In some circles the Richard Florida “creative class” argument for why certain cities prosper and others fail has been the flavor of the month for years. In the end I think he confuses cause and effect, but in spite of that many of the issues he takes on regarding making places for “creatives” are valid points in general for simply making better places.
Nothing succeeds like success and much more of what we think and believe is culturally mediated than we want to think or believe. When I explain to my students as we read literature from earlier eras in Spain that “skinny” is a synonym for “ugly” and calling someone “fat” is a compliment it usually provokes a discussion around just how much of what we believe to be our own individual taste has been produced by the culture which surrounds us. I will project some works by Rubens onto the giant screen at the front of the classroom, or perhaps show a photo of Marilyn Monroe, and explain that these women defined beauty in their respective epochs. I’ll usually mention how even some smells we consider disgusting only seem so because we have been trained to respond that way.
I had a great friend growing up who was always running counter to whatever the trend of the day was. At one point I expressed to him a thought which really was original to myself, though I have come to see that many others have expressed it, and that is that someone who simply responds as a contrarian to every whim of popular culture is just as much controlled by it as someone who internalizes it body and soul without questioning it. That said, inevitably we are all at least partly created by the environment which nurtures or fails to nurture us. The only hope we have is in an awareness that much of what we believe, and think, and like has been manufactured by outside influences and that in many cases even our most dearly cherished preferences would not be if we had been raised at another time, or in another place, or by other people.
This is true when it comes to both climatological preferences and those involving living typologies. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder of course, and what I am about to express is in no way objective, but it may be “illustrative of something” as Britt Hume once famously said. (Of course he’s an idiot)
One of the reasons given for the move southward and westward in this country is climatological: People prefer warm to cold, and dry to wet. I’ve even heard it expressed that the desire of people to be able to spend more time outdoors is what has lead people to move to Arizona and Georgia. I’m afraid I have to call “bullshit” on that. Whether its the dry heat of Phoenix, or the humidity of Atlanta, everyone I’ve ever spoken to says that for huge chunks of the year people in those places don’t go anywhere which isn’t air conditioned, a category which does not include the outdoors as I understand it. Here in southern New England there are perhaps three to four weeks in winter when the cold really keeps you indoors, and a week or two in the summer when the heat and humidity discourage forays into the great wide open except in the morning. Bottom line, it’s more the idea of “fun in the sun” than the reality thereof which negatively impacts the northeast.
The same is true for the idea that suburbs are in any way preferable to cities for raising a family or simply for “living” in general. It’s much more the cultural inertia that leads people to that conclusion, and to the degree there is some truth in it expressed statistically relative to health and well-being, it seems fairly obvious that those realities have much more to do with perceptions creating reality and not some inherent weakness in the living typology. Any experience outside the United States not only can demonstrate how healthy an urban lifestyle can be, but also just how preferable the upper classes view the opportunities that come with it. The result, again, is probably much more a consequence of perception itself.
What cities like Springfield need more than anything is a change in the zeitgeist. A simple belief that being in Springfield is cool would do more to improve the quality of life in Springfield than anything else. There may be material reality that can’t be denied, but “there is nothing good nor bad but thinking makes it so.” The MGM casino proposal for Springfield is important for just that reason. Its importance in the long run may have very little to do with what they actually bring here in terms of the programming of their facility, but it may very well be a regional game changer in terms of where young people, and energetic people of all ages WANT to live.
I fully believe that most cities of the population of, say, ancient Athens, have the same talent pool to draw from. That as remarkable as Socrates, and Sophocles, and Pericles were, they were much less individual geniuses, and much more products of their time and place. Go to a local theater production, listen to local musicians, read the writings of local authors, and you begin to see the talent and the creativity which exists everywhere. I would never deny that today New York City, Boston, and Chicago attract creative people from all over their regions and even the world, but they attract a certain type of “creative”: The kind which cannot “accept the place the divine providence has found for them”, they cannot be inglorious Miltons.
Other people, just as creative and just as talented (within the bounds of the “law of large numbers” of course) choose to live where they live for reasons other than those which draw certain creatives to certain places. (An example here would be one of my “favs”, James Howard Kunstler: Raised for a time in Manhattan; cut his teeth in journalism in Boston; and fled to the beautiful nowheresville of upstate New York to live and “curmudge”.) What every city needs is a place, or places, for these people to get together, to recognize each other, and to create. This is an argument that the magnificence of Broadway can be equalled artistically by 20 talented people in a black box, that the finest cuisine of the finest chefs can be bested by a thoughtful cook in a local restaurant, that a local band of musicians who ” don’t give up their day jobs” can be superior to the musical “flavor of the month” in Los Angeles.
People seem to feel the need for permission to enjoy things. They have a hard time seeing the value in that which isn’t adjudged to be of high quality by others a priori. I know (and these are actual experiences) that people feel free to judge me as somehow inferior in terms of my sensibilities because: I can see the talent in minor league athletes; I can be impressed by the musicianship of a regional symphony; I can wax as poetic about the architectural magnificence of my hometown as others do of Barcelona. That list could go on and on and on. I’ll spare you.
In the end it seems to be true that many people, perhaps even most people, require the permission of others to experience greatness and genius. That is why a mega project, as fraught with pitfalls as it may be, can make a difference in a city like Springfield. The symphony is already wonderful, perhaps MGM will give people greater permission to hear it, Panjabi Tadka already makes the most spectacular Lamb Boti Kebab Masala, perhaps a world class resort down the street will allow people to taste it, the Quadrangle is one of the most beautiful public spaces in the world, maybe a casino a few blocks away will help people to see it.