Portland is where young people go to retire: The Curse of the Creative Class

"Rise of the Creative Class"

I was recalling a comment I made at Eric Edberg’s blog regarding Richard Florida’s book, The Rise of the Creative Class (a Christmas Gift from 2010), that I’d finished reading some time ago.  What brought up the memory of the comment was the drive back home from a meeting I had earlier today with some members of the Persian community about hosting a big Norooz event in Louisville (possibly featuring a wonderful musician from Turkmenistan, Gasan Mamedov, who will happen to be in the states in early March).

While driving back from Saffron’s Persian restaurant in Louisville, I was noticing the bike lanes–both in Louisville as well as in the city I currently reside across the river, New Albany–and how empty they seemed.  Not just now, as obviously it’s winter and not particularly conducive to riding–but in general.  I don’t remember ever seeing anyone in the biking lanes (on this side of the river) and can count on one hand the number of bikes on the other side of the river.

The bike lanes reminded me of the controversy over creating and publicly funding such amenities to draw in what Florida calls the “Creative Class”–the so-called economic saviors and inheritors of the former working/manufacturing class.  Knowledge and ideas are the new industries and will be a part of an information revolution in a way that factories heralded the industrial revolution.

So, Richard Florida, bike trails, and with all the talk about entrepreneurial spirit rising in classical music I said this about Florida’s book almost a year ago:

I’m just about done with the book, but have since come across a number of critiques of it–mainly relating to Florida’s claim that there is high economic activity associated with high levels of creativity. Unfortunately it looks like Florida may have been analyzing the tail end of the dot com boom as many of the cities and regions that rank high on his scale of centers of creative activity just happen to be places where many of the tech-geek culture flourished (and eventually busted).

Then I mentioned a comment from Joe at Butts in Seats:

The only bit of sunshine was a story about Portland, OR which discussed that people keep moving to Portland even though there aren’t enough jobs. What keeps drawing them there? The overall culture and atmosphere of the city, including a mention of the music scene. I knew I had heard this sentiment before so I did a Google search before sitting down to write and sure enough, I found stories from 2010, 2009 and even earlier where people talked about the lack of jobs, the cool vibe and the music scene. You can find plenty of blog entries on the subject as well. I was pleased to continually hear a story where the arts were mentioned as an attractive element of a city.

Then said that Portland happens to rank very high on Florida’s metric as a city high in all the things that purportedly make a city or region a high ranking economic powerhouse.  Too bad Portland is the place where young people go to retire (I thought the comment about Seattle and Portland being two of America’s whitest cities was humorous, too).

Point is, the “Bohemian index” which is one of the metrics that purportedly helps to rank cities higher on the economic scale just doesn’t seem to work.  Sure, maybe Portland is just an outlier, or maybe, just maybe, there’s more to economic prosperity than just a high proportion of the population being members of the Creative Class.

Edward Glaesser, who gives a favorable review of Florida’s book and work, seems to agree that the Bohemian index is a poor litmus test for generating economic prosperity (cf. Jim Russell’s post comparing Pittsburgh and Portland–the former is the city where Florida had been based and which he used as a starting point for his work).  He even used data, supplied and used by Florida and Kevin Stolarnick in their work, to run his own regressions on population growth.  By eliminating the Creativity index but including four other measures used by Florida, Glaesser finds the first three to correlate with a schooling effect.  And by eliminating the two outliers of Las Vegas and Sarasota from the “Bohemian index” (which I think he rightly believes shouldn’t be considered havens of Bohemianism–Portland is that, right?) then the schooling effect becomes significant and the Bohemianism becomes irrelevant.  His conclusion:

[M]ayors are better served by focusing on the basic commodities desired by those with skills, than by thinking that there is a quick fix involved in creating a funky, hip, Bohemian downtown.

Sadly, I think far too many folks who believe that classical music needs a facelift are adopting a ‘quick fix’ that involves creating a funky, hip, Bohemian image.

Steven Malanga is much less charitable in his assessment of Florida’s work:

Yet since 1993, cities that score the best on Florida’s analysis have actually grown no faster than the overall U.S. jobs economy, increasing their employment base by only slightly more than 17 percent. Florida’s indexes, in fact, are such poor predictors of economic performance that his top cities haven’t even outperformed his bottom ones. Led by big percentage gains in Las Vegas (the fastest-growing local economy in the nation) as well as in Oklahoma City and Memphis, Florida’s ten least creative cities turn out to be jobs powerhouses, adding more than 19 percent to their job totals since 1993—faster growth even than the national economy.

If Portland is the model for the funky, hip, and Bohemian world that is supposed to draw creative types, and if creative types, being highly concentrated in an area will allow some bleed-over of creative energy into industries and businesses then it seems that that model for creating sustainability and/or economic prosperity is relatively flawed.

But I guess if you want to talk “about the lack of jobs, the cool vibe and the music scene” then maybe Portland’s the place to go?  Just make sure you do it as a youngster so you can retire there too!

4 thoughts on “Portland is where young people go to retire: The Curse of the Creative Class

  1. Jon, this is a great post. You really dig into the issues and raise some good critical points. I think the flip side of the equation is to ask just what it is that cities and states do that blocks economic prosperity, because there I think the causality is clearer.


    1. Thanks, Bryan. Apparently the dutch have also discovered that the Bohemian index is a poor predictor once Amsterdam is removed from the mix as well: http://createquity.com/2009/05/reconstructing-florida.html.

      Glaeser recently published that seems to touch on some of those issues such as entrance barriers for the arts in cities: http://www.triumphofthecity.com/ –I’m going to have to definitely read that text.

      I think Florida is on to something–exactly what that is I’m not sure anyone really knows, but his activities advising and pushing the amenities in a number of US cities may very well be getting in the way of careful consideration of the merits of his suggestions. I think that in many ways, the investments in these kinds of infrastructural changes to cities parallels the ambiguous (at best) or poor performance that stadiums and convention centers give for cities that always seem to get built in US cities!


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