So Hipsters Aren't the Economic Boon Some Urbanists Thought They'd Be

Remember how the creative class of writers, artists, urban cheesemongers, professional tricyclists, novelty button manufacturers, food truckers, and artisan mustache-growers was supposed to supplant crumbling blue collar industries in economically stagnant cities? Remember? Well, according to Richard Florida, the editor-at-large for The Atlantic Cities, the creative class was totally going to work all those miracles, propping up cities like Detroit and Cleveland with pale, keyboard-cramped hands. It's just that, um, well, that's not at all what has happened.

Joel Kotkin, one of Florida's sternest critics, sounded off (a little too gleefully) on the creative class's many economic failures today in the Daily Beast. It's been a trendy line of thinking over the last couple of years among urbanists, journalists, and academics, explains Kotkin, that an influx of "hip" young residents into urban areas would benefit those areas. The new arrivals would help build wonderful little independent bookstores, coffee shops, and tapas restaurants. Everyone would prosper as a result of such glittering monuments to urban hipsterdom — property values would go up, downtrodden blue collar workers would be enlightened, and there would be locally sourced produce for everyone.

The only hitch in all this optimism, as Kotkin notes here and others like Tulane sociologist Richard Campanella have have noted elsewhere, is that all these wonderful new creative class businesses benefit only one group of people: members of the creative class. In his thesis about the rise of urban creatives, Florida pointed to cities like San Francisco and Seattle as bastions of highly-educated, creative residents. With just a few more bike lanes and liberal arts majors, El Paso, for instance, could become a bustling hub of creative activity and not merely a glorified urban hipster playground.

So much faith was placed in the hands of the creative class that the Florida's Creative Class Group cultivated a client list of cities ready and willing to spend the money necessary to make themselves over in the image of cities like Portland and Austin. Here's what happened with that:

Alec MacGillis, writing at The American Prospect in 2009, noted that after collecting large fees from down-at-the-heels burgs like Cleveland, Toledo, Hartford, Rochester, and Elmira, New York over the years, Florida himself asserted that we can't "stop the decline of some places" and urged the country to focus instead on his high-ranked "creative" enclaves. "So, got that, Rust Belt denizens?" MacGillis noted wryly in a follow-up story last year at the New Republic. Pack your bags for Boulder and Raleigh-Durham and Fairfax County. Oh, and thanks again for the check."

And what does a newly hipsterfied city end up looking like? Well...

For Rust Belt cities, notes Cleveland's Richey Piiparinen, following the "creative class" meme has not only meant wasted money, but wasted effort and misdirection. Burning money trying to become "cooler" ends up looking something like the metropolitan equivalent to a midlife crisis.

At times Kotkin can be pretty dismissive of the sort of generically and passively progressive creatures that comprise the creative class — young, usually single, and hungering for a cool district to settle down while they work through the 20-something angst. Their service-based hipster enclaves underperform economically, and have little, says urban thinker Aaron Renn, "in the way of coattails." In other words, the creative class produces so little, that no crumbs fall from their table — there's barely enough for them. Moreover, though such creatives certainly espouse diversity and political correctness, they also, as Campanella noted in his excellent demographic study of New Orleans' Bywater neighborhood, function as the first wave of gentrification. Campanella describes a four-phase process of gentrification, beginning with a pioneering group of (in New Olreans) so-called "gutter-punks" and continuing all the way to the arrival of high-income professionals:

The frontiers of gentrification are "pioneered" by certain social cohorts who settle sequentially, usually over a period of five to twenty years. The four-phase cycle often begins with-forgive my tongue-in-cheek use of vernacular stereotypes: (1) "gutter punks" (their term), young transients with troubled backgrounds who bitterly reject societal norms and settle, squatter-like, in the roughest neighborhoods bordering bohemian or tourist districts, where they busk or beg in tattered attire.

On their unshod heels come (2) hipsters, who, also fixated upon dissing the mainstream but better educated and obsessively self-aware, see these punk-infused neighborhoods as bastions of coolness.

Their presence generates a certain funky vibe that appeals to the third phase of the gentrification sequence: (3) "bourgeois bohemians," to use David Brooks' term. Free-spirited but well-educated and willing to strike a bargain with middle-class normalcy, this group is skillfully employed, buys old houses and lovingly restores them, engages tirelessly in civic affairs, and can reliably be found at the Saturday morning farmers' market. Usually childless, they often convert doubles to singles, which removes rentable housing stock from the neighborhood even as property values rise and lower-class renters find themselves priced out their own neighborhoods. (Gentrification in New Orleans tends to be more house-based than in northeastern cities, where renovated industrial or commercial buildings dominate the transformation).

After the area attains full-blown "revived" status, the final cohort arrives: (4) bona fide gentry, including lawyers, doctors, moneyed retirees, and alpha-professionals from places like Manhattan or San Francisco. Real estate agents and developers are involved at every phase transition, sometimes leading, sometimes following, always profiting.

This is the reality of the what a rise in a creative class does to a city, a reality that proves inconvenient for many hipsters and millennials whose value system is at odds with the idea of gentrification and, what incensed New Orleans writer Jules Bentley, criticizing the city's burgeoning food truck culture, described earlier this month in terms of hipster colonization. His rant is worth reading in its entirety even if you don't know much about current New Orleans demographics because of little gems like these:

Blitzkrieg cultural imperialism allows previously under-Instagrammed areas of our city to fulfill their potential as playgrounds for the rich without the headaches of investment or community engagement. Never mind having a Starbucks on every corner-when your favorite high-concept boutique eateries can chase you around on wheels, you can go absolutely anywhere and still get the same $12 bacon and wheatgrass smoothie.

There's a lot of anger in that paragraph, but there's also strong ray of righteous truth — the privileged 20-somethings of this country are imposing an ironic brand of cultural homogeneity on the "authentic" urban neighborhoods they flock to.

Richard Florida Concedes the Limits of the Creative Class [TDB]