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In the News Index

Source: Philadelphia City Paper
Date: September 12-18, 2002
Byline: cover story


I Can Fix Your City

Professor Richard Florida says Philadelphia could be one of the boomtowns of the 21st century — as long we take his advice.

In his book, The Rise of the Creative Class, urban studies guru Richard Florida describes how civic leaders are failing to adapt to the 21st century:

"I have heard countless people across the country use the same phrase to describe the inability of their city's leadership to adapt to the demands of the Creative Age: 'They just don't get it.' It is not that these cities do not want to grow or encourage high-tech industries. In most cases, their leaders are doing everything they think they can to spur innovation and high-tech growth. But most of the time, they either can't or won't do the things required to create an environment or habitat that is attractive to the Creative Class. They pay lip service to the need to attract talent, but continue to pour resources into underwriting big-box retailers, subsidizing downtown malls, recruiting call centers and squandering precious taxpayer dollars on extravagant stadium complexes."

Sound familiar?

Florida is writing generally about "why some places get trapped," but the place he describes might as well be Philadelphia.

And last week Philadelphia got to hear from the man himself. Florida was brought to Philly by an assortment of the city's leading business and policy organizations — the very people who are pushing a mall on Penn's Landing to match the brand new ballpark already in the works.

Clearly, the local wonks and CEOs are interested in what Florida has to say. But are they taking his advice?

On the evening of Sept. 3, Richard Florida took the podium at Moore College of Art & Design to explain how cities can succeed in the modern economy by catering to the lifestyles of creative workers rather than the financial desires of corporations. A few in the crowd of 350 local movers and shakers dared to wear jeans, but they were outnumbered by suits and ties. The group inside the auditorium was clearly tamer than the pierced-and-dyed art students roaming the halls of the school. This all made perfect sense, considering the lecture was sponsored by groups like Innovation Philadelphia, the Pennsylvania Economy League and Greater Philadelphia First.

Florida wore a black suit with a black shirt. No tie. He looked as if he had just flown in from California. In truth, he had come from Pittsburgh, where he teaches public policy at Carnegie Mellon University (CMU).

Florida opened with an anecdote, telling the crowd about what he called his "Great Awakening." As a young post-doc, Florida had been brought to Carnegie Mellon to help turn the school's intellectual capital into cold, hard capital by "spinning off" high-tech companies based on university research. Florida was a founder of CMU's Center for Economic Development and a member of the Technology Transfer and Commercialization committee at the university. In his time at Carnegie Mellon, the first great success was Lycos, the technology used to conduct searches on the Internet — a cornerstone of the cyber-infrastructure.

With Lycos up and running, Florida ran off to take a visiting faculty position at Harvard's Kennedy School of Public Policy. One day while reading the Boston Globe in the faculty lounge, he spotted the headline "Lycos to Move to Boston."

Stunned, he called his Lycos insiders back in Pittsburgh and learned that the main reason the company was relocating was the labor pool. Lycos simply thought it would be easier to find well-educated engineers and creative code-writers in Boston than in Pittsburgh.

"I had to rethink everything in my field," Florida told his audience. He had been schooled in the theory that cities grow or decline based on firm location. Cities that can bring in major employers and keep them will grow, those that can't will decline. In order to attract and retain big companies, the conventional wisdom says that cities should compete for them, offering them lucrative tax breaks. But Lycos had relocated from relatively inexpensive Pittsburgh to pricey Boston, despite the cost, because it wanted to be near Boston's high-tech labor pool.

From the Lycos fiasco, Florida drew the conclusion that today's cutting-edge companies locate where today's cutting-edge people are. And where do cutting-edge people live? In hip, with-it cities like Boston, not Rust Belt dinosaurs like Pittsburgh.

But as a social scientist, Florida was faced with the task of somehow quantifying what everybody intuitively knows — that Boston is cooler than Pittsburgh — and proving that this is linked to economic growth.

Taking his cues from the clear pattern of gentrified, urban neighborhoods — that they are first colonized by artists who are then pushed out by rising rents and cappuccino-sipping corporate lawyer poseurs — Florida had his grad student grunts come up with what he calls the "bohemian index."

Based on census data, the bohemian index is a measure of how many people in a metropolitan area are engaged in "bohemian" professions (designers, musicians, etc.). What Florida found was that the bohemian index was a better predictor of high-tech growth than conventional economic tools like the percentage of college graduates in a region. He also found that high-tech growth was correlated to high levels of foreign immigration and high concentrations of gay people.

So instead of offering tax breaks to large corporations — in his speech, Florida derided them as "bribes" — cities should try to become places where creative people, from artists to software engineers, want to live. Florida explains the phenomenon by arguing that visible gay, bohemian and immigrant communities give cues to creative outsiders that a city would welcome them; after all, it has already welcomed people further outside the mainstream than themselves. He mentions that in his focus groups of creative professionals, many told him they asked prospective employers whether they offered domestic-partner benefits even though they themselves were not gay. The interview subjects figured that if the company was tolerant enough to offer domestic-partner benefits, it would be a place they could fit in.

Florida knows firsthand about not fitting in. Born in Newark, the son of an Italian-American factory worker, Florida grew up in what he refers to as "New Jersey Sopranos country." As a child, he frequently got in fights with schoolmates who were out to beat up the smart kid.

"I'm the only one to get out," he quips. After winning a state scholarship to Rutgers, Florida earned a Ph.D. in urban planning from Columbia. At Carnegie Mellon, he became the youngest professor to hold an endowed chair in the history of the university. Today, Florida is affiliated with the Brookings Institution, at the top of the Washington think-tank world.

Despite his advanced degrees and fancy affiliations, Florida's working-class roots have allowed him to take the stage as — what he likes to call — a "public intellectual."

With his dot-commer-chic outfits and appetite for media attention, "celebrity intellectual" might be more appropriate.

As one of the organizers of his Moore College lecture commented, "He has more handlers than a rock star."

When, after the lecture, Florida was asked what he thought of the audience, he responded, "It was big. I like that."

Unlike many of his counterparts in the academy, Professor Florida can talk to just about any audience and write without the jargony prose that keeps most academic social science books off the shelves at Barnes & Noble. Perhaps that's because he chooses his words more for their audience appeal than their precision. "I like the term ‘bohemian index' because it gets attention," he admits, "but I think the whole concept of bohemianism is a tired one."

Unlike many academics, Florida isn't afraid to lump himself in with the social phenomenon he's describing. Florida is proud to be a member of the ascendant Creative Class and freely talks about his Creative Class lifestyle. He pleads guilty to the Williams-Sonoma variety of conspicuous consumption — spending an inordinate amount of money on ordinary things. Florida says his Pittsburgh home sports a "fantasy kitchen," complete with a set of pots and pans fit for a five-star chef, though he confesses that he rarely cooks.

The professor is also the proud owner of what has to be the ultimate bourgeois-bohemian ("bobo") accessory — a hipster-style mailbag with a Gucci label. ("Bobo" was coined by another public intellectual, David Brooks; his bestselling Bobos in Paradise poked fun at the "creative class" lifestyle embodied by residents of places like Seattle and Wayne, Pa., Brooks' hometown.)

As an admitted place-snob, Florida shares one of the basic attributes of the location-obsessed Creative Class. While doing grad work at Columbia, when people on planes asked him where he lived, he said Manhattan, not New York. Today, Florida concedes, when people ask him where he lives, he says, "I teach at Carnegie Mellon."

So it's clear what Richard Florida thinks of Pittsburgh. But what's his take on Philadelphia?

"When I look at your scores: terrific on technology, OK on talent… but the tolerance score was low. That's got to come up at least, I would think, into the top 25." What this means in layman's terms is that the Philadelphia region does have high-tech companies and a fair level of college-educated people but an inadequate number of immigrants and gays. Florida acknowledges that there is a visible gay community in the city, but he notes with a smile, "It ain't San Francisco."

A recent article in the Philadelphia Gay News casts doubt on Florida's determination that the region is the 36th gayest place in America, pointing out that the determination relied on outdated and poorly compiled 1990 Census data and only took into account gay male live-in couples.

As a Western Pennsylvanian, Florida is not up to speed on Philadelphia's business and political leadership. He is a big fan of Ed Rendell, whom he credits with making Philadelphia one of the three great urban turnarounds of the 1990s (New York City and Chicago being the other two). But in his speech, Florida clashed, perhaps unknowingly, with the wonk and business establishment of the city and, in his book, with its political leadership.

In his speech, Florida pooh-poohed the idea that firms locate based on a city's business climate. "I know, the business climate is big with the business people," Florida said in a slow, singsongy voice usually reserved for kindergarten classrooms. Then he presented his theory that cities have to build a "people climate" that attracts creative and talented people. Once the climate is there, the businesses will follow.

But Florida is right. The business climate is big with the business people — especially those in his audience. The conventional wisdom in the city is that Philadelphia's business climate is the reason why we lag behind booming regions. Whether you ask a CEO, a policy expert or a member of City Council, you will hear the same thing: "It's the wage tax, stupid."

David Thornburgh, executive director of the Pennsylvania Economy League, who introduced Professor Florida, is one of the leading wage-tax bashers in a city that's full of them. According to Thornburgh, the wage tax is a "people climate issue [because] it comes out of everybody's paycheck."

Though Thornburgh can call the wage tax whatever kind of issue he wants, there is no debating that Richard Florida disagrees with him on its importance. Creative professionals "will pay to be where they want to be," Florida says, noting that they often choose to be in high-tax, high cost-of-living regions.

While Florida believes that companies will follow the creative workers to the cities where they locate even if they're pricey, in Philadelphia, granting tax incentives is seen as a key to attracting high-tech businesses.

Rich Bendis, who runs Innovation Philadelphia, the public-private partnership that pairs local entrepreneurs with venture capitalists, responded to Florida's criticism on his cell phone from the first class lounge in the Detroit airport, waiting to catch a flight to the Far East. Bendis bragged about a soon-to-be-announced deal that will bring a major high-tech company to the Philadelphia Naval Business Center. "It's in a Keystone Opportunity Zone so it's tax-free, which is very appealing."

Bendis defended the public subsidies that Florida mocks. While conceding that "knowledge workers" need an attractive lifestyle, New Economy businesses are still capitalist enterprises where profit is the ultimate goal. "Executives have to report to shareholders," says Bendis, so they "have to make sure they are doing things that are financially competitive for their business."

Florida, however, sticks to his guns. "The whole debate over the business climate misses the point. What city probably has the worst business climate in the world? San Francisco," he says, referring to the astronomical cost of real estate and business taxes that are about 50 percent higher than in its suburbs. "Yet it's the most highly innovative center. Austin, Texas, where environmentalists have controlled city politics for 30 years and are anti-growth and anti-development — that's the kind of city high-tech companies gravitate to."

Clearly Philadelphia's leaders understand that lifestyle matters. How else to explain all the taxpayer and foundation money spent on the Kimmel Center and the new stadiums? The question, according to Florida, is whose lifestyle do these projects accommodate? In Florida's opinion, more to the CEOs and pols who go to the symphony and sit in the skyboxes than to creative workers who spend their time in art galleries and ethnic restaurants.

In his book, Florida writes, "regions across the country continue to pour countless billions into sports stadiums, convention centers, tourism-and-entertainment centers and other projects of dubious economic value." While the criticism is general, the passages read as an indictment of local development policies from Penn's Landing to convention center expansion.

While City Commerce director James Cuorato defends spending millions on new stadiums as "a four-facility complex that I don't think any other city in the country can match," Florida ridicules the idea. Florida writes, "Not once during any of my focus groups and interviews did any member of the Creative Class mention professional sports as playing a role of any sort in their choice of where to live or work." Florida notes that Austin, Texas, one of the hottest centers of the computer industry, home to Dell and Trilogy, has no professional sports teams. Meanwhile economically moribund Buffalo, N.Y., has the Sabers and the Bills and not much else.

Still, David Thornburgh argues, "If you're a big league city you have to have a big league team." If keeping an owner in town means building him a new stadium, is that a price worth paying? "Yes," says Thornburgh.

Despite living 300 miles away, as a Pennsylvania taxpayer it's Florida's money that is building our stadiums. On his stop in Philly, Florida got very exercised on the subject. "Burn the money, just burn it, just put it in a bonfire and burn it," he said. Cities "would be better to put it in a passbook savings account" than spend taxpayer money on sports stadiums. Florida cites a study published in the Journal of Economic Perspectives, arguing, "Stadiums not only fail to deliver any economic development benefit, they're actually net drains on your local economy…." Of people who argue for taxpayer-funded stadiums, Florida says "you have to give them a CAT scan and an MRI together. Where did this come from that we would spend hundreds of millions of dollars subsidizing rich people? The Yankees still play in a stadium my father used to go to."

Well, yes and no. The House that Ruth Built was given a fancy makeover in the '70s at taxpayer expense.

On the subject of convention center expansion, Thornburgh again argues that it's a people climate issue. "I think there are some legitimate questions about the market demand for conventions but because of its location, the convention center does really add to the snap, crackle, pop urban energy."

Cuorato gives the administration argument that expansion is necessary because there are "literally thousands of jobs at stake in the hospitality industry. I don't want to call it a disagreement, but my only response would be that we have a diverse economy here in Philadelphia and we need to support all sectors of that economy, but we don't do it by excluding the kinds of things Richard recommends."

To back up his statement, Cuorato cites city funding for the construction of a new museum on the Parkway for Alexander Calder, the modern artist with Philly roots who is well-known for his mobiles.

But even the Calder Museum does not entirely fit the Florida model. The professor says that Creative Class people tend to prefer street-level culture as opposed to what he calls the "SOB" — symphony, opera and ballet. In Florida's opinion, a vibrant indie rock scene is more important than a beautiful opera house. Art galleries are more important than art museums.

But there are some examples of Florida-style public spending in Philadelphia.

According to James Cuorato, the Commerce Department is "right now working with a developer of a project out at the University of Pennsylvania" to build a new center for WXPN, the Penn-based public radio station. Called the World Café Live project, the deal, if sealed, would renovate an old building at 31st and Walnut and include a restaurant and small-venue performance space.

"We don't neglect supporting those types of amenities" that appeal to creative professionals, Cuorato says. "We can and should do both." The city has not yet determined how much money it will put toward the project.

But despite projects like this, there is still Love Park. The city's renovations of the square at 16th and JFK made North America's best-known skateboarding park unskateable.

Commenting on the situation, Florida says, "Skate parks are very important to young people, an intrinsic part of their creative culture, part of their identity. We should be expanding skate parks ….To take the park away is to tell them that they are not valid. Big mistake."

It's not just Richard Florida who thinks Love Park's transformation is a big deal.

In his introduction at the Florida lecture, David Thornburgh mentioned Love Park by name. Later, Thornburgh said, "I think that was an unfortunate turn of events. This was an attraction that was world-renowned, that was sending signals about Philadelphia as a hip, creative and diverse place."

But despite the objections of people like Thornburgh — not exactly a skate-rat scenester — the administration stands by its decision. Christine Otto of the mayor's press office said that keeping skaters out of Love Park "was the purpose of the renovations."

Her boss, Frank Keel, contradicted her statement, lamenting the "ongoing misperception that the renovation of Love Park… was about driving skateboarders out." What it was about, says Keel, was taking a "hunk of crap and restoring it [by] putting in trees and grass and comfortable wooden benches."

Keel says he wishes the skater community would get involved in the process of finding a substitute skate spot in the city, but as for Love Park itself: "Tough, get over it. It's over."

Professor Florida is still working on practical applications of his theories. Should the Pew Charitable Trusts stop funding the Kimmel and start funding the Khyber? Perhaps. One scheme Florida is toying with is creating the equivalent of venture capital funds for local artists. Investors could support musicians and artists and in return, those who make it big could contribute a percent or two of their royalties to the fund. Florida notes that the odds on a start-up company making it are about as long as those of a rapper or photographer, but that hasn't stopped venture capitalists from investing in them. At the very least, Florida recommends that cities do no harm to the youth-oriented cultural scenes that develop on their own.

Some places are experimenting with the types of strategies Florida endorses. For example, the city government of Austin, Texas, funds a cable channel featuring the local music scene. Florida himself was contacted by members of New York's Bloomberg administration, after publishing an op-ed in the New York Times suggesting that lower Manhattan be rebuilt with Creative Class-attracting street life in mind.

But why does Florida see so much potential in Philadelphia?

Walking down the streets of University City on a sunny Sept. 4, Richard Florida explains, "This city has a level of energy and it's getting more. Like this stuff," he says gesturing toward a packed outdoor café on 36th Street.

Philadelphia is "on the cusp"; it's "at the tipping point."

And Florida is confident it will tip the right way. "Philadelphia can't lose," he says. "I think the reason it can't lose is because of its [Northeast corridor] location and the fact that it has [major universities]. I mean, it can't blow it. Although bad leadership — I'm not saying you have it — but if you had bad leadership for a good decade, it could certainly set you back."

But does Florida want to turn Philadelphia into the next hyper-gentrified, unaffordable, whitewashed American city? No, Florida says. Though coming from a man who writes "the person who cuts my hair is a very creative stylist, much in demand, and drives a new BMW," you have to wonder.

"I think the advantage of Philly is it can attract people, but there's enough older, abandoned, underutilized housing that you're not in the situation of San Francisco where you're just pushing people out" through gentrification. In fact, in Florida's eyes, cities like San Francisco and Seattle have gone so far and become so yuppified that creative people no longer want to move there, the authenticity, vibrancy and diversity that originally attracted them having been destroyed — perhaps by BMW-driving hairdressers and their clients.

Florida views his role as a Creative Class ambassador to civic leaders who want to attract the workers of the future, but don't know how. What Florida's quantitative research bears out is what any observer of the American city can see: that gays and bohemians are, in Florida's words, "mine-shaft canaries of the creative age," testing out new neighborhoods for the timid but well-heeled yuppies who crave downtown cachet without downtown crime rates. By arguing that bringing in the canaries will ultimately bring in the dollars, Florida hopes to get business and civic leaders to change their policies.

Despite its obsession with the sports complex and the convention center, Philadelphia's leadership has made some efforts specifically targeted at the "creative class." State Sen. Vincent J. Fumo secured public funding for PhilaCity, a student retention program, and the Chamber of Commerce has established a Young Professionals Network. And it was, after all, mainstream civic organizations like Greater Philadelphia First and the Pennsylvania Economy League that pitched in to bring Florida to Philly.

Beth Miller of the American Institute of Architects, who helped organize Florida's lecture, summed it up: "Not everybody agreed with what he said, but everybody had a conversation about it. It shows that Philadelphia's community is really open to new ideas and open to doing what it takes to make this a really vibrant place."

Before Florida could make it out the door of the reception following his talk, he was buttonholed by a man in a tight black shirt and red pants. The man explained he was a gay Latino architect. He had just been offered a lucrative job in Cincinnati and was deciding whether to take it or stay in Philadelphia. The architect figured he'd ask Professor Florida, as an expert on cities, for advice.

"Have you heard of Article 12?" Florida asked.

No, the architect replied.

"It's a city ordinance in Cincinnati that basically says you can be fired or thrown out of your apartment for being gay."

Though that alone was enough to convince the man to stay in Philly, Florida went on.

"Have you seen the movie Traffic? Those crack houses they show are right around the corner from Procter & Gamble headquarters in downtown Cincinnati. And I'm sure you've heard about the riots," Florida said, referring to the dysfunctional relationship between the Cincinnati police department and communities of color.

The architect's decision to stay put is a clear example of how jobs don't attract creative workers, people climates do.

As Florida freely admits of his work, "It's not rocket science. All I'm doing is being common-sensical."

But will Philadelphia's policy elite trust a man who doesn't wear a tie and uses words like "common-sensical"?

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