Perambulating the Bounds

Tuesday, June 05, 2007

The creative class, who needs 'em

Just saw this article in the Houston Chronicle, a dissent from the ideas of Richard Florida about how to promote the development of a city. Florida is the “creative class” guy who argues that cities prosper when they attract high-skilled people engaged in creative pursuits, broadly defined. It means making the place attractive to artists, but also to people like web designers and ad agencies. I think he would include programmers and industrial designers, but it tends to be discussed in terms of folks who would create gaming systems, not so much applications for back office processing of banking transactions.

Joel Kotkin says no, this is crap, what you need is low taxes, limited regulation, and vocational education. According to him, parks and cultural institutions come from prosperity, don’t cause it. Big surprise from a report sponsored by a Houston booster group—Houston is an exemplar of the success of this approach.

He makes a distinction between superstar cities which can pursue an elite-oriented strategy, and every place else which seems broad-banded. I think that distinction is valid. The concentration of capital in the global economic centers puts them in a different class. But I’m not sure Kotkin’s really dealing with some of Florida’s ideas, to the extent I understand them. One phenomenon behind the creative class concept is that as income disparity and real estate prices take off in places like New York, places with a slightly lower cost of living become attractive to various kinds of creative workers. Especially artists, who are not particularly well-positioned to hang on in the highest cost cities unless they start selling art to the hedge fund managers. As I understand, Florida’s idea is that a leveling effect occurs, and in that environment cities can attract some of these people which will allow some towns which are not New York to differentiate themselves from their peers.

I think the “creative class” idea gets oversold, and there’s a lot of murkiness about what categories of activity count in that. It also seems to skip right over class--there's a difference between a poor musician trying to make ends meet and a well-compensated dot.com employee, perhaps more difference than similarity. But Kotkin’s argument just encourages cities to pay no attention to their artists, a neglect that really isn’t benign in a place like Nashville. The almost complete lack of governmental engagement in promoting the arts makes important parts of the art scene extremely vulnerable. The visual arts struggle to establish footholds, the Frist Center notwithstanding, and even the famous music community has more gaps than not. Kotkin’s case is stronger for Houston, which has a good range of arts institutions, and reasonable living costs that provide the capacity for people to survive and work at the margins. But the laissez-faire qualities have a lot to do with making it a rough city, with bad air, infrastructure and services that seem constantly at risk of succumbing to the elements, and an impressive homicide rate. Houston may be a place where people can make money and can make some interesting things happen, but you’ve got to be careful how far you go in making it your model.

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