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Richard Florida, Mr. Creative Class, Is Now Mr. Rust Belt

But he's not sorry about Brooklynizing your neighborhood

Flickr/Kris Krug

Few purveyors of big ideas have as much riding on a single notion or catch phrase as Richard Florida does with the “creative class.” Florida’s idea of a group of highly mobile, Mac-toting professionals driving economic development has sold him a lot of books, spurred a lucrative speechmaking and consulting career, and gotten him a well-paid perch at the University of Toronto. As important, it has given the admittedly status-conscious academic—previously, an anonymous professor in Pittsburgh—a kinship with the progressive elites that his theory affirmed. He is our premier celebrity urbanologist, whose home page features a clip of Bono mentioning him on a panel with Bill Clinton.

All of which explains the awkwardness of the current moment for Florida: His theories about how to boost city economies have, quite simply, been discredited. Rather than provide universal uplift, as he promised in his 2002 treatise, The Rise of the Creative Class, the clustering of high-earning professionals in areas rich in his “three T’s” of technology, talent, and tolerance has exposed inequalities both between and within cities. (Florida’s advice for low-wage service workers has been to find ways to “creatify” their work—unions or minimum wages were rarely mentioned.) And his ideas haven’t just failed on policy grounds; they’ve been rejected by voters as well, in places like Toronto, where Rob Ford rode a populist backlash against bike lanes and downtown arts initiatives to tabloid stardom, and New York, where Bill de Blasio won a landslide victory by running directly against the “luxury city” ideal of a mayor who explicitly echoed Florida. Ever since the economy fell apart, the creative class (which Florida defined loosely enough to include bankers along with Web designers) has come to look less like savior than culprit.

Florida is nothing if not nimble, however. Far from abandoning the field or holing up at the library to devise a new theory, he is simply recalibrating his pitch. In fact, he is less interesting as a thinker now than as a case study in how an “intellectual rock star” (as Fast Company called him in a line featured on his website) preserves his viability.

In October, Florida addressed the Remaking Cities Congress at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, his former employer. The conference was a follow-up to an important 1988 summit on the fate of postindustrial urbanism and, for Florida, a chance to present his new talking points. As he began his remarks, Florida seemed as assured as ever: With his evangelizing zeal, resolute geniality, and bro-ish good looks, he embodies the TED talk ideal. He dropped names left and right (“I just spent two days with Larry Summers ...”). But his tone was self-conscious verging on defensive.

Pacing faster and faster, jabbing a finger for emphasis, he talked up his Newark roots and avowed that he hailed from a “neo-Marxist tradition.” He wanted the skeptics to know that his image of being a cosmopolitan trend-spotter unconcerned with the working poor was off base. “I didn’t build my theory of the creative class by studying latte bars,” he said. “I knew nothing about that. ... What did I study when I moved to Carnegie Mellon? Factories.”

It was the most public self-refutation yet for Florida. His first response to the Great Recession was to retrench around the theories that made him famous. He declared that the financial crisis had left much of the Rust Belt beyond hope, that the bailout of the auto industry was a mistake, and that we should focus on building up creative-class hubs like Silicon Valley and the Beltway instead. “We need to be clear that ultimately, we can’t stop the decline of some places, and that we would be foolish to try,” he wrote in 2009.

Not least because Florida had given $40,000 speeches and $250,000 Creative Class Group consulting reports to some of the same towns he was deeming past repair, the pushback was intense. And he has been strategically adjusting his message ever since. “I can take the critiques from the right, but those from the left hurt,” he told me in an e-mail. “It was almost as if I was having an out-of-body experience, and was seeing some other person named Richard Florida” under attack.

Writing in January on The Atlantic Cities site he co-founded, he tossed off a line that undercut the whole premise that the creative class was the key to a fully thriving metropolis. “On close inspection, talent clustering provides little in the way of trickle-down benefits” for low-income workers, he wrote; meanwhile, the chasm between creative-class bastions and other cities is “not just a vicious cycle but an unsustainable one—economically, politically and morally.” He now laments “uber-gentrified” New York and Washington in Urban Land magazine, worries about “disconnected youth” in Washington Monthly, and, in The Huffington Post, calls for a “new social compact” that invests more in cities’ “human capital” than in programs that attract affluent outsiders. And Florida is now one of the leading boosters for the comeback of Detroit.

Yet he has stopped short of apologizing for his theories. He downplays his turnabout, casting it as a matter of degree and interpretation. “Have my ideas evolved, have I grown up and become more sober? ... The short answer is yes,” he wrote me. “Do I regret some of the simple ways my ideas have been implemented and framed? ... Yes.” He insisted that he has been fretting about inequality from the start, if perhaps failing to “anticipate how powerful the clustering force” would prove; a chapter on the subject, he says, was left out of his first book. He also said he never meant the economic power he attributed to the creative class to be “normative,” never mind the consulting group founded in its name or the “creativity index” he created to rank winners and losers among cities. So little does Florida take into account the disjunction between what he was saying then and now that it’s almost as if the original theory had been propagated by someone else entirely. “Remorse is not a word I would use with Richard, ever,” says a friend and former Carnegie Mellon colleague, Luis Rico-Gutierrez.

As Florida tries to rebrand himself, the old business he built up endures. Struggling Holyoke, Massachusetts, population 40,000, now employs a “creative economy coordinator.” In Roanoke, Virginia, where a Florida underling was paid $50,000 for a two-day consulting session, what remains is an aborted “creative connectors” website and an annual downtown music event. Syracuse, New York, used to credit its quarter-million-dollar report from the Creative Class Group with having helped it draw an electric-car manufacturer to the area. The company’s plans have since fallen through.

At the Pittsburgh event, Florida was introduced by former Milwaukee Mayor John Norquist, who now heads the Congress for the New Urbanism. Though Norquist remains supportive, he wishes Florida would take a step back and reassess. “Florida has become such a big name on the speaking circuit,” Norquist told me, “that maybe he really needs to reset himself ... to take a couple months off and study and think.”

True, most academics faced with a turn like this would spend months, or years, trying to reason their way out. But Florida doesn’t have time for that. While he is writing another book—on inequality, of course—the Creative Class Group lists appearances for him well into 2014 in, among other places, San Francisco, Denver, and Prince Edward Island. He’ll have to work out his new ideas on the fly.

Alec MacGillis is a senior editor at The New Republic.