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Return of the Creative Clash, Austin Chronicle, May 21, 2004

In the new issue of the magazine The Next American City, Richard Florida, the author of the bestselling book The Rise of the Creative Class – in which Austin plays a prominent role as a model “creative Mecca” – has answered his critics. Or so claims a breathless press release from the magazine, which is based in New York City. “His new work finds that creative regions generate not only more jobs, but also higher salaries, more innovations, and more high tech growth,” gushes the release.

But in the essay, titled “Revenge of the Squelchers” (online at, the Carnegie Mellon professor does not, in fact, answer his critics. He provides some graphs that are supposed to serve as evidence that innovation is, in fact, linked to job creation and that diverse populations do lead to creativity. He’s obviously saved the best evidence for his new book, The Flight of the Creative Class. Otherwise he simply reasserts what he calls his “core message,” which is that “human creativity is the ultimate source of economic growth” and that “every single person is creative in some way.”

Why is that message such a hard sell? Because, Florida argues, his critics have politicized his arguments. He responds to them according to their position on the political spectrum, accusing them of providing ammunition to the “squelchers,” whom he defines as civic types who are afraid of new ideas. He seems astonished that his work has been attacked from both the political right and the left. “Such heated rhetoric puzzles me; I harbor no hidden agendas,” he writes.

But The Rise of the Creative Class is hardly nonideological; it argues a Clinton-era, Third Way hybridization (or bastardization) of the progressive’s pursuit of social justice and individual fulfillment, the venture capitalist’s search for lucrative risk, and the manager’s devotion to the bottom line. The cracks in this ideology had already begun to show by the time Florida’s book appeared – notably here in Austin, where the boom Florida extolled had already begun its bust, and where city leaders rushed to embrace strategies Florida implied, and perhaps assumed, already existed.

By now claiming neutrality and nonpartisanship, Florida avoids addressing his most serious critics: his academic peers who take issue with his definition of the “creative class,” which includes everyone from pro basketball players and computer programmers to lawyers and fine painters. Saskia Sassen, a sociologist at the University of Chicago and the London School of Economics, argues that Florida should distinguish among workers who provide services for producers (say, advertising and finance) and those who provide services for consumers (such as flipping hamburgers). That, she says, produces more useful analyses and allows one to see how a city is linked to global economic processes, not just local or even regional ones. No matter how creative a city is, it can’t imagine itself out of global economic systems, a matter that Florida fails to address, but which his supposed Austin avatars have come to realize all too well.