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.