Sunday, June 28, 2009

What took you so long....

...and have you really shown up?

Leah Sandals and Toronto Star reporter Murray Whyte describe the emergence of a new collective that calls themselves the "Creative Class Struggle". This group focuses on the flaws in the theory of the creative class, and the person of Richard Florida. I strongly support the first focus, but I have serious reservations about the second.

My reservations about making a particular university professor the focus of this enquiry involves two objections, one major and the other minor. The focus on a single faculty member concerns me, partly because I dislike a focus on one person on general principle, and partly because some the kinds of objections raised to Professor Florida's presence, his inadequate teaching load and his unconscionable salary, reminds me of other conversations in other places, part of a larger conversation that has gone around and around academia forever. Also, I do not believe Professor Florida represents a symptom of the problems in our society, or that any conceivable social change will dislodge him. Men and women gifted at expressing and affirming the hopes of their societies have prospered under every system known in history. From the praise singer of ancient culture to the Bards of pre-Christian Europe to theoreticians who found their place in the Soviet Nomenklatura, I cannot think of a society in which writers and thinkers have not both prospered and provoked rivalries.

But the greatest problem with the focus on Professor Florida lies with the way this focus distorts his relationship to our city. Richard Florida did not come to Toronto to make it in the image of his ideas; he came because the city already expresses his ideas, and has done so for some time. I would argue that if we want to make a serious try at addressing the influence of Dr. Florida's ideas, we have to address the way our city expresses them. And we'll know we have done the job right if it makes us very uncomfortable.

To start with the obvious, well before Richard Florida came to Toronto, our current mayor, David Miller, called the industrial waterfront a "wasteland", and declared that the skilled workers, the pilots, aircraft mechanics and others who work at Toronto Island (City Centre) Airport should have no place there. The group most vociferous in their demands destroy the airport, Community Air, once made the connection between their demands and their vision of a waterfront reserved for the "creative class" explicit, claiming that failing to destroy the airport would imperil the waterfront's "potential as a major tourist, recreational, cultural, knowledge worker, and residential area serving the entire Greater Toronto Area.... Film makers, outdoor entertainment venues, restaurants, boaters and other recreational users, condo developers, and high tech businesses would all begin to flee..." (emphasis mine)

If we push industry and transportation away from the waterfront, where will they go? The city has a vision for that, too; for some time, transportation planners have prepared a special train to take passengers to Pearson International Airport from downtown. So does anyone live near Pearson? It happens that many more people live right near Pearson International Airport and its flight paths than live on the downtown waterfront. It also happens (surprise) that the people living in the neighbourhoods near (in some cases directly adjacent to) Pearson have, on average, about exactly half the household income of the people living in the downtown waterfront.

This process got rolling long before Professor Florida ever arrived on the scene. He came because a large part of this city's official ideology suited him perfectly. When it comes to the ideology of the creative class, and the issues of privilege (at all levels), disenfranchisement (for a long time, some waterfront advocates refused to acknowledge that the people of Malton even existed, insisting that Pearson Airport had a large buffer zone) and equity in public policy.

But that raises a problem: many prominent leftists in this city actively participated in the efforts to socially cleanse the waterfront in favour of "clean" high tech, creative-class industries. If we want to truly address the ideas that Dr. Florida puts forward, we will have to look hard at why he found such a congenial home here, and that look will not necessarily feel comfortable or pleasant. If you truly want to take on these issues, then I very much look forward to exploring them with you. If you just want to scapegoat one successful academic, someone else will eventually come along and ask us to think about what about us attracted this individual.

1 comment:

rosemheather said...

Hi John,

Very nice, thoughtful post, thank you. It would be great if this city could grow-up a bit,and accept celebrations of its positive aspects with a modicum of grace.

A rising tide lifts all boats, but Canadians seem to have a hard time understanding this.

In general, Canada's default mode is more that of the disaffected outsider. Perhaps this helps ensure we don't get fooled (perish the thought!), but it also guarantees that the culture remains comfortably mediocre - because we are always ready to shoot first at any threatening flights of fancy!

Do you have a Twitter account, so I can make sure to know about your upcoming posts?