Can we be cool

Below is a piece I wrote for the Northern Express as a follow-up to a “Cool Cities” article I had already written. The proposed title was “Adverse City,” so in some ways it was a precursor to this blog. It’s tone is a bit on the provocative side. But don’t get mad, write a response!

Adverse City

The “cool cities” craze has more behind it than coffeehouses and sunglasses. The big issue at hand is whether your kids will be able to earn a decent living in Michigan.

by Oran Kelley

A few weeks ago I wrote in this space about Richard Florida’s book The Rise of the Creative Class and its considerable influence in Michigan, most especially in the governor’s “Cool Cities” campaign. The association of the word “cool” with Florida’s work has tended to give it an air of frivolity. But Florida’s points are actually in deadly earnest.

While new lifestyles are important to his work, the reason why the book is important is not because it defines who is “cool.” Florida is an important read because it attempts to define who will flourish and who will languish in an economic world that is still in the process of emerging. To translate to the Michigan idiom, “cool” is living in an area with a wide variety of satisfying and good-paying jobs. Less cool is living in an area whose economy depends on providing inessential, low-cost services to the “cool” folk.

Florida uses a great deal of economic, demographic and cultural preference data to demonstrate his point about the emergence of this new class. It is important to note, though, as with seemingly all statistical studies, Florida’s argument is a matter of interpretation, and some experts have questioned Florida’s arguments. But I’d argue that, regardless of some of the arguments over detail, there are some important take-home messages for northern Michigan in The Rise of the Creative Class.

It is of course impossible to do justice to Florida’s work in a short article such as this (even when there are two episodes!), but I think I can boil down his important points to this: we are living in a time when two significant changes–one economic, one cultural–are happening in our society, and one of the important effects of these changes is the emergence of a new class of workers: the Creative Class.

The “core” of this new class is composed of “people in science and engineering, architecture and design, education, arts, music, and entertainment, whose economic function is to create new ideas, new technology, and/or new creative content.” Join to these the creative professionals, “a broader group … in business, finance, law, and health care [who] engage in complex problem solving that involves a great deal of independent judgment and requires high levels of education or human capital.”

The Creative Class constitutes 30% of the US workforce, but almost half of its earnings. The future promises more jobs and an even more disproportionate share of earnings for the Creative Class.

In addition to identifying a type of job (creative), a working style (relatively independent, tending toward entrepreneurial), and a number of preferred areas (San Francisco, Austin, and Ann Arbor being among them) which will help shape the economy of the future, Florida also identifies a number of cultural characteristics that help define the new class.

Here’s a passage from an essay Florida wrote on his research for Washington Monthly:

The Creative Class tends to favor ”active, participatory recreation over passive, institutionalized forms. They prefer indigenous street level culture a teeming blend of cafes, sidewalk musicians, and small galleries and bistros, where it is hard to draw the line between performers and spectators. They crave stimulation, not escape. They want to pack their time full of dense, high quality, multidimensional experiences. Seldom has one of my subjects expressed a desire to get away from it all. They want to get into it all, and do it with eyes wide open.

The most highly valued options [for Creative people] were experiential ones interesting music venues, neighborhood art galleries, performance spaces, and theaters. A vibrant, varied nightlife was viewed by many as another signal that a city “gets it,” even by those who infrequently partake in nightlife. More than anything, the creative class craves real experiences in the real world.

The creative class people I study use the word “diversity” a lot, but not to press any political hot buttons. Diversity is simply something they value in all its manifestations. This is spoken of so often, and so matter-of- factly, that I take it to be a fundamental marker of creative class values. Creative minded people enjoy a mix of influences. They want to hear different kinds of music and try different
kinds of food. They want to meet and socialize with people unlike themselves, trade views and spar over issues.

Creative class people value active outdoor recreation very highly. They are drawn to places and communities where many outdoor activities are prevalent both because they enjoy these activities and because their presence is seen as a signal that the place is amenable to the broader creative lifestyle. The creative class people in my
studies are into a variety of active sports, from traditional ones like bicycling, jogging, and kayaking to newer, more extreme ones, like trail running and snowboarding.

Another point Florida makes is that the usual thinking on regional development (attract the businesses and the workers will follow) seems not to apply with the new Creative economy. Here, attracting creative people is primary. The businesses then follow (or even arise out of) the workforce.

So, if the road to economic prosperity may lie through the creation of “cool” cities, does Michigan stand a chance? Michigan’s economy definitely is at something of a disadvantage in converting to Richard Florida’s new, information intensive economy. Until recently, Michigan’s economy was still strongly based on heavy industry the car industry most prominently. (But, to look at the bright side, the severe industrial job losses we’ve been experiencing lately may finally take care of that!)

Also, Michigan has been doing a pretty bad job of retaining its college graduates, and its cities performed terribly on Richard Florida’s “Creative Index” a list calculated to gauge the economic vibrancy of urban regions.

But there is hope for Michigan, I think. But it does not lie in the “more of the same stuff we’ve always done” attitude being pushed by civic and cultural officialdom here in Michigan. Florida is quite explicit about this. The Rise of the Creative Class is not a feel good book for our political and cultural leaders, because most of them have been doing a crummy job of building the social and cultural infrastructure that will attract the creative class.

But if we need to change the direction of the civic freight train, we’re a lot better off if the train is a small one rather than a big one. Which is one reason why I think Michigan’s best chance of attracting and retaining the creative class lies with its small cities rather than its big ones.

In his analysis of employment and income trends, Florida divides the economy into three basic sectors: Industrial, Service and Creative. Looking at the future prospects for each of the three, I think we’ll see that it is highly desirable that Northern Michigan ought to pursue the course Florida recommends with some avidity.

Northern Michigan does not stand much of a chance to grow very much in the realm of manufacturing. One area, construction, is already a major employer here, but one has to be skeptical that this is truly a growth industry for this area: there is a finite amount of construction we can have in Northern Michigan before we remove the incentive for people to move here, and if we remove the incentive for people to move here, there will be little call for new construction. Construction then is a self-limiting industry in this area in a way that it probably isn’t in New Jersey or Connecticut. The main incentive for building in these places is to create more new homes in proximity to New York City. New Jersey and Connecticut will always be near New York, no matter how much construction goes on there, so construction there does not interfere immediately with the direct incentive for growth. People move to Northern Michigan in large part to get away from the sort of explosive growth seen in the major metropolitan areas, so growth in construction in Northern Michigan has to be contained in order for it to continue at all.

This should not be seen as a justification for the selfish, Luddite, close the door behind me attitude so often found among Northern Michiganders. What is needed is a rational policy of containment and controlled growth, not the systematic and irrational obstruction of any proposal that provides for growth. The reason I call this attitude irrational in addition to being selfish is that the growth will happen to some extend no matter how little we prepare for it or how rude we are to newcomers and tourists. The best way to prevent this area from turning into the sort of suburban/exurban wasteland we see in so many other places is to direct growth to places where it makes sense. The best way to do this is to optimize development in core areas, like Traverse City itself. A clever long-term growth strategy can give us both a town with some critical mass and a lot of nearby wilderness and open space.

Northern Michigan also stands at a disadvantage in other areas of industry. The new economy makes great demands on manufacturers. With the emergence of economies like India and the Philippines as industrial powers with large, well educated, English speaking populations, the main long term advantage a domestic manufacturer will have in the future will not be the quality of the American workforce, it will be flexibility contingent on proximity. In an atmosphere where everyone’s goal seems to be keeping inventories to an absolute minimum domestic manufacturers will thrive on their ability to produce new items quickly and to make delivery of items with the lowest possible lead time. Being five hours from the nation’s main drag will always keep Northern Michigan at a competitive disadvantage in this manufacturing environment. For orders where time is not of the essence, the new industrial economies will dominate because of their ability to deliver adequate or better product at very low prices.

On the other hand, Traverse City will probably have a plethora of jobs in service industries. With good stewardship, we can probably be more of a tourist destination in the future than we are today, and with an aging population, there will be a lot of jobs in the medical field, as well as in areas like institutional food service.

The trouble with service jobs, though, is that they don’t pay well. There are exceptions, of course, nurses being the most obvious example. But, by and large, the service economy is by its very nature labor intensive and it depends on low labor costs to stay competitive.

The service economy faces several areas of pressure in the future: first, services that can be exported telephone marketing and call centers, for instance are quickly moving offshore to the same developing economies mentioned above. Second, many of the services offered by the service economy are inessential: people don’t need to purchase them; they merely elect to purchase them. In this arena, cost becomes a very important deciding factor in whether or not a service will be adopted or put aside.

Even where a service is essential there is a tolerance level beyond which society begins to seriously question costs and benefits of services. In spite of all the valorization of doctors and medical science, in spite of the seemingly universal desire to live forever, in spite of all our efforts to hide the costs of health care through government shell games, we are now beginning to face the question of how much this service is really worth to us.

When the service being offered is not something essential, say, a luxury vacation or a dinner out, cost can very quickly become an incentive for people to simply opt out and pursue lower cost alternatives.
In the service industry, the main way to keep those costs low is to keep employee compensation low. And the downward pressure on wages gets to be even more intense if there are relatively few employment alternatives in the geographic area you live in.

Florida’s schema makes it clear where development efforts ought to be focusing: on creating a workforce capable of filling the jobs of the Creative Economy, jobs involving lots of skills and lots of creative thinking.

The trouble with a lot of the planning and investment that has taken place up till now is that it has been planning and investment in economic dead ends: Traverse City will never be a major manufacturing center, and the service industries that many civic leaders seem to count as our economic future are never going to provide very many good jobs.

In other words, a lot of our efforts at regional planning and employment development have been preparing for a future in which college graduates from this area will be forced to move elsewhere to work, and where Traverse City will be a distinctly second-class or even third-class economy.

It might at first seem counterintuitive to suppose that small cities like Traverse City have any choice but to accept third-class-status in the new economy Florida envisages. After all, the things that attract the creative class are the sorts of things to be found in places like New York City, things that can only exist where there is a huge market.

To a certain extent this is true. Traverse City will never have the Metropolitan Museum. And Traverse City is not likely to have a Chinatown section anytime soon.

But, Florida’s creative economy does hold some promise for Northern Michigan. Much of the creative economy delivers information and expertise rather than goods, which means creative businesses can run anywhere, so why not here? And many of the creative businesses that do deal in goods deal in specialized, high value added items, the sort of items where issues other than labor cost become crucial to market position.

So why not here? The immediate answer that springs to mind is “Because Northern Michigan is about as different from the urbane, tolerant places the creative class likes as can possibly be imagined. This is the backwoods.”

But, as important as that backwoods image might be to some folk who live up here, Northern Michigan is not completely populated by former extras from Deliverance. We actually live in a relatively talent rich area with many potential attractions for the Creative Class. Once all the pluses and minuses are accounted for, Michigan’s best hope for retaining more of its native creative class and attracting out of state creative types may be in small cities like Traverse City rather than with big cities like Detroit and Flint.

But, the Creative Class is moving back to the big cities, right? Yes, but not to all big cities: Detroit, Flint and Grand Rapids are not drawing them. Detroit and Flint because these cities have huge social and economic problems which no one from city authorities on up to the Federal government seems ready to address.

Grand Rapids probably has a better balance of potential and problems. While the downtown revitalization efforts underway seem to hold up a candle of hope for the town, Grand Rapids still seems (at least from a distance) to be a city dedicated to the sort of boring respectability best personified by GR native Gerald Ford. There are developing problems, as well. For instance, elements of the religious right seem to think of Grand Rapids as a Great Lakes Colorado Springs: an outpost from which it can wage its cultural wars state- and even nation-wide. (Go here for some words on this. It isn’t the conservatism of West Michigan as such that is the problem, but the particularly intolerant brand of it that seems to be taking hold there. The creative class can thrive in a free-market, libertairian environment, but not in an intolerant one.)

But, you ask, all those downstate problems aside, what has Traverse City got that these places don’t?

For one thing, our problems are on a manageable scale, and they can probably stay that way with some forward-looking governance. Another potential we have is for strong regional development strategies. There are deep conflicts between Detroit and its suburbs, for instance. At this stage, voters and politicians in Northern Michigan can probably be convinced that there is a great deal of community of interest between town and country here, and a coordinated development strategy would go a long way to giving this area an edge in winning over the creative class.

Another thing we’ve got is nature and all of its attendant recreational activities: cross-country and downhill skiing, canoeing & kayaking, biking, camping fishing, etc. While they are gravitating toward cities there is a decided proclivity amongst the Creative Class toward outdoor, participatory, physical activities. We’ve got that.

Another strength we’ve got is the Internet: we are a well-wired community with lots of bandwidth per capita and lots of talent in networking and programming. We ought to make every effort to make sure that that remains the case: computer networks will be the backbone of the creative economy here in Northern Michigan. The stronger that backbone, the better our chance will be.

We also have a disproportionate number of artists and creative people here, who have already been attracted by our landscape and by the lifestyles they feel they can lead here. We can begin to list the national level musicians, artists, writers and academics that live here but, for fear of leaving someone out, we’ll refrain. BUT, in spite of the sometimes pervasive contempt for the familiar many of us have, we should give credit where it’s due: there’s a lot of talent up here.

Lastly, we have a nascent “street culture” developing. Most obviously in Traverse City, but in other places across the area as well. But I’ll reiterate a disputed point from my prior story: this has happened in large part in spite of rather than because of the efforts of the holders of the cultural purse-strings in this area, and that’s only now beginning to change.

There is still altogether too much effort being put at the extremes of the cultural spectrum here in Northern Michigan: a seeming obsession with the lowest common denominator (and sometimes this is very low indeed) on the one hand, and an fixation on boring high cultural respectability (and, dare we say, cronyism) on the other. What is needed is a bit more concentration is the vital center: emerging artists and emerging markets and casual venues. This, of course, requires some risk, and it involves supporting artists and entrepreneurs who aren’t already friends with all the right people.

But if our cultural leaders aren’t willing to take risks then we’d all better start trying to figure out where our children will have to move to get a decent job.

Another area where we need work is diversity and tolerance. This is one of the whitest places in the country, and for some of us who fled from Detroit or Flint to avoid having to see any dark complexions or hear any exotic accents, this is a fine thing. But if we want our area to be economically viable, we’re going to have to start changing our tune. One of the strongest factors related to economic success in Richard Florida’s research is diversity: ethnic and sexual. There is certainly a vocal and visible cohort of our neighbors who are foursquare in support of diversity, but this isn’t quite the norm here. While some may prefer to forget, the “We Are Traverse City” sticker was officially repudiated by our civic elders, and that proposal to officially limit the rights of homosexuals it was endorsed by the establishment candidate for mayor. If we want our region to be amongst the economic winners in the next 25 years or so, we will make Northern Michigan into a place that openly welcomes difference, rather than one that is decidedly ambivalent about it.

Keep in mind the next time one of your neighbor spouts off about gays: this isn’t just a peccadillo, this is bigotry. And it’s bigotry that may cost you or one of your kids a chance at a decent living up here. If you aren’t inspired by common decency, let yourself be inspired by enlightened self-interest: Intolerance is economic sabotage!

Politicians here still seem to cater first to their friends and second to the white flight folk. The booboisie who seemingly are first and foremost concerned with then internal combustion engine in all of its most extreme permutations: the stock car, the Hummer, the overpowered snowmobile, the exceedingly loud motorboat all necessary perhaps to escape at a moment’s notice the much feared incursion of non whites or gays into our snowy white enclaves. But, in more than one way these gas guzzling, under mufflered engines represent the past of our state, our region and our country.

The future of Northern Michigan lies in another direction: tolerance nay, embrace of diversity; and emphasis on physical, participatory activities; the growth of Internet and talent intensive jobs, and a lively cultural scene that happens at street level, not in the rarified ether of “high culture” or on the increasingly degenerate ether of television broadcasts.

In short, the future of Northern Michigan lies in emphasizing and caring for what we ran toward, not what we might have run away from.



One thought on “Can we be cool

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