by William Skink
Missoula is going to need a crash course in New Urbanism because we are very late to this party, a party that even one of its original boosters, Richard Florida, is trying desperately to re-brand.
As I research New Urbanism, Richard Florida’s name keeps coming up. Florida’s 2002 book, Rise Of The Creative Class, helped spawn the New Urbanism cult, moving its ideas from the fringe to mainstream acceptance.
15 years later this Guardian piece assesses where Florida is at in 2017 with his book The New Urban Crisis. Here is how Florida is introduced to Guardian readers:
He’s the prophet of placemaking, the king of the downtown revival, the patron saint of avocado toast. More than any other figure in urban thinking, the US academic Richard Florida has been held up as the ultimate champion of gentrification, at once celebrated by mayors for reviving their struggling cities and vilified by critics for fuelling urban inequality.
His 2002 bestseller The Rise of the Creative Class hit on what now seems blindingly obvious: that the “clustering force” of young creatives and tech workers in metropolitan areas was leading to greater economic prosperity. Don’t waste money on stadiums and concert halls, or luring big companies with tax breaks, he told the world’s mayors. Instead make your town a place where hipsters want to be, with a vibrant arts and music scene and a lively cafe culture. Embrace the “three T’s” of technology, talent and tolerance and the “creative class” will come flocking.
So, back in 2002, Florida thought dressing up gentrification as a tech-bro/hipster effort to re-create urban spaces into a new urban utopia was a great idea. I think it helped stoke Florida’s enthusiasm that his speaking fees grew to over $30,000 dollars as the ideas he promoted took hold in the minds of developers.
But utopias weren’t actually created, and a backlash against New Urbanism arose. Here’s why:
Fifteen years on, it hasn’t quite turned out as he planned. Florida’s formula has proven to benefit the already rich, mostly white middle class; fuel rampant property speculation; displace the bohemians he so fetishised; and see the problems that once plagued the inner cities simply move out to the suburbs. Does he now regret promoting any of the principles that he has championed for so long?
“I’m not sorry,” he barks, sitting in a hotel lobby in Mayfair, wearing a leather jacket and black T-shirt. “I will not apologise. I do not regret anything.”
While Florida sounds like an elitist asshole defending the ideas that became his rockstar academic identity, there are some insights he is capable of providing as he does damage control. The article continues:
His defensiveness comes in response to the reaction to his latest book, The New Urban Crisis, which has been widely interpreted as a mea culpa for opening up the great can of gentrifying worms. After years of proselytising loft-living and shabby-chic cafes, Florida’s eyes have been opened to the downsides of the back-to-the-city movement, sorely felt from London to San Francisco and beyond.
He says it was the election of populist rightwing mayor Rob Ford in 2010, in his adoptive hometown of Toronto, that finally triggered his awakening. If even this liberal creative capital could swing so violently to the right, the backlash had well and truly arrived.
“It forced me to confront this divisiveness,” he says. “I realised that we need to develop a new narrative, which isn’t just about creative and innovative growth and clusters, but about inclusion being a part of prosperity. It was the service class – the class I had forgotten – that was taking it on the chin.”
It may take a moment to absorb the ignorance Florida is admitting here. I’ll wait.
Ok, acknowledging that an entire class of people who live in urban spaces were, like, you know, just kind of forgotten, is pretty astounding.
But, when you read the above quote for Florida’s take away from this epiphany that the service class exists and took it “on the chin”, you can see he doesn’t say anything about needing to deal with macro-economic issues, like rampant inequality, but instead thinks we need to develop A NEW NARRATIVE with nice sounding buzz words like “inclusion”.
I have heard that same exact sentiment from our Mayor, that the problem with Tax Increment Financing is that city leaders need to explain it better to us simpletons. In fact, I highlighted Engen’s condescending approach last August in a post about Engen losing the narrative on Tax Increment Financing. Here’s the money shot from Mayor Engen:
Engen said he hopes to launch some sort of public relations campaign to extoll the benefits of Tax Increment Financing.
“There is considerable noise around TIF and considerable misunderstanding in the community about what TIF does and the purpose and reason we have redevelopment districts,” he said. “We’re doing some work to help folks better understand that. There’s a fundamental misunderstanding that we’re just, we’re giving money to the private sector.”
Engen feels that isn’t true, and hopes to convince people otherwise.
“We’re producing some explainers that will help folks understand that we’re actually creating public infrastructure that supports private investment, that creates taxable value, that expands our base that allows us to levy fewer mills to tax individuals less and to get more done. This is a success story at the end of the day and I think we have an opportunity to share in that success,” he said.
For the consultants who get endless amounts of public money to study each opportunity to gentrify this town, it IS a success story.
For the developers who will see bigger profit margins as the sardine can master plan gets implemented, it IS a success story.
And for investors who like risk mitigation strategies that include public subsidies and tax breaks, like Trump’s opportunity zones, it IS a success story.
But for everyone else?
How about you just wait for Engen to get into a helicopter and toss pro-TIF leaflets on your precious little neighborhoods since you dim-witted peasants have no valid concept about what urban living means to the elitists, who have to be reminded that you even exist.
Let’s get back to Richard Florida’s epiphany:
It was something of an epiphany. As he writes in the introduction to his new book: “I entered a period of rethinking and introspection, of personal and intellectual transformation … I found myself confronting the dark side of our urban revival that I had once championed and celebrated.”
Following the Rob Ford shockwave, it was the surprise election of Donald Trump that really made him take notice of the divisions between the cities and the regions, and the great mass of people beyond his creative urban centres.
“It’s the working class – and I’m sorry, but I’m a member of the working class, I come from the working class – that has voted for this nationalistic agenda,” he says. “If Marx came back to life, he would say, ‘This doesn’t surprise me. I told you the peasantry was a backward-looking class.’ They weren’t part of the forward-looking momentum of capitalism.”
The author of the Guardian piece does a good job of subtly showing how Florida is still engaged in some bullshit thinking by setting up the false dichotomy of service class vs. creative class:
When I suggest that perhaps his creative class v service class definition isn’t particularly helpful, given that many artists also wait tables, he pauses in his usually fluent spiel. “Maybe,” he says. “But the real issue is the immiseration of the service class.
“Yes, there are many artists and musicians who struggle, but the creative workers have colonised the best spaces in cities, pushing the service workers out to the periphery.”
Why can’t service workers be creative workers? This is the core, elitist bullshit poisoning Florida’s well. It exposes how his earlier work deceptively hyped the contribution of tech-bros and affluent hipsters as being the primary drivers in re-creating urban spaces, ignoring and/or marginalizing the contributions of people he clearly has little direct contact with.
Unless they are serving him avocado toast.