Alec MacGillis’ two implied critiques of Richard Florida in the New Republic

Attention Conservation Notice: It takes two to tango.

The New Republic’s Alec MacGillis has a piece up on what Richard Florida is up to now that he’s been proven wrong…which makes me wonder, why, exactly, this type of stuff is New Republic worthy, and what do we mean by wrong. The piece has a “this is what happens to celebrity superstars” tone to it, while I have often been critical of Richard Florida, I do have to ask whether any of this “oh he was so wrong about cities” stuff really matters in the way that MacGillis thinks it does. Florida proposed a theory that, when you read the books, really didn’t hold up for anywhere other than particular places. In this, he joins myriad other examples from economic development and planning, where many many particular ideas that have functioned well in particular places fail to generalize other contexts. Florida’s major problem has always been trying to make things straightforward when, in fact, stuff like cities and growth and quality of life is difficult to understand, let alone manufacture. Over the years as I have gritted my teeth as Florida produced book after book–with all the cringe-worthy name dropping–I also have spent a good deal of time wishing that Florida was right about cities and knowing full well he wasn’t. I sometimes wonder how many people who lined up behind Florida knew full well it was way more complicated than Florida made it, but who wanted answers anyway, the easier the better, and thought that partial, implementable measures might be better than the status quo.

The critique from the New Republic centers on two things, one that strikes me as somewhat fair and another that I don’t think is fair at all.

Let’s cover the first, somewhat fair critique: that Florida (and the New Urbanists–I say this, not MacGillis) contributed intellectual fuel for the ever-present and insatiable desire that affluent (and white) people have to congratulate themselves for being the center of urban life and urban economies, and to exclude from their urban spaces people who aren’t like them, like people who actually get dirty when they work for a living, or anybody poor, or who hasn’t gone to college. Hello, Mayor, you now how have the intellectual justification you need to explain why you are going to have your BID folks harass homeless people out of downtown areas–because “creatives”, including finance types, think those others are unsightly, and those creatives are the most important class of people in your city. You have a reason to pass that no-lying-down ordinance, San Francisco, because your economic health hinges on the keeping those people away so that the creatives have a nice hygienic playspace. BTW, Richard Florida’s creative class mantra is joined by myriad other social forces in creating an environment where nobody but the shoppers, sippers, and spenders are allowed: 9/11 brought us a whole host of security rationales, appealing to the right the way Florida has appeals to the left, for why ‘those people’ shouldn’t be allowed to loiter in front of my restaurant or smell up “my train.” Particularly sad, however, is the way that Florida’s followers appeared to buy into the implied idea that creative class benefits trickle down. Trickle down. What a hateful metaphor, anyway. Making cities fortresses for capitalists and affluent professionals, it’s good for everybody, as those folks drive growth, which lifts all boats, and trickle trickle trickle trickle. It turns out that like wealth in general, wealthy enclaves are mostly beneficial to the people who get to inhabit them.

Thus, it is not fair to lay gentrification or Brooklynization at Florida’s feet. The problems with academic celebrity is that academics should be able to try out and reject ideas rather than become poster boys with $40,000 workshop fees because of a static set of ideas–that much is clear from MacGillis’ essay, and he’s right about that. There’s much to deplore there, but I doubt many people would turn down the money if it were on offer to them, particularly in the chance to go out and talk about their ideas, which academics love to do. But the Florida phenomenon is a lot like the Rogoff and Reinhart deal: their paper, not peer-reviewed, and their book (lightly peer-reviewed, likely) became cited and famous not because of the inherent power of their ideas, but because they said things that many, many people wanted to hear. So maybe there is lots of fault to go around for the Brooklynization of our neighborhoods.

The second implied critique strikes me as not fair at all, and that is the idea that Florida’s ideas about growth in the city would have informed us much about the recent recession, or what the recent recession proves or disproves anything about Florida’s ideas. Urbanists far and wide tend to think very little about business cycles or macro phenomena in general. There is so much sugar water in pretty bottles sold in urbanist thought that every model that gets out there promises us that if we only follow, we will be thin, sustainable, and wonderful in every way. Extending that to mean economically resilient isn’t much of a stretch, but I don’t think Florida made the claims that the creative class drives the macroeconomy, nor that they would bulletproof the macroeconomy–he just said they were good for urban and regional economies. As we know, scaling up from individuals to who economies is a problem, and the problem doesn’t go away when you try to scale from individual neighborhoods to regional economies (which Florida does try to do) or from regional economies on up, either.

All that said, apparently, Richard Florida is now writing a book about inequality. Sigh.