Wednesday, July 23, 2008

When a place gets boring, even the rich people leave

On the occasion of Jon Seydl's magnum opus, the re-installation of the Cleveland Museum of Art, I have been thinking about the fate of cities. Jon gave me a brilliant introduction to Cleveland back in May, when I passed through on my AIA lecture tour. Judging from Bill Moyer's Journal, "Mortgage Meltdown" (PBS, July 19, 2008), Cleveland's fate has been dramatic enough to represent the worst case scenario. My visit to Louisville, KY, where my sister and brother-in-law gave me a fabulous introduction to the city, offered yet another case study, a hidden jewel caught between the fates of the South and the Midwest. Driving through Cincinnati and Columbus on the way back to Philadelphia was equally instructive.

The opening of the Cleveland Museum and the cultural offerings of Louisville (the Olmsted ParkAntique Mall, the Architectural Salvage store, the Speed) highlight the perseverance of "The Creative Class," a term coined by urbanist Richard Florida in T
System, the he Rise of the Creative Class and How It’s Transforming Work, Leisure, Community and Everyday Life (New York, 2002). Florida argues that America's single most exciting social force is a loose community of urbanites involved in culture, the arts, and design. Although its members don't always recognize themselves as a "class," this group is critical component of economic development. The success of Barack Obama, Florida argues, is the first mass political consequence of this group. Florida has entered the public eye again in a new book, Who's Your City: How the Creative Economy is Making Where to Live the Most Important Decision of Your Life (New York, 2008), which refines the discussion of cities.

In his Talk of the Nation (June 19, 2008) interview, Florida discussed the social cost of moving to a new place based on a job. Displacement from home, friends, and family carries a hidden cost of an average $133,000 a year. Having had to deal with an ailing mother 12-hours away, my wife 16-hours away, or my sister's family, another 12-hours away, not to mention the geographically dispersed group of friends, makes this clear. Following the geography of the job market, translates to wasting a tremendous amount of resources reconnecting with human value (partners, family, friends). Stuck on the Pennsylvania Turnpike for 2 1/2 hours because of a trailer truck accident, or failing to make it to Cleveland (and missing the new CMA galleries) brought all these issues home. Florida's book of how one chooses what city to live in places those frustrations in perspective. Florida also helps in understanding the distinctions between bad scenarios, such as Charlotte's "sprawl without growth" and good scenarios, such as Portland's "growth control." You can read more on Florida in his blog Creative Class Group, or in his web site Who's Your City.

While Florida's new book was released, the National Endowment of the Arts published a report on the demographics of artists (dancers, musicians, writers, architects). "Artists in the Workforce, 1990-2005," maps this Creative Class with great detail. When the
New York Times publicized the report in "A 21st-Century Profile: Art for Art's Sake, and for the U.S. Economy, Too" (NYT, June 12, 2008), it skewed the data towards New York. It's worth downloading the report itself and studying it closely. Table 43, for example, ranks the top 50 metropolitan areas by number of artists (Philadelphia is no. 6, Cleveland is no. 30). Who knew that Massachusetts has the greatest concentration of architects?

So what is the lesson? Art and culture matter beyond their inherent value. They drive important national movements and economic trends. Of course we all know this, but the political climate of the last decade may have helped us forget it. In a recent piece, Christopher Hitchens also laments the loss of bohemia, "Last Call: Bohemia"
Vanity Fair (July 2008) . Let's not forget the wisdom of Jane Jacobs "When a place gets boring, even the rich people leave" (quoted in Florida's blog).

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Kostis Kourelis

Philadelphia, PA, United States