Monday, June 18, 2007
Grab Bag: Follow that Gay!
In the mid 1990s, urban economist and sociologist Richard Florida devised the “gay index,” a tool used to monitor and predict cities that could host profit-generating high-tech industries. The index essentially correlates the number of gay people living in an area and how many high-tech firms are located there. This, of course, is a good thing as it enables regional planners to better accommodate growth and accordingly adjust all of those terribly meaningful strategic plans that herald beautiful, functional cities. The gay index is directly linked to Florida’s argument about the economic advantages associated with attracting the “creative class” to cities, which will lead to revitalization, regeneration, and economic success. In addition to the Gay Index, Florida proffered the “bohemian index,” which measured the number of artists, writers, designers, and general “Cool” professionals located in certain cities against the presence of those same high-tech industries.
Between the gay index and the bohemian index, creative classes and cool factors, Florida established a lexical melting-pot (to borrow another phrase of his) of ambiguous social terms to describe economic patterns and predict cities that might next host this seething mass of culture and hip-ness. An attempt to tackle this subject comprehensively requires study beyond the scope of a blog-essay, and has been done by the author’s countless critics—detractors, deriders, and general disbelievers who have questioned his methodologies, data, and value as both an economist and sociologist—to which Florida has, admirably, responded (though, I must say, rather unconvincingly) in subsequent works.
Rather than attack him on economic grounds, then, or even within the discourses of urban sociology, I’d like to just take a moment to appreciate Florida’s use of and take on gayness for a brief moment. Seriously, just to back up a second. The gay index? Excuse me? So, somewhere along the way it became ok to pin tracking devices under urban homosexuals and exploit their flight into neighborhoods into which they are essentially exiled in order to capitalize on planning strategies and speculative development? Diabolical! It’s a scheme concocted by a Bond villain hit by the gay bomb (post-fabulous stress disorder!), it’s Jane Jacobs on poppers and ethnography written in Polari.
The million-dollar question, of course, is whether or not Mr. Florida is himself a card-carrying gay, ripe for the tracking and with a miraculous and preternatural ability to identify potentially hip—and therefore economically prosperous—cities. After repeated Google searches (“Richard Florida gay,” “Is Richard Florida gay?” “Richard Florida flaming homosexual,” “Richard Florida hypocrite,” “Is Richard Florida secretly or openly gay or he just a misguided economist who has no concept of how unbelievably offensive his social experiments and de-humanizing measures are?” and on and on) I am still not sure. Richard Florida has a tendency to wear his shirts with the top few buttons undone, exposing a curiously smooth chest. He is generally well-coiffed (or at least rather meticulously so). But that doesn’t really get us too far. I digress, however. His sexually isn’t really that important.
What is important, however, is Florida’s use of gayness as a fetishistic mechanism through which to identify market indicators. I’m only going to highlight several distinct ways in which his project demonstrates problematic views of gayness and thus renders his “index” fairly irrelevant, though there are innumerable reasons to find his argument ridiculous. The first is to look at his argument’s development. In his best-selling work The Rise of the Creative Class (New York: Basic Books, 2002), Florida introduces the gay index in a chapter titled “Technology, Talent and Tolerance.” He begins by talking about the importance of tolerance in attracting high-tech industries to cities, citing past work by authors such as Pascal Zachary that point to the importance of racial acceptance and openness to immigration as paramount to innovation and economic growth in urban environments. Florida (and Zachary by proxy) cites key statistics of mass immigrations to American cities in the 1990s—many of which moved to New York, Chicago, Phoenix, Atlanta and Los Angeles.
Florida highlights the correlation between patterns of migration and economic growth in these same cities, which provides the basis for his comparable correlation between gays and high-tech industries. Pausing, for a moment, on the migrant-growth relationship, it is crucial to highlight the misrepresentation at play here. As pointed out sociologist Saskia Sassen (who has seemingly endless empirical data to support her argument) the vast majority of immigrants to move to these cities support advanced industries as service workers—low-wage, low-skill laborers whose quality of life is vastly different from the “creative class” that earn the cities their reputation. Unlike Florida’s romanticized perception that countless model minorities are arriving, en masse, with tears in their eyes and hope in their hearts to start valuable enterprises across America, the reality is that most of these immigrants end up with bottom-of-the-barrel jobs that no one else will take.
I realize that I’m now attacking Florida’s methodology, which I said I would avoid, but here I just want to note that the logical fallacy of false causality—that the immigrants lead to increased creative industries—has a significant bearing on gays and high-tech industry. Florida is careful to point out that of course his argument isn’t that high-tech industries are full of homosexuals. In fact, few gays work in these profit-generating industries at all. What Florida points, out, however, provides a meaningful insight into the role gays serve these white (or Indian or East Asian—Florida’s favored minorities) engineers and computer-nerds: that they decide to locate somewhere suggests that that geographical space is open and accepting. In other words, if gays are allowed to live there, won’t nerds be too? (Seriously, this is taken straight from Florida. Page 258 of the paperback.)
If Florida’s hope is that a large number of gay citizens act as a predictive index for the potential of a city to house high-tech industry, what we’re really talking about is gays as guinea pigs. Florida’s cities are aligned with patterns of habitation within cities, particularly within gentrification arguments. The familiar narrative goes: first the gays move in, then the artists, then the yuppie hipster families, then the middle class. But obviously the gays weren’t first. The narrative implies a certain kind of urban grey-zone as a beginning point, where drug-addicts, non-model minorities, and general undesirables rove the streets, leaving opened fire hydrants, burning garbage bins, and a general gritty cacophony wherever they go. That Florida first equates gays (“the new outsiders”) with immigrants, and then as the precursor to the bohemian influx, demonstrates the role that the homosexual plays in this perverse narrative—bridging the gap between poor ethnics and young artists.
This role is inextricably linked with what French author Guy Hocquenghem terms “the criminalization” of the homosexual—by virtue of being gay, these citizens occupy a curious position of being criminal enough to live in the margins while white enough to make those areas appear safe. And yes, for the most part the gays in these neighborhoods are white—from London’s Vauxhaull (now also part of Brixton), Boston’s South End, and New York’s Chelsea to Chicago’s Boystown and Los Angeles’ West Hollywood. And so the gays are the guinea pigs, sent to the periphery to make it safe for young white artists and café-goers all the way through to middle class families, negotiating color and difference and mediating what is edgy and safe. Before I’m accused of setting up a straw man, though, I should acknowledge that Florida talks about cities and economic growth, not about neighborhoods and gentrification. But by evoking the argument of acceptance and tolerance, and of nerdy IT guys walking around without fear of harassment, I would argue that Florida is talking about cities on a neighborhood level. Clearly, even if the gay index for a city is high, there’s no argument that a tech-firm should locate in undeveloped, high crime neighborhoods. To reap the advantages associated with the diversity of the citizens, they must locate where those groups reside, furthering the process of development and gentrification.
And what after gentrification? Like neighborhoods that attract countless immigrants, where do these households go when displaced by the influx of suburbanites who can now walk the streets? It depends on the city, and the answer is rarely promising. But thank god we’ve attracted “the creative class” (read: college-educated, safe, “nerdy,” largely white or model ethnic), and attracted revitalization and economic growth. Thank god those gays have such a good eye for design and interior decorating, for building rehabilitation and kitschy stores, for gourmet food and fine living. Thank god they make neighborhoods consumable by all, indicate where cities should spend their money and where new firms should locate.
Forget that, according to Florida, those new firms don’t employ a number of gays proportionate to the area. Forget that the “new outsiders” (not to mention the old outsiders) see a relatively small benefit in the transformations of cities and neighborhoods (is there anyone left out there who sincerely believes in trickle-down?). Of course I don’t equate urban (mostly white) gays with low-income populations. Homosexual partners and households have been demonstrated to have inordinately high incomes—but these aren’t necessarily related to the industries they attract. Their role in the urban economy is far more complex. Florida, of course, digs his own grave by treating such a complex facet of the population as a singular unit—an “index”—and yet his ideas are hard to ignore. He is a pop-economist in the most ignoble sense of the word, promulgating stereotypes and recommending a business model that embraces gentrification and exploitation all within the language and presentation of a marketable "strategy."
A final question: while gay men might be romanticized for their sense of aesthetic and design mixed with urban grittiness—the perfect combination for faux "thrill”-seeking city-dwellers—where the hell do lesbians fit in to Florida’s framework? I'm thinking of New York's Park Slope and Stoke Newington in London, and I remain a bit unsure of how we can exploit them.
Posted by Jaffer Kolb at 03:55 PM | Permalink