Consequences of the Creative Class

Review: 'The New Urban Crisis' by Richard Florida

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• September 9, 2017 5:00 am

It’s tempting to mock Richard Florida: the hipster urbanist with the hipster name, the new day’s heir to yesterday’s Jane Jacobs. In 2002, he wrote a book that just everyone with an ounce of hipness bought and read—a book about how hipsters were saving the nation’s cities. And now, 15 years older and not quite as hip anymore, he’s written a follow-up that says, in essence, whoops.

But the temptation to mock Florida for his change of heart should be resisted. Over the past decade, his writing has shown a growing worry about the condition of urban America, a growing unease with the thesis he put in The Rise of the Creative Class. With his latest volume, The New Urban Crisis, he comes as close to repudiation of his 2002 work as he can manage without believing he was actually mistaken about the central point.

In The Rise of the Creative Class, Florida argued that members of the creative class were moving into the hollow core of America’s cities and thereby revitalizing urban life from the inside out. Under the slightly peculiar rubric of "creative," he linked everyone from artists to computer programmers, investment bankers, and college professors—basically everyone who was relatively young, possessed youth’s pretense of hipness, and didn’t fit into any of the old categories of industrial employment.

His thesis was that the cities thrive when these creative types are allowed to build the creative economy. Their tolerance for alternative lifestyles and their acceptance of unconventional housing broke down the rigidity that had almost killed urban life in the collapse of manufacturing. As he looked at Boston, New York, and San Francisco, he saw a creative economy that fed upon itself to fill the gaps at the city center, establishing the funky restaurants, interesting office space, and bohemian apartments that drew yet more young creatives to the city and encouraged new investment. The old built environment of these cities was being transformed into a reused architecture that made their urban centers flourish.

The description of what was happening in his chosen cities quickly issued in a recommendation for every other city, from Bangor to San Diego: Get hip. Repurpose your existing architecture in ways that the creative class will appreciate. Don’t try to make downtown an alternative to the dying suburban mall; make downtown a run of attractive cafés, bars, dance clubs, and specialty shops. Draw in the creatives, and the whole city will enjoy an economic boom.

Boise, Idaho, for example, is still working from the Richard Florida playbook when it assures visitors to its official webpage that it has "an independence and creative spirit." And in the attempt to release the magic that The Rise of the Creative Class claimed to have bottled, mayors and city councils across North America and Europe designated bike lanes, blocked off traffic on city streets to turn them into pedestrian havens, and used tax breaks to lure in art galleries and mini-Broadway theaters. They made big investments in municipal museums and the kinds of public spaces that the post-industrial upper-middle-class likes—in the hope of attracting even more members of the post-industrial upper-middle-class.

Unheard was the old warning, Be careful what you wish for. Or, in St. Teresa of Avila’s version, More tears are shed because of answered prayers than because of unanswered prayers. Many of the second-tier cities that tried to use the creative-class model found that they couldn’t attract enough members of that class for Florida’s synergistic fusion-reactor to become self-sustaining. Even worse, in many ways, was the fate of the cities that did become Florida’s kind of hipster paradise.

The rise of the creative class in such cities as New York, Washington, and San Francisco did produce economic growth—but mostly just for those who were already wealthy. The poor, and especially the working class poor, were right out of luck. They were priced out of the city and driven out to the suburbs, where they created the kind of urban problems known only to the cities. The modern city is the greatest economic engine the world has ever known, but these days it seems to run only for the aid of those who need its benefits least. When the rich, the young, and the bohemian revitalized Austin, Boston, and Seattle, they induced a cycle of soaring prices and class replacement. The creative class brought an income inequality that hadn’t been predicted. Florida could call them a new class all he wanted. They proved to be merely the children of the old white-collar meritocracy, grown doubly rich from the rising tide of urban renewal.

So, in The New Urban Crisis, Richard Florida takes a long second look at the nation’s cities. He doesn’t admit that he had been wrong in 2002 with The Rise of the Creative Class, mostly because he doesn’t think he was wrong. The city progressed just the way he described. But what he has called the "externalities" have mounted to such an extent that they now outweigh the gains he saw 15 years ago. The creative class triumphed, and his prize cities have turned into wealth preserves—the old gated communities of the suburbs, transplanted to the urban core.

"Just when it seemed that our cities were really turning a corner, when people and jobs were moving back to them," Florida writes, "a host of new urban challenges—from rising inequality to increasingly unaffordable housing and more—started to come to the fore. Seemingly overnight, the much-hoped-for urban revival has turned into a new kind of urban crisis." Along the way, the past decade has seen a concomitant move of the old pathologies of the cities to new settings in the suburbs. Drugs and gangs now terrorize the outsides of the great cities rather than the insides. Indeed, "much more than a crisis of cities," he explains, "the New Urban Crisis is the central crisis of our time."

The New Urban Crisis doesn’t provide much in the way of future planning. Florida urges cities to make more housing affordable for the working class, but he doesn’t really suggest how to accomplish that. He notes that investment in infrastructure would both strengthen the urban fabric and provide employment for the noncreative blue-collar class, which may well be true, but where are the members of that class to be found, driven out of their old neighborhoods? He wants us to "empower communities and enable local leaders to strengthen their own economies," with little more than that gooey pious wish to guide us.

Fifteen years ago, Richard Florida was the sharpest-eyed observer of what was happening in America’s cities—but he was blind to what would soon follow. Now, he’s still the sharpest-eyed observer of what was happening in America’s cities—and still blind to what will follow. At least this time, however, he admits it, and the nation’s greatest urban cheerleader has joined the ranks of the nation’s greatest urban naysayers. When even a natural optimist like Richard Florida becomes a pessimist, it’s a sign of how bad things are.