Get out your coffee. Sit down. Relax. I’m feeling provocative today. I’m ready to start up a debate. Who am I? How do I fit into things? What says more about me – the fact that I love the Plaza District, Paseo and enjoy the communal tables at Big Truck Tacos? Or am I defined by the fact I choose to live, work and play in Oklahoma primarily because I believe it’s a great place to raise a family? Am I defined by how I enjoy performances by the Flaming Lips and love their involvement with Oklahoma City and revival of the urban core, or am I defined by the fact I’m neither amused or enamored by Flaming Lips frontman Wayne Coyne’s use of profanity and seemingly casual attitude toward drugs? Am I a hypocrite to admit to both views toward this Grammy-winning band with a worldwide following?
Maybe I’m a bit confused. But I’m less and less confused by the legacy of Richard Florida’s 2002 book “The Rise of the Creative Class.” In case you don’t recall, Oklahoma City didn’t fare too well in these once hyped rankings:
Large Cities Creativity Rankings
Rankings of 49 metro areas reporting populations over 1 million in the 2000 Census
Top Ten Cities
|1. San Francisco||1057||34.8||5||1||2||1|
|3. San Diego||1015||32.1||15||12||7||3|
|6. Chapel Hill||996||38.2||2||14||4||28|
|9. New York||962||32.3||12||13||24||14|
Bottom Ten Cities
|48. Norfolk, VA||555||28.4||36||35||49||47|
|47. Las Vegas||561||18.5||49||42||47||5|
|44. Grand Rapids||639||24.3||48||43||23||38|
|43. Oklahoma City||668||29.4||29||41||43||39|
|42. New Orleans||668||27.5||42||45||48||13|
Eight years have passed since Richard Florida released this best and worst list of creative class cities. Surely you remember the creative class rankings – it was all the rage in the early 2000s and Florida had a great gig selling books and earning speaking fees addressing the importance of the creative class. He became a lecture tour superstar after the 2002 printing of his book, “The Rise of the Creative Class” in which he used U.S. Census data to show that economically successful cities are the ones that embrace immigrants, gays and artistic people he calls “bohemians.”
I’m not dismissing at all the importance of the creative class. But I was always a bit skeptical of Florida’s seemingly simplistic view of what makes a city successful. He’s a consultant with a niche – but I always wondered if the success of his much ballyhooed cities was at best fleeting – and not a sure thing.
Eight years later, four of his top five cities are an economic disaster. Home values are still in a free-fall in California, Massachusetts and Washington. Austin is the exception to that old top five list. So if a thriving creative class was the key to future success, why are four of the five cities faring so horribly in 2010?
San Francisco: 9.7 percent
Austin: 7.8 percent
San Diego: 10 percent
Boston: 9.2 percent
Seattle 8.9 percent
Oklahoma City’s unemployment rate, by the way, stands at 6.9 percent. Housing is faring much better than elsewhere in the country. The economy isn’t great, but it’s not in a free-fall either.
How is this possible? It’s not as if Oklahoma City shot to the top of Richard Florida’s creative class chart. We’re still home to legislators Sally Kern and Randy Terrill – not exactly outspoken adherents to Richard Florida’s view of the world. And churches still dominate social life in the community.
The creative class that has gained more prominence locally in recent years is not comprised of newcomers doing things that were not being done in 2002. Indeed Wayne Coyne and Flaming Lips, the students attending the ACM@UCO, the artists in Paseo – these folks were around in 2002 when Richard Florida ranked Oklahoma City among the worst creative class cities in the country. Oklahoma City has, for years, been far more tolerant (do I dare say even “accepting”) of being home to not just artistic colonies but also a credible, vibrant gay business district centered around NW 39 and Pennsylvania Avenue.
When listening to and reading Richard Florida’s views a decade ago, it seemed as if he was almost dismissive of the importance of a city not just being friendly to the creative class, but also remaining a good strong place to raise a family. And at times it seemed as if Richard Florida was dismissing the role of Oklahoma City’s creative class simply because it remains home to a population that is still far more traditional, conservative and family friendly than the cities in his 2002 top five list (explain to me, with home prices starting at more than $200,000, could one have considered San Francisco, San Diego and Boston to be “family friendly”).
Has Oklahoma City proven the need to diversify while still striking a balance between these sometimes, but not always, different populations? And are there common interests and ties between these communities? Are they sometimes one and the same?
I’m not offering answers – just questions and a challenge to Richard Florida (not that he cares what I say) to give Oklahoma City another glance and go beyond simple statistics, anecdotes and perception. Mr. Florida, it’s 2010 and you last visited here in 2004. Go back to San Francisco, go back to Seattle, go back to Boston and San Diego. And then get a good tour of what’s going in Oklahoma City. You tell me if your measurements still work.
I leave you with this article from The Atlantic:
Why Oklahoma City Could Represent the Future of America
Sep 13 2010, 5:20 PM ET | Comment
The last time the United States suffered a recession this deep and painful, it was the Great Depression. That was the era of the Dust Bowl, the California pilgrimages out of Oklahoma that John Steinbeck etched into America’s memory with The Grapes of Wrath. Eighty years later, California’s housing market has run dry and Oklahoma is building river parks. As families gravitate back to the heartland, with its cheap homes and lower unemployment, the migration patterns of the Great Depression have turned backward. “It’s the Wrath of Grapes,” says Oklahoma City Mayor Mick Cornett.
One of the under-reported stories of the recession is the emergence of the Great Plains during the recovery. The central time zone largely avoided the highs of the housing bubble, and they’ve blissfully missed the lows, as well. But that’s not the only thing buoying Oklahoma.
This afternoon I spoke with Oklahoma City Mayor Cornett and Oklahoma Department of Commerce Secretary Natalie Shirley about why Oklahoma has fared so well during the recovery. Unemployment in Oklahoma City is 6.7 percent, three percentage points below the national average. It has the fourth most resilient housing market in the country, according the Brookings Institution.
Avoiding the swelling and crashing of the housing tsunami has been a primary cause of Oklahoma City’s success. How did they miss the wave? Shirley said the answer goes back to 1982, and Penn Square Bank. Penn Square was a small, risky commercial bank that exploded in the late 1970s and imploded in the 1982 just as falling energy consumption hurt oil prices and slammed the Oklahoma economy. The Savings and Loans Crisis followed, but it was Penn Square took down the energy industry and the banking industry.
“Over 100 banks closed,” she said. “The state ground to a halt. And the bankers today remember the crisis. They’ve developed very safe, very conservative banking practices since that catastrophic event in the early 1980s.”
Built on the dependable pillars of local government spending, military (Tinker Air Force Base is the top employer), health care and education, the city is poised for strong and steady growth in the next few years. I asked the Shirley and the mayor what they thought might be the next engine of the Oklahoma economy.
“We don’t really care,” she responded. “What we’re looking at is a balanced economy. We learned from the 1980s that having a one-trick pony just wasn’t going to do it. We’re looking at creating a more firm foundation.”
That’s when the mayor offered an fascinating re-casting of the new economy: “The 20th century perspective was that people went where the jobs were,” he said. “Today the jobs are going to go where the people are. Highly talented young people are coming to us because of the low cost of living. People want to work here.”
The bust revealed a scary truth: we can’t afford what very recently passed for the American dream. We cannot run up debt equal to 122 percent of our yearly earnings, as we did during the late aughts. That means Americans will seek out cheaper places to live, where high quality of life goes for a bargain. Today, the cities that can offer that aren’t the LAs and NYCs but rather the San Antonios and Oklahoma Cities.
Put another way: In an economy where people follow quality of living, and jobs follow people, cities with low cost-of-living will be the early winners in the recovery.
Indeed, they already are. Eighteen of Brookings’ 20 “strongest cities” (all except Washington and VA Beach) have average or below average cost-of-living, according to a new Wall Street Journal story. At a time when Washington can’t seem to get employers and employees together, employment has been sticky where wages and living have been cheap.
What’s more, Oklahoma has the highest entrepreneur levels of any state, according to a recent report from the Kauffman Foundation. Mayor Cornett says it’s easy to see why. “College graduates are moving to the metro area in high numbers because they see how far their money goes in housing and living,” he said. “You’re raising a generation of people who can’t afford their own house. The American dream is alive and well in Oklahoma City.”