Questioning the Creative Class Logic

Sometimes I can't help but wonder if maybe the whole Creative Class phenomenon is doing more to harm cities than it does to help them. Not in all cases, of course...certainly many cities are benfitting from the investment in their artistic and recreational infrastructure. But the primary purpose of a city is to provide high-quality services to all of its citizens, and at times it seems like this responsibility falls by the wayside as civic governments try to focus on building Creative Class-friendly amenities.

Gentrification happens because neighborhoods throughout a given city are unequally supported. And while this isn't the fault of the Creative Classmates, they appear to be exacerbating the problem by attracting a disproportionate amount of attention -- and funding -- from mayors who think of their presence as a silver bullet. With rich creative people comes an increased tax base, and with an increased tax base, more problems can be solved in less privileged areas, right?

Portland, Oregon, is seen as one of the capitals of the Creative Class. The city's arts and cultural scenes are thriving, with artists flocking to the once-granola metropolis to be a part of the scene. As a recent article in Slate pointed out, "it's rare to meet a young, creative Portlander who's from Portland." Its success in drawing talent from other cities is, in fact, one of the reasons that Portland is held up as model of the Creative Class metropolis. The CC is all about migration, after all; it could not exist without the internet, which allows for artists to live in cheaper cities while still participating in the larger artistic fields in which they are interested and/or employed.

Jump to the other side of both the country and the spectrum, to New York City. Manhattan and Brooklyn (and, to some extent, Queens) have become inordinately expensive. The city -- or The City, with caps, as it's known Stateside -- has become what airoots recently described as "a networking platform and marketplace for established creative people from all around the world, [but not] much of a place for emerging artistic production within the city." NYC is a popular city with the Creative Class as well; in fact, it is the sun to their universe, around which all things (in some way) orbit. In effect, New York has become the City of Art, while the artists have fled to the hinterland.

But what has made Portland -- or Boston, or Boise for that matter -- a hub of activity for those who have fled New York's rising rents? One of the things that a large chunk of the Creative Class' centers of production share is a strong public services network that pre-dates the city's popularity. They are cities with well-maintained parks, strong transit systems, and clean and affordable utilities (water, electricity, etc.) Cheap space must be available -- again from airoots, the new creative cities "are open and messy enough to provide artists with interstitial spaces they can takeover and make their own."

Walkability, density, urban character -- all of these things are supposedly important to the Creative Class. Yet there are cities much closer to New York (aka the Center) than Portland that offer all of these things in larger helpings yet have failed to tap into the Creative Class boom as effectively as the Rose City. To name a few: Philly (which is starting to benefit from NY's overflow but is still limping considerably), Washington DC, Pittsburgh, Cleveland, Cincinnati, Milwaukee, Richmond. It seems to me that the advantage that Portland had over these places was strong, well-maintained infrastructure. After all, if you don't want to live in New York but you can live pretty much anywhere else, you're going to choose a city that can provide you with the most comfortable life with the lowest amount of stress.

Milwaukee is a perfect illustration of the benefits of maintaining strong basic urban infrastructure -- and what happens when that maintenance falls by the wayside. The city managed, against all odds, to remain in the black into the 1930s while other cities across the US struggled with the Great Depression. This was largely due to the civic integrity of the city government (socialists, for the record) and the fact that they had not been extravagant in their spending during the Roaring Twenties. Milwaukee eventually suffered from the depression like the rest of the country, but anyone who has followed the history of the Midwest can tell you that the Brew City never suffered the kinds of blows sustained (or not) by Saint Louis, Detroit, and Cleveland. After the depression passed, the industrial city roared, and its services remained strong and well-maintained until the 1980s. Slowly over the past twenty-five years, the city and county have been chipping away at Milwaukee's utilities, infrastructure, and once-legendary bus and parks systems. Even with the Creative Class leading a renaissance in parts of the city, crime is at an all-time high and the racial segregation is some of the worst in the nation.

The importance of creativity in the modern economy is nothing to sneeze at. While basic services are something that cities need to focus more heavily on, it is important that they bolster the creativity of their populace. But it seems to me that spending city funds on cultural amenities, building artist housing, and hosting snazzy (and pricey) festivals might not be the best way to go about incubating a culture of innovation and artistic aspiration. If anything, they seem likely to create a dangerous "us and them" tension between the Creative Class and their fellow city-dwellers. In a way, this could even be seen as the institutionalization of the overprofessionalization of art.

So how can cities create a dynamic, creative culture without overreaching? I have some ideas, but this post is starting to get long, so I'll save them for tomorrow.

(Photos from Flickr users gonebiking and Digital Trav.)

The Indie City (Slate) (via Brand Avenue)

New York Rollercoaster City (airoots)

Urban Fictions: The Toolhouse (airoots)


Andrew Jones said...

this is similar to Joel Kotkin's critique of Richard Florida in which he posists that the diversion of funds towards the arts and entertainment makes little sense when it's for the already wealthy who can set up trusts themselves VS the city a machine for social equality.
site here:

Andrew Hacker's recent article in The New York Review of Books touches on similar grounds reviewing books about America's upper class through the 20th century, intellectuals in the fifties were concerned with the widespread spending of money on consumer items instead of social causes.


Jim Russell said...

An initiative to attract the Creative Class can target more than artists. Creativity means something quite different in Silicon Valley as compared to Williamsburg in Brooklyn. Or, if you prefer a more sophisticated understanding, look no further than Austin.

My point is that we tend to see urban policy problems when politicians and planners understand the Creative Class as including only artists. Instead, the approach should be to facilitate the kind of economic activity that benefits from having human capital working in close proximity to each other. I think Dr. Florida's point is that investing in your artist community can help your city attract the kind of business that thrives in a dense urban environment.

Brendan Crain said...

Yikes! I've been compared to Kotkin...forget everything that I said!

Heh, just kiddin'. ;-)

One of the things that Steven Tepper was talking about in the Smart City Radio segment featured in Monday's post, Opening Planning, was what he termed "the democratization of art." He uses the example of amature atheletes and sports enthusiasts supporting the big-bucks-few-players pro sports industry to illustrate how the arts should work, ideally speaking. Thus, perpetuating the art-for-the-rich situation that seems rather dominant today is, I agree, pretty backwards.

As for creativity reaching far beyond the confines of the "art world," I agree, again, wholeheartedly. Check out tonight's (Wednesday's) post, (Re)Building Intellectual Infrastructure, for more on that.

I'm starting to feel like a soulless self-promoter, here, with all of this cross-post referrencing. Lol.