The Nation's Pulse

The Egotists

Saving our cities means never having to think about anyone else.

By 7.7.09

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We have "the conversation" every couple of days, the how-to-save-our-city discussion. Standing on the diverse, inner-city street on which my "reluctant socialist" girlfriend lives, we watch as earnest neo-bohemians transform a squalid commercial district into something so hip most people have never even heard of it. The excitement is palpable, but my girlfriend is ambivalent. There is, after all, such a thing as too much kitsch, too many chic coffeehouses featuring exotic shade-grown organic coffees. We haven't reached that point, she says. There are still plenty of immigrant businesses and boarded up storefronts, but we both know where this is going.

Take a peek behind the boarded up storefronts and the plywood Spanish-language signs and you stumble upon traces of a former grandeur. Few, if any, of the neighbors remember a time when the strip was home to department stores, bakeries, groceries, barber shops, shoe stores, tailors, jewelers, and confectioneries -- when a palatial dance hall, a bowling alley and a roller skating rink all stood within strolling distance. The turn-of-the-century tradesmen and merchants who built this neighborhood saw to it that it housed everything a city-dweller could want, all within a two or three block radius.

By the 1960s and '70s, however, the suburbs called, and the merchants closed up shop en masse. In their wake came first-generation immigrants from Latin America and Asia, followed in rapid succession by rent-to-own and check cashing operators who cater to (some might say prey upon) low-income people. And the ornate, Spanish renaissance-style Cinderella Theater, one of many local neighborhood theaters, became home to a dingy Mexican restaurant and an income tax shop.

Nearly all of the neighborhood's current residents arrived after the late 1970s, when the strip already resembled a war zone with lots of nighttime gunfire, but little worth fighting for. Besides the half dozen Hispanic shopkeepers and restaurateurs, today's new entrepreneurs are in the main gays, lesbians, neo-bohemians and artists, who together form loose associations helpful in founding quirky businesses and co-ops that cater to people much like themselves: young, hip, educated, and childless.

These are Richard Florida's children. Florida, author of several hit books about the so-called creative class, is the poster boy for urban regeneration, but regeneration with a difference. After all, one more volume that suggests American cities need to invest in education and training would be about as welcome as another phone book. Florida's innovation in thought was to identify what he calls the "bohemian effect": that in order to thrive a city needed a certain percentage of creative people, and that cities that want to be successful will do all they can to attract and retain them. According to Florida, the way ahead is not by mending the unfixable public schools or even by strengthening the family. Rather the city's salvation requires attracting flamboyant gays, neo-bohemians, and eccentric artists with liberal arts degrees and lots of tattoos. People who would be anathema in the suburbs. It seemed to make sense. Unlike solid upper and middle class businessmen, creative types were willing to go into these often dangerous, but quaint old neighborhoods, and roll up their sleeves and make something fun and interesting come out of it. Sure, immigrants and minorities were willing to work too. They just weren't very fun or interesting.

Those readers who are also parents may not be surprised by what happened next. Recently some of Florida's children have begun to rebel. In fact, more and more of Florida's one-time pupils now regard their former master as the Godfather of Gentrification, an elitist with no use for Ordinary Joes: plumbers, barbers, sandpaper salesmen, folks who maybe didn't earn a BA in environmental studies from Sweet Briar.

In a recent interview with the Toronto Star Florida fired back, defending his championing of creative work to the exclusion of ordinary jobs: "Those are the equivalent of the point-of-entry jobs my dad had, in a factory. And those jobs pay horribly. They're horribly insecure." Any fan of Tom Wolfe knows that elitism knows no political stripe; perhaps what's surprising is that the Left is finally calling itself on it.

IT'S HARD NOT to be excited about the transformation of the nearby strip. Every month or two finds a new record shop, yoga studio, ethnic restaurant, or coffeehouse so cool you can imagine Jeff Tweedy stopping by for a cup. We walk past a shop called Cranky Yellow. Here is a fine example of the creative class at its most inane: a shop that sells "kitschy crap glued to other crap." Cool, yes, but one wonders what the neighbors -- mostly frazzled single-mothers, some working multiple jobs, some not working at all -- think of Cranky Yellow and the printing coop next door, and the numerous art galleries. Likely they wonder when these strange-looking young folks are going to open something useful like a Laundromat, an auto repair shop, a bank or a grocery where everyone can afford to shop. Meanwhile I am left to wonder whether the real focus of this ultra-liberal creative class, with its community gardens and its locally grown produce co-ops and its grandiose idea of itself as urban savior -- is really the city and the common good -- or just its own artsy enclave.

My girlfriend tells me she is all about balance. She favors a more "holistic" neighborhood, with equal parts poor, working class, immigrant, minority, and bohemian. She worries about gentrification. To me that seems unlikely. There are only so many neo-bohemians and gays, and most have already settled in the already regenerated neighborhoods -- those near to parks, and those with the quaintest architecture. Besides the city will soon reach maximum occupancy for florists and other creative types. Perhaps at that point our urban gurus will finally pay attention to the plain people, and not just when they need an oil change or their pipes flushed.

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About the Author
Christopher Orlet writes from St. Louis.