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“Court the creative class!” He said.
“Make your city more diverse with LGBT people!” He admonished.
“Invite the jobs of tomorrow!” He implored.
Technology, Talent, and Tolerance were the credos by which cities should live.
Cities took advice from a man named Richard Florida who made a business in the days after the 2008 crisis by giving cities advice (at $25,000 a speech and more for a full plan) on how to court the jobs of tomorrow to replace the ones that they had lost from the old economy. Richard got one thing right: he predicted a return to the city and or urbanism as a counter to the suburbanization of the mid-20th century. However, that’s about all he got right. The rest of his predictions never really worked out. There are multiple reasons for this. After the great recession, American cities had a major problem: how to create some new growth. The GFC had laid bare the flaws in the American economy in much the same way the Covid recession has done, although to much less dire headlines. Richard Florida already had a book on hand to help cities deal with how to revive themselves. However, it’s been 12 years since the great housing crash, whatever happened to the promise of the creative class saving American cities and the American economy? Turns out his ideas were bullshit; almost complete bullshit and it was compounded by economic shifts and changes. We decided to look into what happened to this idea. Weren’t creatives supposed to be the economic engine of tomorrow?
An Economy with Fewer Jobs
Before we get into the nuts and bolts of why the creative class revival never happened in American cities let’s look at the macro-economic picture. Even for the middle class, the last decade has been tough. Most of the jobs created in the Obama recovery were low paying low wage jobs. Wages elsewhere in the economy unless you’re in the top 10% of earners have remained stagnant. Younger workers have been forced to job hop to get a raise on top of being burdened down with student loan debt. Many of the jobs that would have powered this creative class transformation have been automated away and without stable jobs, people can’t support artists that open business and galleries that make for vibrant downtowns. It is an odd idea that people think you can open great restaurants, gastropubs, and other things and not have the jobs within the community that provide the money that supports those things.
Then there’s the fact that many jobs that bred the artists of tomorrow don’t exist. Netflix killed the video store, Amazon has nearly killed the bookstore, and Apple killed the record shop despite the revival of vinyl. This advantages big tech players like the companies that committed creative murder but it strips out a whole class of jobs from cities. It’s not the automation that we talk about but these were the early automation jobs losses that no one was really looking to happen.
A great example of this sort of thing is Tacoma, WA. It’s just south of Rouges in Seattle and it is a former industrial town that has been saved by art. Tacoma doesn’t have a major employer anymore (despite its best efforts) and the only reason it survives is because the city has the advantage of being near a dynamic city with plenty of opportunities. Artists who can’t afford Seattle anymore move to Tacoma and those who are willing to endure to 1.5-hour commute to Seattle live in Tacoma for the cheaper living.
Florida predicted that those creative people in tech and those who work with ideas would be the economic engine of tomorrow. If a GM factory worker made the 1950s, a tech worker would make the 2010s. But that’s not quite what happened. Part of this has to do with the internet. The internet has made short work of the business model that powered many professions. If you work in high tech you’re protected (for now) unless your job is outsourced to cheaper workers in India or replaced by an H1-B worker from the same place. While everyone talks about getting a job in STEM, they don’t realize that even STEM isn’t safe from global competition.
The internet has made it very difficult for creative professionals to really make a living these days. For writers (trust us we know) photographers, and many others, the internet has made it very difficult to turn a buck. Some go into marketing or some people go into completely different jobs that aren’t creative at all. This story isn’t really been told by anyone. There have not been soup lines setup for graphic designers and these people are unlikely to end up in homeless shelters. The hollowing out of this class is a very real thing and Covid-19 has made it worse. There are plenty of stories floating around on Reddit and elsewhere as people have simply abandoned their creative pursuits for something else. It’s hard to imagine that halcyon time when the internet promised greater markets for creative work and offered a chance for people to make a living as an independent artist more than ever before. Instead, the opposite has occurred.
The increase of content has been wonderful news to social media companies, cloud service companies, and others who can advertise around the content that they get for free from creatives. The creatives are completely cut out of the equation and left to either create a following big enough to get a decent Patreon going or are stuck making things on the nights and weekends around a day job. It’s hard to imagine a time when someone, who was talented, could make a decent living doing what they do. Now, most creatives have to have at least one other source of income to stay afloat. These people aren’t reviving American cities, they are just trying to survive and they are surviving in a country that is getting more expensive by the day and pushing anyone who isn’t making great money out. The people who are reviving American cities are creative professionals who can find jobs that pay well and can afford to live in the trendy new neighborhoods. The creative class never happened.
The new growth in America has come from regions far away from the formerly prosperous industrial zones of the Rust Belt across the midwest. This has left us with two Americas: the wealthy, growing America and the stultified one stuck in the past and unable to move into the future. This America has no jobs, little hope, and depressing health outcomes as a result. It isn’t a surprise that the opioid crisis tore through Appalachia, upstate New York, rural Pennsylvania, and elsewhere in the rust belt. What else did they have? The rest of the country was marching away from them into a high-tech future and they weren’t sharing in the fruits of that progress. While their jobs were sent to China and elsewhere, the rest of the country often forgot about them. Isn’t it a wonder they hold onto coal and fracking? Those jobs actually pay a decent wage.
Much of the growth in the American economy has taken place within major cities or out west. Certainly, Covid might rebalance this, but even with covid, who is moving to Pittsburgh? Not enough people to really save Pittsburgh. However, NYC, LA, San Franciso, Seattle, Denver, and Phoenix are growing exponentially. All of those cities with the exception of New York are west of the Mississippi River. However, there is reason to hope. Some areas like Raleigh-Durham have leveraged their connections to education to create some new jobs and a productive economy. The picture in much of the rust belt is much less rosy.
One experience we found in researching this idea was the experience of Frank Bures and his moves across the country. He and his wife moved to hip Portland to get out of Minnesota (and why not?) and decided that they wanted to be closer to family to raise one of their own and moved to Madison. At the time, Madison was the hot city to move to. It ticked all the boxes that Florida thought made a city great and should attract professionals like him. He found that Madison delivered on none of those promises. It was a typical midwest city with a few gays and was propped up by being a college town. The people were uninspiring, the schools were lackluster, and both him and his wife burned through terrible jobs. They eventually ended up back in Minnesota in Minneapolis. Turns out that not working in government or the university in a town where that is the major employer, makes you not fit in very well.
Frank Bures found out through trial and error what city planners figured out over the past 20 years or so. Arts will not save a city and neither will retail. Those things have intrinsic value to themselves. What makes great cities great is a concentration of educated people where there are jobs to employ them. That drives economic progress. The problem is that growth isn’t happening in the vast majority of the country. The growth in the American economy isn’t trickling out much past the coasts (with Denver being a notable exception which is why they call it the 3rd coast).
The Downside: Gentrification
The biggest downside of this importation of the creative class is gentrification. The local residents get pushed out of neighborhoods and cities due to rising rent and land prices and inevitably get pushed farther out. This has happened in every major city.
Much of the modern American economy has concentrated in a handful of cities (most of the ones mentioned above) and rather than in the industrial past where the jobs and opportunity were more spread out, much of the American economy has moved to just a few places leaving the rest of the country out in the cold. What’s worse is that this movement to cities has priced out much of the workforce. Even teachers, firefighters, and police are having trouble living anywhere near where they work because the costs have skyrocketed and cities have not responded with new housing options or more density.
Unfortunately, this doesn’t always mean that local businesses will thrive either. Land prices increase, rent prices increase and long time establishments get pushed out for corporate joints that can afford to pay. Covid-19 will fast track this trend. 60% of local restaurants won’t survive the pandemic and other sorts of local businesses that might have survived the 2008 crash are now on the bubble as people stay home. Some businesses are rushing out an e-commerce solution to cater to online shopping. Some are simply giving up and just closing. Many of the local bars and other places are giving up too. Corporate places will continue to take over because they can afford the rent. It will take years before people are brave enough and have enough money to leverage into opening new places and they likely will be somewhere else.
What Does It All Mean?
This has rambled on a bit and there are multiple threads within our little investigation into the creative class. Let’s tie it all together. There’s no point in trying to move to a more creative place or trying to find the ideal city to live in. Staying near friends and family is the best outcome for a good life. This means that most people can put away the moving boxes. If you want to move to improve your career, move to a handful of cities with tremendous job opportunities that will skyrocket your career. As far as the creative class goes, most artists and others have been pushed out of cities and out of the economy altogether. Your barista probably plays in a band and sounds great but you’ll never hear it. The person who does the marketing for businesses in your area probably started out as a novelist or painter before bringing the cool to the corporate world. The American economy is growing but it’s only really growing in a few places and it’s not trickling down to the rest of the country. We’re not creating jobs for the vast majority of citizens who aren’t highly educated and the sad reality is that more art galleries, parks, and cool neighborhoods won’t solve that problem. America doesn’t make things anymore and probably never will (which is about the only thing Florida got right) and that means that we have to really re-think the economy, wages, and workers’ rights to actually improve things for real people in real places.