Monday, March 24, 2008


Who's Your Audience?

As an academic on a national job search, I read Richard Florida's latest, Who's Your City?, with mixed emotions.

Florida is an economic geographer whose previous books on the creative class have become simply inescapable. And a good thing, too – Florida is a lucid writer on an important topic, and much of what he has found is both obviously correct and well worth learning. In studying the factors that make some cities thrive economically while others stagnate or slide, he has isolated a particular kind of cosmopolitanism as an actual economic force. To oversimplify, his theory of 'how to spot the next boomtown' boils down to 'follow the gays and artists.' Places open to alternate lifestyles are open to creative people generally, who prefer to flock together. Put enough creative people in one place long enough, and economic sparks will fly.

Alternately, drive the creatives out, and economic decline is inevitable. Some of his descriptions of the dynamics of cities in decline will strike denizens of higher ed as sadly familiar – people doing things in tired ways because “that's how they've always been done,” newcomers held in suspicion, and decisions made based on internal factors rather than actual engagement with the outside world. And since people tend to move much more frequently in their twenties than in their forties, if you drive them away in their twenties, you're unlikely to get most of them back. Age-based cascades become self-reinforcing.

His previous books on the creative class were primarily analytical and explanatory. They could be used to make personal decisions, but they clearly weren't intended for that. This one starts with the sociology, but moves awkwardly to self-help. The conceit of the book seems to be that once you understand what goes into making an area hot or cold, you can use that information to locate yourself where the action is likely to be. Better life options, real estate appreciation, and general coolness await those who correctly spot the next Seattle. To that end, the book includes a series of (admittedly nifty) maps, and several top-five lists broken down by stage of life and sexual preference. Ever wonder what the top five medium-sized metropolitan areas for empty-nest gay couples are? This book will tell you. (The answers aren't always intuitive. #5: Rochester, NY. Really?)

As an academic, though, there was something both frustrating and troubling about the whole enterprise. As Florida acknowledges in passing, certain professions aren't particularly place-specific. Education, health care, and law enforcement, for example, can be found pretty much anyplace you find a significant number of people. In higher ed, below the superstar level, many of us take jobs where we can find them. When a relatively flat national market confronts a 'spiky' economic landscape, you have a choice: have decent purchasing power in an out-of-the-way or out-of-fashion place, or struggle mightily somewhere where other people are in hot industries. Buy in a cold area, or rent in a hot one.

The top R1 universities can pay top dollar to lure superstars despite the price of housing in, say, Berkeley. But that's a very narrow segment of the higher ed market, even though it gets most of the attention. Community colleges, for example, can be found in all sorts of communities, both hot and cold. And most of them define part of their mission as serving the community in which they're located.

If the community seems to be in decline, should part of the mission of the cc be to facilitate individual escape? Given Florida's correct insight that age-based losses are hard to recoup, doing right by individual students could have the unintended side effect of hastening the decline of the service area. That's a tough sell to local taxpayers. “Help us drain this festering craphole of young talent!” It doesn't look good on a billboard.

That's not Florida's fault, of course. But the idea that you should simply go where the action is strikes me as impracticable for most of us in higher ed, and of dubious wisdom even for those who could. In my grad school days, I was physically close to a great deal of sophisticated culture, but couldn't afford almost any of it. Ever since, I've been a little skeptical of the idea that it's 'hot metro region or bust.' Given the income scale non-superstar academics face, it seems to me that there's something to be said for the cheaper regions. And that would be true of any industry in which paychecks tend to be modest. Being house-poor (or apartment-poor) in a hot area renders you unable to take advantage of most of what makes it hot.

Without quite meaning to, I think Florida walked directly into a really fundamental dilemma: the economic world is spiky, but the nation-state is flat. The two don't play well together, and higher ed is just one sign of that (and a minor one, at that). Self-help is fine, but those best situated to take advantage of it need it least. There's a much bigger issue at hand here. I'm glad Florida did so much to outline the problem. I just don't have a clue how to solve it.

With respect to Rochester: yes, really. I lived there for 7 years in grad school, and it has a very happening gay male (not lesbian) scene, plus decent music (both touring, and also Eastman School of Music is there) and art (Rochester Institute of Technology). The downtown is dead, or was when I left in the early 2000s, but there are areas just outside of downtown that have lots of stuff going on.
The other issue with Florida's ideas is that for a lot of productive people (engineers, accountants, builders etc) there comes a time when a lively downtown with a decent music scene are less desirable than a large backyard and proximity to good schools.
If the community seems to be in decline, should part of the mission of the cc be to facilitate individual escape?

Yes! Because the only way for a festering craphole to become a manure pile that sprouts daisies is for there to be native talent businesses can exploit. Developing that talent will mean that some people leave but given the astronomical buy-in costs of most major urban centers there's some people who will stay behind and they will orchestrate any turn-around the community might have. Look at the Japanese car companies building plants in the South. They do it because there is a cheap and somewhat well educated workforce available. Look at India - at first, many engineers left to come here to work but they're taking their talent back to India and starting companies in a place where the cost of living is low and they are familiar with the culture.

Communities with a low cost of living have an incredible opportunity to grow now that urbania is so expensive.
Creative Class inspired policy initiatives conflate cause with effect. One sees the critical mass of knowledge workers, and one sees the diversity and the five dollar coffees. One cannot infer that provision of small business parks or new four-year colleges (or new offerings at the community college) will bring in train those knowledge workers. Rockford, Illinois appears to be laboring under such a delusion. Whether Rock Valley College (the local cc) or Northern Illinois Extension (40 miles from DeKalb) or Rockford College (a small private liberal-arts) are partners in such an effort, or competitors, the best efforts of those institutions might be in equipping people to prosper elsewhere. It's called "running a current account surplus in educational services," and it's something much misunderstood by politicians.
Being house-poor (or apartment-poor) in a hot area renders you unable to take advantage of most of what makes it hot.

I disagree. Eating out in the East Village is not more expensive than in say Phoenix but the options are far superior.

Which is better -- an employable person leaving, or an unemployable person staying?

Not a tough decision when you put it that way.

And sometimes the employable people stay, so it's really win-win.
"Being house-poor (or apartment-poor) in a hot area renders you unable to take advantage of most of what makes it hot."

So true. I fail to see the point of living in, say, New York City if so much of my income goes to rent or a mortgage that I can't afford to eat out, go to plays, etc. Give me a satisfying, well-paying job in an uncool area, and I'll visit the cool areas on weekends or vacations.

In response to AB: I don't think Dean Dad is necessarily asserting that restaurants and entertainment in NYC are more expensive than in Phoenix (although I think they are). The issue is whether or not one has money to go out at all after paying for housing costs.
Richard Florida actually responded to this piece on his own blog. The link is

I'm flattered that he noticed, honestly.
Even my small town has heard of Richard Florida's ideas and people have started to think about attracting the "creative class" while we work to diversify a resource-based economy. We have one university as well as two colleges so I'm constantly surprised how little we're on tap for the next big arts project in the community. You'd think that someone would make the connection that we could do a lot more together than locked up in our separate enclaves! (But no, that person won't be me because I've just poured myself into starting a new disciplinary studies group for the region.)
After reading up on the ideas discussed here and on Richard Florida's site, I am more puzzled than when I started.

Especially after reading that Richard belongs to/supports an institute dedicated to "solving" the "problem."

As best I can tell, the "problem" is that [younger, singler, more disposabler income people with no children] want different things from their communities than [older, marrieder, less disposabler income people with children].

And different communities provide different lifestyle opportunities. It would seem that (in general) Hip Urban Centers attract YSMDI+NC people and Unhip Rural Areas attract OMLDI+C.

O.K. so far- I still don't see the "problem" at this point.

But now we note that urban centers COMPETE against each other to serve the wants/needs of younger, singler, more disposabler income people with no children.

Ahh now I see- whenever you have competition, you will have Success! and Failure!

So we have an institute of concerned folks trying to "level out the spikiness" of some urban centers being more successful at attracting younger, singler, more disposabler income people with no children than other urban centers.

We need government mandated Hipness Set-Asides for Urban Centers?
Following up on Anonymous 7:52...a lot will depend on the age of maximum productivity in a given profession, and how important that profession is to a region's economy. In professions that are science/engineering heavy, for example, workers often don't hit their strides until they are 30 or somewhat north of that. For most of those folks, hipness does indeed take second place to a decent commute, reasonable taxes and good schools.

On DD's post: I'm with Ivory. Your mission is to facilitate individual growth and employability. Even if some of the talent flees the area, some won't...and others may move back after they start to get that hankering for the big backyard they can't afford in the big city.

You could also try making it a mission to integrate town and gown. Here's an idea: set up a deal with your local Chamber of Commerce. CoC members can audit your courses for a nominal fee, or for free. In exchange, the Chamber actively works with your students to get them situated in internships, and assists in conducting job fairs. Students are more likely to stick around to grow the economy, and maybe CoC members get some cool new ideas to make their businesses more successful.
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