Richard Florida watch: Dim prospects for the creative class | Blogh

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Richard Florida watch: Dim prospects for the creative class

Posted By on Wed, Jan 6, 2010 at 12:11 PM


That's about all I've got to say after reading this takedown of "creative class" guru Richard Florida in the American Prospect

The title of the piece is "The Ruse of the Creative Class," which tells you all you need to know. And from the first sentence -- which refers to "the Richard Florida show" -- writer Alec MacGillis takes the piss out of Florida, formerly a prof at CMU's Heinz school.

At the heart of the critique: MacGillis observes that in the aftermath of the recession, Florida seems to be giving up on many of the cities who once paid for his advice. 

"We need to be clear that ultimately, we can't stop the decline of some places, and that we would be foolish to try," Florida wrote in an Atlantic magazine piece last year. "Places like Pittsburgh have shown that a city can stay vibrant as it shrinks, by redeveloping its core to attract young professionals and creative types, and by cultivating high-growth services and industries."

Of course, one could argue with the latter part of that statement. (For starters, part of the reason Pittsburgh stayed vibrant, paradoxically, is that it has lots of old people: Social Security checks continue coming in no matter what the broader economy is doing.) But MacGillis is after bigger game. He reports that after Florida's book The Rise of the Creative Class came out, he began commanding speaking fees of up to $35,000. In fact, a onetime associate tells MacGillis that

So frequent were the speeches that in 2004 Florida had to leave his job in Pittsburgh for George Mason University outside D.C. partly to be nearer to a major airport.

So, Pittsburgh doesn't have a major airport? Boy, is Dan Onorato going to be pissed!

In any case, MacGillis writes, many of Florida's trips were made to struggling parts of the country trying to find new ways to be competitive. Florida preached a gospel now familiar to anyone still reading this blog post: Seek a criticial mass of bohemians and other creative types, focus less on building new stadiums and more on building tolerance.

Cities did their level best to follow that advice, MacGillis writes, trying various programs to encourage knowledge workers to stick around. But these days, their guru sounds downbeat about their prospects: MacGillis quotes Florida blogging that "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 ... move to where the opportunities are."

As MacGillis notes, people have long debated the value of Florida's advice. Years back, I wrote a cover story about Florida's theories and was accused -- by Braddock mayor-to-be John Fetterman, no less -- of having crafted a "slobbering rim job" about Florida. (Though some of Fetterman's own initiatives have been appeals to creative-class types, and in his own way he's become every bit the media phenom that Florida has been.) But Florida made his bones in those frothy days of "the New Economy." There were plenty of people as receptive to his ideas as they were to Jim Cramer's stock tips, or books with titles like Dow 36,000.

Things are different now. Just as people are bound to look more carefully at Wall Street credit ratings in a downturn, Florida is receiving redoubled scrutiny these days. As MacGillis says of Florida's critics: 

It was one thing, they say, to be selling cities on a creative-class pitch -- even though it was of little use to many of them and led some of them to misguided investments... But it's another thing for Florida now to be declaring, from his high-profile perch, that many of these same cities are not part of the country's strategy for future growth simply because their prospects as creative magnets are too daunting ... [T]hese decisions are too serious and complex to be guided by breezy pronouncements about failed industries and regions.

Implicit in all this is the criticism that among the cities Florida is consigning to the scrap heap today, some are places that were paying him to help avoid that fate a few years ago. Florida is depicted as a kind of Information Age Music Man: He blows into town long enough to sell some instruments, and then clears out. Now, MacGillis argues, he's selling the advice that others do the same.

MacGillis does give Florida some credit for counseling against "smokestack chasing" -- using tax incentives in a desperate, and sometimes self-destructive, bid to chase developers. And Florida himself, he notes, denies counselling the abandonment of struggling communities. 

Then again, MacGilils points out: 

Florida ... is a relentlessly genial fellow who tries to disarm skeptics by accepting their points in good cheer, as if to suggest there is really no difference of opinion at all.

As someone who's interviewed Florida, I can attest to the accuracy of this characterization. Florida's a very smart fellow, capable of digesting all kinds of viewpoints. But while the ability to hold two contradictory propositions is a sign of intelligence, it can also be the sign of a guy who really isn't committed to any proposition at all. Trying to argue with the guy was like trying to wrestle with Jell-O. 

One wonders, in fact, how Florida will react to MacGillis' piece. As far as I can tell, he hasn't responded to it on his blog or elsewhere. Previous experience suggests that I'll be hearing from him about 15 minutes after I post this, so I'll let you know what he's got to say as soon as I hear it. 

In the meantime, I'll point out one little irony about MacGillis' article. Which is that Florida is being beat up as a huckster thanks to the Pittsburgh Legend -- which itself has built up with no small amount of hucksterism. Writes MacGillis:

Florida used Pittsburgh as his primary example of a city hampered by uncreative "squelchers." Now, like so many others, he holds up the city as a postindustrial phoenix. Says Richard McNulty, the head of the Partners for Livable Communities and a onetime Florida ally, "It's funny that the roots [of his argument] were in Pittsburgh -- which is now lauded as the only [city] that believed in itself enough to reinvent itself."

Well, I've already spelled out my position on Pittsburgh's rebirth before, and won't rehash the whole argument now. But my own belief is that part of what saved Pittsburgh is not that it "believed in itself enough to reinvent itself" ... but that it didn't buy too strongly into anyone's prescription for reinvention. Pittsburgh saved itself, I'd argue through a combination of dumb luck, sometimes mulish resistance to change, and a clear-eyed vision for what was worth preserving a enhancing.

Sometimes the experts had helpful advice. But at least as often, we helped ourselves by ignoring it. And Florida ain't the only expert you could say that of.  


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