By Alan Prendergast
By Michael Roberts
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The last time Richard Florida came to town, to speak to a ballroom full of business types about his book, The Rise of the Creative Class, John Hickenlooper seemed like just another one of those business types -- although not quite as well dressed. And while he'd rubbed ill-clad elbows with movers and shakers on numerous boards, including that of the Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce, this city's captains of industry weren't paying much attention to Hickenlooper's talk of running for mayor. The big money -- with a rumored $800,000 already committed early last fall -- was on Ari Zavaras moving in when Wellington Webb left office in July.
It would be business as usual.
Even if the business-as-usual model became obsolete years ago. That's one of the lessons of The Rise of the Creative Class, whose astounding success has turned Florida -- a policy-wonk professor at Carnegie Mellon University -- into an economic rock star, this generation's Megatrendy eco-devo guru. During his talk here last October 25, Florida explained that creativity is now the driving force behind the economy. And that creativity comes from people -- people who today look for a place, not a company, to which they can belong.
"Cities need a people climate more than they need a business climate," Florida says. They need technology, but they also need talent and tolerance. In his book, he describes three kinds of high-tech communities: the "nerdistans" of the Silicon Valley; "latte towns" like Boulder, "with plentiful outdoor amenities"; and older urban areas whose rebirth is "fueled by a combination of creativity and lifestyle amenities." Leading creative centers have all three types. Leading creative centers like Boston, San Francisco, Austin and, yes, Denver: "The Denver region combines the university and lifestyle assets of Boulder with abundant skiing and the urban character of its LoDo district."
Florida experienced some of that character firsthand when Terri Taylor, membership manager of the Denver Partnership, sponsor of his October visit here, took him on a tour of LoDo hot spots. They dropped by Lime, Mynt, the Purple Martini and the bar at the Magnolia Hotel, where Florida was staying. "It was a Thursday night, and all the places were packed," she remembers. "He loved LoDo."
He returned to LoDo after his talk the next morning, joining a few select people -- including one John Hickenlooper -- for lunch. Florida talked more about his ideas, and Hickenlooper talked about some of his, including this odd notion he had of running for mayor. And then Florida was on to the next talk in the next town desperate to grab a piece of creative class.
By "creative class," he doesn't mean beret-wearing poets who sit in coffeehouses jotting free verse in their journals. The "creative class," Florida writes, "is a fast-growing, highly educated and well-paid segment of the workforce on whose efforts corporate profits and economic growth increasingly depend. Members of the creative class do a wide variety of work in a wide variety of industries -- from technology to entertainment, journalism to finance, high-end manufacturing to the arts. They do not consciously think of themselves as a class. Yet they share a common ethos that values creativity, individuality, difference, and merit." And they're currently responsible for 50 percent of this country's economic pie.
Two weeks ago, Florida was in his home town of Pittsburgh, talking to a convention of newspaper publishers and editors. Wearing flip-flops and jeans -- how creative is that? -- he assured his audience that he'd be in a suit the next day, when he was scheduled to address the U.S. Conference of Mayors at their confab in Denver. But right now he was back, however briefly, in the city where he'd discovered his theory of the creative class. It was a discovery made the hard way -- when Lycos, the software company he'd helped to create as part of a Pittsburgh business incubator, up and moved to Boston. Because that's where the people were. People were no longer going where the jobs were. The jobs were going to the people.
Since this was a convention of alternative-newspaper publishers and editors -- the sort who have to dress up for casual Friday (another corporate accommodation of the creative class) -- Florida's talk veered slightly from his standard spiel. Veered over to Washington, D.C., where thinking is far from creative. The 1990s were the 1920s all over again, he said. And the 2000s? "Welcome to the 1930s -- except the guy in the White House is not nearly as smart as Herbert Hoover."
Okay, said one audience member. So did he see any reason to be optimistic politically?
"There's a ray of hope in Denver," Florida responded. Just that week, one "John Hinkenlooper" had been elected mayor -- by 64 percent of the vote -- on a campaign "built around these themes." On a campaign that encouraged creativity, not negativity. A campaign that raised the discussion rather than lowering it. A campaign that emphasized Denver as a place worth protecting, worth celebrating.
Forget all the other theories. Hickenlooper's victory was a triumph of the creative class, a group of people from all walks of life who share a "common ethos that values creativity, individuality, difference, and merit." That values a town where people can start a software company. Or a newspaper. Or an art gallery. Or a brewpub. Hickenlooper's win was the inevitable outcome of all the changes Denver has seen over the past few decades, as people came to a place where they felt free to do what they wanted to do, to create a city where talent and tolerance -- "creativity is the great equalizer," Florida says -- were rewarded.