In the first issue of the Twin Cities’ new magazine, Thirty Two (a nod to Minnesota’s entry into the Union as the 32nd state), an award-winning travel writer named Frank Bures has written a rather long takedown of Richard Florida’s Creative Class theory of urban revitalization.
Bures’ critical assessment arises from the decision that he and his wife made in the mid-1990s to move from Portland, Ore., to Madison, Wisc., in part because they were ready to have kids and wanted to be closer to their families, and in part because Richard Florida had deemed Madison a “Creative Class” stronghold.
“Florida’s idea was a nice one,” Bures writes: “Young, innovative people move to places that are open and hip and tolerant. They, in turn, generate economic innovation. I loved this idea because, as a freelance writer, it made me important. I was poor, but somehow I made everyone else rich!”
Bures gives Madison a rather harsh lashing, calling it “a giant suburb with a university in the middle,” and tells stories about his odd assortment of obese and brain-damaged neighbors (which will win him no fans among locals), as a prelude to how the city failed to live up to his expectations as some kind of creative hotbed whose economy was powered by “independent, post-industrial workers.”
Cue Florida’s longtime critics, including Jamie Peck, a geography professor at the University of British Columbia, who has written that Florida’s book, The Rise of the Creative Class, was filled with “self-indulgent forms of amateur microsociology and crass celebrations of hipster embourgeoisement.” Writes Bures: “That’s another way of saying that Florida was just describing the ‘hipsterization’ of wealthy cities and concluding that this was what was causing those cities to be wealthy. As some critics have pointed out, that’s a little like saying that the high number of hot dog vendors in New York City is what’s causing the presence of so many investment bankers.”
Bures marshalls a host of studies that have cast doubt on, if not debunked, Florida’s theory, the most recent of which is a large study finished this spring and authored by Mel Gray, who teaches economics at the University of St. Thomas. Gray assembled data for 15 cities between 1969 and 2006 to determine whether spending on the arts caused economic growth. “Gray found that spending on the arts caused economic growth in four of the fifteen metro areas,” write Bures: “New York City, Atlanta, Dallas, and Minneapolis-St. Paul. In New York, the growth impact was short term, dissipating after four years. In Atlanta, it was longer term, appearing only after eight years. In both Dallas and the Twin Cities, the effect was short and long term.”
Says Gray, “I’m tempted to acknowledge that we’ve been successful in the Twin Cities with our strong arts community. But I don’t think you can just recreate that by changing budget allocations in another city. There’s more to it than that. Fostering the creative environment may pay off. But there are so many other factors that it’s not clear there is a guaranteed payoff.”
As Bures notes, economists have long placed more credence in “Human Capital Theory,” which argues that a college-educated workforce is what drives economic growth. Bures’ story is especially relevant at the moment given that Florida has been touting “The Rise of Detroit” on The Atlantic Cities website. The emergence of a creative class in Detroit is certainly a good thing, but the coverage of it has inspired a certain degree of consternation among locals, who don’t see why a new coffee shop merits a New York Times feature, while other entrepreneurs are busy trying to revive the city’s manufacturing core, and while some area activists have spent decades working with local economic development corporations to rejuvenate city neighborhoods such as Midtown. Those efforts may not fall under the rubric of rust belt chic, but they've been vital to helping pockets of rebirth coalesce in the Motor City.