social relationships." But family isn't the only reason some people don't want to leave rural southern Virginia for Raleigh-Durham or Fairfax County -- they may simply prefer where they are. The prophet of place seems to discount its most intuitive and intangible grip. Transient job-seekers also weaken the urban fabric in magnet cities, a point that Florida, for all his invocations of Jane Jacobs, overlooks.

"Permanent communities become temporary residences of job seekers en route from one place to the next," writes Joshua Leon, a persistent Florida critic, in The Next American City magazine. "Any sense of connection to place is lost."

***

Florida is not alone in arguing that there is little to be done for much of post-industrial America. The most unabashed is Harvard economist Edward Glaeser, who tells me, "It's basically a good thing that Americans keep moving to places that are more productive, and I don't think there's any reason to keep that from happening." But Glaeser is an unlikely ally -- for years he has countered Florida by arguing that the suburbs still reign supreme.

In our interview, Florida shies away from making the abandonment argument as forthrightly. He tells me his Atlantic piece was the "best thing I've ever done" but backs away from it under questioning. "I'm not saying abandon these places," he says. "I'm saying, number one, invest in their assets, number two, invest in their connective fiber" to other cities. He is an advocate of building high-speed rail to link cities like Detroit, Buffalo, and Milwaukee to Chicago and Toronto. What he really opposes, he says, is propping up industries like auto manufacturing. He recognizes that expecting people to leave home for his creative hubs is "gut wrenching" and laments the "massive geographic inequality" that will result.

But that is not what he has been arguing in his writing, which has very forcefully made the case for redoubling the flow of talent and investment to creative centers. As he wrote in The Atlantic, "We can't stop the decline of some places." That does not sound like a call for a multibillion-dollar rail project in Michigan.

Florida responds that he could have chosen his words better. "Maybe I'm a better thinker when I talk than when I'm on paper," he says.

Across the country, the battle to attract the creative class carries on. In Dayton, Ohio, billboards and T-shirts carry a new Richard Florida?inspired logo: "Dayton patented. Originals wanted." The city is building bikeways, passed an anti-discrimination ordinance in 2007 to increase its score on Florida's "tolerance index," and has given a local group called DaytonCREATE the use of a vacant bank, now called "c{space," "where they hang out and do a lot of their creativeness," Mayor Rhine McLin says.

In Syracuse, New York, economic-development officials are declaring victory, saying the $250,000 study that consulting firm Catalytix co-authored in 2003 laid the groundwork for the arrival of an electric-car manufacturer. Wilmington, North Carolina, recently received some of the first recommendations from its $250,000 Catalytix investment, including such tips as "Consider hiring a blogger to create, stimulate and participate in virtual conservations [sic] about the Cape Fear Region." Providence ordered up a Catalytix report in 2003 that told it to "identify and amplify organically evolving nodes of creative energy"; seven years later, city officials are still holding events with college students to ask them what it would take to get them to stick around after graduation. Iowa, which hired Florida in 2005, is charging ahead with its "Great Places," 25 communities -- among them Coon Rapids, Council Bluffs, and Appanoose County -- that are getting several million in state dollars to attempt to become creative magnets. Phoenix is looking to revitalize its downtown with the help of a $100,000 report by Catalytix that declares: "Downtown Phoenix is the right place. Now, is the right time!" Tampa's "director of creative industries" was one of the first city jobs cut in the recession, but Creative Tampa Bay, a group of Richard Florida enthusiasts, is carrying on. In Naples, Florida, 400 people each paid $150 to hear Florida speak at a golf club in May. They learned to their dismay that Naples has few creative workers, says Beth Sterchi-Skotzke, an organizer of the event. "Obviously, with a lower amount of the creative class, we're not as tolerant as we believe we are."

Officials in these communities are mostly unaware that, by Florida's new estimation, some of them are doomed to a bleak fate -- both the postindustrial cities and the Sun Belt boomtowns. And each is convinced that his or her city is still assured a place in Florida's pantheon. "Despite the population and job loss, we do have a city that's diverse and attractive to people in the creative class," says Cleveland's planning director, Robert Brown.

But ambivalence is more evident in the hardest case of all, Michigan. Florida headlined a 2003 event that helped launch Gov. Jennifer Granholm's "Cool Cities" initiative, under which dozens of towns rushed to produce plans (converted lofts, arts centers, more converted lofts) to qualify for one of Granholm's "catalyst grants." As the state's economy has declined further, Cool Cities has come in for much mockery. In our interview, Florida stresses that he was not a paid consultant for Michigan and that Cool Cities was not his idea.

The disassociation is mutual for Eric Cedo, who was the director of Create Detroit, a Florida-inspired group, before joining one of the new film studios that Granholm is hoping will make Michigan a Hollywood Midwest. Cedo, 35, likes Florida but is aggrieved by his latest declarations. "We're not going to go down without a fight. A lot of people love cities that still have grit and spirit, and we're not just going to cede the fight to the quote-unquote Richard Florida creative elite," Cedo says. "I believe Richard has a real strong pulse on a certain segment of the population that can move freely around ... but I'm staying. I'm not going. He keeps missing one of the most fundamental points, which is that there is a remnant of people who aren't going to leave -- and it's because of the struggle that we're going to stay."

After the Atlantic cover story appeared, Florida was a guest on National Public Radio's Talk of the Nation. Tessa from Detroit called in: "My neighborhood is really disappearing," she says. "I would love to hear some comments from your guest about what's going to happen to my neighborhood. What are his predictions? ... Do we get out? Do we stay?"

Florida assured Tessa that Detroit's plight "is not something I'm particularly happy about." He told her his wife is from Detroit. And then he told her that his friends who live in Detroit are making it as "freelancers" who "commute on an irregular basis" to work on projects somewhere else. He had recently given a speech to Detroit airport officials, who told him that the airport would remain viable. "That airport provides connective fiber," he told her. "Finding local employment is going to be a lot harder. So you either have to say, can I commute to work, by plane perhaps, or do I have to look for a place that has a better set of opportunities for me?"

There was no way to know if the answer was satisfactory: Tessa from Detroit was off the air.

Comments

Meanwhile, some of us have also practiced in the economic development (ED) field, & have learned that ED does NOT equate to business development activity! It is a greatly misunderstood term my friends. If you want heavily subsidized business development, as has been done 40 years & counting, run to the Chambers of Commerce, as that is their mission in life.
Regrettably, most policy makers & elected officials are business types, & they have taken the ED term & assumed that it simply means business development, to promote "economic growth", greater productivity of the built environment, & corporatizing everything that moves. This is NOT "economic development".
ED is a public term, seeking progressive public outcomes in quality-of-life & standards-of-living terms, with quality metrics. As such, we do not actually practice economic development because the status quo remains; we maintain structural poverty, but massively use PUBLIC dollars to prop up private enterprises, mostly to create "cool" cities & to lure the "creative class", and so on.
San Antonio, Tx is a case in point. We, too, use all the bells & whistles in the name of "economic development" yet we remain a structurally & generationally poor urban city. Due to poor professionalism by "urban" planners, so long as this poverty & lack of upward mobility is managed in-place by heavy federal dollars, year in & year out, we consider ourselves a success. The needle never moves in the right direction.
There you have it in a nutshell: the people who tout "economic development" have never actually practiced in the CED field, but they cash in because they dangle the carrot of progress by using the ED term only to find that we're back to square one.
Therefore, stop using the ED term when you don't really understand what it means.

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