So last Wednesday I was invited to York University to come do a little guest lecture in a class called Creativity and Cities in Urban Politics and Planning 4800. Heather McLean, the courses professor, is a PhD candidate and member of the City Institute at York University but I first heard about her in an article entitled “Why Richard Florida’s Honeymoon is Over.” She teaches a cool course, with a cooler M.O: Subject the creativity discourse that is leading much of contemporary urban policy to some intelligent criticism.
By looking at an old Wall Street Journal article and two very different conversations that emerged about it here on the Creative Class Exchange – one that is perhaps more celebratory of how the creative class theory is attributed to this situation, and one that I wrote that is perhaps a bit more critical of the role creative class theory might be playing – I tried to impart on them that it’s really important that they bring their content to the table when looking at dominant theories, and to sift these theories through that content to see if they pan out. That content could be their cultural leaning, their ethnicity, age, political leaning, or whatever lens that they are most invested in, but it’s important that they understand that they’re empowered by that lens to see things that others who aren’t as invested as they are don’t see. They should ask questions about what they see. Or moreover, what they don’t. Prepping to do that lecture brought me back to when I first met Richard, which is kind of an interesting story about the value of critique and about the mettle of Richard Florida as well I guess.
So before all of this DJ/bureaucrat business I was a young(er) DJ/student/journalist writing for the Ottawa Xpress. In school I was studying cities, and for the paper I was writing music and reviewing books. Richard Florida was coming to town for the Tulip Festival, and his then new book Who’s Your City? had come into the office to be reviewed. I’d just been into a lot of Richard’s research journals, and the Elizabeth Currid stuff was just coming out too, so this was an interesting time to be talking. In all of the reading that I had done I really didn’t see myself represented in the creative class – either as a Hiphopper, or as a North American Black person. So in our interview I respectfully stepped to him on those issues.
From my article/review of Who’s Your City?:
“I am a rock-ist,” he admits, “and my students have informed me of this, but I’m learning.” As it turns out, Florida reveals that one of his future projects will look at the relationship between music and the city, and that he was already taking that opportunity to look at hip-hop culture…
and then on race…
How is the movement of the creative class affecting these [racial] communities? “Probably the reason I don’t write about it [race] is that when I wrote about gay issues, I had a gay collaborator. So I felt, as a straight person, that I could then work on gay issues. It’s probably a part of my age, I’m very sensitive when trying to weigh in on those issues.”
And while I’m the first to recognize that this isn’t him leaping to engage that problematic, you ask him a direct question, you get a direct answer. At the end of the interview we kept talking about where I saw room for engagement within his theory, and eventually we started doing this thing that you’re reading right now.
Recently there has been a lot of good critique of the Creative Class and Creative City theories. Here in Ottawa at Carleton, Sarah Brouillette is studying the Commodification of Creativity. Profs like Heather and groups like the the Creative Class Struggle are keeping a critical voice in the discourse. And as much as there are things that I think it would be interesting to see Richard address, one thing I can say about him is that he’s always willing to host me to address those things, and likewise with other critics. A good example is Ian David Moss’ incredibly fine grained and detailed deconstruction of the creative class over at Createquity.com, and Richard’s response to that criticism. Or while I was in Toronto visiting the MPI a few months ago I met Philipp Oehmke who had just spent time doing the interview that leads the article he wrote about the Hamburg squatters in Das Spiegel which captures the nuance of the situation really well.
In this discourse the traditional skirmish lines seem to be skewed. All of the ire from the left seem to evaporate into a vacuum of hugs from what we thought was the right. In Hamburg the artists occupy, and the city sends talkers and crews to make sure the building is safe. In my interview, I ask this guy tough questions about the exclusion of race and Hiphop from his ideas and he invites me to answer them myself on his site. Coming from the “Fight the Power” generation, this is certainly not what I expected when challenging a dominant ideological discourse. Sometimes I don’t know what the hell is going on myself. All I can say is that, for now at least, it seems to be as broad a conversation as you want to have. Yes there are still barriers but, surprisingly, listening seems to be an emerging trend. I think people are still correct to question the root of that - why are people listening? – but in my opinion, it’s more important that people like those students are taking the time to grow and use their critical skills to make this discourse broad enough that their content and concerns can either find their place within this discourse or expose where improvement of it is necessary. That’s a creative class if I’ve ever seen one.