Critics Say Richard Florida’s Ideas Helped Ruin American Cities. Can He Redeem Himself in Philly?

In the past two decades, cities like New York and San Francisco have turned into elitist playgrounds for the rich. What can the famed urbanist behind the Creative Class predict about the future of Philly?

richard florida

Richard Florida is the first Philadelphia Fellow. Photograph by Daria Malysheva

The subject was grim — poverty and the struggling middle class — but when Richard Florida took the stage at Drexel one evening this past May, he could barely contain his joy.

Drexel University president John Fry had just finished a stirring introduction of Florida, saying he transcended his title of urban studies professor to become a “public intellectual,” in demand across the globe and, according to a past MIT study, “the world’s most influential thought leader.”

Florida strode up then, tall and elegant in a crisp gray suit and black tie, his physique still tight at 61. But he failed, with one cupped hand, to hide that grin — wide as that of a boy who’d just eaten the whole pie. Could anyone blame him for feeling happy? Florida ascended to celebrity status in 2002 with the publication of his best-selling book The Rise of the Creative Class, taking the world by storm with the argument that the new, global high-tech market represented a particular opportunity for cities.

The days of big industry planting factories near natural resources were gone. Instead, businesses would relocate to be near fertile, highly educated minds, the people he dubbed the “Creative Class.” Give these “creatives” what they want, he urged: bike paths, beautiful public parks, new amenities like cafes, microbreweries, trendy restaurants and hip open offices. Attract the people they like to be around — fellow creatives, artists, gays and bohemians — and watch the businesses form around these sparkling talent pools. For guideposts, he pointed to cities like New York and San Francisco, with their rich arts scenes and diverse communities.

“I don’t think there’s any question that Richard is the most famous urban thinker working today,” says Harris Steinberg, executive director of Drexel’s Lindy Institute for Urban Innovation, which seeks to increase prosperity for low- and middle-income residents. “People will debate his precise role in shaping American cities, and there is some controversy around him, but there’s no question The Rise of the Creative Class has been deeply influential for many years.”

Florida started off his May appearance in the city with a quick note of affection: Philadelphia, he claimed, is “my favorite city in the United States.”

The remark, like a rock star shouting “I love New York” at Madison Square Garden, drew an uncertain tremor of applause from the crowd, and Florida appeared momentarily defensive. “That’s no B.S.,” he said, adding, “Ask my wife.”

The moment was telling because for all the praise he has received, he has also shouldered great blame. His critics lambaste him for advancing societal ills from income inequality to the homogeneity of American cityscapes, for the way microbreweries of bare brick sit in the shadows of condos replete with rooftop fire pits while wealthy white people nip at avocado toast outside farmers’ markets in Everytown U.S.A. There’s even a lawsuit in Washington, D.C., with the city housing authority serving as a named defendant while Florida appears as a kind of unindicted co-conspirator — his work cited 14 times as the inspiration for D.C. leaders to allegedly flout the law in their zeal to drive out lower-income residents and embrace the Creative Class.

Fry’s introduction gave no hint of this, but in the wake of all the criticism, Florida’s star has dimmed. The co-author of the MIT study Fry quoted points out that in the latest assessment of the world’s most influential thinkers, Florida didn’t make the list. The upshot is that Richard Florida sits at a significant career crossroads.

He is here as the first Philadelphia Fellow, brought in by Drexel, Thomas Jefferson University, and the University City Science Center to work on the problem of “inclusive growth.” In practical terms, Florida isn’t spending that much time, physically, in town, traveling in for just three public appearances. But he is crunching Philly data, to deliver a report this fall that will provide a guidepost for the city, and particularly its anchor institutions, on how we might construct a local economy in which everyone shares in the growth.

This means Florida is here as a hired gun to confront the very problems he’s accused of creating. The project might sound absurd. But Florida framed his involvement here rather expertly, explaining that he loves Philadelphia because we sit at a crossroads, too.

Philadelphia, he said, is a city “at the edge.” Growth and prosperity have juiced the business community to new heights, but it’s not too late for us to avoid the fate that has befallen the cities he once praised as standard-bearers. New York and San Francisco, Florida admits, Creative Classed themselves into a strange and unhealthy state: virtually unaffordable to all but the fabulously wealthy, diminished in feel and fabric. The problems of these star cities — from the dearth of children in San Francisco, a home that only the rich and childless can afford, to the increasing numbers of vacant storefronts in New York — provide us with an opportunity to learn.

Philadelphia “can pioneer a new model,” says Florida, “where development and innovation and start-ups don’t have to be seen as antithetical to a decent and just city for all. Where those two things can come together.”

And so the stakes are high for both parties — to save Philadelphia as we know it, and for Richard Florida to perhaps save himself in the process.

As a 10-year-old boy growing up in Newark, New Jersey, Richard Florida wanted to be a rock star. Money was tight. But his father, who worked on a factory floor making eyeglasses, scraped money together to buy his son the guitar he longed for. Florida practiced, avidly, for a while, till the Newark race riots in 1967 diverted his course.

“My city was on fire,” says Florida one day during a phone conversation from his office in Toronto, “and I was too young and inexperienced to understand exactly why this was happening.”

As origin stories go, this one has real explanatory power and a sense of surprise: It makes perfect sense, for starters, that Florida wanted to be a rock star. When Creative Class hit, he took to big stages and steady public speaking tours with genuine aplomb. The surprise is that Florida, given he spent all that energy promoting the interests of the white and wealthy, ever felt motivated by working-class roots and sensitivity toward race.

The motivations of this particular academic matter to Philadelphia right now, because if there’s an egalitarian spark in his soul, we need it.

By measures business executives value, Philadelphia is on the rise. Home prices in the Graduate Hospital zip code have increased more than 400 percent since the year 2000, typifying a city of numerous neighborhoods gone big. The “brain drain” that afflicted the city for decades, with new college graduates fleeing elsewhere for jobs, is over. Since 2000, the number of highly educated residents grew more in Philly than in any other major metro in the country but D.C. Our restaurant scene is among the nation’s best, and Comcast finds the soil here so fertile that it keeps sprouting new skyscrapers. These improvements, though, mask new dangers and old problems.

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Spurred by the Creative Class, home prices in Grad Hospital have spiked 400 percent since 2000. Photograph by Albert Yee

The idea that Philadelphia is at risk of becoming New York or San Francisco appears laughable at first glance. But there are already signs it’s happening. Just as the rise in home prices in the country’s major metros slowed, Philadelphia’s sped up, increasing 10.5 percent this year from January 2018. This city is still far more affordable than the West Coast and East Coast titans, but the percentage of single-family homes bought by investors here is the second highest in the nation — a key metric for economists and urban experts like Florida, since it indicates when a city’s growth is exceeding the reach of its residents.

According to CoreLogic, investors accounted for 23 percent of the city’s 2018 housing sales. It’s a pattern that has overtaken Boston, New York, San Francisco and Seattle, creating what Florida calls “winner-takes-all urbanism” — great pockets of advantage and disadvantage that ultimately tear at a city’s identity and cohesion.

Florida calls it “winner-takes-all urbanism” — great pockets of advantage and disadvantage that ultimately tear at a city’s identity and cohesion.

As urban studies professor Joel Kotkin, at Chapman University in California, has written — and Florida agrees — such gross wealth disparity is a sign of crisis: Industrial-era London, ancient Rome and the French Revolution all suggest the troubles that can ensue. Florida perceives looming problems in San Francisco, which appears basically “unsustainable” to him in its current form, and opines that New York, awash in big chains like Pottery Barn and fewer singular creations, has begun to “bore” him.

“As Jane Jacobs told me,” he offers, invoking the name of the most famous urbanist before him, “‘when a place gets boring, even the rich people leave.’”

Here at home, the same problems loom on the horizon. A 2016 Pew study found that nearly half of the city’s census tracts have lost income, becoming poorer in recent years — pockets of disadvantage that are growing. The middle class continues to diminish. Public schools struggle. And the city’s poverty rate remains a fountain of shame — a staggering 26 percent, worst among the top 20 largest cities in America. “You can’t have a 26 percent poverty rate,” says Florida, “and be a world-class city.”

So Florida is embarking on his mission to see if we can create “inclusive” growth — lifting a majority of the city’s residents, not just a swath of the well-off. The effort, however, puts him at odds with his past.

In retrospect, perhaps the most remarkable aspect of Florida’s success is that it might never have happened. In the early going, he feared that his book would sell like day-old bagels, headed for the freebie bin. He credits editor Paul Glastris at Washington Monthly, a man who happened to steep himself in academic urbanist literature, with generating the attention he needed.

At the time, Florida, who holds an urban planning doctorate from Columbia University, had five sleep-inducing academic book titles to his credit as editor or writer. But his new book, written while he was teaching at Carnegie Mellon University, was something different — a narrative, partly inspired by his job in Pittsburgh, of watching very talented young software coders grab their degrees and beat a path out of town.

Glastris, 17 years later, remembers taking the book along with him on a vacation and feeling a rush of excitement as he turned its pages. “Remember, back then, cities were dying,” he says. “Business had left. Residents had left. And no one had any answers.”

Florida, he said, made a conceptually simple — and innovative — observation: that new economic forces had come into play, and cities were uniquely positioned to take advantage.

Glastris arranged to excerpt the book, a labor he says took 10 days of spooling a 6,000-word article from its 400-plus pages. “It was a line here, a paragraph there, and putting them together,” he says, “because the argument Richard was laying out was so finely marbled throughout the book, I couldn’t just print a chapter.”

The excerpt generated a “huge response,” says Glastris, sending the book rocketing up best-seller lists. Florida stepped into the limelight like Elton John taking to the piano. He founded a consulting group to work with city leaders and businesses on how to attract members of the Creative Class, traveling the world from Dublin to Detroit. He commanded highly publicized fees of $35K for a single speech and landed himself a lucrative $350,000-plus-per-year professorship at the University of Toronto and an illustrious post as editor of Atlantic Cities, the urbanist wing of the esteemed Atlantic magazine that’s now called CityLab.

Referred to as a “guru” and “preacher,” Florida saw his Good Book adopted even in small hovels like Scranton — the Pennsylvania Podunk immortalized in The Office — as they, too, sought salvation. And for a while, the media swooned: Florida’s high cheekbones, strong jaw, hipster eyeglasses and form-fitting suits signaled that he wasn’t just an observer of the Creative Class. He was its leading member.

Looking back, there were passages, right there in his best-seller, that presented Florida as alarmingly out-of-touch and elitist. “The person who cuts my hair is a very creative stylist, much in demand, and drives a new BMW. … The woman who cleans my house is a gem: I trust her not only to clean but to rearrange and suggest ideas for redecorating; she takes on these things in an entrepreneurial manner. Her husband drives a Porsche.”

He argued, via anecdote, that somehow the wealth and creativity of the Creative Class was shared by the “lower classes” — indeed, that some sort of “trickle-down” effect was already happening. But how many housekeepers in the world have ready access to a Porsche?

More substantively, the solution he presented ignored or glossed over the depth of city problems. The 17-page index to The Rise of the Creative Class lists the word “bohemian” on dozens of pages, for instance, while “crime” and “poverty” don’t appear at all. According to P.E. Moskowitz, author of How to Kill a City, Florida got over largely because he found a powerful core constituency. “He told city leaders and developers what they wanted to hear,” says Moskowitz. “Building bike paths, repurposing old industrial buildings to attract people with money — what city leader would not want that?”

Evidence for the thesis that Florida designed a recipe for the palettes of the powerful comes from cities like New York, San Francisco and, yes, even Philadelphia, where hooks were already being baited for the wealthy. Here, in 1992, mayor Ed Rendell had invested heavily in arts, culture and parks — a full decade before Florida published The Rise of the Creative Class.

Florida spotted this trend (though he thought of Philly as “just okay” in 2002) and encouraged its pursuit. And of course, it did work, to a point. Avocado toast, we should point out, is delicious. And Rendell’s efforts filled this city’s sails with a new puff of pride, leading to all the good that has happened since — and hasn’t: the poor schools, high crime, poverty, a struggling middle class. And Richard Florida, along the way, assumed a downward trajectory — from renowned to reviled.

“People really hate him,” says Glastris, the editor at Washington Monthly. “I tell them, ‘That is such a vacuous reading of his work.’ And these are people in the field, sometimes, who I really admire. But they just spit this venom about him.”

Florida’s ideas have been called “hucksterish” and “snake oil.” His response was a book, The New Urban Crisis, that reads like a milestone: a well-known author and thinker apologizing for past mistakes and presenting the working-class kid, finally ready to fulfill his original intention.

The idea to bring Florida here was born in 2017, when John Fry heard him, at a Philadelphia event, promoting his new book.

By Florida’s own account, the cheerleader of the Creative Class had soured. “Much more than a crisis of cities,” he writes in putting forth the thesis of this book, “the New Urban Crisis is the central crisis of our time … a crisis of the suburbs, of urbanization itself, and of contemporary capitalism writ large.”

For Fry, the change in Florida dovetailed with his own concerns. Drexel and all of University City had grown, connecting West Philly to Center City. Yet too much of the population saw too little benefit. He approached Florida after his talk, and the fellowship grew out of that conversation. Florida notes that he can’t possibly “save” any city, since he holds no power. But his celebrity does allow him to drive conversation far outside academia. “I do have a platform,” he says, “and I intend to use it.”

The temptation is to talk about Florida’s “transformation.” He even uses the word sometimes himself, and admits, in New Urban Crisis, that his critics helped push him to a new position, “causing me to reframe my ideas about cities and the forces that act on them. … I realized I had been overly optimistic to believe that cities and the creative class could, by themselves, bring forth a better and more inclusive kind of urbanism.”

New Urban Crisis, in other words, reads like a mea culpa. And in its wake, Florida’s critics claimed victory — calling his subsequent promotional efforts an apology tour. But any narrative placing Florida in Philly to atone for past sins is challenged by one important fact: He isn’t apologizing. “I’m the same guy I have always been,” he says flatly, “with the same motivations, and I have nothing to apologize for.”

There’s an inherent contradiction here, a tension that begs for a clear-eyed interpretation. Perhaps Florida is simply trying to appease his critics and still maintain a reputation for wisdom? But he might also refuse to flat-out apologize because there are parts of this that he got right.

Tom Murphy, a fellow at the Urban Land Institute — a nonprofit research institute on land use — and the former mayor of Pittsburgh, points to the good accomplished. “When his book came out, we were questioning how cities would survive,” he says. “Today, the problem is, how do we bring more residents along in this growth we’re experiencing? Which problem do you think I, as a city mayor, would rather have?”

Florida, though, mounts a different defense: Yes, his critics influenced his thinking, but no, his new work doesn’t reject his past. Instead, he calls it a “natural evolution” and points to his publications as proof: long writings on issues like inequality, hidden in plain sight.

He offers, first, an article that ran in Glastris’s Washington Monthly and used unpublished material he’d originally intended for his best-seller. The article, published in 2003, as Creative Class was dominating conversation, took a far darker turn, noting that cities ranking highest in creative economic strength also ranked highest in income inequality. The trend, he warned, pointed toward an ever-widening blue-and-red-state divide — a pattern of “uneven regional development not seen since the Civil War. … The political implications could be dire.”

Today, of course, this 16-year-old article looks shockingly prescient. And he mines the same territory in other work. “It’s a sad irony,” he writes in The Flight of the Creative Class, the far less well-read follow-up to his hit. “America’s creative economy sparked a demographic shift and a political polarization,” as talent and money clustered in particular areas. As a result, the “stabilizing center of American politics has all but disappeared,” and our national cohesion is under threat.

Florida had perceived the inequality exacerbated by the creative economy — how legions of well-paid knowledge workers would want, even require, a legion of comparatively low-paid service workers to attend to them. And he’d foreseen how the knowledge economy was driving us apart in cultural and political terms. More than that, he’d put it all in print. But few paid much attention, and in this, Florida again looks something like a rock star — forever defined, in the minds of fans and critics, by that first big album.

This view, if charitable, doesn’t absolve him of all blame. The author of Creative Class, the founder of the Creative Class Group — his consulting arm — kept playing his hit.

This fuller reading of his work does accomplish something, though, establishing that Florida did perceive the basic trend lines that would come to define American life. And today, he might be in perfect position to help this city.

Florida’s year-long fellowship being an academic exercise, it will conclude with a report, which he’ll give a public airing in October, during a third and final scheduled Drexel talk. Expecting a litany of specific policy ideas would be foolish. “If I have a talent,” says Florida, “it’s for using data from various sources to perceive what the trend lines are and creating a narrative to explain where things are headed.”

The question is whether Florida can point the way toward another, broader transformation — for this city and, by extension, perhaps his own reputation. His audience here figures to be receptive, to a point. “This conversation about equitable growth, where everyone benefits,” says Luis Cortés, the CEO of Esperanza, an organization with a mission to help strengthen Latino communities, “has gotten pretty serious around here recently.”

Cortés, who serves on numerous corporate boards, including the Chamber of Commerce, says he is engaging in talks with fellow civic leaders that would have been unthinkable just a few years ago: How do we grow the middle class? How do we help people in the service class achieve a better quality of life? “There is a long way to go,” says Cortés, “but at least the right questions are starting to be asked.”

Problem is, though, Philadelphia is still in what might be called Creative Class mode, attracting new residents and development at the expense of city residents. The growth in neighborhoods like Grad Hospital and Point Breeze is built on tax abatement policies for new construction and rehabs, while longtime homeowners foot the bill. It’s a topic expected to be debated in Philly’s City Council this fall. And the King of the Creative Class is ready to speak up for the middle-class and impoverished.

“Cities should stop this,” he says, “and not just Philadelphia. Part of me can understand why these incentives were used when cities were down and scrambling to attract business and people. But places like Philly do not need to do this anymore. … Tax dollars should go to those in need.”

He also expresses both sympathy and appreciation for an idea Cortés touts: an effort through zoning and abatements to ensure the presence of housing at a variety of income levels, to keep neighborhoods economically and culturally mixed. “I think programs like that are very possible in Philadelphia,” says Florida, “and that is one of the reasons why I am so excited to be here, to help pioneer that new model.”

Clearly, the core constituency for Florida’s work is shifting, and there’s more: He is, understandably, cagey about revealing the contents of his coming report before his funders, including Drexel, actually publish it, but he acknowledges that some of it could easily be guessed. In fact, there’s one aspect of his report that he’s written about in the past and even broached already in his onstage conversation with Fry.

Service workers, he told the Drexel president, should be paid higher wages, creating stable employment and home lives for employees.

Social activists have sounded increased calls for a rise in pay for the service class, and Philly voters recently approved a ballot measure saying they favor an increase in the minimum wage. For Florida, this call has biographical roots. His father and family were machinists and factory workers, he told me, when factory work was barely sustaining — the service work of its time. Wages were so low that his dad dropped out of school in the seventh grade to keep his family afloat. Then FDR, the New Deal, WWII and unions happened.

“I remember what my dad told me,” says Florida. “He said, ‘As if by magic,’ the same job he did before the war now paid enough for him to buy his own home and raise a family.”

In strictly economic terms, says Florida, there was no reason for factory work to grow more lucrative. There was no shortage of workers, or greater demand for labor. “It was will,” says Florida.

Unions and workers, he says, simply demanded better pay, safer working conditions, and more equitable treatment, and political and corporate powers acceded.

“There is nothing,” says Florida, “to stop us from doing that for service workers right now.”

In May, he put Fry on notice, telling him he intends his report to be “tough on anchor institutions” like Drexel, exhorting them to begin paying their service workers accordingly. “I’m planning to include that call for anchor institutions to lead the way and raise the status of service work in my report,” says Florida, “but I do not know how any of the institutions responsible for my fellowship plan to react.”

There might, perhaps, be some reason for Florida to shy from causing too great a stir. He hinted, during our interviews, that his involvement with Philly might not end with his fellowship. What future form it might take, however, is unclear. And a call to elevate service work to the same status as a factory job will surely not win him many admirers in the business community. But he has no intention of “backing off,” as he puts it, saying, “How could I?”

Florida’s influence appears to be ticking up again. In July, Denver mayor Michael Hancock told a crowd of business leaders that following up on his move to a $15-per-hour minimum wage for city workers, he’ll explore extending the minimum wage to all employees in the city. He announced he’d work with the city council there to craft legislation in that regard and later said the academic foundation for these pay raises was laid in part through conversations he’s been having with Richard Florida.

But the struggle to effect that kind of change is real. Consider Councilman Allan Domb, for instance, who holds a stated goal of elevating 100,000 city residents out of poverty and says he’s “always felt the minimum wage should be directly tied to inflation.” Yet even he expresses caution about, you know, actually doing it. “I’d hate to force it on businesses,” he says, “and possibly see some jobs go fleeing across the river.” Emily Storz, a Drexel University spokesperson, listened to my request to interview Fry on the subject, then ultimately passed along a statement from Fry, including the affectionate if noncommittal: “Drexel would love to continue this work with Richard.”

Does it feel strange for Florida to be in this new position with city and civic leaders? The working-class kid delivering a message, this time, that the powerful don’t want to hear? Surely he never generated meaningful pushback or anger from the moneyed when he suggested building great bike paths.

Florida, considering this question, laughs, then sighs. “I know my critics say that the things I called for before were easy,” he says. “And I don’t agree with that. But I will say that what I am doing now is hard. It’s very, very hard.”

Published as “What Kind of City Will Philly Be?” in the October 2019 issue of Philadelphia magazine.