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Is the Creative Class for real?

By J.N. Harris

I have been “roominating” lately about the creative class. The “creative class,” as popularized by Richard Florida’s The Rise of the Creative Class, is the solution du jour to rebuild America’s cities, re-sharpen our competitive edge, and usher in a new Golden Age.

The creative class holds great appeal to Greater Cleveland’s urban planners, early adopters, and arts community. They all agree that “creatives” will administer socio-economic CPR to a drowning city. Getting creatives to move here is the answer to Northeast Ohio’s panicky prayers.

But what is the “creative class”? It’s a catalogue of attributes. It’s artistic, sexually diverse, entrepreneurial, educated, mobile, multi-ethnic, multi-racial, progressive, tolerant, usually young, and web-enabled. The creative class supports sustainability, designs spaces, and talks places.

But though it all seems pretty amorphous, Florida tells us pretty clearly what creatives want. The creative class, having been brought up on Seinfeld and Sex in the City, demands an interesting lifestyle as its condition for residency – the cooler the community, the deeper the commitment. Old, “dull” cities like Cleveland need to brand themselves according to all the current buzzwords.

The stakes are high. If we can convince creatives that Cleveland is for them, its members will flock here (or the ones already nesting here won’t migrate to Seattle). If we don’t, we are going to be sliced and diced by our competitors.

That’s why appearing interesting underlies the arts initiatives taking place downtown. Will the creative class adore all those painted fire hydrants and huge guitars? If so, we are saved. Cleveland will live long and prosper.

I have questions. I keep wondering if the creative class actually exists as a coherent, cohesive demographic, or is this just another term for those who “think” for a living? Are creatives certified for creativity? Do they all frequent coffeehouses and wine bars? All carry cell phones and PDAs, and lust after WiFi? Are there any nonproductive members among them?

Is the net return in aggressive recruitment a gain or a drain on a troubled city’s economy? We only have so much. We must prioritize. In practical terms, is investing in Whiskey Island better than investing in Mt. Pleasant? Will building new bike paths benefit us more than fixing neighborhood sidewalks? Living in a “Cool Cleveland” may be great fun, but is being cool an economic development strategy in itself?

A century ago, Cleveland’s leaders didn’t think much about being cool. They thought about becoming rich and powerful. They single-mindedly built business empires, and they created thousands upon thousands of jobs. After they became rich and powerful, they bought themselves art and culture, and spent huge chunks of disposable income repackaging themselves as civic philanthropists and art patrons.

Cleveland’s performing arts groups, museums, sports facilities, cultural institutions and foundations were all byproducts of our region’s business success. The creative class didn’t create prosperity. Prosperity created the creative class. Many creatives became pretty well-off themselves.

Cleveland’s “non-creative” population – most of us – moved here to snag decent-paying jobs, not because of the Cleveland Museum of Art, the Indians, the orchestra, or even for lakeside access. They stayed because they could make a decent living, the public school system fulfilled its mandate to educate their kids, and they had a chance to become members of a real and growing middle class.

This middle class kept the economic engine running, the public schools humming, and its urban neighborhoods kempt. City services, being adequately funded, worked well.

Now their descendants are leaving because that no longer holds true. Cleveland’s economic engine has stalled. The Cleveland Municipal School District is trying desperately to advance. City services are cut back on a regular basis. Cleveland’s middle class is moving out to the inner-ring suburbs, replacing the earlier suburban residents who now pack for the exurbs.

Long listed as one of the most segregated cities in the nation, Cleveland is officially ranked as the most impoverished big city in America. The children peaking out from under its mother skirts are Poverty and Ignorance. A City Hall Summit seems an inadequate response.

Call me a party-pooper but I doubt martini bars and creative-class hype will save Cleveland, either.

How can we turn Cleveland around? Let’s start with reviewing and then restricting tax abatement, producing living-wage opportunities for the working poor, and offering free job training and affordable higher education to all qualified residents. On the ownership side, we must help small manufacturers modernize, actively support urban-based retailers, and grow clusters. In all this, we need to act regionally.

Oh, and one more thing: it will take creative class, not necessarily being a member of one.

J. N. Harris is a partner of H/L Communications , a privately-held marketing, public relations and civic advocacy firm.


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