The Fall of the Creative Class

The Fall of the Cre­ative Class

By Frank Bures, Illus­tra­tion by Will Dinski

In the late 1990s, my wife and I got in a U-Haul, hit I-90 and headed west for a few days until we came to Port­land, Ore­gon. We had no jobs, no apart­ment, and no notion other than get­ting out of Minnesota.

We chose Port­land mainly because it was cheaper than the other places we’d liked on a month-long road trip through the West (San Fran­cisco, Seat­tle, Mis­soula), because it had a great book store we both fell in love with, and because I had a cousin who lived there in the north­east part of the city, which was some­what less trendy back then. (Our first night, police found a body in the park across the street.) The plan was to stay a year, then try the other coast, then who knows? We were young! But we loved it and stayed for nearly five years. Then, when we started think­ing of breed­ing, like salmon, we decided to swim back to the pool in which we were bred.

For a vari­ety of not-very-well-thought-out rea­sons, this brought us to Madi­son, Wis­con­sin. It wasn’t too far from our fam­i­lies. It had a stel­lar rep­u­ta­tion. And for the Mid­west, it pos­sessed what might pass for cachet. It was lib­eral and open minded. It was a col­lege town. It had cof­fee shops and bike shops. Besides, it had been deemed a “Cre­ative Class” strong­hold by Richard Florida, the prophet of pros­per­ous cool. We had no way of know­ing how wrong he was about Madison…and about everything.

Florida’s idea was a nice one: Young, inno­v­a­tive peo­ple move to places that are open and hip and tol­er­ant. They, in turn, gen­er­ate eco­nomic inno­va­tion. I loved this idea because, as a free­lance writer, it made me impor­tant. I was poor, but some­how I made every­one else rich! It seemed to make per­fect sense. Madi­son, by that rea­son­ing, should have been clam­or­ing to have me, since I was one of the mys­ti­cal bear­ers of prosperity.

Soon after we arrived, how­ever, I was sit­ting at my desk won­der­ing where all these cre­ative, self-employed bohemi­ans might be, when I watched an unset­tlingly large woman lum­ber out of the apart­ment next door. She stood in the sun and blinked like she hadn’t seen it in years. It took her an ago­niz­ingly long time to shuf­fle across the park­ing lot to the dump­ster, where she deposited her trash. Then she began the trek back. After the door slammed behind her, I never saw her again. In most parts of Amer­ica circa 2003, this scene would have been unre­mark­able. But I couldn’t get it out of my mind. It stayed with me and filled me with dread, as if there was some hid­den mean­ing in it; as if the woman was an omen, and her trash bag was filled with my dreams.

Nonethe­less, we tried set­tling in. I began writ­ing for the local mag­a­zine. My first story was based on Richard Florida’s “Gay Index,” one of sev­eral mea­sures that was sup­posed to indi­cate how wealthy your city can be. The more gays there are, he rea­soned, the more tol­er­ant your city is, and the more cre­ative class work­ers would flock there. My story was called, “How Gay is Madi­son?” The answer, of course, was “very gay.”

We tried to meet our neigh­bors. Across the hall was a guy our age who worked in the UW-Madison’s phar­ma­col­ogy depart­ment, but who seemed to strug­gle for any­thing worth say­ing. Over din­ner he asked us what our hob­bies were. Like stamp col­lect­ing? I won­dered. Like macramé? He never returned the invitation.

The guy upstairs seemed more promis­ing. He had some brain dam­age from a bar fight, in which his head was bashed into the side­walk. But he still read books and kept pet par­rots. He even slept with them, until he acci­den­tally rolled over and killed one of his favorites. In the end, we drifted apart as well.

For some rea­son, these and most other rela­tion­ships never quite blos­somed the way we’d hoped, the way they had in all the other place we’d lived. For a time, my wife had a soul­less job with a boss who sat behind her, star­ing at the back of her head. I found work in a dusty tomb of a book­store, doing data entry with cowork­ers who com­plained about their neu­ro­log­i­cal dis­or­ders, or who told me about the mag­i­cal crea­tures they saw on their way home, and who kept web­sites depict­ing them­selves as minotaurs.

I’m not sure what exactly I expected, but within a year or two it was clear that some­thing wasn’t right. If Madi­son was such a Cre­ative Class hotbed over­flow­ing with inde­pen­dent, post-industrial work­ers like myself, we should have fit in. Yet our pres­ence didn’t seem to mat­ter to any­one, cre­atively or oth­er­wise. And any­way, Madison’s econ­omy was hum­ming along with unem­ploy­ment around four per­cent, while back in fun, cre­ative Port­land, it was more than twice that, at eight and a half per­cent. This was not how the world accord­ing to Florida was sup­posed to work. I started to won­der if I’d mis­read him. Around town I encoun­tered a few other trans­plants who also found them­selves scratch­ing their heads over what the fuss had been about. Within a cou­ple years, most of them would be gone.

“And I asked, ‘Hey, aren’t you upset the schools suck?’ and peo­ple said, ‘Oh, no, i really love my school. I make sure for my kid it’s all about values.’” 

One of these peo­ple was a woman named Pene­lope Trunk, a brand­ing expert, a Gen Y prog­nos­ti­ca­tor, and a ruth­less, relent­less self-promoter. Her arrival in Madi­son could not have been more dif­fer­ent than ours. She announced on her blog that she’d done exhaus­tive research and con­cluded that the best place in the coun­try for her to live was Madi­son,  Wis­con­sin. Trunk’s name was splashed across the papers, and seemed to con­firm every Florid­ian sus­pi­cion. Local cap­i­tal­ists bankrolled her new com­pany, Brazen Careerist. She blogged and blogged and blogged about how best to choose the place to work and live. She was an apos­tle of Florid­ian doc­trine and flew around giv­ing speeches about how places could attract the shock troops of the cre­ative econ­omy the way Madi­son had attracted her.

One day I met Trunk for cof­fee. She was loud and brash and talked over the din of the other peo­ple. She seemed to be under the impres­sion that I’d come to her for career advice, which she gave and to which I politely lis­tened. And while I liked her energy, I could tell by the way peo­ple shot her dirty looks that Madi­son was going to be a tough fit.

Four years later, Trunk left town, which seemed odd, given her much-ballyhooed arrival. By then, we had fallen out of touch, and I was never quite clear on her rea­son for leav­ing. So I called her to find out what had gone wrong. Trunk now lives on a farm in south­west Wis­con­sin, (she divorced her hus­band and mar­ried a farmer). On the phone, she was still brash and bom­bas­tic and as she told it, her hon­ey­moon with the city started to end almost as soon as she got there. One day her ex-husband was googling, “sex offend­ers,” and he dis­cov­ered there were four reg­is­tered on their block. Next, she dis­cov­ered that the pub­lic schools were ter­ri­ble. “I started talk­ing to every­one,” Trunk said. “And I said, ‘Hey, aren’t you upset the schools suck? How is every­one send­ing their kid here?’ And peo­ple said, ‘Oh, no, I really love my school. I make sure for my kid it’s all about val­ues.’ I mean the bull­shit that peo­ple were telling me was utterly incred­i­ble. Then it just became like an onslaught. Tons of lies. Madi­son is a city full of peo­ple in denial. Peo­ple don’t leave Madi­son, so they don’t real­ize what’s good and not good.” I asked her if she had any regrets, or if the move was a wrong one, or if she had any advice for other peo­ple look­ing to relo­cate. Or maybe, I sug­gested, life was just messier than research?

No,” she said. “Life is totally clear cut. It’s exactly what the research is. All the research says go live with your friends and fam­ily. Oth­er­wise, you have to look at why you’re not doing that. If you want to look at a city that’s best for your career, it’s New York, San Fran­cisco or Lon­don. If you’re not look­ing for your career, it doesn’t really mat­ter. There’s no dif­fer­ence. It’s split­ting hairs. The whole con­ver­sa­tion about where to live is bullshit.”

I hung up and tried to make some sense of all this. I wasn’t so con­vinced that either life, or research, was so clear cut. And I cer­tainly didn’t really think there was no dif­fer­ence between Madi­son or Min­neapo­lis or Toledo. I didn’t even really think the prob­lem was with Madison’s schools, or with Madi­son itself. What I did think, after years of puz­zling over these issues, research­ing them, and liv­ing them, was that the prob­lem is not with any par­tic­u­lar place. The prob­lem is with the idea of the Cre­ative Class itself.

What was miss­ing was any actual proof that the pres­ence of artists, gays and les­bians or immi­grants was caus­ing eco­nomic growth.

Jamie Peck is a geog­ra­phy pro­fes­sor who has been one of the fore­most crit­ics of Richard Florida’s Cre­ative Class the­ory. He now teaches at the Uni­ver­sity of British Colum­bia in Van­cou­ver, but at the time Florida’s book was pub­lished in 2002, he was also liv­ing in Madi­son. “The rea­son I wrote about this,” Peck told me on the phone, “is because Madison’s mayor started to embrace it. I lived on the east side of town, prob­a­bly as near to this lifestyle as pos­si­ble, and it was bull­shit that this was actu­ally what was dri­ving Madison’s econ­omy. What was dri­ving Madi­son was pub­lic sec­tor spend­ing through the uni­ver­sity, not the dynamic Florida was describing.”

In his ini­tial cri­tique, Peck said The Rise of the Cre­ative Class was filled with “self-indulgent forms of ama­teur microso­ci­ol­ogy and crass cel­e­bra­tions of hip­ster embour­geoise­ment.” That’s another way of say­ing that Florida was just describ­ing the “hip­ster­i­za­tion” of wealthy cities and con­clud­ing that this was what was caus­ing those cities to be wealthy. As some crit­ics have pointed out, that’s a lit­tle like say­ing that the high num­ber of hot dog ven­dors in New York City is what’s caus­ing the pres­ence of so many invest­ment bankers. So if you want bank­ing, just sell hot dogs. “You can manip­u­late your argu­ments about cor­re­la­tion when things hap­pen in the same place,” says Peck.

What was miss­ing, how­ever, was any actual proof that the pres­ence of artists, gays and les­bians or immi­grants was caus­ing eco­nomic growth, rather than eco­nomic growth caus­ing the pres­ence of artists, gays and les­bians or immi­grants. Some more recent work has tried to get to the bot­tom of these ques­tions, and the find­ings don’t bode well for Florida’s the­ory. In a four-year, $6 mil­lion study of thir­teen cities across Europe called “Accom­mo­dat­ing Cre­ative Knowl­edge,” that was pub­lished in 2011, researchers found one of Florida’s cen­tral ideas—the migra­tion of cre­ative work­ers to places that are tol­er­ant, open and diverse—was sim­ply not happening.

They move to places where they can find jobs,” wrote author Sako Mus­terd, “and if they can­not find a job there, the only rea­son to move is for study or for per­sonal social net­work rea­sons, such as the pres­ence of friends, fam­ily, part­ners, or because they return to the place where they have been born or have grown up.” But even if they had been pour­ing into places because of “soft” fac­tors like cof­fee shops and art gal­leries, accord­ing to Ste­fan Krätke, author of a 2010 Ger­man study, it prob­a­bly wouldn’t have made any dif­fer­ence, eco­nom­i­cally. Krätke broke Florida’s Cre­ative Class (which includes accoun­tants, real­tors, bankers and politi­cians) into five sep­a­rate groups and found that only the “sci­en­tif­i­cally and tech­no­log­i­cally cre­ative” work­ers had an impact on regional GDP. Krätke wrote “that Florida’s con­cep­tion does not match the state of find­ings of regional inno­va­tion research and that his way of relat­ing tal­ent and tech­nol­ogy might be regarded as a remark­able exer­cise in simplification.”

Per­haps one of the most damn­ing stud­ies was in some ways the sim­plest. In 2009 Michele Hoy­man and Chris Far­icy pub­lished a study using Florida’s own data from 1990 to 2004, in which they tried to find a link between the pres­ence of the cre­ative class work­ers and any kind of eco­nomic  growth. “The results were pretty strik­ing,” said Far­icy, who now teaches polit­i­cal sci­ence at Wash­ing­ton State Uni­ver­sity. “The mea­sure­ment of the cre­ative class that Florida uses in his book does not cor­re­late with any known mea­sure of eco­nomic growth and devel­op­ment. Basi­cally, we were able to show that the emperor has no clothes.” Their study also ques­tioned whether the migra­tion of the cre­ative class was hap­pen­ing. “Florida said that cre­ative class presence—bohemians, gays, artists—will draw what we used to call yup­pies in,” says Hoy­man. “We did not find that.”

I sent some ques­tions about all this to the media con­tact at Richard Florida’s con­sult­ing firm, the Cre­ative Class Group (which advises cities and com­pa­nies how they can move up in his rank­ings). To his credit, he sent back a 3000-word response. Unfor­tu­nately, his answers didn’t really shed any more light than his books. When I asked if he could show me a city that had had mea­sur­able eco­nomic growth as a result of an influx of cre­ative indi­vid­u­als, Florida said there was “wide con­sen­sus” that migra­tion of cre­ative indi­vid­u­als had taken place, and named some places like Wash­ing­ton DC, greater Boston, greater NY, and greater San Francisco.

But whether those places grew because cre­ative peo­ple came there, or cre­ative peo­ple came there because they grew is not clear. After that he pasted in an Op-ed from Michael Bloomberg, titled, “Cities Must Be Cool, Cre­ative and in Con­trol.” Of course, Mayor Bloomberg is enti­tled to his opin­ions. But more to the point, this felt like the same thing I’d been read­ing for a decade: List­ing suc­cess­ful cities with­out any proof that gays, bohemi­ans or techies were actu­ally mak­ing them suc­cess­ful. The best, and most con­crete, piece of evi­dence Florida offered was an unpub­lished study from 2001 in which author Robert Cush­ing said, “[The] cre­ative cap­i­tal model gen­er­ates equally impres­sive results as the human cap­i­tal model and per­haps bet­ter.” That’s fine, except that Hoy­man and Faricy’s study, which was pub­lished in the jour­nal Urban Affairs Review in 2009, tested for the same thing and found pre­cisely the oppo­site. There is one test in eco­nom­ics that is meant to set­tle the kind of ques­tions that Florida’s work raises, regard­ing hot dog ven­dors and invest­ment bankers. It’s called the Granger causal­ity test and it’s designed to dis­en­tan­gle pre­cisely what causes what. I asked Florida if he had done one of these to test his the­ory, but he said he was “not aware of any Granger causal­ity tests.”

But the test has, in fact, been done by Mel Gray, who teaches eco­nom­ics at the Uni­ver­sity of St. Thomas, and the results cast doubt on the idea that a flour­ish­ing artis­tic envi­ron­ment will cause eco­nomic growth. “It’s impor­tant to get some evi­dence one way or another,” Gray told me. “I spent a sab­bat­i­cal in North Car­olina, and both Raleigh and Durham have estab­lished these Offices of Cre­ativ­ity, and they’re all doing this with­out a huge amount, if any, evi­dence that it makes that big a dif­fer­ence. We’d like to clear the air here, if we can. The test was really designed to see if we could fig­ure out what causes what. Was it growth that caused the arts, or the arts that caused the eco­nomic expan­sion?” Gray did the test with data from a hand­ful of metro areas, but the results were incon­clu­sive and didn’t show a clear effect one way or the other. So he decided to do it again with a big­ger dataset for a more robust con­clu­sion. This time he assem­bled data for fif­teen cities span­ning thirty seven years—from 1969 to 2006—and ran the num­bers again, a project which he just fin­ished this spring. “To my knowl­edge,” Gray says, “this is the only extended time series analy­sis that’s been car­ried out on this.” Over those thirty seven years, Gray found that spend­ing on the arts caused eco­nomic growth in four of the fif­teen metro areas: New York City, Atlanta, Dal­las, and Minneapolis-St. Paul. In New York, the growth impact was short term, dis­si­pat­ing after four years. In Atlanta, it was longer term, appear­ing only after eight years. In both Dal­las and the Twin Cities, the effect was short and long term. In the other eleven cites, arts spend­ing had no clear effect on growth. “It really depends on poten­tial fac­tors unique to each city,” said Gray. “I’m tempted to acknowl­edge that we’ve been suc­cess­ful in the Twin Cities with our strong arts com­mu­nity. But I don’t think you can just recre­ate that by chang­ing bud­get allo­ca­tions in another city. There’s more to it than that. Fos­ter­ing the cre­ative envi­ron­ment may pay off. But there are so many other fac­tors that it’s not clear there is a guar­an­teed payoff.”

Today, Cre­ative Class doc­trine has become so deeply engrained in the cul­ture that few ques­tion it. Why, with­out any solid evi­dence, did a whole gen­er­a­tion of pol­icy mak­ers swal­low the cre­ative Kool-Aid so enthu­si­as­ti­cally? One rea­son is that when Florida’s first book came out, few experts both­ered debunk­ing it, because it didn’t seem worth debunk­ing. “In the aca­d­e­mic and urban plan­ning world,” says Peck, “peo­ple are slightly embar­rassed about the Florida stuff.” Most econ­o­mists and pub­lic pol­icy schol­ars just didn’t take it seriously.

This is partly because much of what Florida was describ­ing was already accounted for by a the­ory that had been well-known in eco­nomic cir­cles for decades, which says that the amount of college-educated peo­ple you have in an area is what dri­ves eco­nomic growth, not the num­ber of artists or immi­grants or gays, most of whom also hap­pen to be col­lege edu­cated. This is known as Human Cap­i­tal the­ory, men­tioned briefly above, and in Hoy­man and Faricy’s analy­sis, it cor­re­lated much more highly with eco­nomic growth than the num­ber of cre­ative class work­ers. “Human cap­i­tal beat the pants off cre­ative cap­i­tal,” Hoy­man said. “So it looks like growth is a human cap­i­tal phenomenon—if you’ve got a lot of edu­cated peo­ple. We’re in a knowl­edge econ­omy, where human cap­i­tal is worth a lot more than just show­ing up for work every day.” In other words, if there was any­thing to the the­ory of the Cre­ative Class, it was the pack­age it came in. Florida just told us we were cre­ative and valu­able, and we wanted to believe it. He sold us to ourselves.

Look­ing back, it was strangely lib­er­at­ing to have real­ized that the cre­ative class was a myth. It was fun for a while and, unfounded as it was, a few good things may even have come out of it.

In the end, no amount of wish­ful think­ing, either about our­selves or about Madi­son could change what it was: A giant sub­urb with a uni­ver­sity in the mid­dle. It wasn’t a bad place, and many peo­ple we knew loved it. But the fact was that we sim­ply didn’t belong there. We didn’t have PhDs and had no con­nec­tion to the uni­ver­sity and didn’t work in gov­ern­ment. And to live in a place where you don’t belong can begin to feel like a kind of nonex­is­tence. So we sold our house, packed a truck, and headed to Minneapolis.

This time, we moved as wiser, more reality-based peo­ple. We researched it care­fully. We picked the place we wanted to live not because of any trendy trope, or because it was high on any par­tic­u­lar list, but because of the cheap hous­ing, jobs, fam­ily and friends, as well as the arts, the bik­ing, the pub­lic tran­sit and qual­ity of life. Four years later, we’re hap­pily ensconced. Why? I’ve quit try­ing to find easy answers to that ques­tion. Min­nesota isn’t per­fect, and I’m not going to pre­tend it is. But it’s good, and we like it, and it has begun to feel like a place where we belong.

Look­ing back, it was strangely lib­er­at­ing to have real­ized that the Cre­ative Class was a myth. It was fun for a while and, unfounded as it was, a few good things may even have come out of it. Some cities built bike paths. Oth­ers poured money into their arts com­mu­ni­ties. I’m all for bik­ing and the arts, as was every­one I spoke to for this story. In fact, they were at pains to point out that they were not opposed to the things Florida was advo­cat­ing. “To be against this,” said Jamie Peck, “is like being against moth­er­hood and apple pie. You’re against cre­ativ­ity? You’re against gays and lesbians?You’re against parks and bike paths?” Michele Hoy­man echoed the sen­ti­ment. “There are a whole vari­ety of rea­sons to have arts as a cen­ter­piece of your city. One is to make it a tourist des­ti­na­tion. Another is if you want to revi­tal­ize a neigh­bor­hood. Retail is fine as a revi­tal­iza­tion strat­egy, but it doesn’t have a very good mul­ti­plier effect. It’s not going to save a city that’s com­pletely dying.”

Even as an arts advo­cate,” said Mel Gray, “I want to do it for the right rea­sons.” The right rea­son, we can now say, is that these things are good in them­selves. They have intrin­sic value. They make the place we live more inter­est­ing, live­lier, health­ier and more humane. They make it better.

They do not make it more profitable.

Florida’s legacy will likely be with us for some time. This is some­thing I still feel myself, when I am dri­ving out to the west­ern part of the state, where the land flat­tens and the sky unfolds and I get the urge to just keep going. The feel­ing comes over me like a wave. It’s like an ache, deep down, to try to get some­where that might be a lit­tle closer to perfect.

I know now that this was Florida’s true genius: He took our anx­i­ety about place and turned it into a prod­uct. He found a way to cap­i­tal­ize on our nag­ging sense that there is always some­where out there more cre­ative, more fun, more diverse, more gay, and just plain bet­ter than the one where we hap­pen to be.

But I’ve been down that road, and I know where it goes. I know that it leads both every­where and nowhere. I know you could go down it for­ever and never quite arrive. And I know now that it may be wiser to try to cre­ate the place you want to live, rather than to keep try­ing to find it.

Which is why, instead of dri­ving on, I turn my car around and head for home.


Richard Florida responds, and so does Frank Bures.

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