The Rise of the Procreative Class
© Jack Cashill,
When I first visited San Francisco 25 years ago, the city dazzled me. Having grown up in Newark, I had presumed that the inexorable fate of cities was decay. San Francisco had reversed the process. And as I deduced, it was the gay in-migration that had caused the reversal.
I returned home with the idea that Kansas City should try to attract gays for the same reason. The Kansas City Star Magazine commissioned me to write an article on the subject, in which I argued that gays buy into fringe neighborhoods that middle class parents would not dare to and, all stereotypes aside, do a great job renovating their houses. The Star rejected the article for being “too positive.” My good progressive friends had yet to see how superior they could feel just by supporting gay rights.
For a variety of reasons, media and political resistance to gays would ebb, and once it did, urbanists began to take up my argument, none more influentially than Richard Florida. In Kansas City, as everywhere, development leaders read his Rise of the Creative Class with highlighter in hand.
According to Florida, cities that attract creative people will do better economically than those that don’t. To rank cities he employs a “creativity index” with four equally weighted variables. Three of the four make perfect sense to me: the number of creative workers, the number of high-tech workers and the “innovation factor” as measured by patents per capita. The fourth variable I have a little trouble with, “diversity.”
Florida measures diversity by the “Gay Index,” the percentage of gays in the population, which he describes as “a reasonable proxy for an area’s openness to different kinds of people and ideas.” By this index, San Francisco not only ranks number one in diversity, but it also ranks number one in overall creativity.
In researching this article, I discovered that Florida and I are homeboys. We grew up within blocks of each other in Newark. In our communications Florida tells me that the city’s racial tension and overall decay had “a haunting effect” on him. Personally, I still have nightmares. This background accounts for much of our shared enthusiasm for cities that work. Where we disagree is on what “work” means.
Florida argues that cities do well to recruit those sundry scientists, engineers, academics, designers, architects, entertainers, actors, rock and rollers, jugglers and, of course, the “thought leadership” that comprise the “creative class.”
Like contemporary cargo cultists, many of the development specialists that I know have convinced themselves that if they can only create a groovy, gay-friendly, rock and rolling, Frisbee-throwing environment in Topeka or St. Joe or Kansas City, Kansas the high-tech cargo will follow. To be sure, they misread Florida, but not entirely.
There is an oddly unexplored flaw in Florida’s thesis: he does not take into account the possibility that a city might “tip,” that it just might attract one creative person too many. The tipping point is not hard to gauge. When the first mime artist shows up on a city street, you know that the creative class has officially reached critical mass, and from then on bad things will begin to happen. Here are five of them.
1. The “thought leadership” becomes the “thought police.”
A few months back, Lawrence Summers, president of creative hotbed Harvard, suggested as possible something the less creative know to be true: namely, that there is a genetic component to the near absence of women from the very top ranks of scientists and mathematicians. Harvard canned him. There is a reason that as soon as a city becomes too creative it earns the preface “People’s Republic of.”
2. The creative class ceases to be procreative.
Although some might see this as blessing, the creative class has little interest in sustaining itself. San Francisco has only 14 children under 18 per 100 people, the lowest such figure in the nation for a major city. This kind of demographic hari-kari would impress even a European—if there are any left by the time this article comes out. Kansas City, by contrast, has nearly twice as many children under 18 as San Francisco. Johnson County has more than 30 percent more children per capita than Marin County.
3. Faith in science goes blind.
In November 2004, at the prompting of its creative class, Californians voted to approve the $3 billion Stem Cell Research and Cures Initiative, better known as the CCEA, the Creative Class Employment Act. They did so in no small part because South Korean veterinarian Woo-Suk Hwang had them convinced that theirs was a good investment.
Eight months before the election the major media had trumpeted Hwang’s stem cell breakthrough. “The debate is over,” The San Francisco Chronicle insisted. Much depends on how you define “over.” A year later, the Chronicle was quietly reporting, “Scientists said they had no way to predict how long it might take to complete the experiments [in generating stem cells] or what chance they have to succeed.” You see, in the interim, Hwang had been exposed as a charlatan. It seems that he had fabricated his proofs. California, however, is still intent on finding creative ways to spend that $3 billion.
4. The Creative Class drives out the working class.
Almost everywhere the creative class rules, it prices the working and lower middle classes out of town. In the not-so-creative Kansas City, a family of median income can afford to buy 87 percent of the homes in the marketplace. In San Francisco, a median income family can afford to buy 7 percent of the homes. In San Diego, that figure is 5 percent.
Florida acknowledges that creative cities “rapidly outpaced the average national increase” in housing prices. This he attributes to increased demand. Demand, however, is only part of the equation. The other is artificially restricted supply. When they come to power, the ecological hard cases that drive the agenda for the creative class vie with each other to restrict new development.
5. The Creative Class kills real diversity.
Wherever the creative class prevails, the whole notion of diversity grows legalistic and oppressive. Citizens are no longer asked to tolerate their neighbors. They are compelled to “celebrate” them, often with consequences if they don’t. As a result, the “Gay Index” no longer measures “openness” in any American city hipper than Branson.
A more contemporary “openness” test might measure an area’s receptivity to its outcasts, and no group has been cast further out than the Boy Scouts of America. Other than street mimes, the clearest sign of creative critical mass is the first anti-BSA pogrom. As an Eagle Scout—OK, I only got 21 merit badges, but they were the right ones—I tend to take this personally.
As a long-term strategy, Florida would do his clients more justice if he retooled the index, just a little. The first three variables—creativity, high-tech, innovation—still work, but on the fourth variable, diversity, the “Gay Index” should yield to the “Boy Scout Index.”
Tolerance of the Boy Scouts suggests not only a genuine openness to “unpopular” ideas but also an openness to children and the having of them. As development specialists will tell you, the young people most likely to live in an area like this one, which lacks mountains and oceans, are the ones who have grown up here.
These smart kids will in turn have their own smart kids, a “procreative class” if you will, the ultimate in real sustainability and renewable resources, the gift that keeps on giving.
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