Creative Class Act

Richard Florida knows exactly what's wrong with Phoenix

Companies follow this pool of talent, which is drawn to cities that offer a certain lifestyle. But what creative workers want is a lot more complicated than people used to think, and that's why Florida's ideas have become so hot.

"Does Phoenix want to stick with retirement homes and manufacturing and service jobs, or make the transformation into a creative economy?" asks Florida from his cell phone as he waits in line at the airport. "You have all the great ingredients. You just need a great recipe and a great chef."


Read more in this series

Richard Florida will be speaking on October 21, 2003,at 6:30 p.m. For free tickets, stop by Changing Hands Bookstore, call 602-229-8428 or click here

Orpheum Theatre, 203 West Adams

Through his research as well as a speaking engagement here two years ago -- before his book launched him to celebrity status -- Florida is already familiar with Phoenix. He's also planning to return later this month for a public lecture sponsored by New Times. The Newark, New Jersey, native, who received his bachelor's degree from Rutgers College and his Ph.D. in urban planning from Columbia University, is now one of the country's most highly sought-after consultants and speakers on economic development.

Florida, who is single, now lives in downtown Oakland, Pennsylvania, the young, student-centered suburb of Pittsburgh that's home to both Carnegie Mellon and the University of Pittsburgh. (Think: Tempe.) It's been widely noted that the inspiration for Florida's theory was born in nearby Pittsburgh -- a city known more for its blue-collar history than its high-tech future -- with an empty, staid downtown to go along with it.

In Pittsburgh, he first noticed the phenomenon that inspired his research: Creatives fleeing the city because the right lifestyle amenities weren't there. Yes, his adopted hometown had sports facilities and other major attractions. But Florida noted the absence of the connective tissue that makes city life exciting.

In short, Florida's recipe for a prosperous city boils down to making an environment where creativity can flourish.

Cities and companies can't ignore this formula if they're going to succeed, he argues. Traditional ideas about what constitutes culture -- a major art museum, a symphony orchestra, an opera company and a ballet company -- aren't enough. And big-ticket, large-venue events alone won't cut it, either. The Creative Class finds creative inspiration in random moments on a busy sidewalk, in a jazz club, at a cafe. The experience needs to be social, spontaneous and interactive, like checking out a new rock band at a downtown Austin, Texas, hangout, or people-watching at a crowded sake bar in Manhattan's East Village.

"I think many times local political leadership is the biggest obstacle," Florida says. "They really believe that this two-stadiums-and-a-convention-center' formula works. But no one cares! Look at Austin or the Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill area. They succeeded without any of those."

What does the Creative Class really want? Street-level culture that's authentic and eclectic, part of an accessible district of theaters, bookstores, coffee shops, bars, galleries and restaurants. Clearly, Phoenix has no such districts, just a very few funky venues strewn about empty streets, with nothing connecting the dots. Often, these places come and go too quickly to form a walkable enclave.

People-watching is important, too -- just being out on the street at any time of the day or night, seeing life stream by, is stimulating. A city needs a vibrant music scene, art scene, film scene, nightlife scene and outdoor recreation scene. And it's important for clubs and restaurants to be open late -- creative people need to be able to get their cultural fix anytime.

Based on all of the above, Phoenix has a lot of work to do. But Florida thinks investing in a dense urban core is worthwhile. "And Phoenix can afford it," he says, because the area's growing so fast.

"What Phoenix can do is become more of itself," Florida says. "There's an attempt to make it generic. But you have this amazing desert, and an amazing range of architecture. You're much better off focusing on the small, everyday things like restaurants and places to walk your dog. Things you can do 365 days a year."

One person who craves round-the-clock culture is Cindy Dach, a former New Yorker who says one of her simplest wishes is to be able to walk to get a cup of coffee in the morning or a glass of wine after work. "Why should that be so hard?" she asks.

A fan of Florida's book, Dach doesn't merely pay lip service to the notion of creating a vibrant downtown. Although her day job takes her to south Tempe, where she coordinates events and marketing for Changing Hands Bookstore, Dach spends much of her time in downtown Phoenix. She is a founding member of the Eye Lounge art collective and gallery, one of the requisite stops on the downtown First Fridays art walk, and is a founding member and board member of Arizona Chain Reaction, a group of local independent businesses. With her husband, Greg Esser, who is also involved in Eye Lounge, Dach also recently established Sixth Street Studios, an artist live/work space and gallery.

"What I most appreciate about Richard Florida is that he actually sat down and wrote the book," she says. "I think artists and gays and creative types have been making cities cool for years, but they're not the most organized class of people by nature. And for somebody to actually organize your ideals into a dissertation type of book, to present to us This is why cities work' -- I can't go on by saying it's the most novel idea. I feel the idea's been out there. But it's never been communicated well."

« Previous Page
Next Page »
My Voice Nation Help
Phoenix Concert Tickets