Creative Cities hits Lexington
By Danny Mayer
It didn’t dawn on me that Richard Florida was a bullshit artist until I read the opening lines of his article, “’There Goes the Neighbourhood': How and Why Bohemians, Artists and Gays Affect Regional Housing Values,” which I found on the Richard Florida section of Richard Florida’s Creative Class website. For several weeks, I had been trying to pinpoint my unease at Florida’s thesis of the creative class, which essentially posits a global market of “creative capital” that flows across distances unequally.
Building from this is Florida’s idea that regional and, more particularly, urban locations need to produce the conditions necessary to attract those who possess said creative capital, which Florida calls—wait for it—the creative class. What cities need to do, Florida claims, is twofold: they need to retain their talented classes who already live there, and they need to attract the globally creative people who, apparently, have left the confines of their own less-creative cities in search of something better. It’s a game of supply and demand, and creative people are the commodities. More of them, according to Florida, is good. Always. And your city has to play ball or else.
What set me off was a small thing, a vague statement to the effect that researchers have long noted a correlation between gay communities and rising property values, put in the service of a faux-academic paper that argued (unsurprisingly) for the use of gays and bohos as a means to economically revitalize city neighborhoods. The citation Florida used to make his sweeping claim about the correlation between gay comunities and housing values included the authors Manuel Castells and Neil Smith, two marxist geographers. I happen to have read both authors, and Florida’s use of their work to make his point was highly suspect. Using Castells and Smith, academics who have made careers out of documenting the destructive processes of urban gentrification, as omniscient support for a paper celebrating the way gays can be used to gentrify entire neighborhoods takes some major balls. It’s kinda like enlisting Gandhi’s writings as support for the global war on terror. It’s tough to do.
What’s wrong with sexy? Who’s against creativity?
Now I’ve got to admit, Florida’s done a neat trick, so I call him a bullshit artist with great respect and admiration. First of all, he’s constructed a catch-phrase, the creative class, that is pretty difficult to critique. As a friend of mine explained to me over beers one night, “Like ‘freedom,’ the word is designed to deflect critique. I mean, who’s against creativity?”
The answer to that question, of course, is nobody. At least not here in Lexington, where I’ve been reading treatises left and right on the benefits of creativity. Things have reached a fever pitch recently, as the annual spring opening of Keeneland (that creative industry) and the kick-off to Lexington Technology Month (celebrating the most creative of jobs) coincide with the Creative Cities Summit, Florida’s traveling circus-cum faux-academic conference being held in Lexington this weekend for the cut-rate price of $199.
In the academic biz, we’d call this a dominant discourse, one used in all sorts of ways to achieve all sorts of noble and ignoble goals. Think of it as the hip city counterpart to UK’s patented Top 20 justification of all high-cost expansionary university actions. The word “creative” has been used admiringly by Lexington artists, university presidents, city council people, and publicly engaged citizens. It’s been lauded in print at the Herald Leader, the Kentucky Kernel and Ace; on the blogosphere, it’s become a winning buzz-word, a go-to topic to get readership fired up and ready for creative change. Hell, I’ve even heard a mayoral candidate wax ecstatic about all the creativity found on the front porches of shotgun houses located in the economically poor neighborhoods surrounding Louden Avenue. Everyone, it seems, fucking loves creativity.
The problem, of course, is that Florida is talking about something a bit more specific–not creativity by itself, but a creative class. The intense focus on the first part of Florida’s formulation, “creative,” has left much to say about his second word, “class.” I’m reminded of that moment in Spinal Tap, when the band confuses “sexist” with “sexy.” “What’s the matter with sexy,” they ask, increduously. Nothing, of course, except that it’s the incorrect word to use.
If Lexingtonians were to actually get their terms right, they’d focus not just on how “creativity” in all its vacuous registers is supposed to help this city, but rather on how the creative class is supposed to do it. And this is where things get tricky. If one focuses on Florida’s creative class, there are any number of critiques, none of which get mentioned when, for example, our local politicians take jet trips on the public dole to see other “creative” cities, or when people (including downtown developers trying to sell expensive vacant lofts in the process) urgently press the need for Lexington to “get on board” with the creative urbanization that’s going on all around them in such uber-succesful cities as Dayton or Cincinatti or Knoxville.
Critics on the right, for example, have questioned Florida’s argument that tax breaks for companies are less important to the economic success of a city than is the process of attracting talented individuals through hip downtown bars, music and arts outlets. Contra Florida, these critics have pointed to the long-term success of cities deemed un-creative relative to their more creative counterparts. Joining their left counterparts, critics on the right have also pointed out, correctly, that much of Florida’s data come from the frothy days just preceding the stock market bubble of 2001–when tech and other creative industry jobs were arguably over-valued by an avalanche of speculative capital looking to get rich quick.
The big picture question from these sets of concerns has to do with credibility. Does Florida’s creative thesis hold water, or is he just making up a bullshit term–creativity!–and then applying it to well-off citizens of cities that already seem to be relatively well off for $35 grand per speaking appearance. It’s sort of like the idea, made popular several years back but now out of fashion, that Wall Street Investors were uber-smart (and creative) “master’s of the universe” because they made shit-tons of money: is the statement true or is it just a cheap justification that explains away current actions.
Hawking non-existent creative values
The question of value is an important one. While Florida and the promoters of Lexington’s creative spirit consistently cite the need to attract the coming wave of hi-tech jobs that the Creative Class embodies, they do so only partially informed. First, as even Florida will tell you, Lexington is not the only town with an interest in attracting the global Creative Class. One wouldn’t know it from reading the papers and blogs about the topic, but when city leaders and talking heads commit Lexington to the nebulous 21st century goal of attracting and retaining “talent” (rather than, say, jobs), they are, in effect, committing us to a pitched competition with the other 1,221 cities who also really, really want creative people to think they’re cool (and have the “creative consultants” on payroll to show for it).
But on top of that, the creative stream that Florida describes isn’t as well-stocked as it might seem. Talented people, according to Florida’s estimations, are the leading edge of job creation. Except that there is evidence that the so-called knowledge economy, for which the Creative Class are the anointed leaders, is in large measure a hoax. Creative jobs, which for Florida are jobs held by those with a college degree, are not even projected to materialize in large numbers here in the United States.
The economist Paul Craig Roberts, assistant secretary of the treasury during President Reagan’s first term in office, for example, has argued that high tech, high knowledge creative jobs are, in aggregrate, not by themselves productive of new jobs. As Roberts notes, the offshoring of knowledge jobs, enabled by the high tech industry that simultaneously connects people across the globe, is what is going on now, at least throughout the U.S. Why would a company pay someone in Lexington U.S. wages when they can offshore computer or software specialist tasks to equally educated people in India–and pay Indian wages? Even Microsoft has started doing it, to the tune of 3000 “creative” high tech jobs sent to the Indian cities of Hyderabad and Bangalore. Cultivating talent–woops, capital–doesn’t mean squat if we’ve still got the same globalized race to the bottom mindset.
Creative Class boosters don’t acknowledge that the knowledge economy can be offshored, too, in most cases much easier. This possibility is borne out in projections by the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The BLS projections for the top 30 “job growth” jobs of the next 10 years consist primarily of jobs that do not require a college education–do not require, that is, “creativity” as defined by Florida and his creative thesis (unless you count having a “creative” wait staff as something that a bonified “creative type” might desire to have in his or her neighborhood).
And yet, to listen to the Creative Class pitch, making Lexington a high-tech hub (along with the other 378 or so cities doing the same thing here in the U.S.) is our ticket into 21st century prosperity. Certainly these jobs will surface, and certain people, whose job will allow them to be hyper-mobile and pick up and leave for other cooler-looking towns when they so desire, will no doubt benefit and make good money off of the creative class, but it is not a structural solution to what ails our city.
Mobility at the Creative Cities Summit
That the creative class thesis is shaky on the jobs front is an economic argument. There are other reasons, though, to question “creativity” as it has been defined in Lexington, particularly along social lines. Despite wild contortions to hide this fact, the Creative are a class, a wealthy class, and per usual it is their concerns that are being voiced, discussed and used as a weather vane for checking Lexington’s “progress.”
At the Creative Cities Summit, the word “class” will be little used as a critical economic and social concept–even though the Summit claims to be highly interested in both economics and social justice. Questions such as who wins in the likely scenario of increasing rent and property values coinciding with the influx of rich (gay, bohemian, creative) out of towners settling into our neighborhoods will no doubt get pushed to the side, in favor of lame abstract discussions of “creativity” and bike lane-,bar- and art-building.
But this should not be surprising. The target audience for the creative class, those for whom it has the potential to hold economic value, is the same as it ever was: the rich who are (a) well-educated; (b) hold a certain value economically (engineers, doctors), culturally (artists, musicians), or both (high-tech startups, university presidents and their multiple vice presidents and deans); and (c) imagined as having a free range of mobility such that they get to choose the cities in which they reside. This is the creative class who will be in attendance at the Creative Cities Summit. Culturally diverse and gay-friendly, I’m sure. But mostly rich: the winners in the larger neoliberalization of the global economy, people who can claim with a clear mind that selling creativity is what Lexington really needs because they’ve been to Paris and Florence and San Francisco and Austin, and they know what works.
But there are, of course, at least two types of mobile humans in Lexington. There is the vocal but small minority of Florida’s Creative Class, who are untethered to any city and who can, because of high tech internet and other capabilities that they celebrate, travel the world in a matter of seconds to accumulate capital–creative or otherwise. But a far greater number of people who reside in Lexington fall outside that category. And though they are creative in, say, navigating our unfriendly transportation system to get to their hourly paid working gigs, their concerns are not the same as the Creative Class.
In fact, there is a good argument to be made that their concerns are directly at odds with the goals enshrined in Creative Class economics. Take, for example, Florida’s assumptions on housing the Creative Class–a group that, he notes, will not stand for anything less than the thick veneer of urban sophistication in choosing their home cities and home neighborhoods. The neighborhoods Florida describes all sound like great places to live, but as with his use of Smith and Castells in his Gay/Boho article, he completely misses a huge part of the equation. To allow the type of bohemian property valuation that Florida posits as necessary for successful creative city growth, those non-creative types living in cheap homes located in the urban sector must be removed.
Increases in neighborhood property values, after all, for Florida are not the result of better employment for current neighborhood residents. They are the result of a change in the community’s make-up as less-wealthy residents get bought out and displaced by wealthier creative people: first gays and bohemians, later architects, doctors, computer software designers and rich Saudis or Italians or Chinese looking for a quaint second or third home located in a quaint neighborhood of a quaint city. What Florida depicts as a process of creative renewal is, when looked at from the perspective of the non-creative class, a practice of class-warfare that supports the removal of poor people to, well, anywhere but here. Florida’s ideas don’t solve anything, they just move difficult issues to the periphery.
The much larger group of non-Creative Class Lexington workers have experienced the technology boom and the ensuing borderless world of global capitalism in a quite different way. This other group–migrants, out of work factory workers, E. KYians leaving the holler, and increasingly college-educated classes entering the global job market with no job prospects and high debt–has a different sort of mobility. Their experience of mobility revolves around having their jobs increasingly moved to places with cheaper, or more abundant, labor to exploit. Unlike their Creative Class cousins who exhibit chosen mobility, this group’s mobility is forced. They do not get to choose the cool cities in which to live. This difference–a forced rather than chosen mobility–creates a set of livability issues different from the creative class, though it is one that Florida’s Creative Class model, along with its Lexington boosters, do not even come close to addressing.
Ultimately, it is this class–not the already pampered global digerati stopping in for a couple nights to catch the horse races at Keeneland 6 weeks a year–that I’m more concerned in hearing about, particularly with how they fit into Lexington’s idea of attracting and developing talent. Their talent.