The Pied Piper of Pittsburgh

Richard Florida is at it again
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I’d like to punch Richard Florida in the nose. Not only for the deliberate misuse of pronouns in his latest title (although that’s reason enough in my mind), but also for his brazen urban infidelity. After nearly two decades of professing to love and respect his “adopted hometown,” the self-​proclaimed public intellectual unceremoniously dumped Pittsburgh in 2004 for another, more glamorous, trophy city when The ‘Burgh no longer suited him.

Now, adding insult to injury, he encourages others to do the same in Who’s Your City?: How the Creative Economy is Making Where to Live the Most Important Decision of Your Life.

Richard Florida spent 17 years in public policy at Carnegie Mellon University before moving first to Washington, D.C. and then to Toronto, where he currently heads the Prosperity Institute at the Rotman School of Management. His big break came with the publication of The Rise of the Creative Class (2002), in which he detailed the emergence of a new socio-​economic order led by “purveyors of creativity.” It quickly became a national best seller, receiving abundant media attention, particularly for its original gay-​bohemian index of cultural tolerance and creative receptiveness.

Capitalizing on that success, Florida’s new book is a self-​help manual for the placement challenged; a call to action for readers who appreciate the author’s ideas but fail to grasp the necessity of relocation. The work, however, contains very little in the way of truly useful information. It reiterates Florida’s theories of regional development, restates the obvious (e.g. if one wants to work in publishing, one must go where the publishing houses are), and relies heavily on tabulated statistics and random anecdotes to suggest advantageous locations. Nowhere is even the most desirable city — presumably San Francisco, to judge from the data — comprehensively profiled.

Although Florida does not actually urge readers outright to quit Pittsburgh, or any other specific city, Pittsburgh, when mentioned, is roundly damned by faint praise. Identified as an adjunct to Chicago in the vast mega-​region Florida calls Chi-​Pitts, it is distinguished only as a best-​buy location for people over 65, a moderately desirable location for empty-​nesters in late middle age and the nucleus of a neurotic population, defined as “emotionally unstable” and “more likely to experience anxiety, hostility, depression, self-​consciousness, and impulsiveness.” Ouch.

Like the majority of self-​help books, Who’s Your City? is principally about image and conformity. The unmistakable implication of the text is that You Are Where You Live, and those not living in a world-​class city are second-​class cit​i​zens​.In a User vs. Loser scenario, “mobile,” “open-​to-​experience” individuals, prepared to go where the creative people cluster, are portrayed as superior to their stodgy “rooted” counterparts, bogged down by mortgages and commitments to working spouses, aging parents, growing children. Worst of all, some of these poor saps even form a sentimental attachment to a wallflower city.

When faced with an unsatisfactory situation,” Florida says, citing the work of the influential Albert O. Hirschman, “we can either exit the situation or [stay and] voice our discontent. The more loyalty we feel, the more likely we are to use the latter option… But today’s economy may be tipping the ever-​sensitive balance between these two poles… [and] more people may feel compelled to join the ranks of the mobile in order to prosper economically.” The price of loyalty, he warns, is unfulfilled potential.

Exacerbating this somewhat offensive position is the representation of Florida himself as the personification of the mobile ideal. Handsome, fit, highly educated, skilled and successful in a creative field, he is the George Clooney of urban theory; open to “different relationships with different cities.” Elsewhere, in lectures and consultations nationwide, Florida has offered suggestions to struggling cities on ways to increase their attractiveness, but in this book it is all about looking out for #1. Ask not what you can do for your city, he advises; ask what your city can do for you.“The key to finding our happy place largely depends on identifying what we most want out of it,” writes Florida. “If you don’t remain happy, there’s no shame in moving on.” Like playboy Clooney, he sure can pick ’em, but he can’t tell you how to make the relationship last.

Most infuriating of all, of course, is the realization that Richard Florida is not wrong. (I hate it when that happens!) Our city is no San Francisco, as we are all aware. It isn’t hip, isn’t edgy, isn’t sexy. The city is not an ideal location for thrill-​seekers, sybarites or users. But it is a fine place for those who desire something pleasant, real and lasting, as dull as that may seem. When read objectively, Florida’s data and corresponding depiction of Pittsburgh are quite accurate. It’s the use of “who” in his central question that makes the issue feel so personal, so emotional, and provokes the impulsive hostility to which we loyal, rooted neurotics are prone.

As those of us who love the city know, the qualities that best define her are largely intangible and don’t show up on maps or charts. For this reason, who our city is — or isn’t — is conveyed much more satisfactorily in works of literature than social science.

Pittsburgh may not be the enchanting, chimerical Holly Golightly of Truman Capote’s Breakfast at Tiffany’s, but neither is she the impoverished, hysterical maiden aunt Fanny Miniver of Booth Tarkington’s The Magnificent Ambersons; the wretched dependent of a greater mega-​region.

The character of Vera Charles in Patrick Dennis’s uproarious satire, Auntie Mame, serves as a wonderful metaphor fora culturally insecure city remade to fit the model of metropolitan perfection. Vera, the great scene-​chewing actress from Pittsburgh, is Mame’s closest friend. Like Mame herself, who hails from Buffalo (known as the Tor-​Buff-​Chester region in Florida speak), Vera long ago fled the bourgeois babbittry of her native city for New York, there to cluster with the creative class in all its gay-​bohemian glory. Everything about her (except her dipsomania) is a splendid affectation. She disguises both her origin and advanced age beneath glamorous gowns, copious cosmetics, voluminous furs and a voice rich with “such Mayfair elegance that you could barely understand a word she said.”She succeeds in fooling some of the people most of the time, until upstaged by her chum. Then Vera “voices her discontent”in no uncertain terms, spewing invective in the harsh accents of her hometown. But she doesn’t dump Mame. Fabulous phony though she is, ridiculous and grotesque, Vera is nevertheless redeemed by her innate and unwavering loyalty.

Pittsburgh’s persona is perhaps best expressed in the form of Mary Rafferty, the heroine of Marcia Davenport’s classic saga, The Valley of Decision. Born into a family of immigrant mill workers, she spends her life in service to the mill-​owning Scotts of Allegheny City. Despite being mocked by her working-​class associates for rising above her station, and scolded by her well-​meaning employers for not reaching higher, Mary is securely content on the middle ground she has chosen and prides herself on the “fitness” of her place in the world. Though not conventionally lovely, Mary “has such character, you could almostsay beauty.” She is grounded and wise, providing support and inspiration to several successive generations of Scotts as they venture out into the wider world before returning to the security of her metaphorical bosom. In her youth, Mary is vigorous and passionate, possessing “iron in her blood” and “fire in her nerves.” As she ages, she retains a “steely core,” and every disaster, death and disappointment strengthens her fine spirit, though her infrastructure — I mean body — declines.

That’s my city. And I’m proud to know her.

Sandra Levis

Sandra is the literary editor of Pittsburgh Quarterly. Before entering magazine work, she was employed as an architectural historian for the Los Angeles Conservancy and a photographic historian for the Smithsonian Institution. She reads and writes at her home in Point Breeze.

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