Thursday, May 8, 2003

Florida Comes to Memphis

The Memphis Manifesto Summit brought 100 "creatives" together -- at least for a weekend.

Posted By on Thu, May 8, 2003 at 4:00 AM

Carnegie Mellon University's Richard Florida is that most unlikely of combinations: college professor as rock star, love child of his self-professed heroes -- freak-flag-flying guitarist Jimi Hendrix and academe-baiting urbanist scholar Jane Jacobs. Florida's most recent book, The Rise of the Creative Class, has made him one of the country's most prominent public intellectuals. Its ideas about how to build smart, vibrant communities and about how to transform regional growth policy have seemingly coalesced into a movement of sorts over the past year.

But every movement needs a manifesto, and that's what Florida got in Memphis last week, when he hosted (along with organizer and local consultant/radio host Carol Coletta) the Memphis Manifesto Summit. A hundred or so "creatives" from around the country -- and 25 local participants -- met downtown for three days to draft a document outlining a community-development strategy driven by "creativity." The purpose, in part, was to give Florida something to present to a national mayor's conference in June, but it was also intended as a set of guidelines for summit attendees to take back to their communities to implement.

There is admittedly something of the demagogue to Flordia's role in all this, and cynics who've seen the Frank Capra film Meet John Doe may wonder whether Florida fits the role of well-meaning frontman, feisty ghost-writer, or shadowy power-broker in relation to the emerging network of Good Samaritan clubs (Memphis' MPACT was a co-sponsor of the event) that have sprouted up around his ideas.

To his credit, Florida attempts to dispel this view, telling the assembled on Thursday, "I'm not a guru. I'm not even a political activist." And despite some only half-joking murmurs that Florida would show up, pre-written manifesto already in hand, he exerted little direct influence on the crafting of the document. The first draft was written by Coletta, who synthesized ideas from the first two days of the conference. The subsequent and final drafts were crafted in a rather chaotic group session on the summit's final day.

Florida's book, and most of the research presented by other panelists, presents a country that is sorting itself into like-minded enclaves, with the most talented young workers coalescing in cities such as Austin, Seattle, San Francisco, and Boston, leaving other cities in danger of being left out of the so-called creative economy.

Though the conference drew attendees from all across the country (as well as Canada and Puerto Rico), it was those "other cities" that were most prominently represented: Memphis, St. Louis, and Greensboro sent the three largest delegations, and places such as Duluth, Fort Wayne, Iowa City, and Milwaukee were typical of the turnout.

They came seeking succor, and that's what they got. Austin American-Statesman reporter Bill Bishop, after explaining that his city imported much more wealth than it lost over the past decade, delivered an appreciation on the self-made success of Tupelo, Mississippi, ending in a moral that was exactly what much of the crowd wanted to hear: "It's not a question of 'You have to be in the right place.' Your place can be the right place."

For a while on Thursday, there were whispers that a cabal of Midwestern delegates from St. Louis, Kansas City, and Iowa City would refuse to sign the document if it focused on attracting talent from other cities, but Florida defused the issue, saying in his address: "We have to get over this vocabulary about 'attracting.' The real goal should be harnessing the creativity you already have." Another panelist, Newsweek reporter Seth Mnookin, echoed this prescription for self-reinvention, pointing to Memphis' Stax Music Academy as an example of a civic initiative geared toward cultivating homegrown resources.

The reaction to the summit seemed to be a mixture of cynicism and hope. While many professed to be inspired and energized by the meeting, others grumbled about the time and money it took to come when other work could have been done. Memphian Michael Graber, who had described the event as absurd early on, said that after his "wall of cynicism was penetrated," he became a believer. "In the end," he said, "Memphis was blessed to have great minds gather here and dream up a community vision for all citizens."

The document that finally emerged from the conference calls for communities to cultivate and reward creativity, promote and embrace diversity, be authentic, invest and build on quality of place, and remove such "barriers to creativity" as intolerance, sprawl, poverty (good luck there), and environmental degradation.

The manifesto is less specific and more slogan-oriented than Florida's book, a result, in part, of crafting a document that 100-plus people could agree on. The meaning of diversity, for instance, is never spelled out. And Florida's insistence that municipalities put more effort into fostering a "people climate" than a "business climate" and that small, street-oriented projects are more effective than larger-scale but hackneyed development schemes is only alluded to. The result is that the intellectual spirit of the summit itself may be only moderately conveyed by its product.

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