Creative Class Act

Richard Florida knows exactly what's wrong with Phoenix

Journalists take it for granted that they can reach professors on the phone for expert opinions. Universities even publish directories to make faculty members accessible to the media.

But you can't just call up Richard Florida, Heinz Professor of Regional Economic Development at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. Ever since last year, when he published Rise of the Creative Class: And How It's Transforming Work, Leisure, Community and Everyday Life, he's become the undisputed "It Boy" of the urban planning community.

Florida is to urban planning what Eminem is to white rap, what Conan O'Brien is to late-night television. Urban planning might sound wonkish at first, but don't nod off. It's really about the nitty-gritty basics that make life worth living: a killer latte a block from home, a good place to walk your dog, a job that doesn't drive you crazy.

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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

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Florida has attracted attention so far beyond academia that now he spends much of his time flying back and forth around the world to talk about his ideas. So getting Richard Florida on the phone takes patience. When New Times finally catches up with the best-selling superstar author (don't expect his book out in paperback anytime soon -- the hardback's in its 12th printing), it's no surprise he's at the airport.

In spite of a hectic schedule, Florida still sounds amiable and energetic. But after 20 minutes, he reaches the security checkpoint. "Can you call me back in 15 minutes?" he asks. "I'd be happy to talk more when I'm waiting at the gate."

Fifteen minutes later, he still hasn't passed through the metal detector. "Call me in another 15 minutes," he says, still affable.

Hours later, Florida actually calls back, saying he's already boarded his connecting flight to Europe and takeoff isn't for a while, so he has more time to chat. But this time, he's the one leaving a message.

The truth is, you hardly need the author himself to talk about Rise of the Creative Class. If you want to know about Richard Florida, just talk to any smart public official or creative entrepreneur in just about any metropolitan center in the country. Members of this enthusiastic, growing cult can easily fill you in on why Florida's book has become something of a bible for anyone interested in making a city cool.


"It's been quite the buzz for a while in economic development circles," says Mary Jo Waits, associate director of the Morrison Institute for Public Policy at Arizona State University, of Rise of the Creative Class. Waits says she's shared a few speaking stages with Florida, and has long been familiar with his work, which relates to her own research about the knowledge economy, something different from the traditional economic model because it depends on knowledge and technology as the driving forces of the economy.

"He was just like all the rest of us, you know," says Waits of the group of policy talkers -- a pretty conservative crowd -- that populates universities and think tanks. "And then his book came out."

Since she started researching economic development, Waits says two people have really shaken up the field: Harvard Business School's Michael Porter, who got people thinking about why clusters of high-paid industries are located in particular geographic areas, and Richard Florida.

Florida's thesis "rings a chord with everybody," Waits says. A variety of readers find an encouraging message in Rise of the Creative Class, she explains: people struggling to make a vibrant downtown; people who care about diversity, tolerance and multiculturalism; people concerned about historic preservation; and people advocating smart growth and compact cities.

"Richard kind of brought all these individual conversations, the big conversations that have been going on in all these communities, together under one notion that we could all relate to, which is that talent is absolutely the most important thing to attract," says Waits.

In his book, Florida argues that creativity is the most highly prized commodity in our economy, which, over the past 50 years, has become increasingly knowledge-driven. Leading this creative economy is the growing Creative Class, about 30 percent of the U.S. work force, whose average salary is much higher than that of the Working and Service classes.

For example, a machinist or truck driver is Working class. A janitor or clerical worker, Service class. But an ad copywriter, actor or graphic designer is Creative Class -- a term Florida coined.

With all kinds of research to back the notion that a city's Creative Class has a direct correlation to its economic success, Florida's book turns traditional notions of urban development upside down.

The reason certain places are succeeding economically is because Creative Class people want to live there, not because of transportation, stadiums, malls or tourist districts.

So instead of just trying to attract big companies and conventioneers, civic leaders should be trying to lure the Creative Class itself, which includes a Super-Creative core of anyone who works in directly creative activity -- artists, scientists, professors, engineers, writers, entertainers, designers, analysts, architects, filmmakers and software programmers -- rounded out by creative professionals who work in knowledge-intensive fields such as the law, medicine, business management, finance and high-tech.

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."

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."

As demonstrated by her various projects in the community, one thing Dach understands about the desires of the Creative Class is that it's not enough simply to have a good job. You need "Quality of Place."

Florida's book describes how the whole picture needs to include an attractive job market, since creative folks don't stay with one company forever; interesting scenes for an eclectic lifestyle; funky hangouts like bookstores and cafes for social interaction; diversity of every kind, which signifies that a place is exciting and tolerant; authenticity, which encompasses historic buildings, cool neighborhoods, and great local music; and an identity, because people want to be proud of saying they live in a certain city.

In other places around the country, from Cincinnati to Albuquerque, Rise of the Creative Classhas sparked public conversations about how Florida's ideas can be applied to each city's individual set of strengths and weaknesses. Earlier this year, 100 representatives of the Creative Class, including Florida and Mary Jo Waits, got together to draft the Memphis Manifesto, "the definitive blueprint for communities competing for creatives and seeking to retain their own." And in Tampa, Florida, the mayor even appointed a manager of creative industries to oversee economic development and culture.

Dach thinks Phoenix has a lot of potential, but she points to north Scottsdale as an example of how local planners are still taking an old-fashioned approach. The city of Scottsdale is "giving huge grants to Lowe's, The Great Indoors, Starbucks -- and that's going to be the death of a community. It was the death of Mill [Avenue in Tempe]. Why would you want to go to a Gap on Mill when you could go to an air-conditioned mall right near your home?"

Local business owners are some of the most creative people around, says Dach, because their survival depends on it. These are the people who can give the city its character. And these are the people whom she says the city should be helping. "If Phoenix [leaders] could get behind saying, I'm not going to give $2 million to The Great Indoors. I'm going to give $2 million to 10 local independent businesses,' what a great city this would be."


A big reason Florida has caused such a stir in cities around the country is because of all the rankings in his book. After all, nobody wants to get a bad report card.

His Creative Index measures an area's creative strength and potential, and is determined by a mix of factors: the percentage of Creative Class members in a city's work force, the High-Tech Index, the Innovation Index and the Diversity Index. With a score of 909, Phoenix ranked 19th among major U.S. regions, and 22nd overall.

The High-Tech Index is a pretty straightforward measure of the concentration and size of a region's tech economy; Phoenix ranked eighth. But it also came in 46th on the Innovation Index, which measures the number of patents per capita.

Most controversial is the Diversity Index, also dubbed the Gay Index, which measures the concentration of gays in a region. Florida argues that the Creative Class sees a community with a sizable gay population as a diverse, tolerant place, and therefore a desirable place to live -- the kind of place that would inspire creativity. Phoenix ranked 21st.

ASU's Mary Jo Waits says that when Florida's book came out, the Gay Index got a lot of skeptical reactions because it was misinterpreted. "People took it out of context. He had to tell them to actually read the book," she says.

Now, says Waits, "Most of the detractors of Florida are really the Midwesterners who cringe when he talks about how creative communities have a large proportion of the gay population."

Florida also measured the number of artists, musicians, dancers, photographers and actors in cities with his Bohemian Index, and found that it predicts high-tech industry concentration as well as population and employment growth. Phoenix is ranked 23rd among the top 49 regions.

"Richard's book has assigned a new value to some old concepts," says Carol Colletta, host and producer of the "Smart City" radio show and, earlier this year, along with Florida and Waits, one of the organizers of the Memphis Manifesto, the first official national gathering of the Creative Class.

"The popularity of his book, The Rise of the Creative Class, and his appeal as a speaker have moved civic and political leaders to reconsider their decisions in light of a new set of criteria. They are now asking, How will this promote diversity? Will this appeal to young people? Will this magnify what is authentic about our city?' Richard has put these issues on the agenda of America's cities, and I applaud him for it. Anyone who cares about cities should," Colletta says.

But now that the ideas are out there, some people think it's time to take a deeper look at what can be done to put them into play.

"The challenge for cities is to go beyond head nodding' to the professor's words and get to the substance of what it really means," says Colletta. "This is the dirty work on cities, the grind-it-out stuff that can take years to achieve. All of us who have worked on changing a civic mindset and bringing a different future into reality know how frustrating the work can be. It seems like it's one step forward, and two steps back. But when you begin to see results, it's all worth it."

E-mail michele.laudig@newtimes.com, or call 602-229-8497.

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