Here is a New York story that always makes me want to jump off a ledge: Jane Jacobs, the writer and long-time Greenwich Village resident who became legendary for defining what made a city livable, came back for a visit in 2004, two years before she died at the age of 90. New Yorker writer Adam Gopnik caught up with her and in a Talk of the Town story quoted her saying, “Whenever I'm here I go back to look at our house, 555 Hudson Street, and I know that I could never afford it now."
Jacobs and her husband, Robert Jacobs, an architect, bought the red brick house on Hudson Street in 1947 for $7,000. She lived in the Village during the years when the young Bob Dylan sang in coffeehouses, abstract expressionists met and pondered the meaning of life, and the gay liberation movement was born. The Village was a village then, bustling with immigrants and mom-and-pop stores, but on any given day Jacobs might have passed some famous neighbors on the streets, including e.e. Cummings, Jack Kerouac, Jasper John, and Jackson Pollock.
Jacobs’ seminal book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, published in 1961, took all of this in. Her premise was that New York’s future depended not so much on grand skyscrapers as on the preservation of small neighborhoods and the “street ballet” that she said led to economic vitality.
“Creative places in the city are just like living beings: they are born, grow, decay and can rise again. In my view, the streets are the vital organs of the creative city,” she wrote. “After all, people meet in the streets and it is here that human contact, unexpected encounters and business life take place.”
Jacobs was also known for opposing developer Robert Moses in his $7 million urban renewal project that would have turned her West Village neighborhood into a land of skyscrapers, as well as his plan to build a lower Manhattan expressway through the Village. On those counts, her success is still visible.
The Jacobs family moved to Toronto in 1968—at least in part to keep their sons out of the Vietnam War—and though the house on Hudson Street remains intact, a different demographic has moved in. The Jacobs house sold for $3.3 million in 2009, according to recent records.
Among many younger urban studies scholars who consider themselves protégées of Jacobs is Richard Florida. Born in Newark, NJ, Florida has also found his way to Toronto, where he teaches business and creativity and is director of the Martin Prosperity Institute at the University of Toronto. He is also one of those fortunate rare breeds who can legitimately call himself a public intellectual. He is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where he oversees a section on livable cities.
But Florida is best known for his book The Creative Class, first published in 2002 and re-released this year with five new chapters. The first edition presented an earnest view of the kind of people who in previous generations gravitated to Greenwich Village, people who have what it takes to redefine new waves of art and music (ie. talent and connections), people who have fought battles to prove the human condition comes in many colors.
These people, Florida argued in his first edition and continues to argue, are the Creative Class and are now the backbone of any city that has an economic future. Sad to say, his earnest tone was already becoming old-fashioned in the post-dot.com-crash, post-9/11 world of 2002, but in 2012 it sounds downright out of touch—out of touch with America’s clash of economic ideologies, and especially out of touch with the vast majority of Creative Class incomes (or lack thereof) versus the cost of living.
Not that Florida doesn’t have a great vision: “Powering the great ongoing changes of our time is the rise of human creativity as the defining feature of economic life,” he writes. I don’t think this statement is wrong, but it is a sweeping big-picture long-term view of what ought to propel the 21st century; with any luck it will ring truer to historians 100 years from now.
Part of what makes his vision hard to swallow in our present world is that he cuts a very wide swath in defining the Creative Class, even though he divides it into several gradations. First there is the Super-creative Core, in which he lumps computer and mathematical occupations; architecture and engineering occupations; life, physical and social science occupations; education, training and library occupations; arts, design, entertainment, sports and media occupations.
Beneath that on the creative social ladder are the Creative Professions: that’s management, financial operation, legal occupations, health-care practitioners and technical occupations; and high-end sales. This breakdown explains everything about why he continually writes about the Creative Class having skills that command good salaries. Averaged into his income calculations are all of Garrison Keilor’s English majors who earn their living making $4 lattes, and all others who dance, act, sing, direct, write, play instruments and create visual images when they aren’t too busy doing whatever they have to do to pay the rent.
Florida dismisses the differences in incomes by pointing out that the Creative Class, on average, makes a lot more than those in the working, service or agriculture class. That is certainly true in many anecdotal cases—and members of the Creative Class, even if their salaries are minimum wage or nonexistent, are in general more likely to have parents able to provide handouts.
But just to show how little averages mean, he presents a charge that averages out all creative class salaries to $70,714. Anyone want to try to rent a nice average apartment in New York or San Francisco on an income of $70,714? Here are some more statistics, from a New York Times article about young college graduates living with their parents and the math that explains why: data compiled by Max Weselcouch, a research analyst at the Furman Center for Real Estate and Urban Policy, shows that in New York City, from 1970 to 2010 the median rent rose by 75 percent, while the median income remained stagnant after adjusting for inflation.
Florida knows it’s tough. He notes that studies have found “that truly creative individuals, from artists and writers to scientist and open-source software developers, are driven primarily by internal motivations, by the intrinsic rewards and satisfactions of their pursuits” as opposed to being driven by money.
In a chapter about Austin, Texas, a city that has become one of the hippest music centers in the country, Florida quotes from alternate country performer James McMurtry’s blog, saying his bass player Ronnie Johnson used to think Austin was a good place to “leave his stuff”—but Ronnie Johnson leaves his stuff in Marfa, Texas now, Austin having grown too expensive for a sideman.
It’s the same story in most of the cities where the Creative Class gravitates: they go, they gentrify, then they’re priced out. A little outrage seems fitting for an author so immersed in the value of creativity, but it isn’t there.
And what he ignores is a crucial ingredient of our economy: we live in a world increasingly held hostage to engineers of finance. A certain subspecies of creativity flourishes on Wall Street and in the City of London, where people who design and trade exotic financial instruments make a highly disproportionate share of income—we all know the term “one percent” now.
Florida puts these one-percenters at the very bottom end of the Creative Class, under Creative Professionals. The world’s financiers are not, on an individual basis, enemies of 99-percenters on the top tier. They buy art. They patronize theater—indeed, in New York they are the only people who can afford to go the theater these days. They sometimes marry struggling artists and absolve them of all money worries, leaving them many hours in the course of a day to create.
But they do drive up the price of everything, as developers, landlords, restaurateurs, and retailers try to grab a trickle of their money, which is why New York and other cities that Florida considers great playgrounds for the Creative Class are losing the grit and spontaneity that he calls authenticity, and instead are beginning to resemble a new kind of upscale strip mall, complete with graceful historic homes and white-walled galleries that somehow all begin to look the same.
As long as society values above all the kind of work that uses money to grow more money--albeit in many cases what the financial services industry itself calls “shadow money” or money that exists only on paper as volatile valuations of investments—Florida’s rose-colored predictions about the Creative Class are doomed.
It’s a problem that calls for...creativity. A former student of Florida’s Elizabeth Currid, author of a more rightfully outraged book called The Warhol Economy: How Fashion, Art, and Music Drive New York City, (Princeton University Press, 2007), which is about how a community of artists living near one another has fueled New York’s economy in the past, has also suggested that well-heeled philanthropists who donate to museums and big cultural institutions might also consider giving housing subsidies or grants to artists so that they can afford to keep creative neighborhoods abuzz. Here’s another modest proposal that came to me as I looked around at block after block of new luxury towers, many of them empty because one-percenters buy the 10,000 square-foot apartments within as investment properties. Put Creative Class members in those apartments, rent free as long as they use them to paint vast canvases and monumental sculptures, stage plays with large casts, play drums and bass, write epic novels.
True, they will have parties, they will get high and break things, they will plot revolutions and breed young Creative Class types. But they’ll build more than they destroy.
When you, Mr. or Ms. Investor, happen to be in town they’ll make room for you. Think of it as 24/7 theatre; you might even invite friends and charge them $350 per audience participant to watch an authentic, quintessential Creative Class experience. If your charges become stars, the fact that they once lived there will raise the value of your real estate. It just might be possible to turn creativity into capital.