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Is the Creative Class an Enemy of Urban Equity?

David Callahan

If affluent people decide that cities are great places to live, how do we stop lower and middle income people from being priced out? That's a tough and complex problem, but not one that Alec MacGillis seriously addresses in his gratuitously snarky attack on Richard Florida in the New Republic

MacGillis writes about Florida that "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. 
In reality, though, the record of creative class urbanism is far murkier than MacGillis lets on. Yes, it's true that Florida's ideas have not worked in certain cities that paid him as a consultant, but an uneven batting average is common for many consultants in many sectors of society. (Just look as how many publishing experts have tried and failed to make magazines like TNR profitable.) 
The bigger complaint of Florida critics is that creative class urbanism doesn't benefit anyone except, well, the creative class. Brooklyn is widely seen as a leading case study. An influx of creatives has pushed out the poor and middle class, making New York even less affordable than it once was. Ditto for a number of other cities where there's been a rise of the creative class.
But while MacGillis is right that there hasn't been "universal uplift" in these places, that doesn't mean that Florida was wrong about "how to boost city economies." 
In fact, making cities desirable places for educated people to live is one challenge; making them equitable places with class diversity is another. New York is a great example. There is no question that the city is stronger economically because all those creative class types are living in Brooklyn rather than moving to the suburbs, which is what their parents did. Brooklyn is teaming with new businesses and high-income households, which may not translate into more jobs for young people of color in Brooklyn. But it has translated into more tax revenues for the city government, which is one reason why Bloomberg could double spending on education and dramatically boost investments in parks and other public services. 
Cities do better economically when affluent and educated people choose to live there. Period. And to the extent that Richard Florida has been a pioneer in explaining what such people look for in urban settings -- i.e., good cafes not football stadiums -- his ideas have been anything but discredited. Quite the contrary: Florida was among the first to see the prosperous urban future that many creative class cities are now living. 
A few decades ago, the city was very much in question as a residential ideal in the United States. Now it's back in a dominant position. The next big challenge is dealing with the downsides of this, which Florida has clearly recognized: Stopping the poor and middle class from being priced out even as further improvements are made to appeal to the educated and affluent who still have plenty of good reasons to decamp to the 'burbs. More ambitiously, the challenge is fully cutting the poor in on the new prosperity generated by creative class urbanism. 
It should be noted that this is a bigger national problem: How do we find ways to ensure that the gains of the knowledge economy are widely shared? What do we do about the fact that most jobs in the U.S. pay terribly, while a sliver of skilled jobs near the top pay very well? It's absurd to ding Richard Florida for not having solved this problem when nobody else has either. 
This is arguably Bill de Blasio's most complicated puzzle as Mayor of New York. He wants to address urban inequality even as he embraces the creative class, which rank among his key constituencies. And de Blasio has ideas for doing this. He wants Albany to further raise taxes on the affluent to pay for universal pre-K. And he wants to push developers to build more affordable housing. He has plenty of other ideas beyond this, as do outside policy experts. 
Urban creative class affluence is incompatible with urban equity when city leaders couldn't care less about who gets priced out or left behind. But everything could be different if leaders do care. Because unlike cities like Detroit or Newark -- places that don't attract the educated and affluent, leaving only the poor -- cities like New York and San Francisco have a huge tax base to work with in addressing inequity, along with other private, civic, and philanthropic resources.
Those resources haven't yet been tapped on a large scale to offset the downsides of creative class urbanism. But that day is fast approaching in New York City.