Richard Florida on Optimistic Urbanism versus Pessimistic Urbanism

Richard Florida had a recent interview in the Chronicle of Higher Education where he continued to unpack the fraught complexities behind his Creative Class theory. We all know the theory, which observed the processes through which creative young people can and do move (back) to cities to revitalize them, and which come under attack in recent years as a product of the stark and skyrocketing wealth inequality that has accompanied Cities As The New Black, Detroit as the New Brooklyn, or The Fact That The Rent Is Too Damn High.

Florida sets up a dichotomy that I don’t agree with but that I find interesting to bring up, splitting urbanists into either optimists or pessimists. Optimists, including the likes of Ed Glaeser, Nathaniel Baum-Snow, Bruce Katz, and Benjamin Barber, want to observe and analyze the things that happen to reshape cities. Pessimists, he argues, like Mike Davis or David Harvey, think that everything is bad. While I learned from the observations of the former group, I understand less about cities from their books than I do, say, from Mike Davis’ legendary and controversial City of Quartz (1990), which challenges the discursive underpinnings of Los Angeles’ cultural supremacy and its legacies of privatization and power.

I also didn’t need to be convinced that cities were okay, because I grew up in one, so I don’t want to be too judgy of the overviews of metropolitan revolutions or what have you. At some level, this bears similarity to the national debate that pitted Bernie Sanders against Hillary Clinton in the 2016 presidential primary election– the neoliberal, barely left-of-center if not slightly right-of-center candidate was deemed more palatable by the entrenched power elite than the termed “radical” guy who preached about taking down the “billionaih class.” The mainstream generally deems as “unpalatable” or “too radical” Marxist critiques and especially any critique that challenges the liberal or neoliberal paradigms of the new urbanization (framed, let’s say, for the sake of discussion, by the proto creative class that followed on the heels of the fallen New York of the late 1970’s) that favour unchecked accumulation of wealth.

That guy in the fancy bistro charging $19 for a rectangular, bone china plate of fried chicken and collard greens, catering to visiting suburban diners who would move to the neighbourhood If It Weren’t For The Schools? “He’s to be lauded since he transformed an abandoned building into an urban oasis of possibility where once stood only decay and drug dealers.” “And why do you have to judge rich people, anyway? They made it in America, without help!” This has been my beef with Creative Class, way before we were talking about gentrification in Detroit and back when we all wanted A Startup Incubator On Every Corner And A Vegan Cupcake On Every Plate, because the argument in favour of this rising tide seems tone-deaf in its dismissal of class, and if you bring up class and power, you’re deemed a Marxist– or a pessimist.

Florida muses in a similar Vox interview that maybe the Sunbelt is a bit of a new frontier, but that the current “frontiers” do not involve the same opportunities for affordability that those of yesteryear did. I maintain that the final frontier of urbanization is equitable urbanization, and for me, that involves two principal things: 1) equitable, sustainable development in high-density urban centres, and 2) equitable, sustainable development in rural areas that are, as of yet, completely ignored by people like Florida who pigeonhole the idea of “cosmopolitan urban centre” into “big cities doing flashy things.” John Conyers, III says that I need to keep my blog posts short or no one will read them, so I’m cutting it off here, but there is, of course, plenty more to be said about all of this. One point on which I definitely agree with Florida and I’m glad he brings up: densifying sky-high in the name of the Market is not going to “save cities” or save our affordability crisis, and this problem transcends one single issue.

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