Letters

Letters 08-03-2015

Real Brownfields Deserve Dollars I read with interest the story on Brownfield development dollars in the July 20 issue. I applaud Dan Lathrop and other county commissioners who voted “No” on the Randolph Street project...

Hopping Mad Carlin Smith is hopping mad (“Will You Get Mad With Me?” 7-20-15). Somebody filed a fraudulent return using his identity, and he’s not alone. The AP estimates the government “pays more than $5 billion annually in fraudulent tax refunds.” Well, many of us have been hopping mad for years. This is because the number one tool Congress has used to fix this problem has been to cut the IRS budget –by $1.2 billion in the last 5 years...

Just Grumbling, No Solutions Mark Pontoni’s grumblings [recent Northern Express column] tell us much about him and virtually nothing about those he chooses to denigrate. We do learn that Pontoni may be the perfect political candidate. He’s arrogant, opinionated and obviously dimwitted...

A Racist Symbol I have to respond to Gordon Lee Dean’s letter claiming that the confederate battle flag is just a symbol of southern heritage and should not be banned from state displays. The heritage it represents was the treasonous effort to continue slavery by seceding from a democratic nation unwilling to maintain such a consummate evil...

Not So Thanks I would like to thank the individual who ran into and knocked over my Triumph motorcycle while it was parked at Lowe’s in TC on Friday the 24th. The $3,000 worth of damage was greatly appreciated. The big dent in the gas tank under the completely destroyed chrome badge was an especially nice touch...

Home · Articles · News · Features · Way Cool? Not. Coolness comes...
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Way Cool? Not. Coolness comes from the streets - not government initiatives & arts organizations

Oran Kelley - January 15th, 2004
There has been a recent vogue in Michigan (and in a lot of other places) for the new urbanist terminology of Richard Florida, whose book *The Rise of the Creative Class* famously occupied space on Governor Granholm‘s bedstand. If you‘ve heard the mantra like repetition of the word “cool“ in relation to cities or downtown districts, then you‘ve heard the distant echoes of the ideas of Richard Florida.
And in Michigan, they‘ve been pretty distant echoes. Governor Granholm has pretty enthusiastically latched on to Florida‘s language, but has been pretty vague about what her she means when she says she wants to make Michigan‘s cities cooler. A lot of folks in the “urban redevelopment“ and “arts“ constituencies seem to have taken the entire initiative as a sop to them: hope for the future in some pretty hard times for nearly anything that is publicly funded.

RUDE AWAKENING
Recently, Michigan‘s Council for Arts and Cultural Affairs had Florida speak to their “Creating Cool“ conference in Lansing. If the urban development and arts council types who invited Florida were expecting him to play ball and raise a cry for increased government funding to urban cultural initiatives, they got a rude awakening. Florida essentially told them that nothing is less cool than government cultural initiatives and the best thing they could do was stay out of the way.
“These (politicians) are the people who are squelching the creative energy,“ Florida said at the Creating Cool Conference. “It‘s up to the real people in the community to make the changes they want.“
In other words, future economic development depends not on the government building urban malls or on traditional arts council projects. The culture of the creative class must be allowed to rise up “from the streets.“
Florida derives much of the insight of his book from his experience trying to help his home city develop economically and culturally. By many measures, Pittsburgh has a lot of what it takes for a city to thrive: a number of impressive corporations are based there, it‘s a regional hospital center, there are a number of world-class educational institutions, and there‘s plenty of distinctive “character“ to the town. But for years Florida has watched formerly industrial Pittsburgh struggle to reinvent itself in the new economy while other areas, some with far less obvious advantages, thrive.

CREATIVE CLASS
Explaining “why Pittsburgh struggles“ became the basis for Florida‘s research and the result is -- *The Rise of the Creative Class* -- a book which quickly became a bestseller upon its publication last year (the paperback version hit stores in time for Christmas). There‘s an obvious answer to Florida‘s question: Pittsburgh is a dying rust-belt town, based on industries like steel which are no longer an important part of the American economic landscape.
But then there‘s Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. Also an old steel town, with far less going for it than Pittsburgh on the face of it. By Florida‘s lights, Bethlehem, along with neighboring cities Allentown and Easton, is thriving and becoming a second-tier American urban center.
Why?
Florida relates these differences in urban development to the rise of a new economic class: what he calls the “creative class,“ ie. artistic types and highly skilled (primarily information) technology workers. Florida compares this new class to two older classes: manufacturing workers and service workers.
The future, Florida says, lies with the creative class for two reasons: 1. The manufacturing class has declined and will continue to do so as the economy globalizes; 2. Service workers have much lower salaries than either industrial or creative class workers, and that doesn‘t look likely to change since the growth in the number of service class jobs is more or less predicated on their low wages.

ATTRACTING WORKERS
So, the key to future urban and regional development in the U.S. is the ability to attract these sorts of workers, and the usual formula of focusing on the businesses that employ these workers doesn‘t help, because the process works the other way around: Businesses are attracted to the places where these sorts of workers already live. The Creative Class, according to Florida, is in the driver‘s seat, and where they go will determine which parts of the country will get the cake and which will get the crumbs in the new economy.
So what attracts this creative class? Florida often emphasizes the “three Ts“ of development: talent, technology and tolerance. All of these things do require infrastructure: talent depends on education, so having institutions of higher learning is good. Technology these days boils down to computer and internet technology, so being “well-wired“ is helpful, and tolerance requires a certain more, tolerance and even an active acceptance of those who are different -- immigrants, gays and eccentrics, for instance -- must come to define the community that hopes to win out in Florida‘s new creative economy.

UNCOOL MICHIGAN
Florida has developed a list of U.S. cities (the creativity index) measuring four key factors: the share of creative workers in the workforce; the amount of high-tech industry; creativity (as measured by the number of patents filed per capita); and diversity (as measured by the proportion of gay residents). The resulting Index is, according to Florida, a fair measure of a city‘s economic prospects.
By Florida‘s measures, Michigan‘s cities aren‘t doing particularly well in preparing for the new economy. As you might guess, Ann Arbor is doing fine (#1 on Florida‘s list of “subregions“), as is Lansing (#7 on the small city list). But the rest of Michigan, especially the bigger cities, isn‘t doing well at all. Grand Rapids is near the basement among medium-sized cities. In the overall rankings of urban areas, Detroit is 68th, Kalamazoo 87th, Jackson 208th.
This probably shouldn‘t surprise us, given Michigan‘s still considerable economic dependence on the automobile industry. What ought to surprise us (and Florida) is the way longstanding “urban development“ and arts causes have tried to use Florida‘s ideas to their advantage.
Now we are being told (by folks like Michigan Future, Inc., among many others) that the way to success in Florida‘s new economy is more state arts funding or throwing more state funding at urban centers. Gov. Granholm even made Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick Michigan‘s “Minister of Cool.“

TOTALLY UNCOOL
So the Creative Class thinks urban machine politicians, pork-barrel urban renewal projects and traditional arts funding are cool? Not according to Florida. The cities near the top of Florida‘s Creativity Index are the cities that have transcended these things and where private citizens have taken the lead in defining the cultural tenor of their place. But, unfortunately the Creative Class is not really fully formed yet, it doesn‘t have true self-consciousness and hasn‘t formed a coherent interest group yet.
Party politicians, civil service workers and potential government contractors, though, certainly do have interests groups at the ready, and it is toward the interests of these folks that the “cool cities campaign“ has so far been oriented. But Michigan‘s cities are not going to retain and attract the creative class by building more gussied-up high school auditoria (e.g. Traverse City‘s State Theatre) or further encouraging the creation of Michigan-themed Airport Art. The Creative Class doesn‘t value the high cultural “establishment“ (symphonies, opera, ballet, art museums) nearly as much as prior generations have. “Artsy“ as in “stuffy“ will have to give way if Michigan is to succeed. And this means getting the funding out of the long-established channels, which are nothing if not stuffy.

CLUBS, BARS & COFFEEHOUSES
Not that the Creative Class is culturally inactive: they are actually quite interested in culture. It‘s just that they prefer clubs and bars and coffeehouses to arts centers, formal concerts and black-tie exhibit openings.
Politics as usual, backroom decision-making and civic chumminess are also highly unattractive to the Creative Class. Florida finds that ranks on his Creativity Index is inversely proportional to membership in civic groups like Rotary. So success with the Creative Class means breaking up the boys (and girls) clubs and actually deciding things in the open.
In other words, Michigan‘s future depends on the old civic world of Michigan -- the politicians, the civic groups, the arts councils -- getting out of the way and letting the representatives of Michigan‘s cultural future -- artists, activists, knowledge workers -- find their own way to make Michigan cities cool. Because that old civic world is just definitively uncool.
More later.
 
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