But Can You Get a Decent Bagel There?

Back in August 2005, the New York Times published a story that caused a minor hullabaloo in Philadelphia. Noting that many onetime New Yorkers were relocating to their cheaper, more manageable neighbor city to the south, the Big Apple’s paper of record declared a trend, and dubbed Philadelphia “the sixth borough.”

Once you got past the condescension and the logical problems with the label (if you wanted to start adding boroughs to New York City, wouldn’t Philly be, like, seventeenth on the list?), the story had a lot to offer. It documented a phenomenon that affected the life of two cities, and correctly identified its causes as cost of living and convenience.

The part that struck me the most, though, was a throwaway line in the middle, about new Philadelphians who were reluctant to give up their New York phone numbers, because they couldn’t admit that they’d really left. See, I myself am a native New Yorker who relocated to Philly, and I worry a fair amount about my decision to be here. I worry, for example, that I’m far from my parents and friends, and that, while I really like the City of Brotherly Love, I’ll always feel more at home listening to old men argue about the Mets in a bagel store. Other urbanites, I’m sure, have their own concerns. Probably there are New Yorkers just scraping by who wonder whether they could have a higher quality of life in a smaller metropolis like Philly. The well-to-do in the Big Apple may ponder whether they’d prefer the weather in, say, San Francisco, and Bay Area residents, I can only imagine, are racked with guilt over their decision to live in a veritable resort town. For those of us fortunate enough to have a choicebecause of youth, education, resources, or whateverthe question of where has become a difficult one. We have a wealth of options, a wide range of possible outcomes, and, unlike with, say, career choices or love lives, no archive of platitudes to guide us.

Enter Richard Florida, guru of all things young and urban. If you know Florida, it’s probably from his smash book The Rise of the Creative Class, in which he argues that, in an era when people’s creative faculties are the real means of production, cities grow by attracting creative people; to do that, he says, they need to be hip, open, and gay friendly. The book won this magazine’s Political Book Award, became a national best seller, and changed the way cities thought about economic development. (This infuriated people on both sides of the political spectrum: conservatives, because it gave municipalities a development tool beyond slashing business taxes; and liberals, because they believed Florida was cheerleading inequality.) It also made Florida a sort of academic pop star. Cities around the world brought him in as a consultant, and his speaking engagements were accompanied by local newspaper articles referencing the middle-aged author’s hip attire and numerous handlers.

Now, in a new book called Who’s Your City?: How the Creative Economy Is Making Where You Live the Most Important Decision of Your Life, Florida attempts to expand his brand. His previous work was about cities, and how they could best attract creative professionals; this one is for professionals, and how they can best choose a home. The book is a hybrid between the academic form that gave Florida his start and the professional-advice-giver style he’s since adopted; in other words, it’s Florida’s attempt to help his “creative class” answer the question: Where?

Like any self-help book, Who’s Your City? begins by telling its readers that they’re missing a great opportunity. Because creative skills have become so valuable, Florida says, creative workers are able to sell their services in a variety of places, and have become highly mobile. But, he laments, most of us fail to think very much or very hard about where we choose to live.

I think this is an oversimplification, but let’s come back to that, because after making this last point Florida goes on to do something we should all applaud: he disagrees with Thomas Friedman. Florida believes people fail to think about place because we’re told that place no longer matters. And Friedman, author of the best-selling book The World Is Flat, is a chief proponent of the idea that technology has made geography obsolete. Florida objects. The world is not flat, he tells us. It’s “spiky.”

Though the “flat” metaphor never made sense in the first placeas Matt Taibbi memorably observed in the New York Press, the significance of Columbus’s discovery was that in a round world, the farthest-apart points are closer togetherand though Florida, apparently eager to coin a phrase, uses the word “spiky” about 60,000 times, the image works. Creative, mobile workers tend to cluster, Florida says, and, using a number of different indicators including economic output and patents granted, he shows that the great bulk of global economic activity is conducted in a modest number of “mega-regions,” or, yes, “spikes.” The creative economy is not making the world flat; it is dividing it into prosperous peaks and impoverished valleys.

Where we fall on this landscape, then, is an important consideration. The way Florida sees it, people really belong to one of two groups: the “mobile,” who hop agilely from peak to peak, or the “rooted,” who are trapped in place far below them. It’s not clear where poor migrants fit in this paradigm, but that doesn’t really stop us, because after briefly discussing the global class dynamic, Florida pretty much leaves everyone but his educated, mobile readers behind. The book, after all, is about us, and the choice that our mobility permitsan important choice, Florida says, because (and this is one of his key points) the place we choose will have a major impact on our happiness. Citing a study he conducted with the Gallup Organization called the Place and Happiness Survey, Florida reports that, even controlling for demographic factors, satisfaction with one’s place is highly correlated with overall happiness. “Most people operate under the assumption that as long as our work remains enjoyable and challenging, our finances in order, and our family and friends loving and supportive, we will be happy,” he writes. “What my team and I found is that there is most definitely a fourth bucket from which we all seem to derive happiness: our place.”

Much of the rest of the book is dedicated to understanding this relationship between location and happiness. Sometimes, the questions Florida raises are interesting: he looks at what characteristics we appreciate in a hometown, for instance, and finds the answer to be basic services, aesthetics, security, and culture. I also liked a chapter on the geographic clustering of personality, a subject about which Florida collaborated on a study. The Sunbelt, it turns out, really is populated by “agreeable” people; “neurotics” do tend to gather in New York. (Of course, there’s a big chicken-and-egg question here: Do people bring their personalities to a place, or does a place bestow upon residents a common personality? But Florida acknowledges this, and the quantification of a region’s personality is pretty cool in any case.)

Other times, however, Florida seems a bit, shall we say, overeager. Consider, for example, that, according to the Place and Happiness Survey, “the majority of us are quite happy with where we have chosen to live”a fact Florida reveals without asking whether that’s because people can adapt to different places, in which case maybe the question of where to live really isn’t so important after all. The author, you get the feeling, is a bit too committed to seeing his theories reflected in his results.

The other thing that should be said about Who’s Your City? is that it is, quite simply, painful to read. The book opens with a thud of a story, about an appearance Florida made on the Colbert Report, that doesn’t have much to do with anything except Florida’s stardom. From there, it sputters along on lifeless anecdotes and bad jokes. (In discussing people who move to places outside their comfort zones, for instance, Florida writes, “How about Paris and Nicolewell, that’s the subject of another book.”) More frustrating than the poor writing, however, is Richard Florida’s preoccupation with Richard Florida. It’s not just that the author uses his own experience as his prime example; it’s that, in so doing, he works hard to promote a certain self-image. We read, repeatedly, about Florida’s working-class upbringing; we read obviously manufactured quotes from his parents: “‘Richard,’ [my father] would say, ‘You don’t have to end up in a factory like me, working hard and punching a clock for modest pay.'” (Really? He said “modest”?) The whole thing brings back cringe-inducing memories of John Kerry’s “band of brothers” or John Edwards’s incessant use of the phrase “mill worker.” (It also reminded me of another Stephen Colbert moment, from his Daily Show days, in which Colbert satirized the Democratic primary by claiming to be the son of a “turd miner” and the grandson of a “goat-ball licker.”)

In the final third of the book, after making the case that our happiness is tied up in our locationwhich, for all the flaws with the author’s delivery, is a perfectly reasonable ideaFlorida finally takes off his academic hat and gives us some advice. The cornerstone of this effort is a new set of rankings of the most desirable metropolitan regions in the country. “Best Places to Live” ratings are fairly ubiquitous, of course, and, somewhat oddly, Florida fails to differentiate his by stating explicitly whether they’re for the “creative class” or are otherwise unique, aside from their urban focus. Still, his approach seems, to my amateur eyes, fairly sophisticated. He generates a different list for people in each of five “life stages”college grads, young professionals, families with children, empty nesters, and retireesand takes different factors into consideration for each (the availability of doctors for the older group, for instance). I was pleased to see that he also factors in costsomething I didn’t expect, since Florida, at times, seems oblivious to the fact that many members of the creative class have economic limitations.

Florida says he’s created an online tool into which you can punch your information and get a list of the cities that are right for you. But it’s not available yet, so the rankings are all I have to work with. According to those, as a person between the age of twenty and twenty-nine with economic limitations, I would be happiest in San Francisco; Washington, D.C.; New York City; Austin; or Minneapolis. If I wanted to live in a smaller city, I might try Bridgeport, Connecticut; Madison, Wisconsin; or Huntsville, Alabama.

This is fair enough. But I’m not going to just pick up and move to Huntsville. For one thing, my wife and I don’t want to be more than a couple of hours from our families. For another, I need to be somewhere with as healthy a media market as possible. So I’m pretty much still stuck deciding between New York and Philly. What I really need is some advice about how to make this decision.

Florida, to his credit, dedicates his final chapter to offering such advice. He takes us through a ten-step process, from asking preliminary questionsHow much does climate matter to you? Do you prefer big cities or small communities?to examining factors like schools and crime statistics, to considering what he calls “aesthetics” and “open-ness.” In Step 10, he reminds us that this is about more than taking a measurement. “Say you’re thinking about moving to Santa Fe. Do you know anyone who lives there?” he writes. “Talk to them.”

Florida declares, at the start of his final chapter, that “few of us spend any time strategically considering … where to live.” When he makes this point early on, it seems like a minor overstatement, or a conflation with the Friedmanian idea that, from a geopolitical standpoint, place doesn’t matter anymore. But as you finish the book, you realize that Florida thinks people don’t ponder the pros and cons of location at allthat we just follow jobs from place to place, never realizing we might like one locale more than another. That’s ridiculous; we don’t need to be told to think about location; we need to be told how to think about it better. I, for example, would like to know whether the satisfaction of feeling at home in a bagel store outweighs a 50 percent drop in commuting time.

It could be, of course, that these kinds of questions are just too subjective for any advice to be universally helpful. But if that’s the case, then Florida’s book just boils down to another mildly useful, demographically specific Best Places to Live list.

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