Tuesday, July 17, 2007

The "Tolerant" Creative Class

While I certainly find this clip from Colbert Report entertaining, I also find it deeply troubling. On the one hand, Stephen Colbert is joking around about trying to find "gay/lesbian, bohemian, and artistic" people to move to their neighborhood, but on th other, there are certainly people who take this seriously. In and of itself, I don't think that it is necessarily troubling that this is the case, but the commodification of gayness is disturbing, to say the least. The commodification of gayness blunts the real political message of tolerance; gay people are assets to a community economically and, therefore, should be accepted on economic grounds. While I am certainly more pragmatically-minded than many of my friends, I find it deeply troubling that people are accepted only on account of their economic advantage to a city. While I think that Florida's point is that diverse communities fare better because they are diverse, measuring openness to diversity by the sole metric of acceptance of gays, lesbians, bohemians and artists is a deeply disturbing metric of tolerance that has the effect of fetishizing gays and lesbians as a metric against which to measure one's own diversity.

This openness to diversity is also not everything that it is purported to be. For instance, in the preface to the paperback edition, Florida's own evidence shows that five of the ten most creative regions [1] are also in the top ten in terms of income inequality. Furthermore, Florida himself acknowledges that "diversity" does not always mean people seeking open communities:

Some of my critics like to argue that many people who work in high-tech industries tend to be blandly conservative and prefer homogeneous communities and traditional lifestyles of the sort found in middle-class suburbs. They find evidence in the fact that so many high-tech people line in suburban enclaves like northern Virginia, the heart of Silicon Valley or the Seattle suburbs. My response is simple. These places are all located within major metropolitan areas that are among the most divers in the country and offer a wide array of lifestyle amenities. In face, these places are themselves a product of the openness and diversity of the broader areas. Had the Silicon Valley-San Fransisco area not been receptive years ago to offbeat people like the young Steven Jobs, it could not have become what it is.[2]

Unfortunately, however, it seems like Florida wants to argue from two perspectives that don't quite fit. On the one hand, he is arguing that diverse neighborhoods are the important important level of analysis to consider when talking about creative people and that these mobile creative communities should gain a class consciousness because they understand the reshaping of the world better than those who rely on neighborhood social networks and "old world" institutions like labor unions. However, when people point out that the very "creative class" he is talking about settles in homogeneous suburban enclaves (and, in many cases further racial and economic segregation, more on this later if I have time), he simply says, "oh, it is the metropolitan area that is the most important level of analysis."

This is not to say that I disagree with him. I think that the "creative class," or, more specifically, people employed in the creative/high-wage service professions that he identifies do look for tolerant places to live. But, I am not sure that it is the search for this creative "diversity" that drives the changes as much as the economic realities that help shape where those jobs exist. While people are certainly more mobile than we were a generation ago (I say as I am "telecommuting" from New York to Ann Arbor), there are still economic factors that are at play well beyond the search for gay, bohemian and artistic communities. Housing prices for instance, have gotten to such a point that you either have to live in extreme suburbs or pay exorbitant prices to live in established neighborhoods in the city. Therefore, artists and bohemians look for places to live that are less expensive but might not be acceptable to a mainstream population. Where are these places? Often in areas that have seen decades of systematic disinvestment and are almost always poor and most of the time predominantly communities of color. So, while Wicker Park (Chicago), Clinton Hill and Harlem (New York), Adam's Morgan (D.C.) might be more tolerant towards gays, they certainly didn't accept mingling with the poor or an integrated neighborhood. But, this is where it is convenient to note that Chicago, New York and D.C. all have large, multi-ethnic populations at the metropolitan level.

While I don't find Florida's work repugnant or un-academic (which are charges that I have seen or been implied in work that I have read), I think that it is occasionally sloppy in its inferences. This would not be so bad except for the fact that growing inequality is incompatible with the understanding of a place as "tolerant" outside of a very narrow frame of what it means to be "tolerant." And, if we are to take seriously Florida's call to action among the creative class to find ways to reduce this inequality (in the conclusion of Rise of the Creative Class, then we must also question what it means to be "tolerant" and accept that class-based and race-based tolerance are also important notions towards a "diverse" city.

[1] Of regions with at least 1 million people. return
[2] Rise of the Creative Class, p. 233. return


dave3544 said...

Two unformed thoughts...

I share your hesitancy about the commodification of any moral/social "good." One of my current projects is encouraging my wife to resist the argument that sustainability or "green" is good because it saves money, whether in the short or long run. Once we start arguing that something is good because it is cost-effective or efficient, then we're playing the capitalist's game. (oh the conversation about union organizing we could have right now).

I was also thinking that academia (or if you must physically locate it, the college campus) is another place where "diversity" is hailed as a value, but in reality the community is largely white and middle and upper class. Campuses located in urban settings also hail the diversity around them, but the actual campus itself, where people spend their day, not so much. And although academic fetishization of all things queer may have been toned down, it is still there.


Rebecca Thorman said...

I've long been a fan of Richard Florida, but have always had a nagging feeling that something wasn't right about his theories. You've hit it on the head. I live in Madison, WI and while we are known to be extremely accepting of gays in our community, the poor and minorities are pushed to the outskirts. While the creaive class- that's me- often believes we are tolerant, I too often see examples of talking, not enough of walking the walk. Take inclusionary zoning here in Madison. Originally devised to help those with lower incomes to live in the downtown area in newer developments, it has largely benefitted people like myself, those who are just getting started in the real world, but want to have it all right away. Great post. Thank you for making me think harder about this issue.

Mike3550 said...

Dave, I don't think that your thoughts are unformed at all -- in fact, they make a lot of sense to me. I guess the part that worry the most about in terms of commodification of gays and lesbians in the "creative class" argument is that the commodity itself easily slips from being the investment surrounding areas where gays and lesbians have moved to actually becoming gays and lesbians themselves. I guess that is what the worst of the "creative class" position is for me: "We need gays!"

On the other hand, I'm not sure that arguing something is cost-effective is necessarily playing the capitalist's game; I can see using the arguments of cost-effectiveness and drawing parallels to the resource-management or the effectiveness of using material resources for the social good. The latter is obviously a much more socialist position, but after waiting over 150 years for the revolution, I don't think it's going to happen overnight. Maybe baby steps towards thinking about things as social goods (like the air we breathe, for example) can come out of drawing the parallel with cost effectiveness (but, it is dangerous if we stop at cost-effectiveness - and therefore agree with your argument about playing ye old bourgeois pig's game).

I also think that you are spot on about diversity on campuses. There was actually a great piece that argues that even between college campuses, there is a difference between "diversity" as a good to talk about and "diversity" as a real, obtainable goal.

Rebecca, thank you for your kind words. Having lived in Ann Arbor for four years, I found myself constantly frustrated over the lack of attention to a different kind of diversity. Sometimes I think that it is because it isn't part of our consciousness to think about class diversity and racial diversity is so defined by de jure segregation that we learn about in elementary school that we think that, juxtaposed against that, we are currently very diverse. I just wish I knew a solution in order to get people to think about it more. If you can think of anything, please let me know!

wobblie said...

Great post, Mike, and a great thread.

re: Dave's comment - I'm going to agree with Mike that arguing that something is cost-effective isn't necessarily buying into the capitalist's discourse. Resources are going to be expended in any mode of production, and using resources efficiently is probably a good thing. Obviously, this depends on how we define "costs," and to what benefit the savings would be used. To bring things on to Ginger's turf, I think we'd all agree that arguing that a college could save money through sustainability projects, and that money could in turn be used to hire more faculty, expand academic programs, or fund [insert social good here], we'd say it's a good thing. On the other hand, if the savings reaped from sustainability projects were used to line the pockets of administrators, we'd recoil.

What I find more insidious, and what I think Dave may be trying to get at more, is the argument that there's profits to be made from being green. And in this case, he's absolutely right - look at health care. The presence of the profit motive in the current health care system is actually making the system less cost effective.

re: diversity in general - This has been on my mind a lot, lately, namely because I've moved into the most diverse neighborhood in which I've ever lived (Hyattsville, in P-G County). My neighborhood is incredibly diverse racially (the wikipedia entry breaks it down as roughly 40% white, 40% African-American, and there's a sizable Latino population), and based on the variety of housing in the area - multi-family apartments mixed in with single-family homes that range from small bungalows to large Victorians - I'd say that the class composition is pretty mixed as well. What's also striking, however, is that ms. wobs and I are probably the most bohemian folks in our neighborhood - that is to say, the area is dominated by families. Sociologically, I don't really know what to make of it, but quite frankly, I'm really amazed at the level of diversity and the true neighborhood feel of the place (although there is a lack of coffee shops within walking distance - but we do have a brewpub a few blocks away).

BTW - have you seen the todo over Robert Putnam's (of Bowling Alone) lastest research that out-group integration actually decreases social cohesion in the short run (but has a net positive effect in the long run)? Conservatives are creaming themselves over it - at least over the short run conclusions. They, of course, ignore the long-term conclusions. I haven't seen the study, and I'm left to wonder how much he addresses the toxic racial context within which he finds those results. Thought?

dave3544 said...

Let me give a direct example of how the "going green will save you money" argument hurts the movement, the hybrid car.

Obviously, there is a relatively small crowd that will be into a hybrid car because good gas mileage is good for the environment. Less pollution, less resources consumed. But hybrids are being sold as a way to save money on gas. Which may seem like a perfectly acceptable way to get rat choice people into a car because, regardless of their motives, they still be polluting less and consuming less resources. The problem comes in when some PR guy for the oil industry releases a "study" saying that, if you ever have to replace the batteries, any savings you realize would be out the window. Hell, the study might even be true.

So instead of focusing the selling point of hybrids on the environmental good, which is pretty indisputable, the focus has been on the economic good, which can always be disputed.

The same thing has, of course, happened with my fuel of choice, biodiesel. People are always making the argument that bio is not cost efficient enough to justify it. When the environmental movement makes cost-effectiveness a hallmark of the movement, then the door is opened to counter arguments like this.

Of course, one could argue that people will make the market argument anyway, but that is what we should be trying to end, the notion that pocketbook issues should be primary.

Oh and let me make some very half-assed linkage here. The main justification of white-flight (a phrase that should have more meaning to Chris now than it ever did before) was/is property values. (The main cause was racism, the justification was property value). Here, again, our capitalist nation's obsession with pocketbook values gave the albeit thin veneer of respectability to cover people's racism. When we accept, let alone advance, market arguments, we undercut our own ability to offer counter values.

Look at me, I'm a communist all of a sudden.

wobblie said...

You make a good point, Dave, but given that resource allocation is always going to be an issue, perhaps it's fair to say that economic arguments shouldn't be given a privileged place in the decision-making process - that other values might outweigh a simple cost-benefit analysis.

Mike3550 said...

Dave - I entirely agree with what you are saying, particularly about the hybrid car. Yes, it is more fuel efficient, and, yes, it is (currently) believed to be more cost efficient. If, all the sudden, the oil industry shows how it isn't cost-effective, then my hope would be that people have been organized enough to believe in the environmental good.

Also, I think that the cost-efficiency argument is where there is a huge chink in the armor of free-marketeers. Biodiesel is currently impractical on a large scale largely because it is cost-prohibitive. However, with government resources and spending, we can make that cost-prohibitiveness go down to a point where it is feasible and practical. The best example of this that I can think of is this here internets. The tubes were a highly impractical business enterprise even fifteen years ago (and less than that for small businesses) - but because of government investment, the internet is not much more efficient, both in terms of cost and barriers to usage, than it ever was.

I will reserve judgment on Putnam's piece until I have a chance to read it. The one thing that did immediately come to mind, though, is that his findings are really not terribly surprising. Social capital and "collective efficacy" tend to found in areas with higher residential stability, so migrants - whether they are from another city (gentrification) or another country ("immigrants" as we more traditionally think of them) - are, by definition, short-term residents (otherwise they wouldn't be immigrants). Florida finds that community ties are less prevalent among the "Creative Class" in the same way that "immigrants" might be. If, in the long term, social ties among residents are re-established, then it seems that this has more to do with the stability of a neighborhood (in terms of people moving in or out) than with undocumented workers or immigrants from another country. I will try and read the article, though, because it sounds really interesting.

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