Leaving Austin Essay: So Long and Thanks for All the Foobars

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4. Delusions of the Creative Class

By Robert Nagle, October 2003
Summary: Part 4 of this essay looks at Richard Florida's vision of a city and asks whether Austin succeeds in placating its creative class.

Seven months later I returned to Austin for the annual South by Southwest Interactive conference. This time I no longer reeked of unemployment or felt compelled to "get my money's worth" by loading up on hors d'oeuvres. I was a visitor, a tourist, a gawker. I made smalltalk with other employed geeks about Austin's coolness and past unemployment woes (these woes can be viewed with hilarity given enough time). I soaked up Austin's unique blend of the intellectual and the artistic, bumping into musicians, dancers, actors, hackers, comic book writers, adult performers, game developers, filmmakers, writers, historians and computer scientists.

Oh, it's fun to talk about Austin's "creative class" (to use Richard Florida's terminology), but I couldn't help noticing the people in the sidelines: the people who worked at MacDonald's and convenience stores and 6th Street Clubs, the Mexicans who did the landscape work in scorching midafternoon sun, the service workers who manned the hotel lobbies, the security guards who watched the tourists come and go. "How do these people survive here?" I asked (as someone already "beaten" by Austin). There is a tendency to romanticize the quirky Austin underclass (the kind that hangs around on Lamar to accost passersby with strange questions, or plays the violin for tips at 6th Street after midnight). Far less visible to the observer is the service worker who commutes 45 minutes via carpool or bus for wages that would barely sustain a UT student's DVD collection. The homeless people who stand at the intersections of Mopac frontage roads are not charming. The signs they carry are not written by bohemians or future novelists or punk band singers. The stares they give to passing motorists are not philosophical or full of daydreams. Before members of Austin's creative class bemoan the fluctuations of the economic cycle, they must remember that geeky creativity does not run the world, that rent checks and bags of groceries matter more to the down-and-out than the latest wireless gadget.

A newsgroup of disgruntled out-of-work Austinites once had a thread about how much easier it was to survive in Austin as a housepainter than as an IT person. Perhaps. In a sense, cities count on high-growth industries to turbocharge the rest of the local economy. So when high-growth industries fail (as the petroleum industry did in Houston in the early 1980's), everyone feels it. Longtime Austin residents view the carpetbaggers with mixed feelings. Their arrival was a sign of economic growth (and even a cause for envy among state workers tempted by the private sector). But it also changed Austin's flavor. Housing rates were skyrocketing (and that was good, wasn't it?--well, except for people looking to move here), traffic became worse, and newcomers trampled over Austin's idealistic traditions with crassness and luxury cars. Good riddance when they leave. Austin isn't supposed to be for everybody.

That was the paradox of Richard Florida's call for regions to spend time and money enticing the "creative class" to their cities. Not only was this vision of the city elitist, but it also hinged on creating perceptions rather than realities. When former Austin mayor Kirk Watson--truly a remarkable politician--introduced Florida at 2003 South by Southwest Interactive, he made clear that he had embraced Florida's ideas for his own vision of Austin. These ideas included cultivating a distinctive art community, creating tolerance for alternative lifestyles and facilitating partnerships between the "creative classes" and the private sector. An important part of this vision was persuading companies that Austin's cultural amenities ensured a perennial supply of young, highly-skilled workers.

It is a wondrous vision, and kudos for Watson and others for pursuing it. But can such a community sustain itself without raising the cost of living and alienating the very creative class it hopes to coddle? And if "creative communities" succeed in fostering risk-taking entrepreneurship, how does the city cope with the increased level of economic uncertainty and fear? Wait-- economic uncertainty had advantages, didn't it? At least residents stayed on their toes. But it also creates an atmosphere of transience, an inability to establish roots, a city where the number of people who used to live there far exceeds the number who still do.

Perhaps I exaggerate the "misfortune" of living in Austin. Once, a Silicon Valley transplant, hearing me complain about Austin's cost of living, laughed and said, "You think THIS is bad?" I guess it depends on where you last lived. According to Florida, labor moves to where the jobs are. But what makes people stay? People move to a city not only for a single job, but because they expect to find another job after that job disappears--and let's face it; almost all jobs will eventually move to some third world country or be replaced by technology. Even cashier jobs at MacDonalds will be replaced by touch-screen ordering kiosks. That's just the nature of economic efficiency.

There is another reason people stay in a place. People stay when they fall in love with a city (even if it is really only infatuation). But what price will you pay to prolong the romance? At what point does the determination to stay put (with accumulating debts) begin to resemble lunacy?

NEXT: 5. Houston--The Homely Mistress

Robert Nagle is a writer, creative geek and weblogger who lives in Houston, Texas. . Most recently he started a share the music weblog .

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