The Limits of the Creative Class

Joel Kotkin

In a blog post on “New Geography,” Joel Kotkin unloads with both barrels on Richard Florida and the ailing cities that paid him big consulting fees to help reinvent themselves — for the most part unsuccessfully — as “hip and cool” places appealing to the creative class.

Kotkin’s riff was inspired, apparently, by a recent concession by Florida that building amenities that appeal to creative-class professionals does little to help less affluent sectors of the population. Hip places like San Francisco, Manhattan and Washington, D.C., have among the most extreme disparities of income in the country, Kotkin says. And, while creatives supposedly worship ethnic diversity, hip cities like San Francisco, Portland and Seattle are getting whiter, not more diverse.

Writes Kotkin: “To be sure, the leading “creative class” cities have much to recommend them, and some of them, such as Portland and Boston, have registered impressive rises in their per capita income in recent years. But over the past decade, most “cool cities” have not been enjoying particularly strong employment or population growth; in the last decade, the populations of cities like Charlotte, Houston, Atlanta, and Nashville grew by 20 percent or more, at least four times as rapidly as New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, or Chicago. This trend toward less dense, more affordable cities is as evident in the most recent census numbers than a decade.”

Kotkin scores some hits but leaves Florida’s core tenets standing: Creative-class professions accounting for roughly 30% of the workforce account for a disproportionately large share of scientific, artistic and entrepreneurial innovation. Regions that attract these creatives tend to create more wealth and have higher incomes than those that don’t. (Wealth disparities are the inevitable byproduct of the fact that wealth creation is an uneven process. Florida has long acknowledged that fact, unlike many liberals who see wealth disparities as a social injustice.)

Appropriating (or misappropriating) Florida’s ideas, many cities have tried and failed to reinvent themselves as creative-class magnets through public investment in urban redevelopment, building bike paths, subsidizing the arts — following a politically liberal template. The question that Kotkin doesn’t address is whether many of these cities were doomed to failure anyway. Profligate spending on public programs for the creative class, I would argue, is closely correlated with profligate spending on other things. The spending, and the higher taxes, unfunded pension liabilities and other ills associated with the Blue State model, may have been the underlying problem.

If a city or region wants to become “hip and cool,” government is not the best vehicle for making that happen. Hipness is a cultural phenomenon, a state of mind. Some regions have it, others don’t. In either case, what government needs to do is get out of the way — create the conditions for individuals, companies and not-for-profits to experiment and innovate. Politicians and bureaucrats are the antithesis of cool. Coolness, if it is to be achieved at all, bubbles from the bottom up.

Update: Florida has responded. He concedes nothing. “I’ve argued that a key to urban prosperity is not investments in convention centers, stadiums, casinos or arts complexes, or even coffee shops for that matter, but being open to diversity and different—having low barriers to entry to people of every sort, young and old, American and foreign born, gay and straight, married and single, families with kids and without.”

Florida wins the exchange. Kotkin seems unable to distinguish between Florida’s thinking and that of others who have misapplied his thinking (usually as a justification for activist, interventionist government). While Florida is undeniably a cultural liberal arguing for openness and inclusivity, I have seen no evidence in his writing that he is a proponent of big spending government activism. My sense is that Kotkin has read Florida superficially and with a hostile mind-set.

— JAB

11 Responses to The Limits of the Creative Class

  1. The problem is that there have been numerous studies that demonstrate that drawing the creative class isn’t a city, absent housing and land reform, is great for the creative professional but simply drives up the cost of living for everyone else, driving them out to more affordable, but less productive, areas of the country.

    Until Florida and other creative class activists start pushing for affordable housing and transportation policies, we’re going to continue to have this problem. The most productive cities draw the most productive workers, driving out the less productive ones to less productive cities. It’s a perverse cycle!

    Tied in with this is what I’m going to start calling the Red State Revival. Between booming energy production, global rises in the demand for America’s natural resources and agricultural goods, and a short term window of opportunity for onshoring manufacturing back here, the Red States have a business model that is going to work for the next decade or two.

    Blue Cities need not only major reform to housing and transportation, but changes to everything from immigration to education to intellectual property rights. The payoff would be bigger, but it requires politics to actually solve a problem for once.

  2. Yup. FreeDem nailed it. It’s rank effete elitism that Liberals are often known for but now some “conservatives” are jumping into.

    You have to have affordable housing stock. If you’re not willing to do that – then all the “creative class” stuff reeks in my view.

    the “real world” has not only creative people in it but it has a whole bunch of hardworking other people who keep the dang city operating so the “creative” folks can use their toilets.. buy their kumquats, and stroll on clean, well-lit, safe streets as they “think” and “ponder”.

    I’ll take a hard working janitor any day over some sniveling pouter worried about how his haircut looks.

    • We need to have affordable housing stock, but we also need to be smart about what IS affordable and how it is located relative to JOBS.

      The hard working janitor not only needs an affordable place to live with his family, but we need to make sure that we’re not just pushing him out to the suburbs of Prince William County and have him drive into the Beltway where the jobs are (all those offices don’t clean themselves!) based on the idea that it is “affordable” based on the price of gasoline now. We need housing and transportation solutions that work for everyone.

      • totally agree Free Dem.. I had neglected to include the reference you made to transportation earlier.

        the housing not only needs to be affordable and near jobs (or near METRO/transit) but it also needs to be as safe and secure and as decent a place to live as other housing stock – rather than “bad” neighborhoods.

        One would think the top item for the “creative class” to deal with would be just this issue… but alas most of them are just too darn busy being ‘creative’ for other things…

        somehow we’ve got to revere them while ignoring what is happening to the very people that make the cities “work”.

        • It’s going to be a big issue in the future.

          Virginia has created suburban slums where low income families moved out to live during the housing bubble and when gas was cheap. They are now trapped there, their homes underwater, hemorrhaging money.

          Combined with the breakdown in traditional families and the decline in the earning power of working class men, can we really expect this to end well?

          I think that in ten years crime is going to return to being a major political issue. Gun control will be more popular and Democrats will seize on it. But Republicans will also be able to run as the law and order party as usual.

  3. Having not read Kotkin, there does seem to be an element of truth to what he says. “The creative class” is lauded but does tend to draw attention away from the larger issues confronting many American cities, such as job dislocation, generational poverty, bad public schools, etc.
    The problem, I think, with Jim’s logic is that he wants the “creative class” but always has to push some “but no public money” disclaimer. My sense is that a true “creative class” is an organic, bottom-up phenomenon. It doesn’t need public money or a City Hall to direct it. It just sort of happens.
    The flip side of this is dealing with rot and decay and unemployment and poverty. There I think you need a government solution, at least something of one.
    Hate to use Richmond as an example as always, but the successful “first Friday” movement with arts had nothing to do with government planning or orchestrating it. It just happened. Yet Richmond is actually a very poor city with lots of urban problems that remain unaddressed.

  4. IF the “creative class” were actually real – the very first thing they’d deal with is the chronic problems in the cities instead of expecting the cities to pat them on the back and favor them.

    Every time I hear the phrase “Creative Class” I start belching uncontrollably.

    I swear if it ain’t the right wing spewing dribble and spittle, it’s the policy wonks spewing effete blather…

  5. Creative class? Aren’t those the ones who celebrate diversity by riding naked on bicycles while texting support for Big Gulp bans?

  6. re: ” I have seen no evidence in his writing that he is a proponent of big spending government activism.”

    are we not talking about the things that will ATTRACT the creative class?

    It’s an “environment”. It’s a “built” environment consisting of infrastructure, facilities and services.

    Where do safe, clean streets come from? How about potable water and effective sanitation systems? transit? airports? fire and medical services, institutions of higher learning? Do we have places in the world where these things are provided by the private sector and not taxes?

    what kills me about these narratives is that in response to questions like this – the response is often along the lines of: ” if govt would get out of the way, the private sector would do all of this”.

    to which I then respond: On the planet, does a real-life example exist?

    to which the next response often devolves into questions and accusations about why one would ask such an insulting question to start with.

    How DARE someone ask if there are some real-world examples of what is advocated.

    Man.. you have NO FAITH… You’re a “statist”… and you smell bad and don’t really understand serious theories…etc…etc..

    SO govt is apparently engaged in a worldwide conspiracy to use thuggery to prevent the free market from working “right” – on the entire planet mind you.

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