Here’s to the out-of-pocket creative class
Every time educated types talk about downtown development or the fate of the arts community in Greensboro it’s almost inevitable that the term ‘creative class’ ‘— lifted from the book The Rise of the Creative Class by Richard Florida ‘— will cross their lips.
I’m working through the sequel, The Flight of the Creative Class, in order to participate intelligently in the conversation. From what I’ve gathered so far, the implications of Florida’s message are somewhat ambiguous for a city in Greensboro’s circumstances.
Let me first express some irritation with the term by telling a story.
When I was 14 I started a photocopied magazine full of sociopathic rants, interviews with punk bands and tales of skateboarding that greatly antagonized my high school principal in Owenton, Ky. I rented out the local volunteer firehouse and organized music and arts festivals. I made up poems and songs to entertain my friends. Was I a member of the creative class? I’m still not sure. I received lots of positive feedback from my peers and some enlightened adults, but no one proposed an economic development policy to try to encourage my activities. I don’t live in Owenton anymore, and perhaps there’s a conclusion to be drawn from that.
Similarly, I have a friend named Rick Martinez in EspaÃ±ola, NM. Rick is in his late-20s, works as a short-order cook at Angelina’s restaurant and still lives with his mom. He ploughs what little discretionary income he has into equipment for his punk band and costs for the homemade comic books he draws and gives away for free. A lot of his time is spent organizing packaged punk rock shows. He charges a minimal cover, pays the rental fee for the venue and gives some money to the out-of-town bands to cover food and gas. His big effort is the annual SpaÃ±apalooza festival, which features music, skateboarding, activities for small children and booths for religious and social action organizations.
To my knowledge, there’s no government policy designed to support what my friend does. But ask anybody in EspaÃ±ola who cares about young people and they’ll tell you he’s an anchor, a source of hope. Then again, the fortunes of the ‘creative class’ are not exactly a top priority for the EspaÃ±ola City Council, what with crisis-level heroin addiction, drunk driving, teen suicide and astronomical high school dropout rates preoccupying them.
To give Richard Florida his due, what he means by ‘the creative class’ is people with education. More specifically, he’s talking about young people with the talent to drive innovative businesses ‘— and the creative artists that make cities attractive to those professionals.
But the big revelation is that not all is so grand in those cities ‘— places like Seattle, Austin and the Triangle here in North Carolina ‘— that are known for technological innovation, creative industries and alternative rock bands.
Florida created a set of indices that compare measures of creativity with inequality and housing inaffordability. And it turns out that there’s a high correlation. The Triangle ranks sixth in the nation for creativity, but also sixth for inequality and 30th for housing inaffordability. Decidedly unhip Greensboro, in contrast, ranks 60th for creativity and 54th for inequality. In fact, Greensboring is rated the tenth most affordable city in the nation. That sounds pretty appealing to me.
It turns out that Florida is more worried about the roughly 70 percent of the American population employed in unfulfilling service jobs, whom he refers to as the ‘“creative have-nots,’” than the downtown artists trying to make a go of it.
North Carolina is a state, he tells Fiona Morgan of The Independent, ‘“where you have the thriving creative haves alongside the creative have-nots right there in one state. The real question is not how do we build a more thriving creative economy in your region; it’s how do we make more and more people participate in the creative economy?’”
I think it’s important to talk about how we might envision Greensboro as a more attractive place to live and a city that has more fun, but so far the conversation has been way too narrow, and way too focused on downtown.
I look at downtown Greensboro as a castle bounded by the public library in the east, the stadium in the west, tony Fisher Park in the north and Lee Street in the south. Within those walls is a fairly small town made up of developers, artists and people who like to argue about whether the baseball stadium was a good idea. Outside the moat is a myriad of fractured, disparate communities ‘— fantastic but largely invisible cultures of higher education, ethnicity, spiritual faith and profession ‘— that don’t seem to be part of the conversation. They probably don’t care much about the stadium one way or the other.
I can get behind this statement in Florida’s book: ‘“The formula for success must shift from simply counting jobs or economic output to ensuring long-run prosperity that taps and harnesses the full creative capacities of everyone.’”
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