Monday, September 15, 2003

City as Bacon: How to Bring it Home, Fry it up in a Pan 

Noontime Chat: City as Beacon: New Civics and the Creative Economy

Speakers: Kristy Edmunds, Vera Katz, Carol Coletta, Dan Wedien and Joe Cortright.

The concept is this: There is compelling evidence that we are in a knowledge based economy and the smart people that drive that economy will go where the pickin's are good. They are young and mobile and will move where it's a good place to be. Good pickin's can be defined as a tolerant community, a beautiful natural environment, access to affordable housing, good public transportation, active cultural community. If you can create that, they will come. The difference, and the new spin or this theory is the notion of naming the indicator species in all of this. The indicator species for whether or not you have what the cultural creatives want are the artists, queers, wierdos and deviants. Ergo, if you want to do plan for this economy in your city or state, figure out how to court the fringe. Cities (Portland included) all around the country are trying to figure out how to do that. How do we capitalize on this notion of cultural creatives? How do we get more of them to come here? How do we brand our city as cool? There was some discussion about what the public policy outcomes of that might be, but most of the discussion was a sort of slow grappling of what is the nature of this phenomenon.

As Carol Coletta put it "Most cites have caught the form of this, but not the substance. Portland is way ahead of the curve on the substance of this movement". Mayor Katz, who has been following this trend for about a year, noted that the people she's been meeting with say, "Give us healthcare, give us micro grants, do not create urban renewal districts around us, and then get out of the way." In other words, give us basics security and then let it happen. To paraphrase Dan Weiden, the creative process is a natural act, a subverse, disorganized, obstinate act. So the more you try to create policies or programs that actually deal with it on a specific level, the more you get in the way.

The challenge as I see it is there are opposing forces at work. From the perspective of the city, they want to get to the end game, which is new high paying jobs. The artists and the fringe that serve as the indicator species are the bait for the bigger fish that follow them-- the professional cultural creatives, and then the co-locating professions that come with that like law firms, accounting firms, finance, biotech, high-tech and corporate headquarters. Don't think for a minute that this is only about how to make a happy home for the artists and creatives. This could be another excuse to gentrify on the backs of the artists and others that pioneer and take risks, but it doesn't have to be.

Artists and creatives have an opportunity to leverage this moment to get some things that they haven't gotten in the past. The trend that Richard Florida describes in the Rise of the Creative Class is not so much new as it is quantitifed-- he gives scores to cities that have all these combination right and then pinpoints the demographics that contribute to these scores. If you want a bigger score, court these demographics. So, even though city policy wonks may want the arts at the table for reasons that ultimately do not include you, doesn't mean you shouldn't try your best to make some significant policy changes occur that would ultimately benefit the arts community.

1. Universal Healthcare. The city that figures this one out will win. Really. If Oregon could figure it out statewide, then the city certainly could on a city-wide basis.

2. Ownership. You don't get displaced from your now cool, formerly crapped out neighborhood if you own a piece of the action. Push for Land trusts, commercial condos and co-ops, and force that city to provide these options in new city- financed development. Then buy up.

3. Microgrants: Was it just me or did I hear a pretty positive suggestion from the mayor for projects grants of in the $200-1000 range? This could be for art projects or start-up concepts like micro-cottage industries. Is anyone going to follow up on that before she leaves office?

4. Vote. I know that you aren't joiners according to your demographic profile and all, and you feel disenfranchised by the hypocrisy of the system, but you have a voice and you need to use it.

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