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Saturday, January 16, 2010

Technology, Talent, and Tolerance

Is it time to revisit Richard Florida's thesis about urban development? Over six years ago, I blogged about Florida's ideas about the "creative class." Cities that attract and/or keep top-notch talent succeed where other cities fail. Florida has long argued that the way to retain or lure people able to exploit the "knowledge economy" (built on using technology) is by showing tolerance -- towards gays, for example.

In January, American Prospect ran a piece on Florida that punctured many of his ideas. According to writer Alec MacGillis, Florida has abandoned his old thesis:
Florida has been arguing that the recession has so decimated many cities and regions that it's time for the country to cut its losses and instead encourage growth in places that are prospering, like Silicon Valley, Boulder, Austin, and North Carolina's Research Triangle. And the rest? In his much-cited cover story in the March issue of The Atlantic -- "How the Crash Will Reshape America" -- he delivered the harsh news: "We need to be clear that ultimately, we can't stop the decline of some places, and that we would be foolish to try. ... Different eras favor different places, along with the industries and lifestyles those places embody. ... We need to let demand for the key products and lifestyles of the old order fall, and begin building a new economy, based on a new geography."
I'm not really an urbanist, but I watched two movies last week that made me think about Florida's thesis.

The first was the classic "Last Picture Show" by Peter Bogdanovich (by way of Larry McMurtry). Young characters played by actors Jeff Bridges (Duane) and Cybil Shepherd (Jacy) clearly wanted to abandon their small (dying) Texas town. Even the more contented Sonny (played by Timothy Bottoms) seeks adventure and marriage elsewhere -- in Mexico and Oklahoma. It's difficult to say if any of these young people had talent, though McMurtry's story is supposed to be autobiographical and he presumably left town to pursue his art. The fictional Anarene, TX, seems to tolerate all kinds of sleeping around, but citizens are not especially sympathetic towards a couple of mentally challenged characters.

The far more recent "Happy Texas" can more directly be viewed as a demonstration of Florida's thesis. Set in another sleepy Texas town, escaped convicts played by Steve Zahn and Jeremy Northam pretend to be a talented gay couple who offer their unique skills to a surprisingly tolerant community. In a way, they also save the local economy. If I was teaching Florida's thesis in a class, I'd think about using this movie.

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