Here’s a fun fact about me: I embody the Creative Class.
I live in a big, old witchhatted townhouse between Dupont Circle and Adams Morgan in Washington, DC. I love locally raised produce and my exposed brick yoga studio has a juice bar. I fall in love with every silver bullet remedy for civic malaise I come across: teach kids to code! bike lanes! murals! And guess what? I work at a think tank, where we think… for a living!
And so when I picked up the 2014 reissue of Richard Florida’s The Rise of the Creative Class before I got on my flight back from SXSW (yup) a few weeks ago, I bought it for the same reason that mean old men listen to talk radio – to get further evidence of what I already believed, which was that urbanism is wonderful and that it heals and builds communities. I also bought the book because I’m obsessed with my hometown, a small city in Virginia, and wanted ideas for how to make it even more sublimely locavore, artistic, and entrepreneurial.
So I was shocked that reading Florida’s book not only gave me zero ideas for my own community, but actually made me question whether the “Creative Class” was something that cities should try to foster, period. As far as I can tell, the Creative Class is just a new name for rich people. For those who have not marched through all 483 pages, here is a typical passage, in which Florida summarizes the migration pattern of his creative bird:
When they first move to New York, young people live in relatively funky places like the East Village, South Slope, Williamsburg, or Hoboken… When they earn a little more, they move to the Upper West Side or maybe Tribeca or SoHo; earn a little more and they can go to the West Village or the Upper East Side. Once marriage and children come along, some stay in the city while others relocate to bedroom communities…Later, when the kids are gone, some of these people buy a co-op overlooking the park or a duplex on the Upper East Side. Members of the Creative Class come in all shapes, sizes, colors, ages, and lifestyles.
They might come in every color of the rainbow, but the most obvious shared trait of this Creative Class is that they are loaded. Florida’s typical character sails through life in the most extravagantly expensive neighborhoods on the planet. The author’s insularity and obliviousness is staggering.
Florida is an apologist for the new ruling class, masquerading as a guru of economic growth.
To test my hypothesis, try substituting a term associated with the old ruling class, “country club”, for Florida’s fetish, the “eclectic downtown.” First we need an appealing, trendy name for people who live in country clubs. Let’s call them “knowledge gardeners.” If you did, a typical Florida passage might read something like this:
Knowledge Gardeners work in high powered corporations, hospitals, and government agencies, sowing and harvesting the products of an increasingly information-driven economy. They choose to live in bucolic, self-contained communities – “walled gardens” or “country clubs” – that offer sociable privacy and outdoor recreation. Knowledge Gardeners are far more educated, more productive, and healthier than the national average. Cities can attract more of these super-residents – and boost growth – by emulating country clubs in their layout and amenities.
This would clearly be bonkers. Country clubs are fine, but people would object if a developer tried to bulldoze a historic, middle class black community to make room for one. And clearly you cannot plop down a country club in the middle of a city. But gentrification feels more ambiguous, even though some “eclectic downtowns” are becoming just as pricey and exclusionary as the gated communities of yesteryear, and even though some cities are not really built to have downtown hubs.
Florida has his causality seriously backwards. What is happening in the Tech Triangle, in Austin, in Seattle, is that affluent people are creating the lifestyles that appeal to them. In our generation, there is a trend towards upscale street life, superficial diversity, and feel-good consumerism. It’s a great quality of life for those who participate in it. And cities should encourage this activity, because affluent people pay taxes. But if a city makes it their entire growth strategy, they will end up neglecting core services, and subsidizing activities that cause displacement. I think we’re going to look back on the creative class urbanist movement and see elements of the urban renewal debacle.
Florida doesn’t worry too much about the fact that the poor and uneducated, especially blacks and Hispanics, are struggling in this creative class economy. On the contrary, he actually points out again and again how toxic service-industry and blue-collar workers are for the economic health of a city – suggesting that these lines of work should just be “phased out.” Indeed, he even admits that members of the Creative Class embrace diversity, except when it comes to blacks, whom they prefer not to live around. Florida’s tacit preference for bike lanes over food stamps, and urban density over more affordable suburban sprawl is especially insidious, because it appeals to precisely the type of people who plan cities, themselves members of the class that Florida so flatteringly describes. Florida provides policymakers with a valid rationale for focusing on quality of life services for the affluent, rather than lifeline services for the poor.
There are economic growth strategies that work for low- and middle-skill workers. And there are many American cities that are doing just fine without a preponderance of Creative Class representation: Houston, Atlanta, Oklahoma City all come to mind. Florida never even addresses these places. James Fallows writes about a trio of counties in Mississippi that banded together to successfully train their workforce to attract high-end manufacturing plants. Joel Kotkin writes about growth corridors in the Midwest and South. This is the kind of unsexy economic development that our brightest minds really need to be focusing on – not solely creating better amenities for the young whites who populate coworking spaces and bike shares, much though I love them. These are luxury goods, and the affluent can access them without public assistance.
Carolyn Zelikow is a Program Associate at the Aspen Institute Future of Work Initiative. She graduated from the University of Virginia in 2012 with a B.A. in English Language and Literature and lives in Washington, D.C.