Art Here and Now
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Thank you Richard Florida for giving The Bohemians so much power. Now please tell us – when will we ever benefit from it?

Richard Florida’s latest book, Who’s Your City?, has a lot of interesting ideas. It is a continuation of his work which started with the often quoted, celebrated and vilified Rise of the Creative Class.

In essence, the original book argues that economic greatness in any given place depends on the place’s ability to attract creative people. Creative people like openness, night life, authentic culture and great aesthetics (interesting architecture and grand natural beauty). At the time the original book came out, cities were not focused on these things. Instead they were erecting bigger shopping malls.

To Richard Florida’s credit, ever since the release of Rise of the Creative Class, there has been a big discussion about the quality of life in the places we live, and that this quality does not come from shopping and big business. I think this is true for whatever your passion is, and whatever you do for a living. This is a good discussion to have.

But I have always felt some nagging problem with his approach that I couldn’t quite pull into focus. There seems to be some things that are missing in his big equations. After reading Who’s Your City?, I finally started seeing what they were.

Who’s Your City? shows, through extensive research, that despite first impressions of the global economy, where you live is very important to your happiness and well being. This is a simple idea that seems like common sense. The details springing from this premise are more surprising.

The world has spiky places which are, like ever-growing magnets, attracting more and more creative, innovative people and capital into themselves. This means places like New York City, London, Tokyo and Paris will continue to suck in innovation and capital exponentially, and thus have larger engines to create even more innovation and capital. This also leads to most places outside of these spiky regions to specialize in various industries. Basic examples that you may be familiar with – if you want to be an actor, your chances for making a living at it are very slim unless you are in New York or Los Angeles. If you’re a technology innovator or developer, your greatest success would be found in the San Francisco or Boston areas. There is a lot of interesting detail in this, and if you want to learn more about it I recommend you read the book.

Now for a short break to watch Richard Florida’s appearance on The Colbert Report, because Stephen Colbert sums it up best.

The Gay-Bohemian Index mentioned by Mr. Colbert (“Which may sound like another name for the San Francisco phone book”), which supports some of Florida’s work, sounds like a great endowment of power handed down to anyone who is bohemian, artistic or gay. But in fact, this power to indicate or create new magnetic, economic engines usually benefits people besides the creators, and besides the businesses and families that long lived in the neighborhood before them. Who’s Your City? says

Albert Ratner, cochairman of the board at Forest City Enterprises, one of the biggest real estate companies in the world, likes to remind me that he alone has promoted The Rise of the Creative Class enough to secure its spot on the bestseller list. Another real estate investor once said of my work, “You have provided a map of where to invest.”

Anyone who has lived in a medium sized or larger city for any period of time recognizes a familiar pattern.

A neighborhood is a thriving community. Some type of economic hardship or shift happens in the city, and many neighborhood residents move away quickly. This leaves less sense of community and neighborhood, and as eyes on the street dwindle, crime can rise. At some point, the neighborhood is a shadow of itself, rents are cheap, but the authentic architecture and feeling of community still resonates. So artists and other creative people, who don’t have much money but have a need for space to create in, move to the neighborhood. This creates energy, public artwork (sanctioned or not), new venues to show or perform, and basic renovations. This energy, creativity and center of cultural amenities attracts more people from outside the area to visit and eventually move to. As more people move in, natural supply and demand occurs, causing rent and purchase prices to rise. Larger investors and realtors take note, seeing an opportunity to begin at the ground level, building new condos and luxury apartments. At some point, housing prices become out of reach for the families and businesses that have long been in the neighborhood, and for the artists and bohemians that sparked the neighborhood’s revitalization. They move on to the next neighborhood, or the next city, where the cycle starts again.

King of the Hill covered this in an entire episode, Lady and Gentrification.

Though Richard Florida now speaks to this issue – that a spiky region’s great success often leaves behind a large swath of the population – he doesn’t give it the gravity it deserves. Economic disparities can affect anyone in a region, but the irony is that the families, businesses, non-profits, artists and others who lead the front line of a neighborhood’s revitalization are often the first people to be kicked out by exorbitant housing prices when the fruit of their creative efforts finally appear. The very people that Florida claims are so important to an area’s success often have to move out of the area once that success arrives.

This also applies to businesses that help define an area, and more importantly non-profits. Non-profits find cheap commercial space to grow in, and help a community become a better place. But right when that better arrives, real estate investors buy up the historic building the non-profit lived in, raises their rent by 300%, and off they go to find a new home or shut down completely. This happens time and time again.

So Mr. Florida, how can the people who create so much value, so much aesthetic, creative energy and economic growth benefit from their investments of creativity, and stay where they live to continue helping their neighborhoods and cities grow? Or is it ok that this investment of time, effort, love and creativity in the end only benefits real estate developers and chain restaurants?

Who’s Your City? comes close to diving into this issue. When I read this part of the book, I was on the edge of my seat.

Escalating real estate prices can inhibit innovation. Many forms of innovative and creative activity – whether they are new high-tech businesses, art galleries, or musical groups – require the same thing: cheap space. That’s what Jane Jacobs was getting at when she famously wrote: “New ideas require old buildings.” These spaces, formerly abundant in places like Silicon Valley, San Diego, Cambridge, Massachusetts, and downtown New York City, are where everyone from Steve Jobs to Bob Dylan got their start. Cheap space in these towns is now hard to come by. Several Silicon Valley garages that witnesses high-tech start-ups in the 1990s have been turned into museums. When housing prices rise and buildings are converted into expensive condos or high-end retail shops, venues for fostering creativity disappear…

…They’re forced to move from apartment to apartment as their rentals turn into condos. When creative, productive regions become the province of affluent people who have already made their money (usually elsewhere), the cycle of local wealth building falls apart. At that point, Jacobs once presciently told me, “When a place gets boring, even the rich people leave.”

I have read this section to many friends because it strikes a chord with what we are living with every day. Condos are springing up like ivy, and fewer and fewer people can afford to live here anymore. Or they feel the place is losing it’s vitality and authenticity, as art cars become scarce and BMW’s are more prominent.

Even BMW knows its place in this equation. In this campaign, they appeal to the Creative Class (by name). The thing is most of this class could never afford a BMW, nor could the many other people in the city who help make it tick. This campaign is really aimed at the 2nd wave, wishing to benefit from what the others built.

In the end, what’s left out of these theories, for individuals and communities, is all the stuff that isn’t about money. Regional economic growth and might are the big measurements of success in the creative class model. But how does the majority of the population benefit? Are their lives better? Are they happier and more fulfilled? In many studies, Denmark is often cited as the happiest place on Earth. They are certainly not the biggest economic engine.

And what of human zugunruhe, the desire to move on, and experience something new? What explains some people’s strong desire to quit well paying jobs, giving up money and comfort, to take up teaching, social work or long term travel? It’s definitely not Economics.

This strong human drive for betterment, growth, new experience and beauty is the thing left out of these extensive studies, which ironically focus on the very people who revere these aspects of life most. The reason bohemians mostly do not profit from their action is that profit is not the point. It is instead small accumulating betterment of their own lives and the community around them. This is no different than other people who live in and care about a place. It’s only when other people arrive to try and transform that creativity into profit, causing displacement for the people who were there all along, that an Economic Flag shows up in the study, noting a success, a spiky place.

Why should the benefit and success be measured only when money is made?

Ultimately, it’s much less important what we measure than what we do. Maybe the earlier question should not be directed at Richard Florida at all.

So- bohemians, artists, gays, how can you, who create so much value, so much aesthetic, creative energy and economic growth, benefit from your own investments of creativity, and stay where you live to continue helping your neighborhoods and cities grow? Or is it ok that your investment of time, effort, love and creativity in the end only benefits real estate developers and chain restaurants?

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posted by Trout Monfalco