News: Cool Is Money

Tristate's homophobia, closed-mindedness hurt it economically

 
David Wasinger


Development expert Richard Florida told a UC audience June 13 that if Cincinnati "can't do creativity, you can't do wealth."



No matter how smart your colleges are, how wide your bandwidth is or how lucrative your tax breaks are, cities starting the 21st Century with closed, intolerant minds won't do well economically.

Richard Florida, author and regional development expert, has a lot more than that to say in his new book, The Rise of the Creative Class. But that's a pretty good summary of the theory he's developed after several years as the John Heinz III Economic Development Professor at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh.

Florida spoke to a sold-out crowd of 180 people June 13 at the University of Cincinnati for "Creating Fun and Exciting Places," a day-long series of panels about the future of local economic development. Cinergy, UC, the Greater Cincinnati Chamber of Commerce and the Metropolitan Growth Alliance supported the event.

Florida says there are about 38 million people who are the movers and shakers in today's economy — the "creative class." They're software engineers, scientists, business executives and many others who lead their respective professions in new directions through creative thought. Their population has almost doubled since 1980, and they are one-third of the U.S. workforce.

The heart of this new class are the super-creative people: architects, poets and novelists, professors, high-tech workers and researchers. Next come creative professionals who work in legal professions, health care and business management.

Then there are musicians, artists and others.

These are mobile people who can live almost anywhere they want. That doesn't mean they move to cities only for jobs. Certain cities — Austin, Texas; San Francisco; Boston; San Diego — have been able to attract and keep these people, while Buffalo, Louisville, New Orleans and Memphis have not. The creative friendly cities and regions fared much better during the 1990s high tech boom than the others.

"If you can't do creativity, you can't do wealth," Florida said.

That isn't a new idea. Florida is getting attention because he's sure Austin, Boston and the others are doing well due to the fact they're tolerant, gay-friendly places with thriving music and arts scenes.

We got it all wrong
Beginning in 1987, the perpetually-in-motion Florida began working at Carnegie Mellon and learned the ropes of economic development, which operates under the assumption that cities and regions have to lure companies to get or keep jobs. Cities today also need to foster high-tech enterprises, research and development and college-educated people, the thinking goes. A Carnegie Mellon project spawned Lycos, the Internet search engine company.

Florida's moment of inspiration came in the late 1990s during a two-year stint as a visiting professor at Harvard University. Sitting in a café reading The Boston Globe, he saw an article announcing that Lycos was moving from Pittsburgh to Boston. Why? Because there weren't enough talented, creative people in Pittsburgh to staff the company.

"And I said, 'Oh my God. I've got to look back at my field — my whole field has got it wrong,' " he said.

Florida dove into the study of creativity, reading everything he could. He also looked for other links and differences between cities that grew in the 1990s and ones that didn't.

Florida's second lightning bolt came when he compared his successful cities list to the list of cities with high concentrations of gays, which itself was a 1998 study of one of his graduate students. The correlation between the two lists was striking — even more striking than the correlation between booming cities and ones with lots of college-educated people, another old measure.

Two years ago Florida spoke to the country's governors at their annual meeting. While there, the CEO of Hewlett Packard told the governors they could forget about highway interchanges and tax incentives — Hewlett Packard is going where creative people are instead of trying to lure creative people to one city.

"Creativity comes from human beings," Florida said. "And we're mobile."

Today the average worker stays at a job for 3.1 years. Workers under 30 average only 1.1 years.

Besides his demographic research, Florida also conducted hundreds of interviews and focus groups with members of this creative class.

"And guess what? We don't work for money," he said.

Creative people choose places for a few key reasons. People move to have access for a range of jobs, not one job. They don't care about sports stadiums. They do care about living near streets full of activity and life. Even heterosexual people care about how gay-tolerant a city is, because that sends a signal the place is open to new ideas and people.

And here's the kicker — there isn't a density of high-tech workers in a place without a thriving music scene, Florida said.

Think about it, he said. Where is the country's high-tech center? Silicon Valley, next door to San Francisco, the center of the 1960s cultural and musical revolution.

Apple Computer co-founders Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak started their business out of a garage in Silicon Valley in the mid-1970s. Both looked like total hippies but still found investors for their company.

"How far would that person have gotten in Pittsburgh or Cincinnati?" Florida asked.

Both cities are still stuck in the organizational age of the 1950s and 1960s, where suits and ties matter. Pittsburgh and Cincinnati had the same technological infrastructure as San Francisco but not the same open-mindedness. By contrast, Austin has reaped similar rewards as San Francisco in the last 15 years.

A somewhat livable city
The first panel on June 13 quickly raised some tough questions about Cincinnati's image and economic future.

Norm Miller, director of UC's Real Estate Program, moderated the panel by asking what Cincinnati was missing compared to the rest of the world and whether or not the city has received anything for the millions it's spent on downtown development.

Several locals, including developers, a mall marketer and a financial expert, touched on the questions. But Tom Humes, president of Great Traditions Land and Development Co., boldly went where few local public figures go — right to the truth.

"We have a heart but it's severely wounded," Humes said, adding that the city is losing population and has been for decades. "And I think, unfortunately, we do not have a sense of vibrancy and life."

This comes from a suburban developer and a member of the Port of Greater Cincinnati Development Authority, the organization in charge of developing the riverfront — a position with "civic cheerleader" in the job title.

The city has a Lazarus and Saks Fifth Avenue, among other stores and restaurants, to show for the millions of dollars it poured into downtown. That's about it, although the tide is slowly turning toward residential subsidies.

Meanwhile, Tristate developers are organizing public relations campaigns against each other in the race to build malls and subdivisions in Butler and Warren counties, whose populations have been booming at the expense of Hamilton County.

In short, retail follows people, not vice versa.

Over-the-Rhine developer Bob Schneider said the neighborhood is crucial to the future of Cincinnati, which is crucial to the future of the Tristate. If the city doesn't redevelop it for use by all types of people, Cincinnati won't do well.

Over-the-Rhine could be exactly the kind of neighborhood creative people are looking for, although local leaders are more focused now on finishing the riverfront, which could require a total of more than $2 billion. Cincinnatians are left wondering what $50 million of that could have done for Over-the-Rhine, not to mention what locating the new Reds stadium near the neighborhood could have done.

Speaking of young people, Humes brought up a question on the minds of many of them in the Tristate.

"How many of your children want to stay in Cincinnati when they graduate (from college)?," Humes asked. "That's a scary thought."

In short, the Tristate needs to ask itself a question or two: Does it want Cincinnati to be its cultural center, where people live, walk and work, like in Portland, Ore.? Or does the Tristate want to be the next Detroit, a gaping hole surrounded by people who refuse to say they live in Detroit?

There are clear paths to both destinies. Portland does it right with planning and zoning, said Kathy Schwab, residential development advisor for the non-profit group Downtown Cincinnati Inc. Portland leaders, with their state's help, have invested heavily in their urban center via light rail combined with limits on poorly planned, car-driven development.

"They understand how sprawl affects their urban core," Schwab said.

The Tristate is politically fragmented, segregated by race and class and economically barely holding our own. We're building suburbs with new roads, schools and sewers while the urban center is one-third vacant compared to its 1950 population. We have a mostly Republican suburban donut that goes out of its way to lecture minority, inner-city residents about obeying the law and the value of hard work, even though most suburbanites have little idea just how different life in Over-the-Rhine and other urban neighborhoods is from life in West Chester.

Gays, artists giving up on Cincinnati
Florida ranks regions based on three T's: technology, talent and tolerance. Places need all three to succeed in today's economy. Two out of three isn't good enough.

Florida says gays and lesbians are "canaries" — early indicators — for modern economic development, although they alone don't predict economic success. Miami and New Orleans are tolerant but couldn't build technology to save themselves, Florida said.

Cincinnati, on the other hand, has brains and bandwidth but can't deal with difference.

Cincinnati is the only U.S. city with a charter amendment — Article 12 — that prohibits it from giving gays and lesbians the same legal protections it offers minorities and disabled people. Voters passed it in 1993 after a campaign promoted it as keeping gays from getting "special rights."

Many gays have moved away from Cincinnati because of Article 12, according to Cincinnati attorney Scott Knox, who specializes in discrimination against gays and lesbians and social security issues.

"I hear good people talking about moving away," Knox said. "I've thought of it."

Sometimes politicians and others say there's no need to repeal Article 12 because federal laws protect gays and lesbians. Unless you're a federal employee or a member of a union with a good contract, that's not true, Knox said.

"It seems in this city we waste colossal amounts of time and money on no-brainer issues such as 'Should we discriminate against gays?'," he said.

Knox believes the average Cincinnatian isn't actively hostile toward gays, but the same isn't true for the wealthy, mostly white business and political leaders in Hamilton County.

"The government here has a ways to catch up to the people," he said.

And the area has a ways to catch up on tolerance toward and appreciation of the arts, Florida said. The most famous case of intolerance, of course, is Robert Mapplethorpe, the gay photographer whose 1990 show of black-and-white images at the Contemporary Arts Center was unsuccessfully prosecuted as indecent smut.

But consider the eerily similar case of Bill Davis, a local photographer and Antonelli College teacher who had a show with three fellow photographers at UC last September called Imaginations: Altered Visual Perceptions. It was exhibited in University Hall on the UC campus.

The night before the opening, university representatives asked him to add a few pictures to the show, which he was glad to do. But they also asked him to remove two of them, including "Admonition," a shot featuring the rear of a woman with a fist protruding from between her legs.

UC officials said the images violated the college's sexual harassment policy, which is ironic because Davis said the show was intended as a statement against rape and other forms of sexual domination.

Davis is headed to graduate school at Temple University in Philadelphia in the fall. A Cincinnati native, he's bitter and not sure he'll come back. The bitterness comes in part from the lack of support from local arts organizations after he told them about his treatment at UC.

The arts leaders said they sympathized but wouldn't stand up for his cause, Davis said. They had patrons and taxpayer support to think of, he believes.

Davis spent a couple of years in Prague putting together a student exchange photography program for Ohio University, so he's been able to get a different look at Cincinnati — something all Cincinnatians desperately need, he said.

"The global perspective of us is we've got to get over our hang-ups," Davis said.

Davis replaced the unwelcome images with a blank canvas and passed out an artist's statement about the show. UC wouldn't let him hang it on the wall, either.

That's only one recent case. There was student poet Nina Caporale's poem "You Ass," which used the word "ass" eight times in three paragraphs. Caporale, a participant in ArtWorks' summer "Speak Out" program, won, lost and then regained a $500 scholarship for participating in the program and writing poetry.

Last summer Gary Goldman, who operates the Esquire and Mariemont movie theaters, trimmed a few seconds from The Center of the World. The scene pictured a stripper inserting a lollipop in her vagina and giving it to the film's star, a nerdy dot-com millionaire who'd befriended the stripper. The fear of prosecution obviously loomed large in Goldman's decision to secretly edit out the scene. (CityBeat Film Editor Steve Ramos, by the way, remains banned from the theater because of columns he wrote about the incident.)

There's photographer Thomas Condon, convicted of gross abuse of a corpse for photographing them without permission of the Hamilton County Coroner's Office. Criminal act or not, Hamilton County Prosecutor Mike Allen added insult to injury by skewering Condon's art as "vile" and "sick," the most shocking he's seen in 25 years of law enforcement.

Most recently, four University of Cincinnati senior art majors had to put a warning label and keep the gallery doors closed on a recent one-week show in UC's School of Design, Art, Architecture and Planning building. The show contained reproductions of more than 50 examples of graffiti found on campus, with captions noting the location where it was found.

Coolinnati?
If Cincinnati is going to remake itself, it will happen because young and professional people did it. It's not enough to complain about your city.

"The only way to change this is if we do it," Florida said.

But first the creative class needs to get to know itself better or even recognize itself as a group with common interests.

In Pittsburgh, Florida is mentoring leaders there on holding "fluxes," parties where people involved in the creative class come together to have a beer and talk. Artists, engineers, writers, programmers and so on rent out a space — perhaps a club — hire a local band and a DJ and connect. Pittsburgh's creative class has organized a couple of these events so far.

If the last five panelists at the UC event are as serious as they seem to be, there's one on the horizon in Cincinnati.

That panel included five young professionals ranging from 24 to 34 years old who talked about why they live in Cincinnati. All but one work or worked for Procter & Gamble.

Najoh Tita-Reid came from Boston in spite of Cincinnati, not because she wanted to live here but because she had to spend two years here with P&G. An eight-year P&G veteran and four-year Cincinnati resident, she might have best summed up the feelings of the non-native panelists.

In Boston, she said, strangers would give you tips on how to enjoy the city and what was going on. In Cincinnati, people hear you're from out of town and the conversation ends. Local leaders also present cold shoulders to outsiders.

"(Cincinnati) is not a very fluid community," Tita-Reid said.

She stayed past her mandatory P&G time to found The Cincinnati Partnership, an organization trying to keep minority professionals from leaving Cincinnati. So far she's mostly been told by potential funding sources to "merge with the Urban League," which is a fine organization with a different mission.

"We're not the Urban League," Tita-Reid said.

The good news for Pittsburgh and Cincinnati is that creative class people also want authenticity, which has a lot to do with history, Florida said. Both cities have it in abundance, not to mention incredible architecture. In Cincinnati's case, that means really doing something about Over-the-Rhine — concrete, physical improvements to the largest collection of Italianate architecture in the U.S.

"History provides credibility," Florida said.

That will take more than making a lot of noise and appointing a Vine Street coordinator without a budget, as Mayor Charlie Luken has.

There's almost no way to replace word-of-mouth advertising about cities, Florida said.

"Don't hit us with brochures that tell us you're cool," Florida said, drawing laughter from audience members who might have been thinking about Downtown Cincinnati Inc.'s recent Go To Town campaign or Luken and Vice Mayor Alicia Reece's pro-black business pamphlet.

In other words, Florida said, if a city has to use a brochure to say it's cool, it's not cool. ©

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