A good nightclub is hard to find

There is so much more to cities than just a thriving economy, including a vibrant arts economy and artistic class. What we should aspire to and seek to achieve for the city is shalom, not Chanel.

March 28 th 2008
Elizabeth Currid, The Warhol Economy: How Fashion, Art, and Music Drive New York City. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2007. List price: US$27.95/C$28.61.
The Warhol Economy: How Fashion, Art, and Music Drive New York City

When I was in my senior year of high school, I somehow convinced my parents to let me and a few friends drive unchaperoned for a week-long trip to California. Although we saw this mostly as an opportunity for adventure and unsupervised fun, I'm sure that we explained it to our parents as an educational and culturally enriching experience. I suspect that we were not the first ones to employ this kind of strategy. Framing a proposal in terms that will have a positive influence on the power brokers in our lives is a rhetorical strategy as old as adolescence itself.

Without denying the validity of many of their points, it is hard not to see this general approach in Richard Florida's The Rise of the Creative Class and, more recently, in Elizabeth Currid's The Warhol Economy. By focusing attention on the preferences of key drivers of strategic economic sectors, Florida and Currid present amenities such as access to outdoor recreation and hip nightclubs as absolutely vital to the economic health of a municipality. Florida paved the way for this approach by demonstrating how areas that were attractive places for young creative types to live would also attract high-tech employers. And now, his student, Elizabeth Currid, extends the argument to show how a thriving nightclub scene is essential to generating cutting edge art.

While Florida is more comprehensive in his approach, looking at multiple cities throughout the United States, Currid focuses on New York City. Her argument unfolds in three stages. First, she establishes that the fashion, art, and music scenes are more than interesting by-products of New York's thriving economy. They are important engines of that economy. She supports this claim by citing the percentages of workers who are employed in these industries and by calculating a 'location quotient' she shows how, unlike the financial industry which is strong in many cities, the arts represent a unique advantage to New York's economic landscape.

Secondly, Currid claims that because the arts are catalyzed through informal social networks and because individual artists often cycle through a number of artistic media, it is important that artists and industry players can cluster in geographically dense areas and that they have cool nightclubs available for their interaction. Thirdly, from a policy perspective, Currid argues that if cities want to take advantage of the economic benefits of a thriving arts community they should put less emphasis on formal grants for the arts and focus on keeping rents down for artists and by working to support nightclubs instead of looking for reasons to shut them down. Can you see now where I started remembering some of my high school rhetorical strategies?

I don't disagree with Currid's assessment of the economic importance of the arts, especially in a place like New York City. Nor do I take issue with her identifying the need for good nightclubs and funky, affordable apartments as essential for artistic thriving. One place I take issue with Currid is precisely where I wanted to agree with her the most.

Like Currid, I read Jane Jacobs and so I appreciate urban settings that are geographically dense. That is one of the things that I love about New York City. Currid, however, claims that this density is essential to a thriving arts scene anywhere. But she undercuts this point by making frequent references to the rich, artistic culture of Los Angeles with an urban landscape totally different from New York. At present, there is nothing nor has there ever been any place in Los Angeles to compare with New York City's SoHo of the 1970s. It may be that Los Angeles has surprising pockets of density or that artistic Angelinos cluster and network in a different way. But Currid doesn't clarify this point, so her references to Los Angeles weaken her argument overall. This makes Currid's work less helpful than Richard Florida's for application to other cities.

My other issue with The Warhol Economy is that the same as I have with Florida's Creative Class. For Currid and Florida, a city is doing well when it has a strong economy filled with young, creative types. This is a narrow view of the culturally rich human artifact known as the city. It is a synchronic, albeit comprehensive, view—confined to one, particular stage and aspect of life. A more diachronic view might also evaluate the city in terms of its helpfulness to the immensely important task of nurturing children, cultivating citizens, and transmitting culture of all kinds. But neither Florida nor Currid seems to consider these other dimensions as they suggest tactics for making cities more successful and viable. I do think they do a good job of challenging presuppositions and shaking up our thinking a bit. However, we should keep in mind the notion that there is so much more to cities than just a thriving economy, including a vibrant arts economy and artistic class. What we should aspire to and seek to achieve for the city is shalom, not Chanel.

Topics: Cities
 

Eric Jacobsen is the author of The Space Between (Baker, 2012), and Sidewalks in the Kingdom: New Urbanism and the Christian Faith (Brazos, 2003) as well as numerous articles on New Urbanism. He is a member of the Congress for New Urbanism, and a participant in the Colloquium on Theology and the Built Environment sponsored by St. Andrews University and the Calvin Institute for Christian Worship at Calvin College.

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