Proletariat or Privilege

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“Officials seem ready to embrace any notion of reform that holds out hope without offending entrenched constituencies that resist real reform’, quoted from Kotkin and Siegel (2004: 17). 

Due to some technical errors with the reading, I am responding to Richard Florida’s book, The Rise of the Creative Class, through a critical response to Florida’s book, Struggling with the Creative Class, by Jamie Peck. Florida’s thesis centers around creating a desire to re-imagine the places we live in order to appeal to a growing class of creative knowledge workers who value independence and fun, a class that Florida believes runs the economy. Framed through a relatively subjective framework (created by Florida himself) that touts a new era for the creative individual while espousing a rhetoric that is eerily similar to the neo-liberal, de-regulatory traditions of traditional free-market based paradigms.

Jamie Peck’s response is skepticism: there are many potential benefits to Florida’s Creative Class model of development but we cannot ignore the sweeping ideology imperatives that frame Florida’s arguments.  One of Peck’s main concerns is that the Florida model presupposes much about the alleged power of the Creative Class while leaving “the uncreative two-thirds to an afterthought, defined largely in terms of its creative deficits.”

While Florida touts a socially liberal mindset, the fiscal mentality of his policy hardly accomplishes the same goal. Peck reminds readers that “cultural diversity may indeed be more of a lifestyle choice than a political trait, which might explain why it can coexist with apparent indifference to social inequality” (Peck, 758).

These “sweeping”changes occurring throughout urban redevelopment projects may not be as innovative as we think. Many of the projects have become routinized and focus, generally, on the same methodologies and incentives in one way or another.

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Fads ought to be suspect.

They don’t last long, nor do they do much for the long term. Toys become trash as quickly as they became popular. However, urban re-development centered around attracting younger citizenry can hardly be considered a fad and was an initiative for many cities before Florida began preaching.

During his terms as the mayor of Denver almost twenty years before Florida’s book, Federico Pena enacted a 0.1% increase in sales taxes throughout Denver in order to fund cultural and artistic development that is now responsible for renovations to Denver’s center for the performing arts and a variety of other public goods (public art, libraries, museums and parks are much of the focus for spending) as well as the establishment of noteworthy art installations throughout the city.

This example is significant because it differs from the simple plan of creative promotion in a number of integral ways. Pena’s project began as a response to the economic downturn of the late 70’s and early 80’s and found funding through a number of ‘big-government’ methods, most notably the increase to sales tax and long-term plans for government based funding. However, Pena also focused much of the renovation of the city through infrastructure. Nearly one billion dollars was spent to begin laying the groundwork for the Denver International Airport, an improvement that is far from creative but still extremely vital in creating literal avenues for the influx of knowledge workers.

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Much of Peck’s concern derives from the “routine” nature that has stemmed from the Floridian approach to revitalization and the very often surface-level efforts taken. Approaches that indicate a “belief in an urban strategy for a frictionless universe. There is no mention of government or politics or interest groups.” The individual has become the ultimate source of power. This is problematic. Early within his preface, Florida provides a Marxist reading of the structure of labor after the Industrial Revolution: “The collaborative nature of [physical] labor makes the proletariat a universal class” (Florida, xi).

Flavoring his preface of the Creative Class by linking it to the Marxist ideal of a single universal class seems rather suspect. First, it predisposes the Creative Class to be interpreted as the general public. Throughout his book, Florida gives relatively little attention to the ‘underclasses’ (as Peck puts it), favoring his knowledge class above the groups that are responsible for providing much of the infrastructure that the Creative Class relies on, instead making “a plea for grassroots agency with a communitarian conscience amongst a privileged class of creatives” (Peck, 760).

An illustration comparing blue collar vs. white collarI believe the answer fits somewhere in the middle. Having just one methodological structure for urban revitalization is tantamount to creating a monopoly; which itself is something that many creative revitalization projects concern themselves with presenting. Yet, Florida’s tenet that “all humans are creative” rings true and should be taken seriously. Creativity is vital in finding new ways to disrupt and invigorate traditional social structures, but to ignore historical structures, especially those involving the working class doesn’t really seem that innovative. Hierarchical economies have always subjugated physical laborers, and promoting the Creative Class doesn’t really do anything to address this particular tradition. Perhaps creativity ought to be employed by cities rather than simply seeking out creative residents.

Pena’s plan was innovative because it provided huge amounts of opportunity for working class citizens; especially those involved in the construction of the billion dollar airport (a project that is still continuing — Denver just built a sizable hotel within the confines of DIA) and the multi-million dollar public transit line designed to connect people into the city to the airport and vice versa. Creativity comes at a price and that price ought not be paid in the blood of the proletariat; the true proletariat, mind you, not the creative elite that Florida attempts to portray as this century’s new disadvantaged class (most creatives haven’t graduated college, can the same be said about blue collar workers?) The answer is not simply to privilege 30% of the workforce, but to use this 30% as an example for how to address similar problems within the industries that employ the other seventy.

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