Someone Should Show Richard Florida the Piazza at Schmidt’s

In search of Philadelphia's wealthy creative class.

Class is a funny thing. To most people it speaks to economics: There’s the haves and the have-nots. But while income and wealth are important class indicators, they rarely tell the whole story. I was raised on the Main Line by Ivy League-educated parents and spent my summers in the Hamptons where my father’s family owned a vacation home that was attended by a full-time, uniformed maid.

On the surface it might seem like I am a product of privilege; but I am hardly a reflection of it. I’ve worked since I was 15, the majority of that time in the service industry; I’ve never earned more than $40,000 a year. Since 2001, when—for better or worse—I entered the field of journalism full-time, I’ve struggled to stay close to that figure. If I ever had a silver spoon in my mouth, I would have hocked it long ago for cigarette money.

And yet, thanks in large part to my upbringing, I am cultured, mannerly, and I know which fork you’re supposed to use when you eat fish. Does that make me an asset to the city? I doubt it. But according to a contentious body of literature championed by urbanist Richard Florida, the cultural assets I picked up as a kid—and my decision to parlay them into a career in the information economy—give me membership in an exclusive club known as the “creative class.”  And that, according Florida, most certainly does make me an asset—even if my direct economic contribution to the community around me is negligible at best.

Since January, Florida, author of The Rise of the Creative Class, has been issuing weekly reports at Atlantic Cities on the widening class divide across America’s major cities. This week, he published the ninth installment of the series, in which he ranks Philadelphia second on a list of 10 of the nation’s most class-segregated cities. Florida identifies three socio-economic classes: the aforementioned creative class of highly skilled knowledge, professional and creative workers; lower paid blue-collar workers; and service workers, which includes people in food service, retail sales, and clerical and administrative positions.

What he found is not that surprising: We live in a city represented by a small population of upper-income earners (mostly concentrated in Center City, Chestnut Hill and Manayunk), an exploding service class, and a rapidly declining traditional working class.

This trend is reflected in my Kensington neighborhood, where Florida’s data (which he draws from the U.S. Census American Community Survey) shows nearly half of my neighbors are in the service class, and about a third of us represent an emerging “creative” base—thanks, presumably, to the influx of people like me and my wife (whose work in the technology sector secures her membership).

The crux of Florida’s theory is that municipal governments should be investing in schemes to lure the creative class into their neighborhoods as fuel for revitalization.  He points to the three-T’s—talent, technology and tolerance—as indicators of the strength of a city’s creative base. And this, in turn, is an indicator of its future economic potential.

According to Florida: “The greatest challenge we face is to expand the structures of the creative economy and harness the creativity of much larger segments of the workforce.”

I don’t disagree with that statement in principle, but Florida runs into problems when he raises it to the level of social engineering.

For starters, he draws too strong a correlation between creativity and wealth. According to his assessment, as a member of the “creative class” I should be clocking around $76,694 a year. (I guess my editors never got that memo.) Just because you have a lot of artists, writers and software developers living in one place doesn’t mean you are stimulating the economy (with the exception of the coffee and craft beer industries, I suppose). Which is probably why Florida’s creative class includes physicians, lawyers and management professionals. But even if you could create pockets of high-earning hipsters, it’s naïve to think the benefits will trickle down to the average service worker and his or her family.

As Florida himself was recently forced to admit:

“On close inspection, talent clustering provides little in the way of trickle-down benefits. Its benefits flow disproportionately to more highly-skilled knowledge, professional, and creative workers whose higher wages and salaries are more than sufficient to cover more expensive housing in these locations.”

To be fair, Florida thinks there is something else going on beyond simple economic stimulus. And he’s right. But it’s about more than the size of your paycheck or the type of work you do.  It has to do with something called human capital, which we start building as kids and accumulate throughout our lives. Creativity is an element of human capital, but so is a range of competencies, knowledge, and social and personality attributes.

According to Michele Hoyman, an expert in public administration at the University of North Carolina who was interviewed last year by the writer Frank Bures: “Human capital beats the pants off creative capital.”

Human capital starts at home and in school and is closely aligned with class. Cities can go a long way to sparking revitalization by investing in building and nurturing human capital where it is needed most, but it’s a pipe dream to think you can engineer hip.

It’s that kind of thinking that gives rise to places like the Piazza at Schmidt’s—and God knows we don’t need any more of those.