Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Creative Class Pile-On: It's the Politics, Y'all

An article for thirty two mag has been making its way around the twitterverse recently and has got folks all riled up! Apparently, the creative class theory, championed by the hustler supremo Richard Florida, may not work!!

This piece has excited a lot of people in the "urbanist" twitter world and has people (finally) starting to look a lot harder at the policies and theories that Florida has been pimping out for the past decade. While I find this soul-searching to be refreshing I feel like we all need to take a step back and ask a really central question.

Where the hell have you people been for the past ten years?

Seriously, there is absolutely NOTHING new to be found in this article in terms of its questioning of the creative class that couldn't be found in academic and popular press by a myriad of authors and commentators. The author cites Jaime Peck, who's brilliant piece "Struggling with the Creative Class" came out in 2005, and has been a constant critic of the creative class thesis nearly since its inception.

I'm glad the author has summarized a bunch of recent empirical findings challenging the evidence Florida presents, but the critique is still amazingly lacking. Forgive me, but I find it hard to garner a lot of sympathy over one's disillusionment because your neighbor wasn't a great conversationalist and because the sleepy college town you moved to ended up being...a sleepy college town. At the end of the day, we learn that the evidence still shows that returns to scale matter for agglomeration (read: big cities are likely to grow and foster economically, creative or otherwise than smaller areas) and that while arts and cultural products and amenities can help one develop a city, they are not sufficient and still require large enough populations to support them.

Like I said. This is all well and good. It shouldn't be a surprise to a lot of planners/urbanists or economists, but sometimes stuff like this takes time to spread. What does royally tick me off, though, is the utter indifference to the politics and neoliberal urban development and political approaches that rest underneath the creative class thesis and how this piece utterly ignores them.

It's telling that the article mentioned above accompanied another article on the "new"/"creative" economy that centered on Brooklyn. While this piece did not have a title to let you know it was critiquing the creative class it ended up being a much more rich, nuanced, and informative view of the consequences of unquestioningly celebrating the "creatives" and the kind of economy that Florida and his ilk push. Succinctly, the benefits to the new economy are incredibly unevenly distributed, risk is further heaped upon the individual through greater subcontracting/freelancing, not to mention the ever present gentrification and residential displacement. All of these issues, in terms of being challenged, are noticeably absent from the former piece and challenge deeper held assumptions and desires that many people still have when they think about the "creative city".

And this is ultimately what irks me. The idea of the "creative city" and the "creative class" is not essentially challenged in the thirty two piece. The trappings of the creative city, like bike lanes, art studios, exciting night life are all desired, but the politics that creative class development engenders go unquestioned. Conveniently ignored is the fact that you can get all of those amenities without resorting to creative class type development schemes dependent on gentrification, labor market bifurcation, or fetishizing disgustingly shallow concepts of diversity like the "Gay Index". These are all things cities can and should be doing anyway to make the lived experience of their citizens better. Putting in bike lanes should be done so that communities have equal access to essential infrastructure. We should encourage the development of cultural spaces because art and culture possess a value unto themselves in addition to their ability to catalyze economic growth. We should attempt to strengthen the power of our part-time, contingent, and freelance workers as well as strengthen worker protections in our traditional service and manufacturing industries. But the creative class has nothing to say about ANY of that, because it's not concerned with the current residents of a city, or those that don't fit into the category of a "creative" worker (i.e. possesses a bachelors degree).

What makes the creative class thesis so dangerous is not that the empirical work is wrong (although, that's a huge red flag and has been known for YEARS) but that the politics it embodies is the dominant approach that many cities are taking to development today. It rests not on growing jobs, but on developing property. It rests not on "development" but on "revitalization". It's about attracting the creative class and not about educating everyone in your city to the highest degree possible. It's about celebrating contingent labor relations as "freedom" instead of trying to guarantee that all workers can have access to regular pay, good working conditions, and benefits in order to help them and their firms be more productive and happy. It's not about making a city better for everyone, but about attracting a new, preferred citizen (and a new form of citizenship) and removing the unwanted and the inconvenient.

So, yeah, I'm glad y'all have discovered the creative class doesn't hold any water. Welcome to 2005.