Thursday, August 30, 2012

Creative Class Is Dead

From my days as a graduate student at the University of Colorado, Russell Jacoby's "The Last Intellectuals: American Culture in the Age of Academe" is one of a few texts that stands out in my memory. Jacoby laments the passing of a golden era for public intellectuals. I read it in the late 1990s, not too long before blogging ushered in a renaissance. In the same vein, Robert Anasi offers up “The Last Bohemia: Scenes From the Life of Williamsburg.” An interview with Anasi demarcates the precarious balance of Bohemia Williamsburg:

I thought that everyone had their own story of Williamsburg. My book is certainly not this overarching oral history view of everything that happened. Given the time constraints I had [nine months], I thought it'd be good to focus on people I knew first-hand. So everyone I talked in the book was someone I knew from that time period. It gave me a way to draw a certain social network. This is my version of the neighborhood.

I include a local guy who grew up in Greenpoint, and he has the perspective of, in his words: "I thought I was growing up in the worst place in the world and I wanted to be an artist. Here I am, in this dying industrial town right across from the U.N., nobody knows we exist, everyone here says it sucks. How am I going to be an artist and get out of here?" But then the artists came to him. So for him, it was a super positive experience. Or for someone like Napoleon, who's a south side Dominican guy also with an artistic temperament, it's surely a positive experience. He went from gang-banging on the south side to opening the first lounge in the neighborhood—being someone who was able to navigate both those worlds, having the intelligence and the talent to make an opportunity out of that.

Emphasis added. Save the part about the U.N., that could be the story of any Rust Belt native. Cities such as Cleveland are poised to boom just like public intellectuals have in the blog world. Will Doig (Dream City):

With cities so accessible, some people are looking further afield — it’s becoming fashionably counterintuitive to declare that the ‘burbs are, in fact, the new creative heart of America. The most recent assertion was a New York Times Op-Ed published in May by Malu Byrne (daughter of David), who wrote that she “might need to be out of the city in order to sustain my creative spirit.” “The notion of ‘making it in the city’ is increasingly nostalgic and impossible,” she writes. “Yes, the city supports the arts, but not its up-and-coming artists.”

Of course, Byrne is talking about New York specifically. (She’s also the daughter of a millionaire, but we’ll let that slide.) Maybe it’s simply a matter of looking to different cities. Buffalo, Cleveland and Dayton offer plenty of empty space and cheap living. Detroit, America’s go-to example of urban decline, now gets pegged as bohemia’s new frontier all the time. (At a reading in Brooklyn earlier this month, bohemian queen Patti Smith was asked how young artists could make it in New York today, and she bluntly told the questioner to move to Detroit and do her work there.) A recent Los Angeles Times story described Detroit just like ’80s Williamsburg — “eerie shells of one-time factories, warehouses …” — before gushing over the “2,500-square-foot studio with a kitchen and a Jacuzzi” occupied by an “ebullient painter.”

If gentrification is happening on such a large scale, then we are seeing the convergence of the Innovation Economy. The world of the public intellectual (Jacoby's ideal) used to be spiky. Blogging platforms made it flat. The agglomeration of talent in a few cities (divergence) has been spiky. We seem to have reached a tipping point where labor costs and rising rents are forcing a migration of geographic arbitrage. The world of innovation is getting flat (convergence).

What's next to agglomerate (i.e. diverge)? I argue that we are on the cusp of a Talent Economy, where talent production will cluster in a few key places (e.g. Pittsburgh). Public higher education employment and the Great Recession:

Despite cost pressures that are driving tuition up, employment grew by 90,000 jobs, or 7 percent nationwide since 2007, the year before fiscal woes hit states and localities, as public colleges and universities added both instructional and administrative personnel.

In the public sector, the focus is shifting to talent production. Rising tuition costs don't seem to matter. I think that suggests divergence. The high price tag isn't a deterrent. Students are eschewing arbitrage opportunities to attend the best schools. This world is spiky.


Anonymous said...

Back in the 90s, saw Jacoby give the most intellectually dishonest and lazy paper at a conference. I've hated him ever since.

Patrick Prescott said...

I have seen the word "spikey" used a great deal. Sorry to be so dense, but can you point me to something to explain what this means?

Jim Russell said...

From Richard Florida himself: