PLANK AUGUST 3, 2012
When I’m not deep in a presidential election season, I do like writing about subjects other than politics, including the whole realm of urban policy/economic development/land use. It was that interest that led me, two years ago, to write a long magazine piece critiquing the remarkably lucrative enterprise that had grown out of Richard Florida’s 2002 best-seller, The Rise of the Creative Class. The book set forth a straightforward argument: that in the information age, cities would get more of an economic development boost from making themselves attractive to mobile, highly-educated professionals—by, say, investing in amenities like bike paths and the arts, and encouraging a gay-friendly atmosphere—rather than by giving potential employers big tax incentives or spending taxpayer dollars on giant downtown stadiums. As intuitive as it now seems—hip people like to live where hip people like to live—the argument struck many as revolutionary, and Florida shot overnight from being an anonymous Pittsburgh college professor to a star on the lecture and consulting circuit. In 2007, the University of Toronto offered him a $346,000 salary to set up his own think tank, the Martin Prosperity Institute. As his former tour manager boasted to me: "There was a tremendous money-generating aspect to Richard’s work. We did it in a grand way. We traveled in style. We stayed in boutique hotels in most of the places we were working."
More power to him, right? If struggling cities wanted to pay $35,000 to hear someone tell them to make themselves attractive to the laptop crowd, or pay $250,000 to come up with a plan to make this happen, that’s their choice. It was wrong, the former tour manager told me, to see any conflict in Florida’s dark pronouncements on the cities and towns that bankrolled his enterprise, because he hadn’t promised prosperity in the first place: “He wasn’t really making prescriptions...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.”
What jarred me into writing my 2010 piece was a cover story that Florida wrote for The Atlantic in the spring of 2009, at the depth of the recession, an excerpt from his then-forthcoming book, The Great Reset, in which he seemed to argue for pulling the plug on many of the struggling cities and towns that had been paying big bucks for his revitalization medicine:
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.
Florida was even more direct in a May, 2009 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.”
So, got that, Rust Belt denizens? Pack your bags for Boulder and Raleigh-Durham and Fairfax County. Oh, and thanks again for the check. Here’s a brief excerpt from what I found in trying to reconcile the lucrative Creative Class pitch with the 2009 sorry-guys declaration:
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.”
Florida, to his credit, spoke with me at length for the piece, in one of the odder interviews I’ve ever had with someone—he remained aggressively upbeat and cheerful throughout my obviously skeptical questions, conceding some points with surprising blitheness. At first, he told me that the Atlantic excerpt was the “best thing” he had ever written, but near the end of the interview he said something you don’t hear from many authors: “Maybe I’m a better thinker when I talk than when I’m on paper.” After the piece appeared, I got some tart replies from Florida boosters such as Ryan Avent, but the guru himself remained silent.
And now, lo and behold, it is the 10th anniversary of the publication of the Creative Class, and Florida is milking the celebration for all it’s worth, on the talk-show circuit and at the Atlantic Cities blog he co-founded* where he recently updated his list of the most “creative-class” metro areas with head-scratching results (Huntsville and Trenton rank above Boston and San Francisco. OK.)
Interestingly, though, Florida is striking a much different tone these days than he did in the Great Reset when it comes to “stopping the decline of some places.” He’s touting glimmers of creative-class activity in Detroit, the very city that elicited this riff from him during a 2009 Talk of the Nation appearance:
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.
Who knows if Tessa took Florida’s 2009 advice and skipped town. Too bad if she did, given that Detroit is now once again Creative Class-approved. Just think, she might even get to see Florida speak there sometime soon, assuming the locals can scrape together the dough.
*Wording corrected to accurately describe Florida’s role at the blog.
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