June 29th, 2005


From ghetto to ghetto

Yesterday I regaled you with a relatively dilettantish complaint about America: that the world's richest country contains some surprisingly poor textures. I wrote that piece very much in the role of a privileged international creative nomad, the kind of person Richard Florida describes in his new book The Flight of the Creative Class: The New Global Competition for Talent. Florida's thesis is that America's recent rightward swing—bringing with it hostility to intellectuals, gays, foreigners, widening income divide, social conservatism—endangers the single most important source of U.S. power: its ability to attract global talent. But Florida doesn't just blame the neocons for their neglect of both the metropolitan cultural elites and the poor. He also points a finger of blame at the bunker mentality of the "creative class" itself — a class he estimates constitutes about 30% of the workforce, yet which is able to accumulate a disproportionate share of wages and wealth. America's recent denigration of these people has done nothing to diminish their power: everything is going their way. But it may have distributed them around the world a bit: now, rather than being concentrated in New York and San Francisco, these people are as likely to be found in Bangalore, Melbourne, Madrid.

Wealth-creating hotspots like these have become growth areas thanks to creative workers: scientists, engineers, arts and culture workers, entertainers, writers. Meanwhile, people who live by selling their physical labour, or work in service industries, are seeing their income decline and their surroundings deteriorate. Florida sees the rightward swing in America as a vote fuelled by class resentment, as the red staters vote against their own economic interests to punish the hated blue state metrosexuals, the ones who seem to be profiting from the new creatively-oriented economic template of advanced capitalism. "On average," says Florida, "people who work in the creative sector of the economy make double people in the manufacturing, triple people in the service sector."

If yesterday's dilettantish question was "Why does the richest country in the world have some of the poorest textures?", today's is a much bigger one: "Why does the richest country in the world have some of the poorest people?" Why is inequality increasing? Are creative knowledge workers partly to blame? (They're often blamed for adding value, and therefore pushing up rents, in the poor areas they colonize.) In an interesting interview in The Tyee magazine, Florida outlines his vision of a world whose economy is driven by knowledge and culture workers operating in "creative ghettos linked by capital, creating almost an alternative universe":

"The world of globally connected nomads is made up of my 150 million members of the creative class — that's only in 45 countries that we looked at. Okay, how many people are there in the world? How many billion? So the people participating at the forefront of this are maybe less than 10 percent of the world's population. That's where the real issue is." The challenge and the promise for the future, thinks Florida, is to make as many people as possible part of the creative class, to call forth untapped potential and share the rewards creativity brings. (Sometimes Florida sounds a bit like Josef Beuys, who said "everyone is an artist".)

Now I'm almost a parody of the kind of creative nomad Florida describes. I trot from one "creative ghetto" to another, comparing notes. I write design journalism, make pop records, sit in an art gallery gabbling away, demonstrating my amazing fluency, my ability to improvize. I work in the "creative ghetto" Florida describes. But the other side of the coin is that I'm tremendously poor myself. The other kind of "ghetto", the poor, racially monolithic one, is also a part of my daily experience. It's where I'm living right now.

I'm staying in Harlem. Every night I take the subway home from the gallery and see the white faces disappear from the train one by one as the "elevator" rises above Central Park, above the city's 110th floor. Soon I'm the only non-black left. Last night I sat opposite a solitary, fierce-looking man listening to an iPod, rapping along loudly to the lyrics he was hearing. It sounded like he was improvising and adding a few of his own. I changed at 125th Street, and on the platform stood next to a deranged homeless man uttering a Tourette's litany concerning money, fucking this and that, "them", the station manager, and time. It sounded angry one minute, hysterically funny (at least to him) the next. I felt a mixture of things. First of all, personally insecure, unsafe. Even in the middle of the day here I have gangs of marauding unemployed youths shouting after me "Hey, yo! Hey, YO! HEY YO!" I don't want to feel like I'm living in Resident Evil or Grand Theft Auto, especially when I'm carrying the most valuable thing I own, my iBook, in my bag. I stayed here in 2003 too, and was chased down the street by kids on BMX bikes. It was a terrifying experience. Why can't I feel as safe here as I feel in Tokyo? I want there to be a flatness to the society I'm in, a gentleness, a sense of safety and inclusion which allows everyone to move around feeling playful and experimental, not cagey, cautious or just plain scared. Is that really such a utopian scenario, is it terribly spoilt and unrealistic of me to want that, even in America?

Little changes, changes in context, can make a huge difference. Even while I'm reacting with insecurity, I'm also aware that the man rapping along to his iPod and the man mumbling on the platform are doing something essentially similar to what I do every day in the gallery. We're all doing what Ornette Coleman and Thelonious Monk also did: improvising, creating something out of nothing. It would be nice to say that the only difference is that I'm doing it for money and they aren't, but it's not true: nothing in the gallery is for sale, I'm also improvising for nothing, and I'm sure I have as little money on my person as the Harlemites, and pay a similar rent on my apartment. The big difference is really just context, and my feeling that, although poor, I'm very much included in some kind of global creative class. If I wanted I could hustle for work and earn quite a bit because of my "cultural capital". I could take my place in a metropolitan bourgeoisie of some kind, in some city, some "creative ghetto" rather than be dossing on someone's couch here in Harlem. That option isn't available to the people I see on the street. I wonder what it would be like, the world in which they could be part of that other ghetto, and therefore make both ghettos erase each other?

It certainly wouldn't be a world led by George W. Bush. I see no policies forthcoming from the current US administration, and no mood evident in the US population, that suggest that the widening class gap is going to be narrowed any time soon, nor the "spikes" of inequality flattened. The two ghettos, the privileged and increasingly affluent creative one and the non-metaphorical, depressed and increasingly dangerous one, will continue to follow different courses. The polarity, the class gap (and with it life expectancy, health and lifestyle outcomes) will keep widening. But it's increasingly clear to me that we can't be individually secure unless everyone is secure, we can't feel free until everyone feels free, and we can't feel safe until everyone feels safe. It's going to be a lot better to be a creator when everyone is a creator. The evidence of that potential is everywhere, even in the scariest places. Even those Resident Evil moments on the subway platform might, in another context, be the most amazing piano improvisation, just as my gallery performance might, in another context, be murder.