By Anand Bhat.
When Leslie Cochran, the most famous homeless man in Austin, Texas, died last year, the city, whose unofficial slogan was “Keep Austin Weird,” became a little less weird and quite a bit more square. Cochran, the icon for “weird” Austin, ran for mayor every election and crashed on the street in front of my apartment. He cross-dressed; he wore pink thongs. And his obituary ran in the New York Times.
That New York Times obituary may have been final blow for Austin’s reputation. When the New York-Hollywood media set starts to notice a fun place, they’re liable to suck all the coolness out; at a minimum, they’ll wrap a velvet rope around it and start charging for entry.
Richard Florida, an urban studies professor, preached a vision for transforming more urban areas into “weird” cities like Austin. His theory was that cities needed to recruit what he called “the Creative Class” to Rust Belt cities like Pittsburgh, where Florida used to teach at Carnegie Mellon University. The Creative Class, he argued, would bring the new economy to these cities. They would work in industries that require thinking, creativity and high levels of formal education. And they would make those cities cool.
A city is cool, according to Florida, when it combines diversity, tolerance, outdoor activities, arts, nightlife, and walkability. You need gays and rock bands, as it were, for your town to attract workers with the high social capital and job skills regions need to grow.
What has the Creative Class done for America’s cities? It has made them more monochromatic and less middle-class.Austin was the example Florida pointed to: it was already intrinsically the coolest when Florida first articulated his Creative Class theory in 2002 (second only to San Francisco). That reputation had been built in the 1970s when cheap pot, rent, and beer brought the music scene it is known for today.
Florida’s book made a huge splash amongst policymakers and the media when it was published in 2002. He turned his book into a consulting company and then abandoned Pittsburgh for the University of Toronto.
Over a decade later, what has the Creative Class done for America’s cities? It has made them more monochromatic and less middle-class. In 2005, Joel Kotkin pointed out that San Francisco (Florida’s #1 example) had become an ephemeral city with no middle class, children, or jobs. It had transformed itself into an entertainment and eating center, an adult Disneyland created by driving up the rent and pushing minorities and the middle class out.
Florida has since admitted the theory of the Creative Class only benefits the Creative Class. And statistics bear this out: Austin is the only city in Texas that has become less diverse and more white over the past ten years. East Austin (historically a Mexican-American neighborhood) is one of the most rapidly gentrifying neighborhoods in the United States.
Last year, I moved from Austin to Cleveland. In my brief time here, I see both the promise and peril of a re-imagined Rust Belt city. Downtown apartments are scarce, but foreclosed homes are plentiful. But I am hopeful Cleveland will avoid Austin’s fate because it differs from every other city I have lived in. It has unity and community, something missing in Richard Florida’s other ephemeral cities.
Cleveland has authenticity. It has people who root for the home team and are loyal until the end, no matter how awful the team plays.
Focusing on a narrow sliver of the population to save Cleveland will not work.Events, food drives and public celebrations are happenings for the whole city. Cleveland has farmers’ markets that accept food stamps and urban agriculture in the projects. It has the magic of being able to walk around the Taste of Tremont or Wade Oval Wednesdays with whites and blacks getting along and the old and young gathering as a complete community. I have not heard the disdainful glances or suspicious mutterings about “other people” I heard in the South. Events in town grow organically and naturally in a unique way from the neighborhoods they are based in.
Let’s hope Cleveland doesn’t become the next victim of the Creative Class. I am not saying that tolerance, arts, walkability, and creativity suck. All cities need these assets. The New Urbanism movement of re-creating lost spaces and planning development with the environment in mind has improved nearly every American city. But focusing on a narrow sliver of the population to save Cleveland will not work. And the side effects of attracting wealthy outsiders here may just make life more unpleasant, and the rent much higher, for the poorest in our city.
Cool costs too much. It costs personality and pushes out locals for out-of-towners obsessed with “the local thing to do” while the actual markers of local flavor pass away to make room for placeless markers of upscale “cosmopolitan” urbanity. You know, the weird stuff, like a pink thong-wearing homeless mayoral candidate.
True Austinites swore to never let their town turn into Dallas, but that did not stop the city from subsidizing a mall with a Neiman Marcus. Focusing on the city’s fundamentals and authentic flavor and independent businesses was how it became cool. And it is how Cleveland will revive as well. Revitalizing a city with dramatic top-down gestures may attract attention, but bottom-up community will attract people. Maybe the next time the New York Times writes about how cool Cleveland is, we should cheer a bit less. More character, more weird, and less cool is the prescription we should seek.
Anand Bhat works as an internal medicine resident at MetroHealth Medical Center in Cleveland.