In a post entitled, “A holiday message from the creative class to Richard Florida — screw you,” Mark Palko argues that Florida’s famous theories about the rise of the creative class have not held up over time:
Florida paints a bright picture of these people and their future, with rapidly increasing numbers, influence and wealth. He goes so far as to say “Places that succeed in attracting and retaining creative class people prosper; those that fail don’t.” . . .
But, Palko argues,
Except for a few special cases, this may be the worst time to make a living in the arts since the emergence of modern newspapers and general interest magazines and other mass media a hundred and twenty years ago . . . Though we now have tools that make creating and disseminating art easier than ever, no one has come up with a viable business model that supports creation in today’s economy. . . .
OK, fine, so individual creatives aren’t doing so well? But what about the larger urban economies? Palko links to this piece by Alec MacGillis who argues that Florida has reversed his earlier claims:
Few purveyors of big ideas have as much riding on a single notion or catch phrase as Richard Florida does with the “creative class.” Florida’s idea of a group of highly mobile, Mac-toting professionals driving economic development has sold him a lot of books, spurred a lucrative speechmaking and consulting career . . . He is our premier celebrity urbanologist, whose home page features a clip of Bono mentioning him on a panel with Bill Clinton.
All of which explains the awkwardness of the current moment for Florida: His theories about how to boost city economies have, quite simply, been discredited. . . . Ever since the economy fell apart, the creative class (which Florida defined loosely enough to include bankers along with Web designers) has come to look less like savior than culprit. Florida is nothing if not nimble, however. Far from abandoning the field or holing up at the library to devise a new theory, he is simply recalibrating his pitch. . . .
And here’s the punch line:
Writing in January on The Atlantic Cities site he co-founded, he tossed off a line that undercut the whole premise that the creative class was the key to a fully thriving metropolis. “On close inspection, talent clustering provides little in the way of trickle-down benefits” for low-income workers, he wrote; meanwhile, the chasm between creative-class bastions and other cities is “not just a vicious cycle but an unsustainable one—economically, politically and morally.” He now laments “uber-gentrified” New York and Washington in Urban Land magazine, worries about “disconnected youth” in Washington Monthly, and, in The Huffington Post, calls for a “new social compact” that invests more in cities’ “human capital” than in programs that attract affluent outsiders. And Florida is now one of the leading boosters for the comeback of Detroit.
I don’t know what to think about all this. Part of my unease comes from the generally positive feelings I’ve had about Richard Florida’s work, over the years. I’ve never met Florida personally but I’ve had the occasional friendly email exchange with him (indeed, MacGillis, too, reports that Florida is a friendly emailer) and I once spoke in his department at Toronto and talked about a joint research project with one of his collaborators. Nobody ever claimed that the “creative class” thing told the whole story of the economy, but ever since I first heard the idea, it struck me as catching some important aspects of society and the economy that was not included in the usual descriptions. So my first inclination is to defend Florida, even when he is criticized by people such as Palko and MacGillis whom I respect.
OK, so with that background, here are my reactions to the criticism of Richard Florida’s ideas:
1. Palko points out that, in the past few decades it’s become much tougher to get by as a “creative” and pay the bills. Indeed, it used to be possible to live in a city full of artistic ferment and still pay low rent and live a reasonable life without too much money. Now, though, rents and other expenses are high, and the decline of the traditional news and entertainment media has made it harder to get paid for creative work. Various high-profile exceptions aside, you’re not likely to make a living as a blogger, that’s for sure. If you’re a programmer or a statistician, that’s another story, but, even there, as Palko points out, there can be a lot of uncertainty about employment.
But I don’t know that Palko’s observations contradict Florida’s position, which seems more about the connections between creative-class workers, geography, and the economy. There seem to be two different stories going on: one about individuals and one about geography and the economy. So let’s get back to creative-class individuals. To some extent, people work in creative fields because of the money or the opportunity. If the motivations are purely economic, then it would make sense for some sort of equilibrium to arise: opportunities increase, more people go into the field, there’s more competition, etc. But people also do creative work because they want to (e.g., Mark Palko and I are blogging for free), hence you can get lots of “musicians, actors, writers and directors” (in Palko’s example) trying to make a living out of it, even when times are tough. In any case, my point is that Florida could be completely correct about the creative class being a key incubation point of the new economy, even if the creatives themselves aren’t living so comfortably.
2. MacGillis’s articles are interesting—especially where he pushes Florida regarding his different statements regarding economic opportunities in Detroit—but I feel like he’s just throwing everything he can at Florida, resulting in some incoherent arguments. For example, MacGillis writes:
As Florida tries to rebrand himself, the old business he built up endures. Struggling Holyoke, Massachusetts, population 40,000, now employs a “creative economy coordinator.” In Roanoke, Virginia, where a Florida underling was paid $50,000 for a two-day consulting session, what remains is an aborted “creative connectors” website and an annual downtown music event.
There seem to be two criticisms here. One is that Florida and his colleagues are profiteers, getting rich on the backs of others’ struggles. The analogy might be to an oncologist charging high fees for an experimental treatment that turns out not to be effective, with the added twist that, to the extent that business consulting is considered to be part of the creative-class economy, Florida’s recommendations are themselves self-reinforcing.
But MacGillis’s second (implicit) criticism seems weaker, in pointing to things like Roanoke, Virginia’s “annual downtown music event.” A key point I associate with Florida is that cities should grow locally rather than install megaprojects that are supposed to stimulate the economy but end up having no collection with the existing urban environment. Consider the notorious example of Detroit’s zillion-dollar Renaissance Center built in the 1970s. My impression is that Florida’s work was in many ways a reaction against the idea of spending scarce city resources on renaissance centers, sports stadiums, etc., and instead spending much smaller amounts on smart improvements that make a city more livable for the people who want to live there. Roanoke’s arts initiative might be a big scam, I have no idea, but I think a lot has to do with how such things are implemented and the extent to which they involve the local creative class, rather than just dropping a money bomb on a 1950s-style construction project.
At this point, a critic of Florida might reply that it is the very vagueness of his prescriptions which have made him so popular, so maybe it’s fair enough for the criticisms to be all over the map as well. I don’t really know, but I think the subject is important enough that I don’t think Florida’s ideas should be dismissed. To put it another way, I like Richard Florida and so I want to interpret his ideas in a generous way.