Author says city vies with the world for creative class

April 26, 2005|By BILL ATKINSON

RICHARD Florida wants us to know that he's single, straight and politically an independent.

Just an ordinary college professor. Not someone with the bent, much less the power, to undermine the fabric of American society.

But that's just the sort of attacks that have been hurled at him over the argument in his unexpected best-selling book, The Rise of the Creative Class, that being welcoming to gays and lesbians is a key ingredient in a city's economic success.

Gays, he says, bring cultural creativity and amenities such as art galleries, restaurants and bars. They are the "canary in the coal mine," said Florida, who's now out with a follow-up, The Flight of the Creative Class.

"I've been accused of having a gay agenda ... of undermining the normal fabric of the American family and advocating to undermine the Judeo-Christian civilization," said Florida, 47, a George Mason University public policy professor who has worked most of his career in obscurity until the book. "I mean, come on."

Not surprisingly, Florida ranks San Francisco No. 1 on his "creativity index," which measures talent, tolerance and technology. But of 61 metropolitan areas with populations of at least 1 million, Charm City ranks 21st.

"My sense ... is that Baltimore in recent years and under the leadership of [Mayor] Martin O'Malley has become incredibly open to gays, artists, cultural creatives and bohemians and immigrants," he said.

In his latest book, Florida takes a broader look at cities and their battle to be successful.

He warns that Baltimore is locked in a fight for talent not only with Washington, Philadelphia and New York, but also with cities around the globe.

If Baltimore can't compete, it will suffer as its best and brightest leave for other cities.

"Baltimore has to realize you are competing ... against Ireland, Singapore, Canada and Australia," Florida said. "Our cities are like little countries. I think these [foreign] countries have been getting smarter and getting better."

In his book, Florida singles out Wellington, New Zealand, a city of 400,000 that most Americans probably have never heard of. Yet, Wellington has attracted "the best cinematographers, costume designers, sound technicians, computer graphic artists, model builders, editors and animators" from around the globe, including the United States.

Why? Because Peter Jackson, the director of the smash hit trilogy, Lord of the Rings, grew up there and shopped the world for the best talent.

This is just one example of how America is facing "its greatest challenge since the dawn of the Industrial Revolution," Florida writes. "Our country - for generations known around the world as the land of opportunity and innovation - may well be on the verge of losing its creative, competitive edge."

Talented and creative people - scientists, computer experts, professors, physicians, musicians, filmmakers and others - are moving overseas for the biggest and best projects, Florida said.

At the same time, he believes that the United States turned its back on the world after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. It became "hostile" toward Islamic people, treats gays and lesbians like they are "doing something wrong," and has curbed immigration, he said.

"People view the United States ... slipping away from the cultural edge," Florida said.

Baltimore, Florida says, has strong prospects and is "positioned to move up quickly."

But Baltimore has a large gap between high- and low-income wage earners, he said. It also has a high crime rate and a spotty education system.

"You have got to work out of these worsening social problems," he said.

Florida sees more positives than negatives.

"Baltimore is already in the game; the question is how far it takes it," Florida said.

Aran Gordon, the T. Rowe Price vice president who completed a grueling 154-mile footrace through the Sahara Desert, doesn't know in what place he finished, doesn't know his final time and doesn't care.

All that matters is that he completed the Marathon des Sables - billed as the toughest race on Earth. Gordon suffers from hemochromatosis, a metabolic genetic disorder that causes iron to build up in the blood and can lead to death.

"If I could do this I could say with confidence, `I am back,'" said Gordon, who was so sick a year ago that he could barely walk around the block.

Gordon, 44, also is back working at Price, the Baltimore mutual fund company, trying to adjust to job pressures, noise and colleagues after more than a week in the desert. He didn't take a shower for eight days and he lived on water, freeze-dried food and Power Bars.

When the marathon began April 10, Gordon's mission was to complete it and raise $100,000 for Iron Disorders Institute, an organization formed to save people with hemochromatosis. He has raised about $30,000, and plans to hold more fund-raisers.

Quitting the race was no option for Gordon, who lost 10 pounds and sports a deep tan.

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