Guys Like Me 

Can a "creative class" revitalize a city, or has Richard Florida just come down with a bad case of wishful thinking?

There's an old joke that says any fortune-cookie fortune can be improved by appending the phrase "in bed": You will experience great success--in bed. You will overcome many obstacles--in bed. In the same way, the principles set out in Richard Florida's recent book, The Rise of the Creative Class: And How It's Transforming Work, Leisure, Community, and Everyday Life, can be improved, or at least clarified, by adding the phrase "if you're a prosperous white man under 40." In choosing a city in which to live, you believe a cutting edge music scene is more important than good schools--if you're a prosperous white man under 40. You disdain mere economic reasons for choosing a location--if you're a prosperous white man under 40. And you want to live someplace with gay people (at least those who are prosperous white men under 40) because it provides evidence that your own eccentricities will be welcomed and nurtured--if you're a prosperous white man under 40.

The book purports to tell city planners how to bring home economic success in a postindustrial world: Make "the Creative Class"--white-collar workers, professionals, artists, and freelancers of every stripe--welcome with a tolerance for diversity and a lively street level arts scene, and high-tech industry is bound to follow because people now determine the location of jobs rather than vice versa. As advice, "If you want a prosperous city organize it around prosperous people" is accurate, if tautological. The Daley administration seems to be operating according to this very precept. What remains unspoken, though, is the corollary that this requires supplanting the people there now.

Florida is scarcely the first person to notice that one of the economic functions of artists is to identify underutilized urban space--that is, either empty or used by poor people--and make that space appealing to the rich by introducing the concerns and tastes of the well educated. Nor is he the first to notice that a certain slice of the gay community often performs the same function. But he's inflated these two observations about how cities do operate into an entire theory about how cities should operate.

If artists and gays don't spontaneously gentrify your city, Florida argues, you should do it for them, because "if you build it they will come." This model of city revitalization has been disproved again and again in the last 50-odd years with everything from urban renewal to festival retailing, and there are more similarities than the author admits between earlier one-size-fits-all urban prescriptions and his own. The question--how to attract rich people--is the same and so is the answer: provide amenities. What's original is the notion that the amenity people really want to consume is other people.

Florida describes thriving urban areas such as Austin, Boston, and Silicon Valley by saying, "Before these regions were high-tech hot spots, they were places where creativity and eccentricity could be accepted and celebrated," and proceeds to infer a causal relationship. But despite a series of interjections that "this remains true even after the dot-com meltdown," the facts show otherwise. While university-dependent industries thrive, the towns around them will thrive. When industry collapses, no amount of street level nightlife will save them.

The author's troubles begin with his central construct, laden with more baggage than it can carry. He defines "creative" to mean not only painters and Web designers but hairdressers and dog walkers--anyone whose means of making money emphasizes autonomy. His purpose in doing so becomes clear when he reports that the group "now includes some 38.3 million Americans, roughly 30 percent of the entire U.S. workforce....The traditional Working Class has today 33 million workers, or a quarter of the U.S. workforce." Only by swelling the numbers in his putative class can Florida make palatable the claims he makes on public resources on its behalf. If those resources are diverted from the working class--well, we outnumber them anyway.

This points to the main problem with the construct, which is Florida's use of the word "class." Though he argues that the foundation of the creative class is economic, he goes on to say, "I am not talking here about economic class in terms of the ownership of property, capital or the means of production....Little analytical utility remains in these broad categories of bourgeoisie and proletarian, capitalist and worker. Most members of the Creative Class do not own and control any significant property in the physical sense. Their property--which stems from their creative capacity--is an intangible because it is literally in their heads."

There's enough "analytical utility" left in those old ideas to explode this one. First, people who don't own property are at the mercy of those who do; just ask any software engineer who's been fired, or any freelance writer. We may have something to sell, but we're utterly dependent on people with resources to buy it, and few of the people Florida describes as creative are selling necessities. When times are tough, people have been known to walk their own dogs.

Moreover, a definition of class that lumps together rich and poor loses its coherence. The economic interests of artists--those who make a living in the plastic or performing arts--aren't congruent with the interests of knowledge workers like lawyers or management consultants. Artists are ill paid and want inexpensive housing; lawyers and management consultants are price insensitive and want luxury housing. Waiting in line together for coffee doesn't give them common economic interests--and without common cause, what's left of class?

Florida defends his definition of class by arguing that it "emphasizes the way people organize themselves into social groupings and common identities based principally on their economic function. Their social and cultural preferences, consumption and buying habits, and their social identities all flow from this." Unless by "economic function" he means the quality of being economically expendable--of supplying luxuries like sculpture and faster PDAs--the second sentence contradicts the first. In his interest in "social and cultural preferences," Florida ignores the fact that the economic functions of hairdressers and transplant surgeons aren't the same. Their expenditure patterns might conceivably dovetail--but only if they're both prosperous white men under 40.

One of the salient characteristics of Florida's creative class is that its members work free of the stress of kowtowing to someone else's schedule. But anyone with family responsibilities is on someone else's schedule, whether it's the doctor's or the teacher's or the scout leader's. How can a third of the people in this country be free of that stress when half the people in this country are women, who bear a disproportionate share of such obligations?

But Florida isn't thinking about women--or when he is, he's thinking about us wrong. In noting a tendency within the creative class to "front-load careers and defer life," he speculates that "the growing number of women in the professions...surely has been one factor driving the trend to front-load work." In fact, if women's needs were seriously considered, work would be back loaded to enable us to have children when we're most fertile. It's just as likely the desire to front-load work reflects the reluctance of many men to surrender their freedom from others' schedules--or their enjoyment of nightlife--by having a family.

Florida has set himself a daunting task: to determine why some cities with the necessary intellectual resources become prosperous "Creative Centers" while others don't. He compares Seattle and Pittsburgh in the boom days of the mid-90s and concludes that Seattle had coffeehouses. But Seattle also had a newer manufacturing infrastructure, more vacant land, and a younger and whiter population, any of which seem valid explanations for its high-tech primacy. I doubt the issue is a city's lack of receptivity to creative people. If Bill Gates had started Microsoft in Pittsburgh, you'd be amazed how receptive it would seem to people being creative in his employ.

"Creative people are not moving to [creative centers] for traditional reasons," says Florida. "What they look for in communities are abundant high-quality amenities and experiences, an openness to diversity of all kinds, and above all else the opportunity to validate their identities as creative people." When unemployment was low this may have been true, though for many adults validating their identities is less important than educating their kids. But during a recession, Florida's admission that "places need to offer a job market that is conducive to a horizontal career path...a thick labor market" takes on extra resonance. Lifestyle trumps employment--until there isn't any.

Florida, a witty sociologist trapped in the body of a labor economist, does offer some sharp observations of the young wealthy people he's discussing. To distinguish them from Thorstein Veblen's leisure class of conspicuous consumers, he says they're "more an 'active class.'... Status and identity for these people come not so much from the goods they have, but from the experiences they have." This leads to the frantic use of free time, which Florida calls "the efficient use of leisure," surely the perfect oxymoron for the late Gilded Age. "Asked why he and his peers favor highly active forms of recreation, one young member of the Creative Class gave a succinct reply: 'You get more entertainment value per unit of time.'"

My initial reaction upon reading this (glad I don't sleep with that guy!) quickly gave way to a question: If these people are so creative, why are they so easily bored? Does being free of other people's schedules actually mean being lonely? Perhaps autonomy isn't all it's cracked up to be.

His subjects' sense of isolation seems magnified when Florida muses about his own sport, bicycling, noting, "Nearly every rider I meet on my journeys is a graduate student, professor, transplant surgeon, corporate lawyer, engineer, entrepreneur or something similar. Why is the sport so Creative Class? It can't be the expense." Perhaps not, if you're unattached; but Florida forgets that people with families have to factor in the expense of having someone else care for their children while they cycle, or go see a band, or read poetry at an open mike. Most people have to purchase the luxury of having time alone to devote to recreation, while the people Florida runs into either live their lives in that state or are able to purchase luxuries as a matter of course. In addition, the sort of riders he meets may well say more about his neighborhood than about the sport.

His musings on cycling highlight the book's central weakness: indulgence in the pathetic fallacy, which philosopher John Ruskin defines as "a farther opinion, that it does not much matter what things are in themselves, but only what they are to us; and that the only real truth of them is their appearance to, or effect upon, us."

Florida, who's also a columnist for Information Week, seems to believe that the information he has gathered about the lives of young software engineers reflects the truth about society at large. Thus he describes flexibility at work in terms of a worker's desire to take a run at lunch rather than a worker's need to pick up the kids from day care (young software engineers are overwhelmingly male). Thus he couples praise of Austin's music scene with a dismissal of schools and parks as factors in attracting people to cities (young software engineers are overwhelmingly men without families). And thus, perhaps most damningly, he describes "diversity" as a value and defines it in the narrow terms familiar to young software engineers, namely tolerance of gays and people from South Asia. Florida acknowledges that African-Americans and Hispanics are underrepresented in the computer industry without seeming to understand the implications of that fact: that people whose diversity consists of their being black or Spanish speaking, or poor, may be substantially less welcome. He refuses to ask the hard question, which is whether the true effect of creative class preferences is to make cities with fewer black and brown people--Seattle, Austin, San Francisco--thrive economically at the expense of cities with more. By "diverse" and "tolerant" Florida seems to mean "accepting of people like me no matter what they do in their bedrooms."

Florida's findings that creative cities also have substantial gay populations have attracted much media attention, but again cause and consequence are confused. Gay people might well be attracted to prosperous cities where they can work for a living and their private lives can remain private; that hardly demonstrates that a "gay-friendly" atmosphere produces prosperity. To regard gays as a particular economic asset requires a return to the fortune-cookie addendum and an acknowledgment that two-income, childless households in which both wage earners are male are likely to be wealthier and demand fewer municipal services than middle-class families or the impoverished elderly. As a solution to urban problems, "Push aside those with problems and turn the place over to someone who can use it better" leaves something to be desired.

At its heart The Rise of the Creative Class is an artifact of the boom and the dot-com bubble. Only someone who's never experienced a recession would argue that jobs follow people, that workers' demands for flexibility trump business demands for productivity, or that the life of cities depends fundamentally on people who define themselves as "software engineer-rock musicians" rather than those who define themselves as "wage earners." Helping cities prosper is a worthy goal, but we won't reach it by confusing the idiosyncrasies of New Economy winners with real urban life.

The Rise of the Creative Class: And How It's Transforming Work, Leisure, Community, and Everyday Life by Richard Florida, Basic Books, $27.50.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/David Heatley.

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