The road to riches?

Richard Florida has built a thriving career on the theory that the
"creative class" drives urban economic growth. But critics
increasingly say his ideas just don't add up.
By Christopher Shea, 2/29/2004 - The Boston Globe

THE ECONOMY MAY have been flat for the last two years, but
Richard Florida is soaring. The Carnegie Mellon business
professor's 2002 book "The Rise of the Creative Class" connected
with something in the public psyche. It heralded the arrival of a
new breed of American worker: educated, ambitious, hip,
probably a mountain biker, ready to dump a job whenever hit
with the slightest urge for a "life shift." These workers differ
from the old Organization Man in many ways, but this difference
is crucial: Creative-class members want not just decent jobs and
good schools but "authentic" neighborhoods, Thai food, a
happening arts scene, and -- most importantly -- proximity to
other "creatives."

Florida's jaunty New Economy tome, a bestseller, set in motion
his thriving career as an urban-development guru. Even in the
post-boom era, civic leaders are seizing on the argument that they
need to compete not with plain old tax breaks and redevelopment
schemes, but on the playing fields of what Florida calls "the three
T's: Technology, Talent, Tolerance."

The mayor of Denver announced last fall that he'd bought copies
of "The Rise of the Creative Class" for his staff and, inspired by
his reading, engaged an $80,000-a-year public-relations expert to
"rebrand" the city as a more creative metropolis. After perusing
the book, Michigan governor Jennifer M. Granholm put on a pair
of sunglasses and boasted that, thanks to Florida's ideas,
Detroit,Dearborn, and Grand Rapids would soon be "so cool
you'll have to wear shades." She has asked the mayors of 250
Michigan cities and towns to form "Cool Cities" advisory boards
to brainstorm about hipsterization strategies. Additionally,
Michigan is spreading seed money to startups in the life sciences,
high-tech automotives, and homeland security.

Florida consults with Granholm free of charge, but he gives about
50 paid speeches a year and also owns a consulting company,
Catalytix, that has helped Providence, R.I., measure its "brain
drain" and is now assisting upstate New York with a
revitalization plan. (Some suggestions: Promote outdoor sports,
create "support mechanisms" for artists, and have local families
"adopt college students" so they'll stay in the area after
graduation.) Last spring, he appeared with leaders of
Massachusetts arts groups at a two-day conference in
Framingham aimed at making the case for increased state arts
funding as an engine of economic growth. Last month, he met
with Hillary Clinton's staff to discuss the upstate New York plan.

Now, just as the paperback of "The Rise of the Creative Class" is
appearing in bookstores, Florida is internationalizing his
argument. In the current Washington Monthly, he argues that
places like Brussels, Sydney, Wellington (think "Lord of the
Rings"), and Dublin are giving American creative-tech centers a
run for their money by hustling for mobile intellectual talent.
Meanwhile, he writes, the Bush administration threatens to touch
off a "creative class war" with innovation-busting policies like
the ban on stem-cell research and increased scrutiny of foreign
graduate students.

At the same time, an anti-Florida tsunami is gaining momentum.
A growing number of urban-policy commentators question his
advice that mayors concentrate on luring "singles, young people,
homosexuals, sophistos, and trendoids," as Joel Kotkin, a
journalist and professor of public policy at Pepperdine
University, put it in the magazine American Enterprise last

Florida is taking political hits from the right and the left -- and
battling back on his lavish website, "There is
just one problem: The basic economics behind [Florida's] ideas
don't work," writes Steven Malanga in the Winter 2004 issue of
the conservative City Journal. And in the latest issue of the
waggish leftist journal the Baffler, based in Chicago, writer Paul
Maliszewski calls Florida's city-revitalization theory "so wrong
and backward that it reads like satire." Florida has "mistaken the
side effects of a booming economy," he writes, "for the causes of
growth." After all, "Potemkin bohemias" are not going to get old
steel cities humming again.

Pepperdine's Joel Kotkin, who runs his own consulting business,
says he first had his doubts about Florida's work when he read a
Florida paper yoking together the Bay Area's gay-friendliness
with its success as a tech incubator. "I started to think, `San Jose
is 40 miles from San Francisco and those are really different
worlds,"' he says.

Then Kotkin was startled when the leaders of gray Midwestern
cities began to ask him for advice on how to lure 25-year-old gay
college graduates to their regions. "I'd say, `What do you mean?
You don't have a snowball's chance in hell.' " Furthermore,
Kotkin dismisses Florida's idea of a 38-million-strong "creative
class" -- some 30 percent of the US working population -- that
lumps together everyone from ballerinas to software coders to
accountants. "I don't see how they are more creative than
bricklayers," he says.

In publications ranging from Metropolis to Blueprint, the
magazine of the Democratic Leadership Council, Kotkin has
been arguing that right now workers and businesses -- including
tech firms -- are more interested in affordable housing and labor
costs than they are in the availability of lattes. Besides, he argues,
tech people actually *like the suburbs.

Kotkin also takes issue with Florida's metrics. According to
Florida, for example, San Francisco (#2), Boston (#4), and
Portland (#6) are all among America's most creative cities -- past
and future powerhouses. But in the current issue of Inc.
Magazine, Kotkin presents a list of the "10 Worst Metro Areas"
in which to do business, which uses a more blunt measure: job
creation in 2003. Boston, New York, and San Francisco, in this
view, are the "lost bubble children of the 1990s": pricey and
overreliant on tech.

The top big-city job creators last year, meanwhile, were Atlanta,
Riverside-San Bernardino, Las Vegas, San Antonio, and West
Palm Beach -- none of which are superstars according to Florida.
Kotkin is especially hot on Riverside-San Bernardino,
California's "Inland Empire" -- a hipster urbanite's idea of
sprawling hell on earth, but one which has attracted some
660,000 new residents since 1990.

In his City Journal article, Stephen Malanga adds some fresh
attacks on Florida's statistics. Florida's list is self-contradictory,
he argues: The Top 10 creative large cities increased their jobs
base by 17 percent over the past decade, while his 10 worst (a
roster of shame that includes Oklahoma City, New Orleans, Las
Vegas, and Memphis) grew by 19 percent. The best remedies for
downcast cities, Malanga argues, are the good old conservative
ones: Cut taxes and slash onerous regulations.

But Florida sticks to his guns in the face of these critiques,
arguing that his ideas sit squarely in the economic mainstream.
He points to a long line of respectable research -- by the Nobel
Prize-winning economist Robert Lucas and the Harvard
sociologist Daniel Bell, among others--citing the rising
importance of "human capital" as America de-industrializes.
Some cities may bind businesses in excessive red tape, but in the
end American cities can't compete -- among themselves, or
worldwide -- on cost alone. "Why does New York have to play
the same role in the world economy as Bangalore, or Oklahoma
City?" he asks.

As for Kotkin's alternate list of hot spots, Florida says: "I will
take any day Boston and San Francisco and New York over Las
Vegas and Des Moines and the rest of Joel's cities." The latter
group, he points out, just end up manufacturing and distributing
what the more "creative" cities have invented.

Can hard numbers resolve this debate? According to Harvard
economist Edward Glaeser, there are grains of truth -- and great
dollops of hype -- in both Florida's and Kotkin's views. Florida is
onto something -- but only in the industrial Midwest and East,
where "skills are close to destiny," he thinks. (He defines skills
largely as a college degree, without all the extras Florida adds.)
College-educated workers, he points out, helped Boston reinvent
itself after factories were shuttered.

But nationally, Glaeser believes other factors are driving growth:
People want to live in sunny, dry climates and -- to the horror of
smart-growth advocates everywhere -- they actually like car-
centered cities. In place of Florida's "Technology, Talent,
Tolerance," Glaeser proposes a different recipe: "Skills, Sun,

The most biting attack on Florida comes, ironically, on class
grounds. When Pittsburgh razes an old factory, the Baffler's Paul
Maliszewski charges, Richard Florida gets teary over the loss of
future loft apartments, while the steelworkers who've lost their
jobs over the last quarter-century are acknowledged "only in
passing and as statistics." In Florida's new utopia, the working
class exists only to "serve the creatives, cleaning up their mess."
In a C-SPAN exchange acidly described by Maliszewski,
entrepreneurs with "idle minds and comfortable bodies" whine to
Florida that unions and taxes are hampering their deep creative

Florida, who has posted a lengthy rebuttal to the Baffler on his
website, calls this attack "really weird." He says he is constantly
telling city fathers that they need to harness the creative power of
all their citizens, rich and poor. "What we have to do is open up
membership in the creative class to a much greater group of
people," he says, until it eventually includes "everyone."

So schools need to get better, for starters. Admittedly, that's not
quite as catchy as the soundbites Florida was generating two
years ago, but at least it's one even squares can get behind.