By Frank Bures
Photo by Garrett MacLean
When Richard Florida’s new book came out earlier this year, I saw some of the reviews and was intrigued. It was called The New Urban Crisis: How Our Cities Are Increasing Inequality, Deepening Segregation, and Failing the Middle Class — and What We Can Do About It. I was interested in the subject. After the 2016 election, who wasn’t?
My interest, however, ran a little deeper than most. Some reviews billed it as Florida’s “mea culpa,” or his “act of penance” for his 2002 book, The Rise of the Creative Class, in which he argued that young, creative workers were the new engines of economic growth and that cities needed to court them in order to prosper. In the beginning, everybody wanted to believe in this “Creative Class” theory. And for a while, so did I. But by 2012 I had serious doubts, and I wrote a critique of Florida’s theory that went viral. Five years later, with the publication of his new book, I wondered if Florida had finally taken my critique to heart.
I didn’t always feel that way. When I first came across Florida’s theory, I myself was a young, creative worker, and I loved the idea that people like myself were economically significant, and that by simply moving to a city we would cause it to flourish. Not long after The Rise of the Creative Class was published, my wife and I moved to Madison, Wisconsin. According to Florida, the city needed us and somehow we were the keys to its future. Yet as a freelance writer, subject to the extreme ebb and flow of income (mostly ebb), I often found myself biking around town, too broke to even afford a cup of coffee. At these times, I wondered: How exactly was I fueling Madison’s economy?
A few years later, after we’d moved to Minneapolis, another Creative Class hub, I decided to give Florida’s ideas a harder look. Why did Portland, Oregon, (awash in creativity, energy and young workers) have such a dismal economy while Madison (sedate, settled, livable) had such a great one? Why did I, as the lynchpin of Madison’s well-being, always feel like such an outsider? According to Creative Class theory, this seemed backwards. I wanted to look at the contradiction with some basic employment data, but once I started pulling the threads, everything unraveled.
In 2012, I published my critique, “The Fall of the Creative Class,” in a new arts and culture magazine called Thirty Two. It ran in the first issue, and I had no idea if anyone would even see it, let alone read it. But almost as soon as it went online the story took off on social media, and traffic started to spike. Pageviews climbed into the hundreds of thousands. This was puzzling, since there had always been critics of Florida’s theory. But for some reason, until then, society had not been ready to listen.
By the time my story came out, 10 years after The Rise of the Creative Class had been published, things were different. For the past decade, people were waiting for their investments in arts and culture districts to pay off like hip slot machines. Millions of dollars had been spent by hard luck towns across the Rust Belt in the hopes that a coffee shop, a bike path and a co-working space would restore their postwar industrial glory. Yet for cities that took Florida’s theory to heart, like Youngstown, Cleveland, or Duluth, the boom never really came.
Millions of dollars had been spent by hard luck towns across the Rust Belt in the hopes that a coffee shop, a bike path and a co-working space would restore their postwar industrial glory. Yet for cities that took Florida’s theory to heart, like Youngstown, Cleveland, or Duluth, the boom never really came.
As the story continued to surge, Florida addressed it in a post on his Atlantic CityLabs blog. At first, I was happy for the dialogue — and also worried that I’d misunderstood something. But as soon as I read his response, I could see I hadn’t. In fact, Florida’s rebuttal was so full of distortions and half-truths I felt compelled to address these in a new article called “Still Falling,” and to restate my original point: Florida was either confusing, or obfuscating, correlation and cause. In one instance, for example, Florida claimed a study showed “that the Creative Class continues to have a substantial effect on regional economic growth” and that it “found the Creative Class to have a strong positive effect on regional earnings as well as to lessen unemployment especially since the crisis.”
I contacted the study’s author, who said it represented a single point in time, and didn’t discuss the movement of creative workers. So here again, there was no way to tell if the Creative Class was the effect or the cause. And there was little solid evidence that they were the cause.
This kind of debate was tedious and time-consuming, but I was happy to do it. At the time, I’d spent months immersed in Florida’s ideas, and was confident of my grasp. Besides, shortly after my story ran, a series of critiques (by Enrico Moretti, Thomas Frank, Ian David Moss, Alec MacGillis, and others) came out. It seemed like perhaps the fall of the Creative Class was nearly complete.
Time passed. The furor died down. Thirty Two printed its last issue and some months later its domain lapsed. (Further proof, I suppose, that creativity is fueled by capital as often as the reverse.) As for Florida, when he finally reemerged this year with The New Urban Crisis, considering our history, I felt obliged to read.
As with his previous books, The New Urban Crisis is written in the breezy tone of a cab ride with Thomas Friedman. Its shade, however, is darker than any we have seen from Florida. As noted in the title, its premise is that we have growing inequality in cities, something that he only saw after the 2012 tidal wave of criticism.
“Although some of the more personal attacks stung,” Florida writes, “this criticism provoked my thinking in ways I could never have anticipated, causing me to reframe my ideas about cities and the forces that act on them. … Slowly but surely, my understanding of cities started to evolve. I realized I had been overly optimistic to believe that cities and the creative class could, by themselves, bring forth a better and more inclusive kind of urbanism.”
Learning about the existence of divisions in our cities was a revelation to Florida, if not to anyone else. As Daniel Brook noted in The Baffler, “To sense that American cities were becoming more unequal only took a pair of walking shoes and eyes unshielded by rose-tinted hipster glasses. … It is as if these problems didn’t exist until the moment Florida discovered them.”
But discover them he did, and this caused a change of heart. “I got wrong,” Florida told a crowd at a 2016 appearance in Houston, “that the creative class could magically restore our cities, become a new middle class like my father’s, and we were going to live happily forever after. … I could not have anticipated among all this urban growth and revival that there was a dark side to the urban creative revolution, a very deep dark side.”
As with his previous books, The New Urban Crisis is written in the breezy tone of a cab ride with Thomas Friedman. It’s shade, however, is darker than any we have seen from Florida.
Intellectual flexibility is not something I would hold against anyone. We should all be able to change our minds. But the fact that Florida’s alleged mea culpa came only after his thorough public drubbing gives me pause. And so do many parts of The New Urban Crisis.
“But even as I was documenting these new divides,” he writes, “I had no idea how fast they would metastasize, or how deeply polarized these cities would become. In little more than a decade, the revitalization of our cities and our urban areas that I had predicted was giving rise to rampant gentrification and unaffordability, driving deep wedges between affluent newcomers and struggling longtime residents.” [italics mine]
To be fair, even economists fail to predict things like recessions and booms. But given Florida’s record for prediction, this oversight doesn’t look great. Then again, maybe it’s not actually an oversight, but a recasting of inconvenient facts. In the past, critics of The Rise of the Creative Class argued that Florida was just relabeling gentrification as growth. Now, it could be argued, Florida is simply re-relabeling gentrification as decay.
When The New Urban Crisis was first published, much of the criticism focused on this shift from elitist cheerleader to urban grim reaper. But there is another, deeper criticism that was absent. It goes back to the question of whether the Creative Class drove growth in the first place, which I and others argued it did not.
In The New Urban Crisis, Florida continues to argue that it did. In fact, he says, not only did it drive growth, it drove so much growth that it divided our cities and gave rise to gentrification, not that it was gentrification. In a way, this seems like Florida wants to take credit for the crisis, or at least to insert his old theory into the chain of events that lead to it, by claiming that the “urban creative revolution,” which he predicted, caused the current crisis.
As he makes clear, The New Urban Crisis is no mea culpa. “I will not apologize.” Florida told The Guardian. “I do not regret anything.” This is correct. A true mea culpa would be an admission that the Creative Class had no measurable, or even plausible, impact on growth. A true mea culpa would be an admission that much of his high-priced consulting was based on badly defined terms, loose correlations and thinly constructed narratives. A true mea culpa might even include a cautionary note about the dangers of monetizing scholarship: Once you start making a small fortune off a tenuous idea, it becomes hard to admit that idea was wrong.
Having seen firsthand how pliable data can be in Florida’s hands, it’s hard for me to know how to read much of The New Urban Crisis. It’s filled with a new round of dubious “indexes” (the Global Creativity Index, the New Urban Crisis Index, the Superstar City Index) and freshly-minted terms, like “winner-take-all urbanism,” “Patchwork Metropolis,” and “New Urban Crisis,” which Florida capitalizes throughout the book. (In a deft sleight of hand, the “creative class” has been demoted to lowercase.)
The fact that Florida refuses to admit to any mistake greater than optimism makes it hard not to feel like the real point of The New Urban Crisis isn’t to address an urban crisis so much as a reputational one. I think we can all agree there is a crisis in our cities, and our country, but it is neither new, nor should it be trademarked.
A true mea culpa would be an admission that the Creative Class had no measurable, or even plausible, impact on growth.
The solutions Florida puts forward are not terrible. They include things like investing in high speed rail, funding affordable rentals, negative income tax, setting a minimum wage at 50 percent of prevailing local median wage, and transforming the Department of Housing and Urban Development into the Department of Cities and Urban Development. (The last was discarded in a post-Trump revision.)
These are big, government-led initiatives, which is a major shift (or evolution) from Florida’s deregulatory roots. Paradoxically, however, he also states that the problem facing cities is the “nation state” and that federal power should revert back to cities and mayors. That would be fine, except that mayors don’t have nearly the power or money needed to implement the fixes he proposes.
It’s hard to know where this leaves us. And maybe that doesn’t matter, because none of these solutions will be enacted any time soon, given the cultural and political landscape, to which Florida seems blind. In the end it may be best to look for solutions to our urban and other crises from thinkers and writers who are at least as concerned about our cities, our divisions and our future as about their brand.
Banner photo, by Garrett MacLean: Two members of the creative class living in Detroit