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.

Bread or circuses in austerity?

I had a coffee with one of my brilliant students yesterday, up in Silverlake. She told me that she co-produced a video on the displacement of businesses and families for FIFA World Cup development. It’s here, on her blog. Go watch. So interesting!

In addition, Mary Beard, of A Don’s Life, also has a column asking for an Austerity Olympics.

Although comments on the internet are usually proof enough that man descended from apes, there is a comment on the TLS blog that I find utterly priceless:

The only positive thing I have found in the whole ‘we won the Olympic bid’ saga is that it annoyed the French.

Ha! It annoyed Sarkozy at least, which, I must agree, is worth doing.

These sports programs…I don’t study this stuff. A smart economist once told me that it’s possible for cities to capitalize; they don’t always lose money. But when I look at the evidence, it seems these ‘circus’ events go forward for reasons that only make sense if you are a Marxist.

Is Sara Lee a trailblazer, an exception, or yet another corporate taker?

My brilliant planning students at USC often take exception to my unwillingness to believe that urbanism* will save the world, and, in particular, my disagreement with Chris Leinberger that urban places will necessarily lead us back into economic growth.

One objection comes from my homey, Dima Galkin, who edits (beautifully) all my manuscripts before they go anywhere, based on this news story from the Chicago Tribune about Sarah Lee moving back downtown, explicitly to reurbanize:

Sara Lee’s decision to move back to the city is part of a trend. Although it would be more cost-effective to stay in the suburbs, many companies have said that their moves are tied to the recruitment of workers who want to live and work in the city.

“We believe that a downtown location will provide MeatCo with an environment that will be energetic, foster breakthrough thinking, create revolutionary products, offer fresh perspectives and own the market,” Chief Executive Marcel Smits wrote in the email to employees in October.

We unfortunately do not have good data on the “many companies” component here. Because the evidence we have so far is that Chicago, rather than gaining population, lost a lot of population over the last decade. Which means this move on the part of Sara Lee is not necessarily chasing population, but a particular demographic. Which is fine, but isn’t really evidence of saving the world, per se. It could do something to stabilize downtown.

More to the point, the story strikes me as tragic more than progressive, unless you are a hardcore urban-suburban ideologue and think people who live and work in suburbs are bad and deserve what’s coming to them:

The Downers Grove-based company is cutting as much as half of its staff as it relocates between 500 to 650 employees to the city by early 2013. Sara Lee had about 1,000 area employees in January.

Combined with:

Sara Lee Corp. will receive between $5 million and $6.5 million in city incentives to headquarter its meat business at 400 S. Jefferson St., Mayor Rahm Emanuel announced Thursday.

The actual amount of incentives, which will come from the city’s tax increment financing fund, will depend on the number of jobs created. The aid still needs to be approved by the Community Development Commission and City Council.

So Chicago is giving a company that has been teetering on a insolvency for years $5 to $6 million to downsize by roughly half–a net job loss to the region of 500 people–to move the other half of the jobs to downtown, and

“This is a huge win for the City of Chicago, as Sara Lee Corporation has chosen the city to be the home of the new North American Meats company,” Mayor Emanuel said. “The new company will bring these high-paying jobs to the city, as well as its first-class brands and leadership in this key sector.”

Okay. I guess in Mayor Math, this does make sense.

For those who hate suburbs, we should probably note that Downers Grove was established in 1832. The City of Chicago was incorporated in 1837. So, like many of Chicago’s ersatz suburbs urbanists like to treat as whipping boys for sprawl, Downer’s Grove was a place first that then became subsumed in growth.

It’s tough for me to reconcile the payout of incentives with some sort of market process where the city’s inherent spatial advantage, conveyed by reurbanization, just won the day. It strikes me more as a story where a company, planning to split brands anyway, was looking for some good PR to wrap its downsizing in, combined with a mayor who wants to run for president, not unlike his regional peer Barack Obama, on an urban platform.

Regionalism is, apparently, not alive and well in Chicagoland, if the city and its ambitious mayor is willing to pay $5 million to aid in net regional job loss. For years, we had the argument that healthy suburbs required a healthy downtown. Does that not work in reverse when downtowns might be the winners?

*Isn’t urbanism just inherently valuable, I respond. Does it have to wrapped in progressivist, modernist rationales of world-saving in order to be legitimate?

Ancient interactive public art, or tourist trap?

Mary Beard has a post up on the Colossi of Memnon, which she’s visiting. From the 14th century BC, these Egyptian statues outside of Luxor were tourist attractions for Roman visitors the region. Of particular interest to her are the inscriptions by members of Hadrian’s party. She had referred to them previously as graffiti, but then realized that the poems inscribed were hardly verses that the writer could have spun off the top of her head, and it would have taken time to do the inscription. In fact, it would have taken a trained inscriber, as the scripting is done (quite nicely) in stone.

Palimpsest writing on public art is hardly unusual, even when it’s not just tagging. Parties of Romans with young emperors in them would have been notable visitors, and their inscription may have been a means of honoring the site, and those giving tours of it may have welcomed the inscription as a nice bit of proof of who had come to see it–a “Washington slept here” kind of imprint. There’s a tendency to want to track who has come to see your work–even things as transitory as web pages track visitors. Who are you, and why are you visiting?

We discuss art industries and cultural tourism as though it is a new phenomenon, but it isn’t. There are, of course, new aspects to it, but cultural tours go back a long way–and it’s not just wealthy Romans visiting Egypt. Other forms are the cultural tourism that sprang up around the relics of saints in various churches from the Byzantine Era onward through the Middle Ages, including today.

Central Cities and Suburbs: Economic Rivals or Allies?

This is the title of a very nice manuscript by Michael Hollar in the forthcoming issue of the Journal of Regional Science.

His question has been playing on my mind recently as various urbanists have crowed with delight on the decline of suburbs with the housing collapse. (That this decline actually involves human suffering is irrelevant: those homeowners are, of course, merely vacuous yuppies who should have done the morally right thing and had the sense to have money for their housing in the Upper east side and the Hamptons or Cape.)

To anybody that actually thinks about it, Hollar’s finding is pretty obvious, though the question has torn up the research in economic development in the past decades. Strong suburbs do not necessarily mean a weak downtown, nor vice versa, and regions that show evidence of either are economically less productive than places that have both strong suburbs and downtowns. The relationship he models is remarkably symmetric; one isn’t the necessary condition to the other’s growth in terms of exports or product.

The real contribution here is the research design and the model which help us nail down the considerable identification problems here: he develops export price indexes to look for shocks in either of the geographic locales and then measures responses in the paired geography.

It would be interesting to disaggregate the geography a little more than he does.

Richard Florida in the Financial Times on improving jobs

THIS is why I am still of fan of Richard Florida’s:

The key is to upgrade these jobs and turn them into adequate replacements for the higher-paying blue-collar jobs that have been destroyed. It has happened before. Yet the blue-collar jobs we pine for were not always good jobs: we made them good jobs. When my father came back from the second world war, his poorly paid factory job had been transformed. He was able to buy a house, put his two sons through college and participate fully in the American dream. Some of this was due to the power of unions. Most of it was because of the enormous improvements in productivity wrought by improved technologies and management techniques. The same thing can and must happen in the service sector. It is starting already. Companies such as Wegmans, Whole Foods, the Container Store, Best Buy and Zappos already account for a fifth of the top 100 best places to work in America. A typical hourly worker at the Container Store earns about $30,000 a year, not nearly as much as a GM factory worker but about 50 per cent more than the average for hourly-wage retail workers.

link: / Comment / Opinion – America needs to make its bad jobs better

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