10.1.09

WHEN WE FIND OURSELVES IN A PLACE JUST RIGHT.

Richard Florida has made a productive career researching the agglomeration economies that shape urban areas, making some desirable and some Detroit. His latest effort is Who's Your City? I don't have to work too hard at Book Review No. 4, as the subtitle is also the abstract: How the Creative Economy Is Making Where to Live the Most Important Decision of Your Life. To some extent, Professor Florida is offering a rebuttal to Thomas Friedman with his use of "spiky world" as a counterpoint to "flat world". That's less than persuasive, as Mr Friedman has noted that the Manhattan bond trader has more in common with the Shanghai bond trader than with the Brooklyn electrician. The common feature of both arguments is that creative people work with other creative people. Mr Friedman places more trust in instant electronic communication, air transportation, and Federal Express. Professor Florida sees the value of informal, face-to-face networks for business and for personal development (let's face it, the assortative mating of the creative class is the polar opposite of the voluntary communities of the Shakers whose hymn I stole for the title).

That noted, I have two major objections to the book. One, the premium to locating in the most creative communities bids up rents. That produces an arbitrage opportunity, even in recession. Although the efforts of communities that have so far been left behind by the agglomeration of the creative class might be ridiculed: providing edgy bar districts or technology parks or graduate programs at what was once a normal school do not necessarily work, lower rents plus the ancillaries are the right formula. (Gad, that's a Teutonic sentence. Must be close to the start of the new semester.) At the margin, restaurants in Rockford, Illinois, that do not serve mashed potatoes and gravy with lasagna are a step in the right direction. (The anecdote is at page 224. I don't get out enough to identify the restaurant.) Two, Professor Florida might actually be making the case for socializing all young people, irrespective of background, into the ways of the middle class. He grew up in Newark. Turn to page 86.
But my intuition also told me that I would benefit even more from leaving the working-class, tough-guy peer group of my youth. Many of my friends were already well into drugs and petty crime. Few who stayed behind had ambitions to go to college, let alone pursue careers.
Rutgers was there for Professor Florida. The land-grants and the mid-majors matter. So, too, do good adult mentors, teachers who push their charges, no matter how disadvantaged those charges may be, parents who hope for a better future for their kids, politicians who don't take bribes. Perhaps it's the abdication of all of those people, in far too many neighborhoods, that creates the spiky world.

(Cross-posted to 50 Book Challenge.)

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