The Creative City
Hitchcock Lecture 2
Berkeley, 21 April 2015
Good afternoon. Yesterday, in the first part of what I suppose could be considered an investigation into the current challenges facing the city, I talked about what I called “The Generic City,” and while all was not doom and gloom, the point of the talk was, I will be the first to admit, a little downbeat. The forces of technology, for all the good they are doing us in so many ways, are also powerfully speeding up the homogenization of culture that has been a force in the world for some time, and which seems now to be unstoppable. How cities can retain, let alone create, a distinct identity when there is little incentive, other than tourism, to look and feel different, is an enormous challenge.
Today I want to talk about the other side of that coin, the more positive aspect of cities as they are evolving in the information and technology culture, which is the growing belief that cities, which since time immemorial have been incubators for creative ideas, are still where creative people seek to be. Not everyone, of course, believes this to be true. I recall reading a dialogue between Tom Peters and George Gilder in Forbes magazine on whether technology would mean an end to cities as we know them or would give them a continued future. Gilder saw no point to the old city, which he saw only as a tired relic of the industrial age; he celebrated the way in which electronic communication was rapidly making it, in his view, obsolete. You no longer have to be there, Gilder argued, so why would you want to? It’s dark, dirty, noisy, and crowded. Talk to everyone by e-mail and look out your window at trees. Much nicer, right?
Peters took a more measured, and ultimately wiser, view, pointing out that, as he put it, there is a “fundamental human dimension” of real contact that cannot happen on the Internet, and which real cities were designed to facilitate, and still do. “The richness, the exuberant variety of cities, is the fount of economic creativity and business growth,” Peters said. I agree with Peters, but I think it’s obvious that the nature of the city is changing, even if it is not, as Gilder predicted, becoming obsolete. The city is not economically necessary as it once was. Markets can function without it. No matter how much we may love cities, we cannot pretend that they are necessary for the transaction of business or the movement of capital as they once were. As the sociologist Saskia Sasseen has written, “The computerized workplace can be located anywhere: in a clerical ‘factory’ in the Bahamas or in a home in the suburbs. The growth of information industries has made it possible for outputs to be transmitted around the globe instantaneously. The globalization of economic activity suggests that place—particularly the kind of place represented by cities—no longer matters.”
But Sasseen went on to point out that this is not, in fact, what has happened. There is a paradox: the very forces that were supposed to eliminate the city have turned out to make at least some cities more important than ever. “National and global markets, as well as globally integrated operations, require central places where the work of globalization gets done,” she points out. Certain cities—New York, London, Hong Kong, Los Angeles, Tokyo, Sydney, Sao Paulo, Frankfurt, to name the major ones—are nodes in an international system that has made them critically important around the world, and has even given them a kind of identity that is distinct from that of the nations of which they are a part. They are global cities, more connected in many ways to each other than to the geographical regions that surround them.
So we could say that if cities are not economically necessary in the way that they were, they are economically necessary in a different way, a way that has only been enhanced, not diminished, by the technology of the 21st century. I think we could say this in another way as well, which is to say that cities are more entrenched in our culture than they were, say, 50 years ago. They are more culturally necessary than ever, and we can see that in the greater energy that is now present in the downtown centers of cities that come nowhere near belonging in the class of global financial centers. There is more going on in Boston and Chicago and Charlotte and Austin than there was a few years ago, even though these cities don’t qualify as belonging in the class of mega-international financial centers, transcending their own geographical regions.
By talking about the city as culturally necessary today, I mean something much more than that they are needed as places in which culture is housed, or consumed. Cities do provide a home for culture, yes, but I am not talking about the fact that they are where the ballet or the opera or the art museum choose to locate. I mean culture in the broadest sense, culture as meaning our ethos, our civilization, how we define ourselves. I think that cities feed the culture today; the idea of urbanism is itself, for many people, a cultural experience. The fact of being in the city is now, for many people, as satisfying and broadening a cultural experience as going to the theater or an art museum; a younger generation engages with the city in a different, and I think more participatory way, than their predecessors. It is not afraid of the city, since it knows primarily a city that is safe and prosperous, if less diverse than it once was. And for all kinds of reasons the generation under 40 is less inclined to see the city only as a place to work, as their parents or grandparents might have, and see it instead as a place to live and to play. If, that is, they can afford it. I will come back to this point in a moment—the increasing economic inequalities of the city, the way in which the city, by making so many things visible and manifest before our very eyes, inevitably places the national problem of income inequality in especially high relief. For now, however, let’s observe only that, as I just said, San Francisco and Boston and Chicago and Austin and Pittsburgh and Denver and even, astonishingly, Detroit, not to mention global cities like New York and London, possess a level of vibrancy that is far greater than it was even a few years ago, and in complete conflict with what the anti-urban theorists predicted. Richard Florida’s theory that the renewal of cities is fueled by a new, so-called “creative class” of young people misses the point, I think. The glib phrase “creative class” has now entered the language, but it does not explain everything. I think there are a lot of things behind the renewal of cities, and the presence of the so-called creative class is not a cause, it is more in the line of an effect of the enormous rise in the financial services industry. We may not believe that our movement away from an industrial economy and toward a financial services economy has always been a positive thing for society, but it is impossible to deny that it accounts for at least as much if not more urban growth than the eagerness of younger, more creative people to be in urban areas.
The reality is that what is called the creative class is far from entirely creative. A young analyst working on Wall Street wants to live in the city and partake of a certain kind of life; that she does is good for society, I believe, better than if she had retreated to the suburbs, but does it make her creative? Perhaps it is fair to say that this economic and social class is more receptive to creativity than their parents’ or grandparents’ generations were, and that is the difference. They are more sophisticated. They like better food, they are at ease with technology, they are not suspicious of modern art or modern furniture. It is surely not that they are all artists. There are not enough poets and writers and painters and dancers and actors to fill all of those new condominium towers in cities around the globe, and if there were, 99 percent of the creative people wouldn’t be able to afford them.
There is a marketplace for creativity, or a desire to be in an environment that embraces creativity—that is certainly the case today, in cities around the world. Again, if you define the creative class as the market for creativity, as opposed to the people doing the creating, then the notion of the creative class as behind the urban revival makes some sense. But if you take the phrase literally to mean the people designing, writing, painting, acting, etc.—well, there are a lot of them, yes, but not nearly enough to fuel the urban revival that we have been experiencing in so many cities in the last two decades. So, the ubiquitous “creative class” label flatters the consumers of creativity by equating them with the creators. Either that, or it naively assumes that the world we live in so believes in creativity that it compensates filmmakers and artists and teachers and dancers the way it compensates financial analysts and bankers. Nothing, of course, could be further from the truth. In fact, things are moving in the other direction, toward less equality of income, not more, and many of the truly creative people, the artists and writers and actors and filmmakers, have been priced out of the creative cities that, by Richard Florida’s measure, belong to them and that they have helped to revive. What young writer can afford to live in New York, or in San Francisco, any longer? Yesterday I talked about beginning my own career in New York in the economically depressed 1970’s, which turned out to be a weirdly great gift to me and my family—it allowed me to raise children in the city in a way that, as a journalist and academic, I could almost surely not have afforded to do. Those days, as we have said, are long gone, in San Francisco as much as New York, where the neighborhoods you once were afraid to walk around in, you now can’t afford. I was in London last week and it is exactly the same thing. The pace of gentrification has so accelerated that we seem almost to be skipping over the point of equilibrium, when a neighborhood is a diverse mixture of older residents, new arrivals who bring a different kind of sophistication, families, creative people and a smattering of business folk. Instead, the process of gentrification seems less a benign engine of gradual upgrade than a bulldozer that, figuratively but sometimes also literally, seems to crush what is in its path.
What I experienced in New York in the 1970’s, when good real estate was accessible to professional people at a wider range of income—and hence, and this is the important thing, at a wider range of types of profession—is no longer to be found there, or in San Francisco, or Boston or Los Angeles, where urban housing seems increasingly out of the grasp of all but the most highly compensated of the younger generation. In New York that means finance, mostly, with a smattering of tech; in San Francisco it means tech, mostly, with a smattering of finance, but this is a distinction without a difference. To buy urban real estate cheaply you now have to go to Detroit, where many of the truly creative, who now cannot even afford to live in Brooklyn, move west to set themselves up in an affordable urban environment. This is another example of creative people with limited resources jumping in to take advantage of a disadvantaged economy, and in so doing, help to turn it around. It is profoundly exciting to see this happening, and the resurgence of Detroit as a creative center is pleasing in every way.
But it should not, I don’t think, be considered a true revival of the city. As pleasing, even heartwarming, that the creative resurgence of Detroit is, there will never be enough to it to equal the jobs that have been lost, and to bring the city back to the place it once was. Yes, the arts are critical to the economy, but more from the standpoint of consumption than creativity. And consumption in the visual arts means tourists coming to the Metropolitan Museum, or the marketplace of the art auctions at Sotheby’s and Christies; it does not mean the creative act itself. I doubt that Detroit will again have the muscle economically to be a major consumer of culture. It is great that it is filling up with young, creative people who have been displaced from Brooklyn by the vast army of financial services workers who now seek to live in so-called “creative” environments, but it is hard for me to see that this alone will turn Detroit around. Detroit’s “revival” is fine, such as it is, but if it cannot be directly connected to a broader kind of economic growth, I am not sure what it will ever amount to. And I’m aware of the noble effort of a company like Shinola, which has committed to bringing manufacturing back to Detroit and makes watches, bicycles, and leather goods of decent quality and then markets the hell out of them with a brilliant advertising campaign that encourages those of us with a commitment to urban revival to believe we are helping this effort by buying a $500 quartz watch that has been assembled in Detroit—although not, in fact, literally “made” there, because the movement is imported from Switzerland. I will say, while we are on the subject, that I am of two minds about Shinola, which positions itself as an earnest, scrappy manufacturer, determined to swim upstream against the tide, but which is actually a division of a huge, private conglomerate called Bedrock Brands, the same company that owns Fossil Watches, and which has based its entire marketing plan on the notion that there are enough people who think the idea of something made in Detroit is cool so that they will spend $500 on a $100 watch with a handsome retro face. Shinola spent millions of dollars on a retail outlet in Tribeca, in lower Manhattan, which has been so successful that it reportedly met its first-year sales projections in the first month. Affluent young professionals apparently love the idea of buying something made in Detroit—so long as it is not a car, that is, which I am sure they believe still needs to be made in Munich or Stuttgart to be valid. But jobs are jobs, and Shinola does keep a lot of people busy in Detroit assembling these things, and it is all to the good, even if it is not the true, earnest startup it so brilliantly advertises itself as being. And if this is marketing as much as reality, I do think there is something significant in the fact that you can market the idea of “made in Detroit”—that people, whoever they are and wherever they are, will want to buy it. That would not have happened a few years ago. Even Chrysler, as you may have seen, has tried to market the same idea, at one point trying an advertising campaign that referred to its cars as “Imported from Detroit”—clever, although I don’t think it made much difference or led anyone to replace their BMW with a Chrysler. That slogan morphed into “America’s import,” much more vague, even slightly ambiguous, and, it should be noted, minus the mention of Detroit. If sophisticated young watch buyers and cyclists find the idea of “made in Detroit” to be cool, the far bigger market of automobile buyers does not. Chrysler’s inability to duplicate the Shinola marketing idea shows us, I think, that this is all a kind of niche market, and reminds us, as I said a moment ago, that whatever it is that is happening in Detroit and however good it is, it is far too marginal to the economy to truly turn around a city.
In reality, most manufacturing takes place far away from cities now. Some of it takes place far away from our entire country, our continent, and as we all know has moved to Asia; much of the industrial manufacturing that still takes place in the United States is in the south, where labor and other costs are lower, and governments fall all over themselves to offer corporations incentives to open factories. The questionable wisdom of that is a subject for another day; for now, let’s say only that it is unlikely that manufacturing will return on a large scale to any large, established city, in this country or elsewhere in the world, and that cities need to find another basis for their economy as they move forward. The vast growth of the financial services, legal services, media, healthcare and educational industries—and they are all industries—suggests that these things will be the city’s salvation, since so much employment in these fields is concentrated in urban areas.
It’s a reasonable assumption, and I am not here today to say that it is wrong. But I do worry, nevertheless, that the evolution of our cities into service centers staffed by upscale professionals, clean and appealing though it may be, is also a reminder that many of the elements we all like in our cities today exist at the pleasure of these groups, not to serve a broader range of the population. These professional sectors—and we could think of them as being the very consumers of culture I was talking about a couple of minutes ago—like to concentrate themselves in urban areas, but they do so not because they truly have to be there, but because they like the aura of culture and urban activity. They seem to be rejecting the world of the suburbs, with its dependency on the automobile and its elevation of private space above all else. They seem to favor the urban culture, and the stimulation it brings.
This is a good thing; it would be absurd to argue that it is not. But—there is always a but—the city does not exist solely for them, and it is another paradox of our urban life today that the new economy of technology and international finance requires an underside of low-paying jobs to sustain it—the cleaners and the cooks and the bakers and the drivers and the chambermaids and the nannies and so forth, and that these people are paid at the lowest end of the scale, meaning that there is more and more disparity between incomes in the new city of the 21st century.
The immigrants who toil beneath the glittery surface of the new city and struggle to survive in it are often hardly visible, in part because they almost inevitably cannot afford to live anywhere near the glamorous center. And that center, in many cities, for all its life and bright, upbeat, don’t-we-love-the-city energy, is, as urban cultures go, a bit too easy, a bit too homogeneous, a bit too defined by this young urban professional class and by its even richer cousin, the international global rich, who invest in condominiums all over the place and fly from New York to Abu Dhabi to London to Hong Kong to Sao Paulo and back again, keeping the real estate markets hot but using cities less as true places than as concrete versions of safe deposit boxes, places in which to safely stash cash. The real estate market in many cities today is a product less of local needs than of international economics, of currency markets and the need for cash to have an occasional place to rest as it washes across the globe.
That is not necessarily the healthiest basis on which to build a city. I would like to believe that the major buildings in our skylines exist as something other than pure investment vehicles; though buildings have always existed partially for that reason, it has rarely been their sole reason for being, as it so often seems to be today, when so many new buildings seem to be physical embodiments of the movement of global capital that the cities themselves represent. The “demand” that so many condominium towers fulfill, especially in New York and Hong Kong, but also in Vancouver and San Francisco and London and Shanghai and Moscow, is not the demand for places to live, but the demand for places in which to invest excess cash. Many of these places, as you surely know, are barely occupied, and while these buildings now dominate the skyline—the latest one in New York, 432 Park Avenue, is taller than the Empire State Building, so I am not talking about trivial structures that we can ignore—while these buildings dominate the skyline, their occupants certainly do not populate the sidewalks. They add surprisingly little to the ongoing life of the city. Once their owners have enriched the buildings’ developers by purchasing their apartments for vast sums, they do little else with them. Jonathan Miller, a prominent New York real estate appraiser, put it best when he called these apartments “safe deposit boxes in the sky,” safe deposit boxes being, Mr. Miller said, “places where people put their valuables and then rarely visit.”
The city of such buildings is not the city we aspire to, and it is surely not the creative city. It is booming economically, but is it healthy economically? By now we should know, I think, that these two are not the same thing. I think we have already seen that for all the short-term good there is in rising real estate values, too much wealth is making our cities less diverse, and that it can sometimes make them less energetic, not more energetic, and less the kind of places in which real creativity is inspired.
The city of zillion dollar condos isn’t making culture any more than it is making automobiles or anything else. It’s just consuming it, and it isn’t even doing very much of that if its occupants aren’t there most of the time. I’m not entirely sure what we can do about this because no city, no matter how determined its leaders may be, can control economic forces that are increasingly not local or even national, but global. But we can be more aggressive, I think, in seeking to limit the extent to which pure investment vehicles dominate the skyline and squeeze out the very urban life that they claim, often disingenuously, to be reinforcing.
For a time, I used to worry that the destiny of our cities was not to be derelict places that no one wants to visit, as we feared a generation ago, but places that everyone wants to visit but no one has to be in because they no longer have an essential purpose: that in this age of urban infatuation, we are at risk of developing 21st century versions of Venice or Amsterdam, wonderful, glorious places that exist mainly for people to stroll around in and comment on how wonderful and glorious they are. This is better than the South Bronx of the 1970’s, of course, but that is not the point. The point is that we want the city not to be just entertaining, but necessary. I don’t want the city to be a theme park: fun to walk around in when you take a break, but not a place where real life, and real work, take place. I do feel that even so many of the good things we celebrate in cities today—the sheer joy of walking around, the pleasures of shopping, the exhilaration of people-watching and the visual variety that always brings surprise—even these things can sometimes encourage us to think of the city only as a thing for entertainment, and thus they make us dance on the edge of the theme park.
In the theme park, we only consume; we never create. We look and we are entertained; we are safely away from the stresses and tensions and forces by which things are made, the clashes and pressures out of which culture and ideas come. The theme park is supposed to be without challenge, and that is fine if we are on a play break. But the real city was never supposed to be without challenge. It ought to be at least a little bit difficult, at least a little bit dirty, at least a little bit messy. The city we celebrate today often strikes me as too clean, too neat, too packaged, too easy. If we think that kind of city, the city of shopping and entertainment, is a place out of which great culture and great creativity will come, I fear that we will be sadly mistaken.
All of that said, I don’t want to fall into the trap of believing that there was ever an ideal urban era, where creativity flowed and the forces of capital and of culture were in perfect equilibrium. It is useful, I think, to look back at Paris in the mid-nineteenth century, a time that we are accustomed to thinking of as an era of great urban life, a time when, whatever the complex political picture of Europe might have been, there was an urban culture that flourished and triumphed over both politics and capital.
Think again. In fact, Paris’s golden age was a time of incredible struggle over modernity, and real estate development, and tension between financial power and the arts. Baron Haussmann, charged by the emperor of France with updating Paris, in many ways still a rather medieval city in the middle of the 19th century, cut through great boulevards and engaged in ambitious public works, and in so doing, threw neighborhoods, indeed the entire pattern of the city, into turmoil. “Progress” was seen as the enemy of culture, as a set of forces that were selling out the city to moneyed interests, and there seemed to be little room for artists, shopkeepers, craftspeople, indeed for workers of any kinds. Let me quote from T.J. Clark’s great study of nineteenth century Paris, The Painting of Modern Life, in which he writes that “In place of the crumbling houses where the tailors and the coppersmiths had lived, the builders of boulevards—avid to recoup their costs—had put up lavish blocks of apartments, with stone mouldings and ironwork balconies and running water to the second floor. The rents of such places were impossibly steep, and the rents of the rest of the neighborhood followed them upwards. By Haussmann’s own estimate, rents in the center of the city doubled between q851 and 1857m and they went on climbing thereafter. The working class began to complain…..it was argued that in place of one Paris Haussmann had made two. The accusation was linked with the issue of high rents and the plight of those who had lost a place to live in the city. Haussmann, the critics said, had […] built the boulevard Malesherbes as a kind of thoroughfare for speculation; he had laid out the inhumane avenues round the Etoile […] This was the city of courtesans and bull markets. Here was ostentation, not luxury; frippery, not fashion; consumption, not trade […] Observers agreed that in some important sense the city was more inflexibly classed and divided than ever before; that one was entering the age of the ‘residential district’ and the ‘industrial suburb.’”
You do not have to dig deep to find an echo of this today, in contemporary San Francisco, where the pressure to make the city work for the needs of tech companies has led to equally bitter battles over displacement, and long public debates as to who the city is actually for. But there is something else that is going on here, and it gets us right to the heart of the role of the city as a so-called “creative” environment, and that is the relationship between San Francisco and the world of Silicon Valley to our south, where it can sometimes feel as if we are coming to have something akin to the “residential district” and “industrial suburbs” that T.J. Clark observed in Paris in Haussmann’s time.
Of course, Silicon Valley is no normal “industrial suburb”; it is where more wealth has been created than anywhere in the world, and where a form of creativity, creativity in technology, flourishes, even amid urban sprawl and a far more conventional suburban landscape than anyone there wants to admit. So if we fast-forward from Paris to our own time, which is the real model for a place that inspires creativity today, the example of Silicon Valley that suggests that traditional cities are obsolete in an age of mass communication? Or that of ever more prosperous and luxurious San Francisco? Actually, for that same comparison I could have used the evidence of Silicon Alley, as people have been calling lower Manhattan, which now has a huge concentration of tech businesses itself, but I’ll come back to that later.
Here in the Bay area, what I find remarkable is how many young workers in the tech industry today have no desire to live in the valley, even if they work there. They prefer to live in San Francisco, to be like the rich Parisians who segregated themselves in Haussmann’s luxurious city—although in this case they are different from the rich Parisians, who never had to dirty their hands by going to the industrial neighborhoods, since the young workers in the tech industry are the very people powering the work forces in Silicon Valley. This, of course, is why all of the major companies in the Valley now operate huge fleets of private luxury buses that shuttle back and forth between San Francisco and the valley, sparing these privileged employees the unpleasantness of a commute along the crowded freeway. As all of you who live here probably know, the buses are sleek, enormous, and unmarked except for electronic lettering over the windshield indicating which neighborhood in San Francisco the bus is bound for—Mission, Noe Valley, Castro, Potrero Hill. Most of them are white, but the Apple buses, not surprisingly, are silver. They carry bicycles, and it goes without saying that they are wi-fi equipped. When an employee gets on the Apple or Facebook or Google bus in the morning, he is considered to be at work.
Google alone transports upwards of three thousand employees a day on its bus service, which is now so extensive it extends even to this side of San Francisco Bay. The buses have become a necessity for Silicon Valley, not because they expand the workday modestly, but because it was the only way they could attract and retain workers, who might otherwise have balked at the 40-mile commute. A twenty-eight year old living in Noe Valley in San Francisco is more likely to be willing to spend time on a luxurious bus with wi-fi than to want to sit behind the wheel of a car on the 101, or to make his way to downtown San Francisco to take a commuter train that will deposit him at a station that is still likely to be several miles from where he works. (There are also tech industry vans that pick up from the train station, and Santa Clara County also has a struggling light rail system that connects some places to some other places.) But the big intercity buses have become the travel system of choice, so much so that Craigslist ads for apartments in the city’s trendier neighborhoods now carry lines like “Genentech, Google and Apple buses within a block,” which signals a location that is a lot more meaningful to potential tenants than proximity to the public transit system.
Let me talk for a moment about the growing preference of younger workers to live in the city, since it represents a vast shift in the culture of the tech industry, and its effect is only beginning to be understood. Silicon Valley grew up around Stanford University, and until a few years ago, it seemed to have only the most tenuous relationship to San Francisco. The law firms and venture capital firms that emerged around the tech industry located along Sand Hill Road in Menlo Park, beside Stanford, in quarters that were posher than the startups but every bit as suburban. The Rosewood Sand Hill, the luxury hotel whose restaurant is to the tech industry what Michael’s in New York is to the media industry, is a sprawling, low-rise resort that looks as if it could be in a prosperous Midwestern suburb, but for the slight overlay of buzz that fills the dining room, and the fact that the parking lot has more BMWs and Audis, not to mention Teslas, than you would find in Kansas City. If you were a venture capitalist or corporate executive in the tech industry you were likely to live in a fancy suburb like Atherton or Woodside; if you were a young software engineer you lived in a garden apartment in Cupertino or Mountain View, with maybe an occasional dinner on University Avenue in Palo Alto, a dense strip of restaurants and stores that is as close as the Valley has come, at least so far, to having a real street that people actually walk on. San Francisco was at best an hour north on the 101 Freeway, and other than for big events like the MacWorld Expo and Apple’s celebrated product debuts at the Moscone convention center, much of Silicon Valley acted as if the city were as distant as Los Angeles.
The high cost and limited availability of housing in the Silicon Valley towns may have had something to do with the gradual shift toward San Francisco, but it’s not as though housing were either plentiful or cheap in San Francisco, which has long been one of the most expensive cities in the country. What’s really fueling it is the much larger trend of younger professionals expressing a preference for urban living, even after they start families. If the simplistic phrase “creative class” does not explain everything about the resurgence of older urban neighborhoods all across the country, it does connect to why a thirty-year old video game designer would now rather live in San Francisco than Mountain View, whatever the commute. At this point the tech companies’ bus services are not just a convenience, they’re an essential recruiting tool for the valley’s major employers, a piece of infrastructure on which the massive exercise in reverse commuting that has come to define Silicon Valley depends.
The connection between Silicon Valley and San Francisco seems to be deepening all the time, in unexpected ways. It’s no longer a case of city versus suburb; if anything, their traditional roles have been reversed, since the valley with its big tech companies now represents the region’s main economic engine while the city acts as the place of entertainment, relaxation, socializing and sleep. “San Francisco, with its leafy parks and charming row houses and distinct villages and locavore restaurants and commuters fleeing every morning to work, is the Brooklyn to an as-yet-unbuilt Manhattan,” Ken Layne, the journalist and blogger, wrote not long ago in the online journal The Awl—again, it is the 19th century Paris that Haussmann created.
This city-suburb inversion is fascinating, because it suggests that to some extent, the city has already become the magnetic artifact that exists to give pleasure, not to be a potent creative force. The valley’s richest entrepreneurs have always seen San Francisco that way: some of them bought houses years ago on Pacific Heights and in some of the city’s other posh districts as weekend getaways, starting the inverted pattern of looking at Silicon Valley’s suburban landscape as the messy, work-oriented place you wanted to get away from, and the city as the pleasanter place you escaped to. But the torrent of twenty and thirty-somethings wanting to live in San Francisco full-time is a much more recent development, with implications far broader than a few dozen billionaires buying fancy houses on Pacific Heights. It says a lot more about how cities aren’t essential as the kind of marketplaces they were a hundred years ago, when you needed the city as a place to do business. You can do business anywhere, as we’ve said, and as the success of Silicon Valley proves. But the things the city does offer—a lively, diverse environment, full of visual stimulation, culture, food and all kinds of people—is exactly what suburbs can’t provide, even when they get as rich and successful as the ones in Silicon Valley. “As disappointed visitors and new employees discover, Silicon Valley is a dull and ugly landscape of low-rise stucco office parks and immense traffic-clogged boulevards. The fancy restaurants are in strip malls….There is nothing to do, nowhere to go,” Layne said in The Awl.
That’s surely why more and more startups and small-to-medium sized companies are locating in San Francisco instead of Silicon Valley. When I wrote about this phenomenon last year for Vanity Fair, it was clear that the city itself was the most powerful recruiting tool a lot of companies could ask for. “The younger people want to be in the city,” Karen Wickre, a veteran of Google who now manages public relations for Twitter, told me. “I don’t miss my nine-year commute to Google.” And if you follow the news across the Bay with any degree of attention you know the story of Twitter, which has been based in San Francisco since it was founded in 2007, and which, when it decided it needed new space, took over three floors in a vast, empty Art Moderne building, originally a furniture mart, on a seedy section of Market Street not far from the San Francisco City Hall. From the reaction in the neighborhood you could have thought it was Google and not Twitter that arrived in 2011. Within a few months of the company’s announcement, construction started on two condominium towers on nearby sites, the rest of the old furniture mart was rented to other tenants, and some nearby buildings went into renovation. Twitter had kissed the neighborhood, and it went from being a frog to a prince inside of a few months.
This has been controversial, as you probably also know, since the rocket-speed gentrification of this part of the city has been, to use the tech industry’s favorite word, disruptive. What it is disrupting, of course, is not old technology, but people, people who can no longer afford to live there because their neighborhood is like a rug that has been pulled out from under them, in what has seemed like an instant. This is all too reminiscent of Haussmann’s remaking of Paris, and it is not good for the diversity that the city needs, but I am inclined to feel that it is ultimately worth it for the survival of the city, because the coming of much of the tech industry to San Francisco has also revived the city as a creative center, and made it a place of work. This is important for reasons far beyond the politicians’ desire for tax receipts. Job creation holds the city back from the fate of sliding into the beautiful, alluring irrelevance of Venice or that equally beautiful and profound but no longer creatively essential city, Amsterdam. I concede that there is a certain irony in saying that the tech explosion keeps San Francisco real, since I know that gaining this reality, the reality of having a vibrant, creative economy, is coming at the cost of another reality, which is the reality of diversity.
That is increasingly the fate of the creative city today. It is a struggle, a constant struggle, to balance a meaningful and productive economy against the roughness, the grittiness, the complexity, the diversity of the city at its best. In the case of San Francisco, there is one particular benefit, which is that the most powerful economic forces, those of the tech industry, are, by and large, creative forces, or at least partially creative forces. The game designers and the software designers are not poets and actors and painters who need to work as waiters while they wait to make some scant money from the art they are passionate about. Here, the creative people are part of the economic engine, and that makes a tremendous amount of difference.
We could say the same for a slice of New York, what is called Silicon Alley, since so many tech firms have located there as well, and Google now has more employees than anywhere except its headquarters in Mountain View. That said, the creative tech industry in New York is still overwhelmed by the financial services industry, which is still the economic bellwether. If you put these two things together, the huge financial services industry and the growing presence of a tech industry, you have a gargantuan market for culture in New York, the largest in the nation and perhaps the world, and one that also includes another realm besides technology that is sometimes mistakenly overlooked when people talk about creativity in the city, which is the world of fashion design. But still, when you put it all together, you have an overwhelmingly large market of people there who consume culture and want to live in a so-called “creative” environment, only a few of whom are actually creating culture. This puts the cost of the city out of reach of almost every artist, architect, writer, dancer, filmmaker and actor, and that is not getting any better. Where do those people go? For a while, it was to Brooklyn, and now that Brooklyn, too, has become so expensive, some of them, as I said a few minutes ago, are going to Detroit. Before we despair, let’s keep in mind that the universe of urban neighborhoods was once a lot smaller, and that Brooklyn was a very different place forty years ago. We can all make jokes about the artisanal food culture of Williamsburg and the furniture makers and fancy bars and boutique hotels, but it is not, for the larger life of the city, such a bad thing, and Williamsburg, like so much of the rest of Brooklyn, not to mention Jersey City and Hoboken across the river and Harlem in Manhattan, are better places than they were. It is the fate of creative people, in part, to find new places and to settle in them and begin a process of change that in time the mainstream adopts; we saw it in SoHo in New York, the mother of all urban gentrification, fifty years ago, as the artists came in and took over old loft buildings that had been abandoned by the manufacturing industries for which they had been built, but which no longer wanted them. A neighborhood of intense creative energy was built within what was one of the greatest collections of historic architecture in the United States, and which had been all but ignored before. It was preserved, and real estate values rose, at which point the artists who made it all possible could no longer afford to be there. Many of them no longer wanted to be there, since it had lost so much of its edge, and become, in part, a shrine to consumerism and chic, not to creativity. The edge moved elsewhere.
I have just compressed a complex, decades-long history into a few sentences, but it is basically what happened, and it does show us that the process of urban growth and change is one of constant movement. Cities cannot be static. That, perhaps, is the most important thing: that cities are living things, and for the city to be a viable environment for creativity, it has to change and evolve, and that change will inevitably involve its most creative people, because they are almost always the people on the edge. They see new things, which often means new places. They are frequently on the economic edge, unable to afford the ever-more-expensive center, but a lot of the time it is driven by their vision, and their willingness to go outside of what, before that time, had been considered the acceptable bounds of places to live, as they did in SoHo, and in so many other places.
I realize that this can seem like an excessively romantic view, and might also be taken as condoning much of what has happened in the last generation to put our greatest cities out of reach of the creative people who we need most to be in them, since it is the creative people, the makers of art and not just the consumers of it, who keeping cities from being the theme parks, the places of artifice, that they often threaten to become. I am not arguing for complacency here, or suggesting that we do not need to be pro-active and fight to keep the city more diverse, both economically and culturally. I am merely trying to observe that creativity in the city, like everything else, is subject to large, often global, forces, and that the artist, as much as the banker, is inevitably part of a larger system that is not of his or her making, and which brings both good and bad things in its wake.
We come back, in the end, to what makes the city work, and that is proximity, human contact, the ability to see each other, to be reminded at every moment that we are part of a huge and complex human endeavor, which in the city is not just a theoretical idea. It is something we see evidence of all the time, and I believe that affects us profoundly. The role of the city, the role of any city, to put it as bluntly as possible, is to be a common place, to be common ground, and as such, to support us and to stimulate us. Lewis Mumford, the greatest architectural critic of the last century, gave us a description of the city that stands in stunning and eloquent contrast to the argument that the city is outdated in our tecnologiucal age. “Now, the great function of the city,” Mumford said, “is…to permit, indeed to encourage and incite the greatest possible number of meetings, encounters, challenges between all persons, classes and groups, providing, as it were, a stage upon which the drama of social life may be enacted, with the actors taking their turns as spectators, and the spectators as actors.”
Notice that Mumford spoke of the city not only in terms of meetings and encounters but also of challenges: he knew that the city is difficult, and did not attempt to pretend otherwise, to pretend that it is the easiest route. But he knew that in meeting challenge there is also a kind of satisfaction that cannot come from easy routes, and that the challenge the city represents can, at its best, be ennobling. And it is what fuels creativity, today as much as it has in the past.