Can Lifestyle Mavens Make a City Boom?

Book cover

Why do some cities thrive and others flounder? The latest answer to this question is offered by a Carnegie Mellon professor named Richard Florida in his book The Rise of the Creative Class. He makes several points: 1) “Creativity” is of greater economic importance than ever, and the trend will continue. 2) A new Creative Class is “the norm-setting class of our time” and is redefining our ideas about what’s important in both work and leisure. 3) Cities should stop worrying about attracting companies and start worrying about attracting members of this class. 4) “Place is becoming the central organizing unit of our economy and society, taking a role that used to be played by large corporations.”

It’s only the last couple of contentions that I’ll address here—what makes the difference between, say, an Austin (ranked No. 2 on a “Creativity Index” devised by Florida) and a New Orleans (ranked 45 out of 49 large cities). I pick those cities because I used to live in the former and now live in the latter.

Florida writes that “to attract creative people,” a place must have “the 3 T’s”—technology, talent, and tolerance. The part of his argument that is certain to get attention is the emphasis he places on lifestyle and “tolerance.” (The subtitle on the excerpt in the Washington Monthly, for example, is “Why cities without gays and rock bands are losing the economic development race.”) It certainly informs a recent report put together by the Memphis Talent Magnet Project, which drew heavily on Florida’s research. (Memphis does even worse than New Orleans on Florida’s measurements; you can download and read the report.)

The findings flatly state that “young mobile professionals” are “the most highly prized demographic group in modern American business,” and Memphis must attract them: “Can Memphis deliver the kind of lifestyle today’s young knowledge worker wants?” the report asks. It then provides many ideas for how the city can in the pages that follow. “Develop,  package and promote peak arts and cultural experiences, with a particular focus on creating a vibrant cultural ‘scene’ in the city”; “Spotlight the vibrant hip-hop and house scenes”; “Create a culture of inclusion, collaboration, and honor for and among artists by supporting such things as … MacArthur-type grants”; “Spotlight and leverage the fine dining … in Memphis”; Promote local “intellectual events”; “Replace slow-moving riverboat images with active scenes of kayaking on the Mississippi.” And so on.

It’s easy to imagine a city like New Orleans, which has lately elected a new business- and technology-oriented mayor, jumping on this bandwagon: If Austin converted a great lifestyle into a tech boom, why can’t we? But here are a couple of things to consider.

1. Dallas places 10th on the Creativity Index and generally has a strong economy with a fair amount of high-tech activity. Yet when’s the last time you heard someone talk about cultural riches of Dallas? I’ve also lived in that city, and I have no problem with the place—but I don’t remember anybody ever bragging about the “Dallas lifestyle.”

2. One of the most distressing things in Florida’s book is “the negative statistical correlation between concentration of high tech firms and the percentage of the non-white population.” Florida calls this “troubling” and moves on, but it doesn’t really seem to square with the pleasing portrait of diversity-seeking young mobile professionals. Memphis, which like New Orleans is a majority-black city, ignores this issue entirely in the above-cited report. I’m not sure what the answer is to this incredibly disheartening state of affairs, but surely it’s not simply turning a blind eye. (New Orleans, for what it’s worth, scores higher on the “Diversity Index” than Dallas, Memphis, or even Austin.)

3. When I looked back at Florida’s book after reading the Memphis report, I paid more attention to his point that what’s important is “a supportive social milieu that is open to all forms of creativity—artistic and cultural as well as technological and economic.” Hmm. How open is New Orleans to economic creativity? (And installing friends in do-nothing patronage jobs isn’t “creativity.”) He also notes that a city needs “to be a place where newcomers are accepted quickly into all sorts of social and economic arrangements.” Certainly you can be accepted quickly as a party guest in New Orleans—but “economic arrangements”? From what I’ve seen, the city is focused on uplifting the locals and reversing a long-standing brain drain, but this is a side effect of the fact that it remains almost comically indifferent about the rest of the world; on the business front, it remains almost suspicious of outsiders.

Recall that of the “3 T’s” that attract the creative workers that Florida believes are crucial to a city’s success, the first is technology. If a solid technology base with a “thick” labor market (meaning lots of alternative jobs if the one you moved for doesn’t pan out) is part of what attracts these elusive creatives, and they are also the people a city needs in order to build a strong technology base, well, which comes first? Of the strategies Austin followed, the most tangible one that Florida mentions is “recruiting high-tech companies from other places.” This is true (IBM was lured to operate there in the early 1980s), but it’s also not exactly radical: Attracting businesses from elsewhere is time-honored development strategy.

What’s worked in Austin (or Dallas, for that matter) is more complicated and harder to duplicate than The Rise of the Creative Class sometimes implies, and it likely has as much to do with the go-go business culture that, for better or worse, is a Texas tradition. That isn’t to say that cities like New Orleans or Memphis are simply doomed. Nor do I mean to imply that Florida’s book isn’t valuable—it raises a lot of interesting questions. It’s up to city-development types to resist the temptation to rely on too easy answers.