Radical media, politics and culture.

Richard Lautens, "Why Richard Florida's honeymoon is over"

Why Richard Florida's honeymoon is over Richard Lautens From The Toronto Star

Uzma Shakir scanned the crowd, tapping her pen on the table. It was her turn. It was hot – too hot, an early-summer evening scorcher. All the chairs were filled. Latecomers spilled out the back and on to the gritty sidewalks on Bloor St. W. near Lansdowne.

She stood. "I am the creative city," she said. Laughter. "That's what Richard Florida says. I make it really exotic."

But the laughing stopped quickly. "Richard Florida's exotic city, his creative city, depends on ghost people, working behind the scenes. Immigrants, people of colour. You want to know what his version of creative is? He's the relocation agent for the global bourgeoisie. And the rest of us don't matter."

Honeymoons, typically, are short. For Florida, who arrived in Toronto just over two years ago to head the Martin Prosperity Institute, a University of Toronto think-tank created just for him, it's officially over.

Shakir, a community advocate, was speaking at a public forum organized recently by the art magazine Fuse, and the group, Creative Class Struggle. Its website leaves little to the imagination: "We are a Toronto-based collective who are organizing a campaign challenging the presence of Richard Florida and the Martin Prosperity Institute at the University of Toronto, as well as the wider policies and practices they represent."

The forum was its coming-out party – the beginning, they say, of a wider campaign, as the site explains, "to reclaim our institutions, our city, and our elected governments" from Florida's best-known pitch: That future economic health for cities relies on broad-brushstroke boosterism of creative professionals, bohemianism, cosmopolitanism and diversity, and the warning that cities that don't embrace it will be left in a death-spiral of post-industrial decay.

There have been snipes, of course. Fellow U of T professor Mark Kingwell, writing in the Walrus this year, described Florida's public academic career as "oddly hucksterish;" R.M. Vaughn, a columnist at The Globe and Mail, handed out buttons with the slogan "can we please stop talking about Richard Florida?" Critics love to publicize his salary, which, by his own admission, is generous (and public; it's $346,041.48). Of course, Florida has endured critics throughout his career. But an activist group that exists only to defy him? This is something new.

Part of it may come from the the uniquely Canadian impulse to resent success. With a handful of best-selling books – the freshly released Who's Your City?, The Rise of the Creative Class and The Flight of the Creative Class – and an enviable position in a brand-new institution tailored to him, Florida is a prime target. And then there's the hype factor. When Florida and his wife, Rana, who manages their joint consulting business, Creative Class Group, first arrived in the city, the response was breathless: Finally, he was here, the A-list celebrity intellectual the city's ruling elite so desperately coveted.

The Globe and Mail immediately signed him as a columnist ("He has inspired cities to realize their potential," its ad campaign went. "He has developed a global following among the creative class ... and now he is writing for us.") He got the celebrity treatment, from a glossy video feature on his Rosedale home by Style at Home magazine to the chronicling of his cocktail parties ("With Richard and Rana Florida as hosts, the evening sparkled like Veuve Cliquot," went one Globe headline).

At a dinner held by Mayor David Miller at Grano, the Davisville restaurant famous for its exclusive affairs, the usually laconic mayor gushed: "Richard is one of the leading thinkers on cities, and his choice to live in Toronto shows that we can compete with any city in the world," he said. The two men embraced, at least with one arm. Think of the last time Miller did that.

In activist and academic circles, though, a different version of Florida reigns. Shakir's is one; that night, at the Toronto Free Gallery, smack in the middle of the kind of quasi-bohemian neighbourhoods "in transition" that Florida is supposed to celebrate, the audience contributed many more.

To them, Florida is a pitchman, an opportunist, an elitist, a sham. Worse, he's here, in our city that works. And our city is listening. And now the province is, too. He was commissioned by Queen's Park to write an exhaustive report, "Ontario in the Creative Age," released earlier this year. His rhetoric is already institutionalized in Toronto's "Plan for a Creative City," spawning short-term fireworks displays like Luminato and Nuit Blanche that critics argue are magnetic for tourists but leave little behind. His ideas are exclusive, divisive, and naïve. He is dangerous, they say. And he needs to go.

The activist is a little nervous. Is it a battle? "I guess so," she says, a verbal shrug. Her name is Heather McLean, one of the Creative Class Struggle group. She wears the activist label a little uneasily. Now a Ph.D. student in environmental studies at York University, McLean lists a life before all this – five years in urban planning and consulting, both privately and with the city of Toronto.

She remembers, in her professional life of not so long ago, the creative class notion gaining traction. "I watched how, in consulting, these ideas took off and became trends," she said. They suggested an easy fix to increasing urban ills, served with a smile. "It's palatable, interesting and fun. It's hard to compete with that."

But its implications for the majority aren't much fun at all. She points to one of Florida's research pillars, the bohemian index, which suggests that cities and neighbourhoods with high concentrations of artists and gays and lesbians tend to attract investment to a much greater degree than those that don't.

It suggests, on the surface, at least, a new era of socially tolerant capitalism. "But really, it's a very celebratory and safe way of looking at capital accumulation," she says. "People like cool places, sure; they're positive stories. But there are people that get dispossessed, or removed, or erased in these narratives."

And if you're not "creative," best of luck. "If you're a hospital worker, or a child care worker, you're just erased completely," she says. "We need to cut each other's hair, take care of each other's kids. We don't need a creative city – can we not just have a socially just city?"

The academic knows the history. He remembers a young Florida's work, as a Ph.D. student on urban policy in post-war America, as solid, useful and true. "It's the kind of work a lot of us like," he says. "Work that attempts to understand, and attempts to explain."

Stefan Kipfer teaches theories of society, politics and the city at York University's Faculty of Environmental Studies. He still uses Florida's early work as reference in his own research.

This is not the work that Florida does now, Kipfer says. "It's very different, of course. It's research designed to sell. This is no secret; Florida makes money as a consultant, so his fame is really based on his ability to convince a client to buy his product."

Kipfer recites the litany: That his ideas, about investing in skills and training, are nothing new; that his numbers – the indices that he bases his work on – are statistically suspect; and that his work conveniently leaves out obvious trends as the rich/poor gap grows constantly wider.

Innovation as the catalyst for economic growth is as old as the idea of an economy itself, though Edward Glaeser, in his review of Rise of the Creative Class, gives Florida some credit for cross-pollinating it with creative bohemia.

But in the same breath, Glaeser takes on its statistical basis, Florida's bohemian index. Using data from 242 cities provided by Florida, Glaeser, an economic geographer, found that the overall "bohemian effect" on economic growth in America was driven by two of the 242: Las Vegas and Sarasota, Fla. "Excluding those cities," he wrote, meant that "bohemianism becomes irrelevant.

"Given that I will never believe that either Las Vegas or Sarasota stand as stellar examples of bohemianism, I will draw another conclusion," he wrote: "skilled people" – not artists, by any measure – "are key to urban success."

For Kipfer, it points out research aimed at a pre-conceived goal. "That's the thing about salesmanship and research that is consultant-oriented: It develops not concepts, but catch-all terms that work differently in different contexts," he says.

"What does Richard Florida do: He goes from city to city, be it Albuquerque or New York City, and tells them: You, too, can win. But there's an internal contradiction. Florida ranks cities – it's part of what he does, and not everyone can win."

But the base criticism for Kipfer is less about economy, and more about people. "All of a sudden, you've got a situation that seems to allow usually marginalized people – artists, gays, lesbians, immigrants – to finally think that `Hey! There's some economic value to our existence!'" he says. "But the danger in this is that it reduces them to economic inputs: As long as you see immigration as a way to benefit Canadian capitalism, or culture and sexual orientation as tourism and economic development tools – you're in. But don't tell us about questioning racism, don't tell us about wanting to re-organize the family, don't tell us about most of your history. We don't want to hear it."

The pitchman smiles, but wearily. A brave face. "In the states, 99 per cent of my critics were socially conservative, right-wing people, who said I had a gay agenda, or that cities couldn't be built by `yuppies, sophistos, trendoids and gays,'" says Richard Florida. "And I said before I came here, `I think in Toronto, my critics will come from the left.'"

How true. Florida sits in an artfully dishevelled conference room – exposed brick, extruded industrial window frames – at the MPI's headquarters in the MaRS complex at University Ave. and College St. It is, in many ways, an embodiment of his gospel: A state-of-the-art "centre of excellence," repurposing an old building for a new life – in this case, scientific and medical research. And, of course, him.

Florida embodies the off-the-rack American dream, the immigrant kid made good. He grew up in a blue-collar Italian neighbourhood in Newark; his father worked in a factory and made enough to put the kids through school.

He worked his way to the Ivy Leagues, finishing his Ph.D. at Columbia; Neil Smith, the famous Marxist urban theorist, was on his dissertation committee. His work, and books, found a niche in the culture early on, making him famous, mobile, and conversant in a breadth of material, from economics to culture to politics. They also made him sought after, and at the apex of his fame, he chose to come here.

He makes a point of his fast-growing local roots. Florida name-checks local cultural figures like AGO curator David Moos, and artists like Daniel Borins and Jennifer Marman, who have made work for the space ("we thought we owed it to them," he says); one work he loved so much he bought for his home.

But he's here to defend himself. Of course. Again. "I'm an open book," he says. "Be candid."

He's been here before. Creative Class Struggle says his work is based on social division. "It is," he says. "That's one thing my work points out – that class is becoming a more important category."

They say he glorifies his creative class, and hang the rest. "The decline in manufacturing – it's not like I want that to happen," he says. "But it's the reality. I think that's where people get confused. I was posing that 30 per cent of us have the great good fortune to be part of this professional, technical, artistic, entertainment, creative class, but the real goal in society should be to expand those borders."

They say he's a huckster. He shrugs. "I made the decision to build my dialogue around economic growth and prosperity," he says. "It worked ... better than I expected," he smiles. "But it's developed some interesting critiques."

They say he advocates free-market remaking of so-called bohemian neighbourhoods, that he rolls out the carpet to gentrification. "I find gentrification devastating – New York, it's tragic," he says. "What we were trying to point out is that these neighbourhoods – and we measured it, we didn't just make it up – were the places, for a variety of reasons, that had really raised housing values."

It was an objective measure, he says, like everything he does. "There are lots of people who say, in order to attract the creative class, we need to build latte bars, and music venues, and stadiums," he says. "In critical theory, that's what happens to a text. People have been very effective on both sides in framing my work."

They say he ignores marginal workers, precarious workers, the service economy and the dead-end it represents. "Those are the equivalent of the point-of-entry jobs my dad had, in a factory. And those jobs pay horribly. They're horribly insecure." He pushed the mayor on it, he says; council agreed to have a summit on improving service work, which Florida hosted this week.

He knows that he's been a little too public, maybe a little too sunny. "When I first came here, there was a lot of public attention," he says. "I was new in town, and when you're new, the first thing you want to do is emphasize the positive."

That positivity, he says, might have been taken as salesmanship. "I wish folks, particularly in geography, would have come to me first – and I wish that heartfeltly, because I think there's a lot of points of engagement," he says. "I also wish I had gotten to know them earlier, but our life here has been such a freakin' whirlwind that it's been hard to get to know everybody."

But the invitation is open, Florida says. "I'd love to engage these groups, because I think what they have to say is important, and actually, I find myself..." he pauses, and smiles. "I find myself agreeing, intuitively agreeing, with much of their critique."

They say they want a more holistic city, a city that includes all classes, races and sexual orientations. Not a creative city. Just a city that works. For everyone.

The pitchman smiles. "Me, too."

He leaves the door open when he goes.