Interview

"I'm Still an Outsider": An Interview with Richard Florida

by  Sam Franklin, Richard Florida

Attacked from the right and from the left, Richard Florida has always rolled with the punches.

Image 1: Photo by Daria Malysheva

Richard Florida’s name will come up in any discussion of creative cities. Though he did not invent the concept, through his highly public work as a professor, writer of cocktail-party nonfiction, globe-trotting “thought leader,” and more recently as a senior editor at The Atlantic, where he co-founded CityLab (now at Bloomberg), Florida has doubtless been the most influential exponent of creative city ideas. His first book, The Rise of the Creative Class, proposed the theory that creative people were the key to new urban economies. Through his consulting work with the Creative Class Group, which he founded, Florida has taught countless cities and businesses how to court young, talented, bohemian-minded brain workers, and in the process has directly and indirectly changed the paradigm for arts and cultural policy. Attacked from the right for valorizing liberal cosmopolitanism, and from the left for giving a veneer of cool to gentrification and neoliberal urban economic policies, Florida has always rolled with the punches. Once seen as a preeminent champion of the New Economy, Florida now has a dimmer outlook as attested by his latest book, The New Urban Crisis (2017). A few days before the 2020 U.S. Presidential Election I spoke to him by phone from his home in Toronto, where, sufficiently caffeinated and in good spirits, he talked to me about his intellectual journey; his relationships with the Arts, the Left, and Jane Jacobs; the pros and cons of peddling a broadly appealing message; and his hopes for the future. The interview is gently edited for length and clarity.

SF: Let’s start at the beginning, or at least the beginning of when most people came to know you, with Rise of the Creative Class. How did you land on creativity as your central concept?

RF: The story goes back to me as a kid in Newark, New Jersey. Newark was a diverse city, and I began to see suburbanization, white flight, racial tension in the 1960s, the Civil Rights movement. Later on at the university I fell into this love affair with urbanism. I moved to Pittsburgh in 1987 and witnessed the deindustrialization of Pittsburgh, and trying to figure out what I call the Pittsburgh Paradox: Why are Silicon Valley and the area around Stanford growing? Why is the area around MIT in Boston growing, and why is Pittsburgh not growing? I'm looking at data which shows the Carnegie Mellon professors are producing as many patents, they're launching as many start-ups, but our students are all leaving to go to Silicon Valley, to San Francisco Bay area, Seattle, Boston, why not Pittsburgh? And I'm telling you one day I go into the freaking library and got this book on creativity by Robert Sternberg, a professor at Yale. He said if you find a great poet or a great writer, if you find a great artist or a great musician, a great Civil Rights leader, or a great political leader, a revolutionary, or a great CEO, you probably found the same kind of person, a creative person. I was very interested, I was a musician, Hendrix was my boyhood idol, I wanted to be a rock and roll musician. I had also been a neo-Marxist at university, studying class. I was very interested in Erik Olin Wright's idea of the Professional Managerial strata, I was very interested in what knowledge workers were, and then all of a sudden the hugest light bulb went off in my head. I had a copy on my shelf of the Grundrisse, and there's that quote, “nature makes no locomotives, no self-acting mules, no machines. Those are products of the human mind, objectified.”[1] And reading that next to Sternberg I said, holy shit: What makes human beings human, what creates value in capitalism, isn't physical labor anymore, there's only about 5% of Americans who do direct production labor. It's this creative labor! It's not the physical labor that distinguishes us from animals or makes us unique as a species, it's the fact that all human beings share this creative capacity. And that's where the idea came from.

It's not knowledge that distinguish this new class [the Creative Class]. It's not information or technology. I was trying to define this thing called creativity that some of us were fortunate to be able to use more than others. What linked an artist and a techie and an innovator and an entrepreneur is that they share this quintessentially human characteristic called creativity.

In Pittsburgh, I had another transformative experience. I had gotten myself on the board of the Mattress Factory Museum and the Andy Warhol Museum, and I began to learn about art, and I began to see the galvanizing power of art to transform neighborhoods. Artists were trying to be not gentrifiers, but to build up a neighborhood at a micro-scale. I had been exposed to enough artists, but they weren't my audience. My audience was economic developers, mayors, professors of economic geography. What surprised me more than anything is that artists and creatives read the book and asked me to come talk to them. I did not expect this book to resonate among that creative population.

SF: That's interesting, because it’s true, your work is not primarily about, let's say, cultural policy, or arts management. But it seems your book provided a new kind of rationale by which artists and arts advocates could argue for the importance of the arts to city leaders and people in the business community. I'm wondering how you see your role in brokering that relationship.

RF: I think I always see my role as an outsider, and I've always seen myself as a musician. But rock and roll was too crazy for me, so I backed off and I found another outlet. But I think subconsciously, I was trying to find a way to infuse my identity as a musician into what I did.

But that's High Arts. In Pittsburgh, I knew that people wanted real 24 by 7 street level culture. They wanted music venues and art galleries and performance spaces. They wanted to be able to go see a show locally. I was looking at art in a very different way. I was interested in how art animates a city, and I think what I began to see at the ground level was that this is the stuff that matters to people...These were all things that were motivating this new group of people, people working in technology industries were really interested in this.

SF: Using census data you were able to create your “Bohemian Index,” and argued that cities with lots of artists were the ones attracting other kinds of more profitable talent.

RF: I'm being honest, Sam. Part of this was kind of a joke. It was like what we used to call growing up in New Jersey a goof. Look, this stuff generated an enormous response among academics, people went bat shit crazy. And I published this in top journals, but not only did they like it, people hated it, so I started to get all these citations by people like tearing my stuff apart, saying there can never be an association between artists and creatives and economic growth, of course, we know that economic growth creates artists. Look, you can never determine full causality—but our analysis convinced me there was a clear association here.

The media found that stuff, which is probably 10 pages of Rise of the Creative Class, and that became the whole story around the book. The arts and cultural community picked this up because it seemed to justify Arts and Cultural spending on Big Culture. And I would go to meetings and say, Look, the symphony, the opera, and the ballet is not where to spend money, and they’d say the symphony, the opera, and the ballet is exactly where to send money, and you just said that. So I was never fully understood. Never fully a member. And always a critic.

SF: Right, and this was the same moment the Bilbao Effect was coming into vogue, with cities trying to attract tourist dollars by building flashy prestige cultural institutions. But your approach sounds much more akin to a somewhat different trend in cultural policy, and that is so-called creative placemaking, which came to the fore in the years after Creative Class came out—including being embraced by the National Endowment for the Arts. Did you have any influence on that?

RF: I think it has to do with my influence, and the reason I do is because I remember I'm sitting in my office at University of Toronto. This young woman came in and said Rocco Landesman's on the phone and I said, What the fuck? Why is the head of the NEA calling me? Rocco said to me, “Your work has been very influential here, this is our play book.” I couldn't believe it. 

Image 2: Richard Florida at the Moscow Urban Forum, 2018. Photograph by Denis Tyrin

SF: The Rise of the Creative Class is populated by a sort of typical creative person who is either an artist or an artist on the side, or at least an artist at heart, who nonetheless enjoys the perks of corporate money. You call that the Big Morph, in which the centuries old tension between art and commerce—or bohemian and bourgeois ethics—had largely been resolved by this new creative economy.

RF: When you describe that person, that’s me. I'm probably subconsciously writing about me. That's me trying to unify myself, I'm trying to unify the artist or the musician in me with the scholar in me, trying to say they can go together in one human being. [As for the tension between art and commerce] it's being unified or integrated or synthesized in the interest of capitalism, not in the interest of alternative modes production. I'm not saying, “This is great,” I'm not making a normative argument about this, I'm saying, “This is what's happening. And we better understand it.”

SF: Okay, but if you think about the push-back from artistic communities to your own work, and more generally to some of the economic development strategies that have been pursued in the name of the creative class, do you still feel like those art-commerce tensions have been basically resolved or are they still alive?

RF: I think maybe the idea that they were resolved in favor of capital was too premature, that tension is very much there.

In the one sense, I was arguing that this stuff was transforming cities in ways that economic developers did not see: It was arts and culture and street level culture that were making places attractive. I was honestly less concerned about gentrification because most people didn't believe gentrification was occurring. I think the criticism coming from the arts community was really useful – they were on the ground and they were seeing things that I couldn't see. It took me a while to see what they were seeing, because the data wasn't there, but, boy, when the census data came out after 2010, you can see this accelerated occupation of more advantaged people into these urban neighborhoods in a way that I could not—well, did not predict.

But I was always trying to make an argument that in knowledge-based capitalism cities are the new platform. It's not the industrial corporation that's a platform for accumulation and commodification, it's the city. The city accumulates knowledge creativity, and innovation. I was trying to make a very quiet, neo-Marxist argument. But I think the artists were making a much more normative argument and an argument that was much more held close to the heart. Like, we want the right to the city, we want a place that's ours by default. And I was trying to say, that's not the way capitalism works. The way capitalism works is capitalism invades the crevices where value can be created, and watch the hell out. We're making different arguments. They're making an advocacy argument, and I'm making an argument about the logic of capitalism.

Marx is always making an argument about the logic of capitalism. And he was saying that because the industrial workforce was proletarianized and they were intersubjectively connected with one another, they would soon realize that and enact socialism. I was trying to say the creative class was linked by their creativity, but the artists are saying, “no, no, no. We don't have anything in common with those techies. They're the bad guys! We're the good guys!”  I was trying to say, “No, actually, the logic of capitalism puts you in a relative—not the same—a relatively analogous position in the class structure.”

SF: You had a really interesting interview with the leftist scholar Doug Henwood, where, I think echoing a lot of the critics of your idea of the creative class, he said, “I'm not clear whether you're talking about someone writing electronic music in a former industrial space in Bushwick, Brooklyn, or an investment banker crafting derivatives in Midtown Manhattan." And you’re saying they really aren’t so different after all, in terms of the relationship to the mode of production?

RF: The difference is who controls the means of production. It's the .0001%, it's the owners of capital, that are different. Both the poor, schlubby, former physicist crafting derivatives, working all night long, and the artist working in their studio for far less money are both in a far different class position than a member of the service class.

Look, we're going to have an election, hopefully Biden is going to win, those fucking techies are going to vote overwhelmingly for Biden. So they're not the enemy. There's a need for some objective thinking about how these class positions are connected or not connected. Is it possible to figure out what a popular front or a united front might look like, especially politically?

SF: Which is an old question about the professional managerial class: To what extent have white collar workers been proletarianized? Can they overcome that traditionally middle-class ambition and individualistic ethos and see common cause with the working class?[2]

RF: If I look at the way in which the folks vote, the creative class skew the most liberal and progressive in the country, and that’s telling me that we should begin to look at the occupational composition of the progressive movement. Maybe it's because I grew up with the working class, maybe it's because I saw the Trump supporters before they became national figures, maybe because I saw the racism in my own community. I began to say, well, maybe the working class isn't as progressive as we think it is, maybe there is this new class structure that is making the traditional working class, my father's working class less of a progressive force, and there's this new element in society that could be more progressive, and I'm not saying I got that right, but I'm trying to push the question.

SF: You said they'll all vote for Biden. But I don't know if many derivatives manipulators, or white collar workers as a whole, would all have voted for Bernie. Are there limits to a left coalition that includes people who are the obvious winners of—and I know you might not like the word—a neoliberal order?

RF: I've been a big fan of the Bernie movement. I've always thought the social democratic way of building a social democratic or socialistic alternative that accepts capitalism and tries to make capitalism better was the most reasonable course of action. I've always been very worried that revolution leads to big problems, and so I've always thought the social democratic course was better, and yeah, you accommodate. Biden is way better than Trump, but I think the Democratic Party needs a very strong activist wing. And I think the real issue is not just that artists have a decent living, I think the big issue facing us is that there are 45 to 50% of Americans who toil in service jobs, that's the class that needs attention. But I do think there are real tensions in the creative class, there are real differences, obviously. There are people who benefit from magnifying those differences too.

SF: You were describing your politics as being chastened by the lessons of communism, and I think that that's probably also related to your localism, which you've long held and including in your latest book, The New Urban Crisis, you tend to advocate for local bottom-up grassroots change and are resistant to large government intervention. I think it's probably fair to describe you as anti-statist or at least wary of bigness.

RF: Yes. I would say I was very much a big state person. My dream as a kid was probably to go to work for somebody like Kennedy. I envisioned myself being one of those reformers in Washington. Now I think I've come to see that the imperial presidency and the administrative state is a big problem. It's incumbent upon the left to think about alternative modes of political organization which protect democracy. I'm not wary of big government, and I've always been pro-state. What I think you read in my work is an adaptation of the narrative to the realities of the 1990s. I made quite a conscious decision to make a narrative about competitiveness and economic growth and innovation, because I thought it was the only narrative that could succeed. An oppositional narrative would not have won over local officials, mayors, governors, so I said, “How can I build the narrative about a better society, a more inclusive, a more equitable and more diverse, more gay-friendly, a better path for economic development, that was one that would show them that they would get economic growth out of this, that Talent, Technology, and Tolerance, and building up your community was good for economic growth?” I built a narrative in the context of the 1990s. We don't need a social democracy for the proletarian economy today. We need a new kind of social democracy for a knowledge-based, highly clustered, highly uneven economy. I think the real question is, how do we build a progressive social policy or social compact for a knowledge economy that's highly urbanized and clustered? I don't think anyone has that answer. We can’t go back to the New Deal. We need to build something new, adapted to the realities of this age.

SF: In addressing some of the criticism about how creative class theories were good for the creative class, especially the upper echelons of it, but bad for low-wage service sector, you've always acknowledged the win-lose situation in this kind of economy but advocated that we should “creatify” jobs and allow people to make the most of their innate creativity. How do you do that?

RF: Job one will be to allow every individual to fulfill their creativity. That's job one. That's the long game.

SF: And how do you do that?

RF: Higher wages, better working conditions. It's no longer enough to increase material well-being. We have to create psychological well-being. My father worked at a factory. He made enough money and that was great, but he was miserable every day in his life. There's a better aim than just material well-being, whether that's a universal basic income, whether that's developing pathways for people to find their creative ability. We know from Gallup surveys and others, we're not harnessing the creativity of people at work. It also means enabling young people to find their passion. If not, we're going to have a lot of miserable people who are psychologically in crisis, which is what we have.

SF: You wrote a recent article for the Brookings Institution with Michael Seman on the effects of Covid-19 on the creative economy, which is dire: up to 50% of all jobs lost in the fine performing arts, and a third of those in the broader creative sector.[3] And you called for a substantial and sustained National Creative Economy recovery strategy. Can you just say a little bit about what that might look like?

RF: Yeah, I think the performing arts community is mortally challenged by this. I think it will rebound. I think artists are incredibly resilient. But it's not just about rebuilding and re-instituting a creative community. Really, this is about rebuilding cities as well. Cities and arts and creativity seem to be really connected to me, and one of the things that was happening in the aughts and the 2010s was that connection was being severed by gentrification. Now we have an opportunity to reset or remake it.

This is the biggest thing to happen to cities since deindustrialization. With deindustrialization people said cities were over. What happened? The artists took over those buildings and created a new kind of neighborhood. Central business districts and the retail corridors are the next casualty of cities. The central business district and the office tower district is the last remaining legacy of Fordism. Office workers packed and stacked in little cubicles and commuting from the far ends of the suburbs with the connection between work and life completely severed. And I think now we have the ability to rethink those. Let's put artists and creatives at the center.

Also, the creative art workforce is very diverse with regard to gender, race, and ethnicity. Maybe “inclusive” is too strong of a word, but the creative workforce has a much more heterogeneous population of gay and straight, male and female, Latino and Black than I see most anywhere else. That’s another reason to center them as we rebuild cities. 

But when you really push on mayors, all they're really concerned about is getting the real estate growth machine back going again. And so attracting the next Tesla factory, and so the sentiment that's popular, among the public and our peers, and the sentiment that runs in the power corridors different, and I see my role a little bit is trying to inject some of the popular sentiment into the decision. I'm still an outsider, I don't hold one of those positions, I'm not a formal advisor to anyone. No one in the Biden camp has ever called me. If you asked me to make an argument about why America needs to do this now, I would make it from a competitiveness point of view. … I think that the way an equity argument or an inclusivity argument or resiliency argument will take root today is to say that if we become too exclusive and too separate our country will lose its economic and innovative play.

SF: And you think that's the winning argument?

RF: I think it's the easiest path. I will take the moral high ground and say, equity is essential, and I believe it is morally imperative. But in corridors of power the economic growth argument is more compelling. Right now, the way to make this argument to a Biden administration, is to explain that we have to do it to reset America's competitive footing against China. When I talk to mayors? Yeah, they want to do the right thing, but they also want to know, how am I going to expand my city’s tax base? Offices are closing, transit ridership is down, sales taxes and property taxes are down, how am I going to grow out of it? That's what mayors want to know. I’m not saying that's right or wrong. That's what they want to know.

SF: So are you saying your career has been a Trojan horse to try to get in advocacy for scrappy, artsy, inclusivity into the halls of power?

RF: I'm just trying to encompass that message in the dominant narrative of our time. A benefit is, that narrative has become more accepted. I still have a good audience with mayors, but I have many more critics in academe. So, it's come with a cost.

But I think the criticism is good, I see myself as a historical actor. I see myself as a part of the social process, I don't mind people criticize me, I've developed a thick skin. As long as we move the arrow of history in the right direction, it doesn't matter if people don't like me—and most people get to know me actually end up liking me. I'm not a terrible person. I'm not Trump. So, I figure that comes with the turf.

And I don't mind. I'm a loner. I asked Jane Jacobs about this—I thought she would have a great identity group of other artists and scholars—and she said, “I worked alone in my living room!” I don't talk to anybody either, I don't have a peer group, I don't have an academic identity group. I have a very small team of people I work with. It's almost like I'm alone.

SF: Yet both you and Jane Jacobs, in her day, were transfixed by this idea of cities as places where little human connections happen all the time, where density sparks new creativity. Yet you’re saying that’s not what you experience on a daily basis.

RF: Yes, the city is a place with little human connections, but those little human connections are not only important to building a great neighborhood. Jane saw there was a new mode of organization called the city. It was actually an old mode of organization that had become increasingly more important to the economy, but the Industrial Revolution blocked this effect out, by creating this new thing called the big corporation. But the city has always been this other fabric of human life, these little connections that were central to the economy. I've tried to put more light on that and put more data behind it.

SF: Right, you often talk about the city as the new factory. But I’ve always thought that was a little strange, because for one thing, cities and factories have historically gone hand in hand. And secondly, how can you claim the importance of the corporation is declining in favor of independent workers while corporations have only grown bigger and more powerful, more monopolistic?

RF: I was so active in the Amazon debate because I always said Seattle is more important to us than Amazon. San Francisco is more important to us than the companies there. These communities are what makes our economy and our society great. And actually, as I said at the end of New Urban Crisis, I have some hope because cities aren't gated suburbs. Cities are really diverse places, they're heterogeneous with regard to race, ethnicity, socio-economic status. And the goddamn mayor and city council have to listen to this. They can't just turn a blind eye on community activism.

SF: But then again, aren’t massive corporations and consumer capitalism the very enabling conditions of the “creative economy?” Like, if it weren't for these multi-national corporations needing new advertisements and websites and various other “content,” you wouldn't have all the jobs for “creatives,” who may look like they're independent workers, but actually are tied to this very system?

RF: Right, it’s the prospect that Google, that Amazon, are taking over New York City. Some kind of social democracy or a better form of capitalism can have limits to bigness. We can limit monopoly power, oligopoly power, and we can have societies in which people pay their fair share, in which taxes are more progressive. I don't think we want to stanch entrepreneurism. I think we want to have people rewarded for it, but we don't want these extreme rewards. And what our research shows pretty clearly is that if we look across nations, it’s not like creativity requires inequality. You can have societies which are far more equal than ours, that are at least as creative. So, yeah, there should be a balance. And we definitely need to tilt the balance now way toward equity. And that will make a more innovative, more competitive, more creative society.

Samuel Franklin is a postdoctoral researcher in the Marie Sklodowska Curie LEaDing Fellows Cofund programme and appointed in the faculty of Industrial Design Engineering at Delft University of Technology.


[1] Not Marx’s exact language, but a fair paraphrase.

[2] The creation of the Alphabet Workers Union, of Google employees, was announced in January 2021, as this interview was going to press.

[3] Florida, Richard, and Michael Seman. “Measuring COVID-19’s Devastating Impact on America’s Creative Economy.” Metropolitan Policy Program at Brookings, August 2020. https://www.brookings.edu/research/lost-art-measuring-covid-19s-devastating-impact-on-americas-creative-economy/.