Bohemian Rhapsody

How nonconformists can make a city rich

The newest it book, The Rise of the Creative Class, has civic leaders across the country suddenly trying to figure out how to attract the latest human resource: creative people — artists, musicians, gays, immigrants, and other assorted bohemians and weirdos. You know, the people most cities — ours included — have been trying to get rid of for years with ordinances that ban loitering, busking, amplified music and pretty much everything else creative people like to do.According to author Richard Florida, an economist and Carnegie-Mellon professor, cities hospitable to this sort of diversity are best able to attract high-tech and information industries — cornerstones of the new creative economy that will drive prosperity in years to come. No longer do people move to cities for jobs, he posits. Rather, companies move to cities with existing pools of creative talent. And creative talent is drawn to places that support nontraditional lifestyles.

Florida addressed a crowd of nearly 500 at the Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center last Friday morning. (Of course if we could get that many people to a jazz concert or theater performance, we wouldn't need Richard Florida to tell us how to attract creative people.)

The arts and culture leaders were there — thrilled for the most part to see the song they've been singing for years legitimized and energized by this handsome, hip-talking harbinger of the new economy. But he wasn't just singing to the choir. There were definitely people in attendance who were not the usual arts supporters — people who might be considering for the first time that music, arts, culture, diversity and even bohemian lifestyles are an important part of a vivacious city and should be supported. They gave him the traditional Tampa standing ovation at the end of his talk.

Florida definitely merits enthusiastic applause. He's an engaging speaker — witty, smart and armed with loads of statistics and anecdotal evidence to support his thesis. One of his tools is an index of overall creativity, by which he ranks Tampa-St. Petersburg 38th in the country.

Fairly respectable. And yet, over the years, we have lost some of our most creative and talented artists — especially performers — to cities that provided more stimulation and support. We don't have much of a critical mass of culture here, and we seem to have less now than in years past. The Florida State Dance Festival, which once brought cutting-edge dance and performance to audiences and even more importantly to dance students, moved to Miami, where it received more institutional and audience support. We lost our ballet company and the Florida Center for Contemporary Art, a nonprofit gallery that exhibited challenging work in an urban environment. And local music club habitues are notorious for yakking so loud the musicians can barely hear themselves.

Richard Florida says culture is more important than spectator sports to the creative class. A look at the two daily papers' Sunday editions will tell you our priorities are pretty much the opposite. Last Sunday, both The Tampa Tribune and St. Petersburg Times contained 18-page sports sections, book sections of under two pages, plus three-page arts sections (counting movie times) that start on the back page of another section.

Traditionally, Tampa has been behind the curve on most things cultural, despite the existence of a handful of forward-thinking arts enthusiasts. Proposals for a downtown riverfront arts complex have been floating around for almost 30 years. Tampa adopted a public art ordinance in 1985, nearly 20 years after other major cities.

Though we clearly have a long way to go, there are encouraging signs. The new mayor, Pam Iorio, speaks often about cultural vitality and providing affordable housing and exhibition space for artists in the barren northern part of downtown Tampa. Linda Saul-Sena, longtime city council member and new chair of the council, has always been a strong and creative proponent of the arts. And the University of South Florida's College of the Visual and Performing Arts is forging new projects and partnerships to strengthen its diversity and reach.

Tampa will never compete with New York, San Francisco, Boston or Seattle as a cultural and creative Mecca. But it does have a few things that attract creative people: a fairly strong underground counterculture, cheap cost of living and a climate that encourages year-round exercise and recreation. It still lacks a sophisticated audience base that would provide the support and interest to help our cultural landscape grow.

My advice to the 500 people who heard Richard Florida and want to see our creative economy grow: Go to a dance concert, a theater performance, a museum or gallery. When you see live musicians, stop talking for a few minutes and listen. There are artists here. And with a little appreciation and support, the good ones might stay a little longer.

Red Face Department: Astute reader Jim Fleck pointed out some dumb errors in my recent column about Busch Flea Market. First, The Great American Flea Market was at Columbus and 50th in east Tampa, not Columbus and 15th, which, in any case would have been in Ybor City, not West Tampa as I wrote. Second, the building that now houses Busch Flea Market was once a Scotty's, not a Lowe's, and Mr. Fleck says it was anything but sparkling. It may be the rose-color glasses of my obviously flawed recollection or the fact that the flea market is downright grimy, a fact lamented by many of the vendors I interviewed.

Senior Editor Susan F. Edwards can be reached at [email protected] or 813-248-8888 ext. 122.


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