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.