Richard Florida is all over the news again with the release of an updated, 10th-anniversary edition of his most famous book, The Rise of the Creative Class. I’m convinced that someone, someday is going to write a fantastic biography of Richard Florida. He’s such a fascinating figure: the symbol of a decidedly 21st-century concept of urbanism and economic development, someone who became very famous and (it seems) quite wealthy as an academic and public intellectual, and yet who seems to inspire controversy and backlash at every turn. Florida is no stranger to arguing with his critics: his preface to The Rise of the Creative Class, Revisited reads like a litany of defensiveness (“my ideas…were widely derided”; “many critics dismissed my notion”; “I caught a lot of flak”; “I was accused of confusing chickens and eggs” etc.).
I’m not sure if Florida expected to get away with re-releasing his book without provoking yet another firestorm, but if that was the plan, it hasn’t exactly worked out. The onslaught started with a piece penned by Frank Bures for a new magazine called Thirty Two based in Minneapolis called “The Fall of the Creative Class.” A one-time Florida acolyte, Bures tells of how he became disenchanted with creative class theory via a bad experience living in Madison, Wisconsin, supposedly a creative hub. His direct attack (which is by no means the first of its ilk) scored a response from Florida, which of course just led to another broadside from Bures. In the meantime, despite some positive press, most of the reaction I’ve seen has ranged from catty to apoplectic. Next American City – ironically, the outlet that published Florida’s first defense piece, “Revenge of the Squelchers,” way back in 2004 – has run two different commentaries from Sean Andrew Chen that are mostly skeptical in tone. And then there’s this festival of bile from The Baffler’s Thomas Frank, author of What’s the Matter With Kansas?, which, while mostly sparing Florida by name, attacks the very idea of the arts as an economic engine with ferocity.
In the circles I travel in, it’s become as fashionable to pick on Richard Florida as the oft-derided hipsters with which his “creative class” is sometimes associated. In one sense you can’t blame them: this is a guy who gained an enormous amount of notoriety from scholarship with some obvious flaws. It’s hard to look at the attention his ideas commanded among the mayors and foundations of the country over the past decade, and the cushy lifestyle he now enjoys, and not feel a bit of righteous envy. I get it.
But on the other hand, I sometimes wonder if Florida’s detractors have really read his books – like really read them, front to back. They often accuse him of saying things he didn’t say, or omitting things he talks about at length (like income inequality, which occupied much of a chapter in the original Rise of the Creative Class). Although Bures’s rebuttal to Florida draws more blood, the conceit of his original article seems to be that the author’s own disappointing experience in one “creative class” city and subsequent happiness in another “creative class” city are somehow proof that creative class theory is wrong. Bures also seems to imply, via his invoking of Mel Gray’s study on arts spending in 15 cities, that Florida is explicitly an advocate for public funding of the arts, which he’s never really been (as much as arts advocates have liked to pretend he is).
My view has been that Florida is on to something from a qualitative standpoint, but that his particular way of describing it in research terms – the “3T’s” of Technology, Talent, and Tolerance, as measured at the metropolitan level rather than that of individual neighborhoods – is a limited instrument that prevents him from getting the robust results he’s looking for. As much shadenfreude as we might get from seeing a giant fall back to earth, it’s problematic when the methodological quirks of Florida’s particular approach are used to damn the entire concept of the arts as an economic driver, as we see in Frank’s article. Throughout, Frank seems to spend most of his time arguing against a straw man, the notion that people who are interested in creative class theory or creative placemaking or the economic development potential of the arts believe that these things are the singular answer to turning around the economy in any community. Frank writes of the “millions” spent on promoting vibrancy in our nation’s cities and suggests that they would be better spent on things like “bridges, railroads, highways,” regulating the financial system, or, my favorite, universal health care. I’m sorry, but I seem to have missed the press release that announced state and local governments were spending more on street festivals and public art than re-routing the interstate or Medicaid. When the “millions” spent on making our cities a little more interesting, attractive, and fun approaches anything like the trillions spent on these other things, we can talk about misallocation of resources, mmkay?
I don’t think many people would argue, not even Richard Florida, that the arts are some kind of silver bullet that can solve all of a community’s problems. But that’s a very different thing than saying that the arts do have the potential to add value economically to communities, that they do form part of the answer to revitalization and shouldn’t be ignored or sidelined like they usually are. I’m still waiting for the conversation to go where it needs to go but hasn’t yet: how can the arts be the irreplaceable catalyst in certain, specific situations in certain kinds of cities? The broad brush with which we insist on painting the picture keeps on covering over its most important details.
(Update: Richard Layman has more.)