Biscotti and Circuses

03.20.13

Richard Florida Concedes the Limits of the Creative Class

The so-called creative class of intellects and artists was supposed to remake America’s cities and revive urban wastelands. Now the evidence is in—and the experiment appears to have failed, writes Joel Kotkin.

Among the most pervasive, and arguably pernicious, notions of the past decade has been that the “creative class” of the skilled, educated and hip would remake and revive American cities. The idea, packaged and peddled by consultant Richard Florida, had been that unlike spending public money to court Wall Street fat cats, corporate executives or other traditional elites, paying to appeal to the creative would truly trickle down, generating a widespread urban revival.

Urbanists, journalists, and academics—not to mention big-city developers— were easily persuaded that shelling out to court “the hip and cool” would benefit everyone else, too. And Florida himself has prospered through books, articles, lectures, and university positions that have helped promote his ideas and brand and grow his Creative Class Group’s impressive client list, which in addition to big corporations and developers has included cities as diverse as Detroit and El Paso, Cleveland and Seattle.

Well, oops.

Florida himself, in his role as an editor at The Atlantic, admitted last month what his critics, including myself, have said for a decade: that the benefits of appealing to the creative class accrue largely to its members—and do little to make anyone else any better off. The rewards of the “creative class” strategy, he notes, “flow disproportionately to more highly-skilled knowledge, professional and creative workers,” since the wage increases that blue-collar and lower-skilled workers see “disappear when their higher housing costs are taken into account.” His reasonable and fairly brave, if belated, takeaway: “On close inspection, talent clustering provides little in the way of trickle-down benefits.”

One group certain to be flustered by this new perspective will be many of the cities who have signed up and spent hard cash over the years to follow Florida’s prescription of focusing on those things—encouraging the arts and entertainment, building bike paths, welcoming minorities and gays—that would attract young college-educated workers. In his thesis, the model cities of the future are precisely those, such as San Francisco and Seattle, that have become hubs of highly educated migrants, technology, and high-end business services.

That plan, though, has been less than successful in many of the old rust belt cities that once made up much of his client base. Perhaps even more galling to these cities, Florida has turned decidedly negative in his outlook on many of those cities—now looking remarkably gullible—that once made up much of his client base.

Video screenshot

Christy Wampole, a professor at Princeton University, made a splash when she took on hipster irony in the New York Times. Here, she tells Jake Heller why she wrote the piece.

The most risible example of this may have been former Michigan Jennifer Granholm’s “cool cities” campaign of the mid-oughts, that sought to cultivate the “creative class” by subsidizing the arts in Detroit and across the state. It didn’t exactly work. “You can put mag wheels on a Gremlin,” comments one long-time Michigan observer. “but that doesn't make it a Mustang.”

Alec MacGillis, writing at The American Prospect in 2009, noted that after collecting large fees from down-at-the-heels burgs like Cleveland, Toledo, Hartford, Rochester, and Elmira, New York over the years, Florida himself asserted that we can’t “stop the decline of some places” and urged the country to focus instead on his high-ranked “creative” enclaves. “So, got that, Rust Belt denizens?” MacGillis noted wryly in a follow-up story last year at the New Republic. Pack your bags for Boulder and Raleigh-Durham and Fairfax County. Oh, and thanks again for the check.”

One key constituency advocating “creative class” oriented development has been the grandees of urban real estate. Albert Ratner of Cleveland-based Forest City Enterprises, a major urban developer with a taste for subsidies, in New York and elsewhere, suggests Florida’s ideas provides the “playbook for developers.”

For Rust Belt cities, notes Cleveland’s Richey Piiparinen, following the “creative class” meme has not only meant wasted money, but wasted effort and misdirection. Burning money trying to become “cooler” ends up looking something like the metropolitan equivalent to a midlife crisis.

It would have been far more sensible, Piiparinen suggests, for such areas to emphasize their intrinsic advantages, such as affordable housing, a deep historic legacy tied to a concentration of specific skills as well as a strategic location. He urges them to cultivate their essentially Rust-Belt authenticity rather than chase standard issue coolness promoted by big developers like Forest City. Focusing on attracting the “hip cool” single set, Piiparinen maintains, simply sets places like Cleveland up for failure.

Geography of Hip Coolness

Perhaps the best that can be said about the creative-class idea is that it follows a real, if overhyped, phenomenon: the movement of young, largely single, childless and sometimes gay people into urban neighborhoods. This Soho-ization—the transformation of older, often industrial urban areas into hip enclaves—is evident in scores of cities. It can legitimately can be credited for boosting real estate values from Williamsburg, Brooklyn, Wicker Park in Chicago and Belltown in Seattle to Portland’s Pearl District as well as much of San Francisco.

Yet this footprint of such “cool” districts that appeal to largely childless, young urbanistas in the core is far smaller in most cities than commonly reported. Between 2000 and 2010, notes demographer Wendell Cox, the urban core areas of the 51 largest metropolitan areas—within two miles of the city’s center—added a total of 206,000 residents. But the surrounding rings, between two and five miles from the core, actually lost 272,000. In contrast to those small gains and losses, the suburban areas—between 10 and 20 miles from the center —experienced a growth of roughly 15 million people.

The smallness of the potentially “hip” core is particularly pronounced in Rust Belt cities such as Cleveland and St. Louis, where these core districts are rarely home to more than 1 or 2 percent of the city’s shrinking population. Yet the subsidy money for developers is often justified in the name of “reviving” the entire city, most of which has continued to deteriorate.

Nor has this dynamic changed since the onset of the Great Recession, as urban boosters such as Aaron Ehrenhalt have suggested. Ehrenhalt, citing the perceived preferences of millennials, envisions an urban future where more reject the suburban life, in part as a reaction to the wreckage of the last housing bust. To Ehrenhalt, places like downtown Chicago are emerging as the modern-day version of early-20th-century Vienna, central cores that attracted the elites while the working class and middle class dullards regress to the suburbs. Yet in reality, an examination of data between 2011 and 2012 by Jed Kolko at Trulia found despite a spike in downtown residents, population losses continue in surrounding close-in urban neighborhoods, while the fastest growth has continued to be located further out in the periphery.

Class Politics in the “Creative Age”

Investments in “cool” districts may well appeal to some young professionals, particularly before they get married and have children. But overall, as Florida himself now admits, it has done little overall for the urban middle class, much less the working class or the poor.

Indeed in many ways the Floridian focus on industries like entertainment, software, and social media creates a distorted set of economic priorities. The creatives, after all, generally don’t work in factories or warehouses. So why assist these industries? Instead the trend is to declare good-paying blue collar professions a product of the past. If you can’t find work in deindustrialized Michigan, suggests Salon’s Ray Fismanone can collect “ more than a few crumbs” by joining the service class and serving food, cutting hair or grass in creative capitals like San Francisco or Austin.

These limitations of the “hip cool” strategy to drive broad-based economic growth have been evident for years. Conservative critics, such as the Manhattan Institute’s Steve Malanga have pointed out that many creative-class havens often underperform economically compared to their less hip counterparts. More liberal academic analysts have denounced the idea as “ exacerbating inequality and exclusion.” One particularly sharp critic, the University of British Columbia’s Jamie Peck see it as little more than a neo-liberal recipe of “biscotti and circuses.”

Urban thinker Aaron Renn puts it in political terms: “the creative class doesn’t have much in the way of coattails.”

Why Hipness Can’t Save New York

The sad truth is that even in the more plausible “creative class” cities such as New York and San Francisco, the emphasis on “hip cool” and high-end service industries has corresponded with a decline in their middle class and a growing gap between rich and poor. Washington D.C. and San Francisco, perennial poster children for “cool cities,” also have among the highest percentages of poverty of any major urban center—roughly 20 percent—once cost of living is figured in.

Nowhere are the limitations of coolness more evident than in New York, our country’s cultural capital and now one of Florida’s three residences, along with Toronto and Miami Beach. Manhattan suffers by far the highest level of inequality among the country’s 25 most populous counties, a gap between rich and poor that’s the widest it’s been in a decade. New York’s wealthiest one percent earns a third of the entire city’s personal income—almost twice the proportion for the rest of the country.

This geography of inequality is now extending to the outer boroughs. In nouveau hipster and increasingly expensive Brooklyn, nearly a quarter of people live below the poverty line. While artisanal cheese shops and bars that double as flower shops serve the hipsters, one in four Brooklynites receives food stamps. New York has seen the nation’s biggest rise in homelessness; the number of children sleeping in the shelters of Mike Bloomberg’s “luxury city” has risen 22 percent in the past year.

The Issue of Race

On paper, the “creative class” theory worships at the altar of diversity. “The great thing about cities,” Florida told NPR last year, “is they're diverse. There's diverse people in them.” Yet even leaving aside their lack of economic diversity, the exemplars of “hip cool” world, notes urban analyst Renn, tend to be vanilla cities with relatively small minority populations. San Francisco, Portland and Seattle are becoming whiter and less ethnically diverse as the rest of the country, and particularly the suburbs, rapidly diversify.

Creatives may espouse politically correct views, but the effect of Florida’s policy approach, notes Tulane sociologist Richard Campanella, often undermine ethnic communities. As they enter the city, creatives push up rents, displacing local stores and residents. In his own neighborhood of Bywater, in New Orleans, the black population declined by 64 percent between 2000 and 2010, while the white population increased by 22 percent.

In the process, Campanella notes, much of what made the neighborhood unique has been lost as the creatives replace the local culture with the increasingly predictable, and portable, “hip cool” trendy restaurants, offering beet-filled ravioli instead of fried okra, and organic markets. The “unique” amenities you find now, even in New Orleans, he reports, are much what you’d expect in any other hipster paradise, be it Portland, Seattle, Burlington, Vermont or Williamsburg.

Families and the Future

Campanella also suggests another byproduct of hipster gentrification: a dearth of families. Ten years ago his increasingly “creative class” neighborhood of Bywater was family oriented. Now, it’s “a kiddie wilderness.” In 2000, 968 youngsters lived in the district. Just 10 years later, the number had dropped by 70 percent, to 285. When his son was born in 2012, it was the first post-Katrina birth on his street, the sole child on a block that had 11 when he first arrived from Mississippi in 2000.

Unsurprisingly, there’s not much emphasis about families in Florida’s work, in part because his basic theory puts focuses largely on groups like singles, childless young professionals and gays. He largely discounts suburbs, generally the nation’s nurseries, as outdated for the “creative age” and considers homeownership and single family houses, also vastly preferred by families, as fundamentally passé.

Indeed, the places that most attract “the creative class” are also the ones with the fewest families and children, led by San Francisco, Seattle, Manhattan, and rapidly gentrifying Washington, D.C. The very high prices per square foot, understandably celebrated by urban real estate boosters, have made it hard not only on the poor but on middle- and even upper-middle-class families. When you have children, you often have to let go of your bohemian fantasies; it’s hard to imagine being a parent in a place like San Francisco where there are a raging debates about the right of people to walk around naked.

The Real Geography of Opportunity

To be sure, the leading “creative class” cities have much to recommend them, and some of them, such as Portland and Boston, have registered impressive rises in their per capita income in recent years. But over the past decade, most “cool cities” have not been enjoying particularly strong employment or population growth; in the last decade, the populations of cities like Charlotte, Houston, Atlanta, and Nashville grew by 20 percent or more, at least four times as rapidly as New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, or Chicago. This trend toward less dense, more affordable cities is as evident in the most recent census numbers than a decade.

One reason for this: the fastest job growth has taken place in regions—Houston, Dallas, Oklahoma City, Omaha—whose economies are based not on “creative” industries but on less fashionable pursuits such as oil and gas, agriculture and manufacturing. Energy mecca Houston, for example, last year enjoyed the largest GDP growth of any major American city, easily outpacing “creative” urbanist favorites like Chicago, New York, San Francisco, or Boston. The other two top GDP gainers were Dallas-Fort Worth and, surprisingly, Detroit, largely as a result of the auto industry’s comeback.

Of course, some these ascendant cities now are sprouting their own “hip” neighborhoods. But these regions also accommodate far faster growth in rapidly expanding, family-friendly suburbs and exurbs. Equally important, none, including “creative class” hotspots Raleigh and Austin, are dense, transit-centered places of the kind urbanists suggest create economic vibrancy and attract the largest number of migrations.

In fact both Raleigh and Austin are both very low-density regions with only compact urban pockets surrounded by vast suburban communities. Take a walk in downtown Raleigh sometime; about five minutes from the densest central areas and you find yourself on tree-lined streets with nice single-family houses, essentially, older suburbs. Austin, too, is a relatively low-density place surrounded by the kind of suburban sprawl detested by Floridians; this is also the case with Charlotte, Atlanta, and other fast-growing cities.

These facts, of course, are unlikely to interfere with the self-interested lobbying by large developers for subsidies for downtown development much less the defined prejudices of the urban-centric media. But contrary to the narrative espoused by Florida and other proponents of high-density cities, the predominant future urban form in America is emerging  (largely unrecognized to the media) elsewhere, in places less dense, economically diverse and, perhaps, just a bit less hip and cool.