19 June 2012

"I found work in a dusty tomb of a book­store, doing data entry with cowork­ers who com­plained about their neu­ro­log­i­cal dis­or­ders, or who told me about the mag­i­cal crea­tures they saw on their way home, and who kept web­sites depict­ing them­selves as minotaurs."

-There's a lot to unpack in this sentence from Frank Bures' "The Fall of the Creative Class," about Richard Florida and the fallacy of picking a place based on external rankings of any kind. To summarize, Bures (a freelance writer) and his wife moved to Madison, Wisconsin, from Portland (OR), expecting to find a liberal oasis full of creative people they could connect with while they settled down to start a family. They didn't feel like they fit in, and then they moved to Minneapolis. His argument that this is Florida's fault for producing a faulty thesis, upon which he once placed undue weight, is a little shortsighted.

However, there is a larger truth to Bures' flight pattern in this piece, about the expectations that people bring to moves like this and even jobs like that. Clearly, by working at a bookstore Bures expected to meet kindred souls, and instead found the same weird people who work at any job. But this isn't a crazy expectation; it's the same one I have while leaving a bookstore and thinking "it must be so great to work here!" It's an idealization of a trade of ideas (in book form); for others, maybe the idea of owning a bookstore is the shining thing. On one hand we might say, "Well, Bures is lucky, at least there are still brick-and-mortar bookstores in Madison." But he didn't go there just because of those.

Same goes for Madison (a city I have never lived in, but has been very nice on my brief visits). Bures and his wife idealized the image of the "Creative Class" to the extent that they expected -- and I'm not blaming them here -- to burrow into it immediately on arrival. When that didn't happen, and their neighbors were not so friendly, and their jobs weren't so stirring, they withdrew from their new hometown and began to doubt. (I related to this, having gone through something similar for about six or seven months here in New York, but solved it in a different way.) The gap between the infrastructure of culture and the real people who live in it broadens at the point where Bures and his wife base their next move on "cheap hous­ing, jobs, fam­ily and friends," rather than points of public transit and the arts -- and even then, it's "not perfect," and after four years it has only "begun to feel like" a good match, but this is considered better.

It's not Madison's fault that Bures never found the "Creative Class" he was looking for, but neither is it Florida's, really. He may have misattributed the driver of the city's economic power, but in the end, the hard lesson is that the bookstore job is still a job, the search for community and like minds is still a search, and "creativity" is largely homegrown. If you aren't the type just to grow where you were planted, sometimes you have to refertilize the ground around you to make things come up.

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