News: Creative Class Growing Pains

Portrait of the artist as an economic cog

Jymi Bolden


Brian Garry warns that the wooing of the creative class masks a desire to gentrify low-income neighborhoods.



After Richard Florida's 2002 release of The Rise of the Creative Class, talk of luring people, not businesses, dominated conversations about cities' economic vitality nationwide. But there's disagreement about exactly which people are important and why.

Locally, Florida's ideas sparked the creation of Cincinnati Tomorrow in Dec. 2002 and its 42-page Creative City Plan, released in February of this year, as well as a slew of other groups intent on making Cincinnati life more social, fulfilling and attractive for young people.

At Plush, a downtown bar, Mayor Charlie Luken spoke at the unveiling of the volunteer-drafted Creative City Plan. Several council members and business leaders went along to show their support (see A Creative City, issue of Feb. 26-March 4).

Nick Spencer, founder of Cincinnati Tomorrow and later a candidate for city council, showed up everywhere, including USA Today. CityBeat called him the "creative class poster boy" and praised his energy and candor (see Running Against the Grain, issue of Oct. 8-14).

The 25-year-old Xavier University student received more than 7,000 votes, but that wasn't enough to earn him a spot on city council.

Young representatives of the "creative class" — nearly all under 40, many under 30 —were profiled in every local media outlet.

The backlash
However, it appears that some local leaders might have taken the most workable, conventional aspects of Florida's work and conveniently overlooked the rest.

Florida wrote about cities trapped by their past, in a passage eerily apropos to Cincinnati.

"They pay lip service to the need to attract talent, but continue to pour resources into underwriting big-box retailers, subsidizing down-town malls, recruiting call centers and squandering precious taxpayer dollars on extravagant stadium complexes," Florida wrote.

This is not what the creative class wants, he says.

"Today's professionals ... (are) increasingly opting out of places where tradition is more valued and where the social norms of the organizational age still prevail," Florida wrote. "In fact, many of these places are being almost entirely abandoned by the Creative Class."

Nearly everyone agrees that the bleeding out of Cincinnati's population, especially in the urban core of downtown and Over-the-Rhine, is a fearsome thing that must be stymied if the city is to avoid that worst of all fates — Detroit's.

However, what some call "repopulation," others call "gentrification." While the Urbanists meet to passionately discuss ways to celebrate and revitalize Cincinnati's urban core, some activists worry that rising prices will displace Over-the-Rhine's lower-income, mostly African-American residents.

The term "creative class" often seems to have classist, if not racist, undertones, according to Brian Garry, an independent city council candidate who won more than 5,000 votes but was not elected.

The Rev. Damon Lynch III, who missed ninth place and a seat on council by 738 votes, thinks strengthening Cincinnati's existing communities, not creating new ones, will revitalize the city's economy and repair its image.

While politicians and civic leaders the nation over have hung their hats on Florida's idea that recruiting and retaining a "Creative Class" is the key to a region's economic health, words got muddled, such as "creative," "artist" and "art."

"Who isn't creative?" asked Peter Block of Cincinnati, a best-selling author and management consultant (see

Jymi Bolden


Brian Garry warns that the wooing of the creative class masks a desire to gentrify low-income neighborhoods.



After Richard Florida's 2002 release of The Rise of the Creative Class, talk of luring people, not businesses, dominated conversations about cities' economic vitality nationwide. But there's disagreement about exactly which people are important and why.

Locally, Florida's ideas sparked the creation of Cincinnati Tomorrow in Dec. 2002 and its 42-page Creative City Plan, released in February of this year, as well as a slew of other groups intent on making Cincinnati life more social, fulfilling and attractive for young people.

At Plush, a downtown bar, Mayor Charlie Luken spoke at the unveiling of the volunteer-drafted Creative City Plan. Several council members and business leaders went along to show their support (see A Creative City, issue of Feb. 26-March 4).

Nick Spencer, founder of Cincinnati Tomorrow and later a candidate for city council, showed up everywhere, including USA Today. CityBeat called him the "creative class poster boy" and praised his energy and candor (see Running Against the Grain, issue of Oct. 8-14).

The 25-year-old Xavier University student received more than 7,000 votes, but that wasn't enough to earn him a spot on city council.

Young representatives of the "creative class" — nearly all under 40, many under 30 —were profiled in every local media outlet.

The backlash
However, it appears that some local leaders might have taken the most workable, conventional aspects of Florida's work and conveniently overlooked the rest.

Florida wrote about cities trapped by their past, in a passage eerily apropos to Cincinnati.

"They pay lip service to the need to attract talent, but continue to pour resources into underwriting big-box retailers, subsidizing down-town malls, recruiting call centers and squandering precious taxpayer dollars on extravagant stadium complexes," Florida wrote.

This is not what the creative class wants, he says.

"Today's professionals ... (are) increasingly opting out of places where tradition is more valued and where the social norms of the organizational age still prevail," Florida wrote. "In fact, many of these places are being almost entirely abandoned by the Creative Class."

Nearly everyone agrees that the bleeding out of Cincinnati's population, especially in the urban core of downtown and Over-the-Rhine, is a fearsome thing that must be stymied if the city is to avoid that worst of all fates — Detroit's.

However, what some call "repopulation," others call "gentrification." While the Urbanists meet to passionately discuss ways to celebrate and revitalize Cincinnati's urban core, some activists worry that rising prices will displace Over-the-Rhine's lower-income, mostly African-American residents.

The term "creative class" often seems to have classist, if not racist, undertones, according to Brian Garry, an independent city council candidate who won more than 5,000 votes but was not elected.

The Rev. Damon Lynch III, who missed ninth place and a seat on council by 738 votes, thinks strengthening Cincinnati's existing communities, not creating new ones, will revitalize the city's economy and repair its image.

While politicians and civic leaders the nation over have hung their hats on Florida's idea that recruiting and retaining a "Creative Class" is the key to a region's economic health, words got muddled, such as "creative," "artist" and "art."

"Who isn't creative?" asked Peter Block of Cincinnati, a best-selling author and management consultant (see Peter's Principles, issue of Sept. 3-9).

"The creative class is made up of anyone who is paid to think for a living," wrote Emily Hall in Seattle's alternative weekly The Stranger (see Without Them, You're Nothing.)

Indeed, suddenly it seemed any "young professional" was now automatically a member of the "creative class."

The table-waiting class
Perhaps the only people not members of the creative class are artists themselves.

Consider the numbers: according to Creative Intelligence, a newsletter issued in conjunction with the Richard Florida Creativity Group, the top average salary for a member of a creative class is in California ($52, 178); the lowest in South Dakota ($31,703). The average wages for creative class workers range from $24.85 per hour (in Delaware) to $15.18 (again, in South Dakota).

Most artists don't make anywhere near that, unless they have a night of particularly good tips. One local photographer, however, does well enough working three jobs to finance his graceful cross-processed photographs of flowers.

Hall even goes so far as to call Florida's book "anti-art." It's not artists as producers of art, but the artists' lifestyle that Florida values, she says. Art is only useful to him as an economic cog, to "spur the creativity of computer programmers" — who, she asserts, are not artists — and "as background music and décor for people who need their creative identity validated," Hall writes.

Florida readily admits that his theory is an economic one, but his idea of the creative class doesn't preclude welcoming members of other classes.

"I strongly believe that the key to improving the lot of underpaid, underemployed and disadvantaged people lies not in social welfare programs or low-end make-work jobs — nor in somehow bringing back the factory jobs of the past — but rather in tapping the creativity of these people, paying them appropriately for it and integrating them fully into the Creative Economy," Florida wrote.

Hall isn't impressed. She points out that investment in the arts usually translates into investment in institutions, "not in the things artists really need to survive: affordable studios, for example, and health insurance."

While the debate continues, most of those who are truly bohemian and artistic will continue to create on the fringes as they always have, oblivious to economic theory. More than likely they will be the ones serving coffee and drinks to those reaping the benefits of the overtures made toward the "creative class."

However, any stretching of the collective imagination, any acceptance of the young and the new as not bad but just different, any iota of additional kindness toward those feeling excluded by Cincinnati policies and practices can use Cincinnati's support. Let's hope the energy and conversation spurred by Florida's ideas carries over into 2004. ©

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