Creative destruction or the creative age?
As the centre of the world’s financial system, New York is in a pivotal position to act as a model for how many of us are going to work and live in the future. The economist Joseph Schumpeter argued that capitalism progresses through ‘waves of creative destruction’. Now that IT may be reaching maturity the hunt is on for the next ‘big thing’. Professor Richard Florida, author of the influential ‘Rise of the Creative Class’ thinks what he calls the ‘Creative Age’ offers the way forward. In an article on Ever Resilient New York he reports that by looking at New York’s top 50 occupations, ‘the large majority were in the creative sectors of arts, culture, design and entertainment’. Indeed there are neighbourhoods in Lower Manhatten and adjacent parts of Brooklyn and New Jersey where they account for more than 80% of jobs. The President of New York University goes further in saying that the future is not FIRE (Finance, Insurance and Real Estate), but ICE (Intellectual, Cultural and Education).
So how has New York managed to reinvent itself after the shocks of both the collapse of some major banks, the 9:11 destruction, and Hurricane Sandy? Much of the credit is given to Mayor Bloomberg, who used his personal wealth to rise above local interests, and as a result changed the face of the city. A New York Times article on his legacy, said ‘Recognising that manufacturing was not coming back, Bloomberg poured money into rejuvenating the decrepit waterfront. He restored and expanded parks and other public spaces – not just landmarks like Central Park and upscale novelties like the High Line… He rezoned not just plots but neighbourhoods – a quarter of the city! – promoting growth in transit-rich areas, sustaining local character elsewhere, occasionally putting too much faith in developers but generally imposing order on chaos’. Incidentally he raised property taxes early on, to keep the city afloat, as once before New York had faced bankruptcy.
The City has played a proactive role, because it has access to capital funds that exceed its revenue budget. The resurgence of the City is clear, not just in the gentrified parts of the Lower Eastside or Williamsburg in Brooklyn, but in how the streets and open spaces, such as Bryant Park feel safe and pleasant (even though Bloomberg failed to get congestion charging approved at State level, and had to rely on raising parking charges instead). Unlike my former visit over 30 years ago, the subways are now graffiti free. The ethnic background of the residents has also changed, as Hispanics and Asians have taken over from Afro-Americans in the basic service jobs, such as in bars and taxis. Those squeezed out of Manhattan by escalating property prices may be making some adjoining areas more vibrant, but they also may be adding to conflicts in others.
Unfortunately the creative ‘oases’ that have emerged tend to serve the few rather than the majority. One English émigré responded to my probing by pointing out that Apple had managed to patent the corners on its Ipods, and somewhat inevitably it tends to be the lawyers who gain most. A trip out on train up the Hudson River to the little town of Beacon Falls discovered some high quality bars and shops, but the major employer, a large packaging plant, had been superbly turned into the largest art or sculpture gallery in the world, DIA. What was once a working class town was becoming an artistic centre (where incidentally Pete Seeger lived), not unlike English towns such as Stroud and Hebden Bridge.
New York City, even more than the rest of the USA, has regained most of the jobs lost in the recession, but the new jobs are relatively low paid being part-time or in the health and social services, and tourism sectors. House prices are rising, though not as fast as in other metropolitan areas, and the latest immigrants are packed ever more tightly into properties that are rented out in the less attractive residential areas. Chinatown now occupies much of the space formerly associated with Little Italy, while Ukrainians have apparently vanished from the East Village, and possibly been replaced by Asian students at New York University (NYU), which dominates the heart of Greenwich Village.
Undoubtedly great cities like New York foster ‘creative milieus’, where people can meet up with others just like themselves, aided by the new ‘social media’. In turn, as young people start to favour urban living, and reject the suburban car-based lifestyles of their parents, new life is being injected into the older urban areas that are well-connected. An injection of urban quality, such as the restoration of Bryant Park or the opening up of a linear park along the old freight line that served the meat packing district, can transform an area’s image, and give confidence to both occupiers and property developers, who can benefit from the upswing in the property market once space is released. Projects such as the development of the Hudson Park railway lands should therefore reinforce New York’s intrinsic advantages. But they are unlikely to do much good for the people or places that have lost out. A Business Improvement District in an area where no one has any money to spend cannot achieve much. Furthermore, the price of a career in New York is taking on more debt than many can expect to pay off.
It is good that research is underway at NYU’s Schack Institute and elsewhere to establish how the various networks they are mapping can lead to new products and employment. But it could be a temporary phenomenon, as those with the most talent move to places that are not quite so hectic or costly. The current Mayoral candidates do not appear to be in the same class as Bloomberg, and New York is looked on with suspicion by the great majority of US citizens who come from small towns, and inhabit the middle of the country. It may be that it is good cities where people can live better lives rather than great places that attract tourists and students that will hold the keys to the future.