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Wednesday, September 17, 2003

An Old School Blueprint for the New Economy 

Last December, almost six months after the publication of Richard Florida’s The Rise of the Creative Class and How It’s Transforming Work, Leisure, Community and Everyday Life,Oregonian critic Randy Gragg wrote an influential article that brought attention to Portland’s youth culture simply by pointing to its existence. Citing census research conducted by local economist Joe Cortright, Gragg informed readers that Portland upped its share of 20- to 34-year-olds during the 1990s, attracting more young adults in the same time period than any other city on the West Coast. In fact, Portland numbered among the top ten cities nationwide to show an increase in that demographic category.

Those statistics are honey to Portland policymakers in today’s bear market, because analysts predict that 20- to 34-year-olds will fuel the national economy in the future. So, despite its location in the state with the worst unemployment figures in the country, Portland may actually have an edge over other cities, particularly if its young adult population shows a penchant for creative endeavors. That last part is important because it’s creativity that defines the New Economy.

That’s right—ideas, not manufacturing, will keep economies viable in the future. Sure, the New York Times regularly prints articles about Midwesterners angry about the closing of yet another manufacturing plant, but that’s old news. Journalists should write about the tool-and-die maker who lost his job to an overseas, NAFTA-aided worker and who sought solace by tinkering in his garage. Before he knew it, he had designed a new part and started his own business. He and his story are exactly the kind of character and ending that fit the narrative of the New Economy: "Inventive Type with Gumption Conquers World with Never-Before-Seen Something or Other!"

More and more, it’s a story that’s finding its way into the local papers. With the state’s economy in the tank, the Portland Tribune reports that unemployed Oregonians are making jobs for themselves rather than seeking nonexistent ones. Last week the paper featured a man who had been laid off from his job maintaining fixtures and constructing display units for local company, Djangos.com, two years ago. These days, he’s running his own fix-it business. Today, another Tribune article highlighted three Beaverton teens who started a business building and repairing computers this summer. And other examples of entrepreneurial or "do it yourself" (DIY) activity in the city never even make it into the mainstream media—how many Portland residents know about the Anarchist Baking Collective, Millions, the Islamic Jihad of Love, or Left Field?

Such evidence of creative output, when coupled with hard data that shows an influx of young people, set tongues wagging among the city’s public and private sector leadership. It seems like everyone who’s anyone wants to know: Who are these wacky kids? Why did they come here, and how can we get them to stay? The mayor’s office launched the Creative Economy Initiative and posed those questions to focus groups of "young creatives" this winter, while the City Club devoted no less than four sessions to the topic. Portland Development Commission staff joined the conversation and held a brown bag lunch with a panel of creatives in April, as did the Institute for Portland Metropolitan Studies (IMS), who talked it over as part of their Forum on Sustainability and the Economy series. (The IMS wins the prize for most humiliating tag: they titled their panel "The Young and the Restless.") The "creatives" answered back with a spate of editorials and opinion pieces in the Oregonian and The Organ, the latter adding an ironic touch to the subject by virtue of its existence as a bi-monthly arts newspaper published by homegrown entrepreneur and writer, Camela Raymond.

The TBA festival kept the topic warm yesterday during "The City as Beacon: New Civics & the Creative Economy," the first of the festival’s Hall Chats, but failed to enlighten those already versed in the issues. Cortright again trotted out his figures; Mayor Vera Katz opined once more on the great, good weirdness of Portland; and Carol Coletta, radio host of Smartcity, echoed the sentiments and statistics of both. To be sure, their platitudes and data must have been impressive to those in the audience who had not heard it all before, and for a festival hoping for a second year, the list of Portland’s impressive attributes added a nice bit of subtle marketing.

And the statistics are impressive. It’s good to know you’re part of a community that spends 37% more on reading material than the average American and which ranks first in wireless internet activity. It feels even better to hear that Oregonians are 11% more likely to be avid winemakers and two thirds more likely to belong to an environmental organization, but in the end, what do these facts mean? For policy wonks and municipal leaders, they prove that difference is quantifiable, assuring those who wish to get a handle on an economic development tool as ineffable as creativity. They allow confident ad campaigns to claim, "Oregon. Things Look Different Here," but to the young, spunky kids who moved--and continue to move--here, Portland’s unique qualities come down to the idea of "keepin’ it real."

In Florida’s list attractors for the creative class, that notion of authenticity is key. He argues that a city’s ability to keep it "real" critically determines its appeal to creative individuals, but defining "real" has never been easy. As Cortright noted yesterday, "Authenticity is something you observe, not something you create." Dan Wieden, Oregon native and co-founder of the internationally famous ad agency, Wieden & Kennedy, echoed Cortright, stating, "Creativity is a subversive, organic act. Something about [it] is dirty."

Wieden’s voice was perhaps the most interesting addition to the discussion that has captivated city leaders and the arts community for much of the year. Unlike Coletta, who seems to have been feeling that New Economy religion, Wieden avoided alarming, rhetorical questions like, "If you don’t believe in a knowledge economy, what do you believe in?" Instead, he spent most of the time leaned back in his chair, piping up every now and again with statements like, "You have to listen to the dissonant voice." The self-referential quality of his comment was eerily reminiscent of input from the young creatives tapped for the mayor’s focus groups, but coming as it did from the CEO of a major company, perhaps the audience, composed mostly of older professionals, paid better attention.

"Leave well enough alone" seemed to be Wieden’s main message. "Part of the appeal of this state, this city, is that we’re not there yet. The more things are figured out, the less interesting it becomes," he said.

Later Wieden reminded the audience that creativity can't flourish under "too much structure and process," while earlier he supported the idea of "a culture that allows for failure."

In all those statements, Wieden came incredibly close to repeating the words of young, local filmmakers, Andrew Dickson and Matt McCormick, both of whom have work included in the TBA festival. As recently as this weekend, Dickson said, "Portland has a sort of unwritten history. What’s interesting that’s going on in town is much more organic."

When pressed to elaborate, he continued, "It’s easy to fail here because there’s more emphasis on the process than the result." He quickly followed with the reassurance that "just because it’s easier to fail here doesn’t mean that failure happens here more often."

And McCormick’s recommendation to interested New Economy heavies? Do nothing. Though separated by twenty years and a whole lot of cash, Wieden didn’t seem that far afield from the younger generation in his thoughts about creativity and how it manifests itself in Portland.

Of course, neither Wieden nor his younger counterparts seem to have much to worry about from the pundits and policymakers who have done nothing so far besides collect facts, wring hands, and organize numerous panel discussions. If the talk actually produces results, like the healthcare coverage that the mayor recognized was the sole artists’ concern that government can address (Hey, if Howard Dean can do it, so can Vera Katz), then maybe all of the squawking will have been worth it. In the meantime, the city’s self-defined creative class can follow the maxim of the progenitor of Portland’s DIY ethic and "just do it."

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