Tech and design alone are not enough to bring vitality back to urban cores.
In 2002, almost in step with a millennium and the crop of self-important young swells identified with it, urban studies theorist Richard Florida published the absurdly influential book, “Rise of the Creative Class.” Lately, however, urban planners have been rethinking Florida’s theories—and none more critically than Florida himself. As a creative class-enemy of long standing, I say, it’s about time.
Over the years, I have sat in on many an urban development meeting at which Florida fans competed to see who could be first to blurt out the phrase, “creative class.” Svengali had less of a grip on poor Trilby than Florida has had on the nation’s urban planners.
Our local planners were particularly mesmerized. Indeed, the Manson girls showed a greater range of independent thought than the painfully orthodox developers who have been designing Kansas City’s future. The Power & Light District—and the city tax subsidies that keep it afloat—is a testament to their insecurity. Lord knows, the streetcar is.
In the way of background, Florida believed cities that attracted “creative people” to their inner cores would do better economically than those that did not. He employed a “creativity index” that measured cities based on four basic variables: the number of creative workers, the number of high-tech workers, the “innovation factor” as measured by patents per capita, and the relative amount of “diversity.”
Florida gauged diversity by what he called the “Gay Index,” the percent of gays in the population. He described this as “a reasonable proxy for an area’s openness to different kinds of people and ideas.”
By 2013, however, Florida was rethinking his own thesis. “On close inspection,” he argued in a breakthrough Atlantic article, “talent clustering provides little in the way of trickle-down benefits.” Whatever economic gains the rest of a metropolis experiences as a result of these clusters, he conceded, have been absorbed and then some by the higher cost of housing and other amenities.
To his credit, Florida has continued to challenge his own arguments. The title of his forthcoming book, The New Urban Crisis: How Our Cities Are Increasing Inequality, Deepening Segregation, and Failing the Middle Class—and What We Can Do About It, suggests just how poisonous was the Kool-Aid he enticed our urban planners to drink.
“I got wrong that the creative class could magically restore our cities, become a new middle class like my father’s, and we were going to live happily forever after,” Florida told a restive Texas audience this
fall. “I could not have anticipated among all this urban growth and revival that there was a dark side to the urban creative revolution, a very deep dark side.”
In Kansas City, the fiscal holes may not be darker, but they’re deeper. Unlike, say, San Francisco, we had to create a playground
for the young and presumably creative almost from scratch. To create it, we had to subsidize it mightily. The money that went to open new saloons did not go to repair streets and side-walks, or pay for more police.
The jury is still out on whether Kansas City’s investment will succeed, even on its own generous terms. In some cities, the Florida experiment has already failed, and in some it has succeeded all too well. Twitter and other high-tech companies, for instance, have turned San Francisco into a battlefield for affordable housing.
The jury is still out on whether Kansas City’s investment will succeed, but early returns from other cities that jumped on the wagon do not look promising.
In public, Florida has been willing to admit his mistakes, a sight as rare among academics as a Trump bumper sticker. “Here’s Mr. Diversity, extolling the virtues of diversity in large cities,” said Florida at his Houston speech. “And what comes back to smash you over the head is that large, diverse cities also incubate a horrific level of sorting and segregation.”
For the past 10 years, I have been saying much of what Florida is saying now. In 2006, I had a sneak preview of things to come while researching my book “What’s the Matter with California?” a counterpoint to a book of similar title about Kansas that sold about a half-million copies more than mine.
In it, I wrote about the unexplored flaw in Florida’s thesis, namely the possibility that a city just might attract one creative person too many and “tip.” The surest sign of a city’s tipping, I argued, was the appearance of a mime on a city street. With the mime’s first walk-against-the-wind, the creative class would have officially reached critical mass, and bad things would begin to happen.
I cited several of them. One was that the “thought leadership” Florida celebrated would become the “thought police.” Hell, even before Florida published his 2002 book, San Francisco was criminalizing speech the left did not like.
Another, I argued, was that “the working class disappears.” For all his candor, Florida is just now acknowledging what was obvious to anyone without ideological blinders 10 years ago. Wrote I back then, “Almost everywhere the creative class rules, it prices the working and lower-middle classes out of town.”
Third, I continued: “The pop-ulation becomes Balkanized,” a phenomenon Florida describes as the incubation of “a horrific level of sorting and segregation.” A fourth, a corollary argument, was that “spontaneous diversity dies.”
Once the most naturally diverse of American cities, San Francisco may soon become its least. The lack of diversity is more than skin deep. Reportedly, 99 percent of Bay
area’s tech money went to one candidate in the 2016 presidential election. She and they had the same class enemies.
Hillary Clinton made this clear at a pricey LGBT gala in New York when she slandered a good quarter of all Americans as a “basket of deplorables.” Underreported was the fact that the audience laughed and cheered at her slur. So much for openness of the creative class to “different kinds of people and ideas.”
So much for the creative class in general.