Bring on those 'redneck hippies'

 

There's a lot of buzz these days about a "creative class," the discovery of Richard Florida, a professor of economic development at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. Florida's ideas are laid out in one of those books more discussed than read: The Rise of the Creative Class and How It's Transforming Work, Leisure, Community and Everyday Life.

What he has identified is an evolving socio-economic group that is, says, our hope for cultural vitality in the 21st century. According to Florida, "if you are a scientist or engineer, an architect or designer, a writer, artist or musician, or if you use your creativity as a key factor in your work in business, education, health care, law or some other profession, you are a member" of the creative class.

His main point is that local economic development is no longer a matter of developing a favorable business climate through building business parks or offering tax incentives. The challenge is to create a "people climate" that will attract this creative class. Once it arrives, Florida says, economic development will follow, both from things the creative people start up and from companies that will come looking for creative people.

Florida's focus is so narrowly metro-urban that he considers Boulder, Colo., to be sort of "rural." But a lot of the restless types Florida describes have been finding their way to the West’s small towns for a long time.

According to Florida, what attracts creative types to a place are technology, talent and tolerance. He tends to think of technology in terms of high-tech industries, and that is not a noticeable strength in most rural communities, although many are developing high speed access to the Internet. Florida sees the presence of a major research university as a huge advantage in the creative economy, concentrating both the technological research and the talent needed to spur development.

Western State College, in Gunnison, Colo., where I teach, is close to being the kind of creative hub Florida envisions. When I came to Western in the late 1980s, the college was charged to develop interdisciplinary programs built around the unique qualities of the college's natural and cultural setting.

Majors in recreation and environmental studies came out of that mandate, but both programs are still fishing for their connection to place so that they truly prepare people for creative lives in the region. Colleges like Western State could be turning the young "redneck hippies" they attract into inspired entrepreneurs. They could then go out to create the restoration economy that other Florida-type think tanks such as the Rocky Mountain Institute espouse: businesses that do well by doing good in the creation of environmentally-friendly products and services.

As for tolerance, Florida noticed that his index of urban places with strong economic development in the 1990s had a high degree of correlation with a colleague's index of gay-friendly places. Not all creative people are gay, of course, but there's probably a higher percentage of gays in the creative class than in American society in general, just as there is probably a higher percentage of malcontents, nerds, obsessives, idiot savants and others who are, by nature or nurture, out of step with what passes for normal in America.

Mountain townies are fond of quoting a journalist who claimed it wasn't love of fellow man that led people to places where people were few. It was more an attitude of indifference — a willingness to let everyone go to hell in his or her own way with neither help nor hindrance. That's tolerable tolerance.

Perhaps Florida is mostly putting a new wrap on common wisdom. In interesting times — including the founding of this country — we have always depended on creative people coming together to strike the flint of their minds against the steel of systems they neither particularly like nor are liked by.

That process usually starts in "fringe" places — dying neighborhoods taken over by bohemians, or decaying rural towns in beautiful places taken over by post-urbanites. But whether you call them a creative class or redneck hippies, I say, let’s bring them on.

George Sibley is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). He writes in Gunnison, Colorado, and teaches at Western State College.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at betsym@hcn.org.