Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Richard Florida, Globalism, and Coals to Newcastle

There was a time when I thought Richard Florida's idea of the Creative Class would be good for all us artists. Suddenly, towns across America would recognize how important the arts are to luring these apparently desirable Creatives to their town, and Creatives equals Prosperity. Over at "Butts in the Seats," Joe details what Florida has been up to of late in a post entitled "Are You Living Where You Should Be?" Florida has ranked various American cities according to the various criteria that he has identified as being desirable for the members of the Creative Class, divided according to what age they are.

What makes me less enthusiastic about Florida's work is that it encourages the same kind of thinking that is the foundation of gated communities: the desire to surround yourself with people who are pretty much just like you. While I have been known to express a personal dislike of Nylachi on this blog every once in a while (ahem), there is at least one thing that I appreciate about those places: diversity. From what little know about biological systems, as I understand it biological diversity is absolutely critical for the health of the ecosphere. I would venture to say that the same is true of the human community in a democracy -- it benefits from diverse viewpoints and life experiences.

When Joe makes the next logical step, I start thinking "coals to Newcastle." This is the kind of thinking -- which is totally logical, indeed extremely smart -- that leads to the increasing centralization of our arts world:
I suspect the place finder might even be help people focus their thinking when they consider founding an arts organization. (Maybe the NEA or Americans for the Arts should adopt a similar tool specifically for the arts.) Even without his book being published, I don't think I would be suggesting anything earth shattering were I to say that founding an arts organization that doesn't resonate with the underlying vibe of a community is a bad idea and probably destined to result in one muttering about philistines. If communities can target the wrong group of creatives, creatives can certainly target the wrong communities.
Now, I would agree that if you go into the "wrong community" with a missionary zeal to teach them natives the Right Way to look at things, then the result might be exactly what Joe describes. But if you arrive with an open mind and the confidence to listen as well as speak, in other words if you arrive with a desire to become part of the community -- well, you might just discover a richness of experience that would far surpass that of living in a Creative Class echo chamber.

I also worry about the effects on the non-urban, non-"cool" parts of the country. When I went to Amazon to take a look at Florida's latest book entitled Who's Your City: How the Creative Economy is Making Where to Live the Most Important Decision of Your Life (as if this was a new discovery), I was told that people who bought Florida's book also bought Richard C. Longworth's Caught in the Middle: America's Heartland in the Age of Globalism, which I was offered as a package with Florida's book.

The reviewer for Publisher's Weekly had this to say about Longworth's book:
Ex–Chicago Tribune correspondent Longworth (Global Squeeze) paints a bleak, evocative portrait of the Midwest's losing struggle with foreign competition and capitalist gigantism. It's a landscape of shuttered factories, desperate laid-off workers, family farms gobbled up by agribusiness, once great cities like Detroit and Cleveland now in ruins, small towns devolved into depopulated rural slums haunted by pensioners and meth-heads. But the harshest element of the book is Longworth's own pitiless ideology of globalism. In his telling, Midwesterners are sluggish, unskilled, risk-averse mediocrities, clinging to obsolete industrial-age dreams of job security, allergic to change, indifferent to education and totally unfit for the global age. They are doomed because global competition is unstoppable, says Longworth, who dismisses the idea of trade barriers as simplistic nonsense purveyed by conspiracy theorists. The silver linings Longworth floats—biotechnology, proposals for regional cooperation—are meager and iffy. The Midwest's real hope, he insists, lies in a massive influx of mostly low-wage immigrant workers and in enclaves of the rich and brainy, like Chicago and Ann Arbor, where the creative class sells nebulous information solutions to dropouts and Ph.D.s. It's not the Middle West that's under siege in Longworth's telling; it's the now apparently quaint notion of a middle class.
At some point, I think we, as a country, as a society, have to ask ourselves whether the goal is to create a brain drain from the country to the city. Whether the kind of intelligence necessary to grow our food without killing our environment can exist if all the creative thinkers have been lured to Florida's hip urban enclaves. I think eventually we have to ask ourselves whether the constant uprooting and scattering of families all over the country in response to globalism's decimation of local industries is good for our country, and whether our assumption as a society that the best way to confront this decimation is to retrain the workforce into white-collared "knowledge workers" instead of maintaining an economic system in which a person can make a stable, reasonable living by the sweat of his brow is really sustainable or desirable.

And as artists, we need to ask ourselves whether the Shiny, Happy People that we feel most comfortable really need another theatre, and whether those "rust belt" survivors deserve one. I'd answer, respectively, no and yes. We need to go back to the values of the 1930s, when the artists saw themselves as on the side of the workers, instead of seeing ourselves as the lapdogs of the rich.


Anonymous said...


When I started to write those lines about founding an arts organization in a community that doesn't have at least a latent alignment with your goals, I was going in a slightly different direction.

Then I caught myself and considered that it is irresponsible for arts organizations, the non-profit ones at least, not to operate in a way that serves their community in some way.

You seem to be of a similar mind. The question I have for you though is that if you go to a place with an open mind with a desire to become part of the community, how is that much different from what Florida is talking about?

I don't think he is necessarily promoting an echo chamber with his books. The way I read what little I have is that communities have a certain character on a macro-level. There is always an artistic/bohemian, etc. area in any city of size. However, this area in Oklahoma City, OK is not equal to the same area in Philadelphia, PA but rather reflects what each city will tolerate of their artists. As I understand Florida, he is saying the artists of Oklahoma City will have absorbed the more conservative vibe of their city.

It would be no surprise to most people to learn stuff that flies in Philly might not be embraced in Oklahoma. But none of that is an impediment to you making something beautiful in Oklahoma City if you are indeed approaching it with an open mind. You just aren't going to be doing Oh Calcutta. (Though you probably don't want to see that too often in Philly either.)

The underlying problem I have had with Florida's books are the people who read them and think their cities will flourish if they plant creatives and water. I would be much happier if they were at least looking at their strong points and deciding to attract the married creatives over 40 rather than the young, singles who will find themselves uncomfortable in a place with a more settled vibe.

Scott Walters said...

Joe -- I think my discomfort comes from the idea of artists using Florida's ideas to find the place where they will be most "comfortable," which to me means "the most like me." I think the arts benefit from a greater diversity of ideas, and from the dynamism of trying to connect to people who are different from you, and they trying to do the same. I also fear that Florida's work will strengthen centralization, as artists seek out those cities deemed most "open to experience," for instance. I want theatre spread across the country, not clumped like wet glitter in a few areas.

I share your discomfort with the "just add Creatives and grow" mentality -- although I do see the possibility that it reflects a real recognition that not enough effort has been made to encourage and support artistic endeavors, and that would be a good thing. But if it is done crassly, its doomed.

Tom Christoffel said...

A link to this post will be in the April 2, 2008 issue of Regional Community Development News. It will be on-line April 3 at Please visit, check the tools and consider a link. Tom

Anonymous said...

Hi, I had been meaning to respond earlier and am only getting to it now. At this point, I'll just post a quick response and a link to a related article.

It seems to me that your concerns about what Florida is encouraging and those implications are naturally occurring anyway. For example, my understanding is that your main concern is centralization of artists to an exclusive set of areas, but doesn't that concentration already occur? Don't aspiring movie stars all go to Hollywood, or country stars to Nashville, etc? To me, this has always been the case, and you can look back centuries before to the times when artists all migrated to Vienna or Paris.

Concurrent to that is your concern about America's brain drain where the country is being abandoned for the city, but that's happening anyway and has been for awhile. In fact, just in the past year or two, it was acknowledged that the majority of the world's population now lives in an urban setting versus rural. This is the natural result of a longterm trend that is greater than any impact Florida has.

The following link is to an article about efforts in Detroit to attract more creatives to live and work in the city:

Scott Walters said...

Darren -- I believe we create reality, and we do so every day through our actions. And so stating that something "is already happening" does not negate that something shouldn't be happening, and that it should be resisted, not endorsed. The increasing urbanization of the world is not a trend that I support, nor is it a trend that I feel is positive for the world. Similarly, I don't believe that the centralization of the arts -- particularly the LIVE arts (as opposed to the mass media) -- is a good thing, either, and I have committed my energies to devising a way of providing theatre in the REST of America.