I've just finished reading "The Rise of the Creative Class," an excellent and fascinating book by Richard Florida, which describes the rise of a class whose economic function is to think of new ideas, and as such includes obvious creative types such as artists and musicians, but also scientists and engineers. According to Florida's calculations, this "Creative Class", as he calls it, now represents 30% of the U.S. workforce.
I was delighted to see my area - the Lehigh Valley - mentioned as a potential Creative Center. (It appears under the name of Allentown, Pennsylvania, the main city in the Valley, although both Allentown and close-by Easton are crime-laden; the Lehigh Valley owes its national standing and prestige to my city of Bethlehem, which was selected by Money Magazine in 2006 as one of the 100 best small cities to live in.)
The first mention is neutral enough, on p.245 of the paperback edition: "Creativity is not limited to established high-tech and cultural centers. Regions like [...] Allentown, Pennsylvania, do quite well on the Creativity Index." Then, on p.291: "The presence of a major research university is a huge advantage in the Creative Economy. [...] Many of the places that score high on my Creativity Index are home to major research universities. This includes large Creative Centers [...] and classic college towns [...] but it also includes smaller regions that are not typically thought of as leading high-tech or innovative centers, such as [...] Allentown, Pennsylvania - the region once lamented as the center of industrial decline in the famous Billy Joel song, but where universities like Lehigh and Lafayette have now positioned it for success in the Creative Age." (Lehigh is actually in Bethlehem and Lafayette in Easton.)
Sadly, the creativity rankings have been revised for the paperback edition (the book was originally published in 2002 and used data compiled in 1999 and 2000; the first paperback edition was issued in 2004), and Allentown saw its national rank in the Creativity Index drop from 39 to 74 (see p.357), lower than places like Wichita, Kansas and Birmingham, Alabama, but higher than Knoxville, Tennessee and Omaha, Nebraska. (And don't tell me those places are easy to beat. While obviously they pale in comparison to Boston or Raleigh-Durham, Knoxville is home to the main campus of the University of Tennessee and close to the Oak Ridge National Laboratory, while Omaha is a well-known financial center, home to Warren Buffett's Berkshire Hathaway, and - according to Wikipedia - was identified by Newsweek in 2001 as one of the Top 10 high-tech havens.)
I wonder where the Allentown area would stand if Richard Florida were to update his rankings again. The region has enormous possibilities, and Lehigh's reputation has grown significantly in the last few years, due to unrelenting efforts in hiring new faculty, relatively recent emphasis on cutting-edge research in addition to teaching, and novel initiatives such as the Global Citizenship program.
Furthermore, some local politicians seem to be eagerly doing many of the things that Florida explains in his book they should do if they are to make the Lehigh Valley appealing to the Creative Class, which is the only way for a region to remain competitive in the 21st century. This unusual degree of
enlightenment for local officials might be explained by the young age of Bethlehem's
mayor, John Callahan
(who is in his mid-thirties and is a graduate from Harvard's Executive
Program on Leadership in the 21st Century at the Kennedy School of
Cultural events on the first Friday of
each month and yearly events such as Musikfest and the Celtic Festival
are a welcome addition, in line with Florida's recommendations (see for instance p,182-3, where Florida describes the "street-level culture" that the Creative Class is drawn to - "You may not paint, write or play music, yet if you are at an art-show opening or in a nightspot where you can mingle and talk with artists and aficionados, you might be more creatively stimulated than if you merely walked into a museum or concert hall"); unfortunately, there isn't nearly enough to do the rest of
the time, as pointed out by the few of
my undergraduate students who try to find something to do around here
without a car.
It will be interesting to see how things move forward, and how
Lehigh University negotiates its complicated relationship with the town
and its lifelong residents. At times, it seems that the locals around here view the influx of new
residents as a nuisance, although the real issue is not that wealthy
transplants from New Jersey and New York buy themselves McMansions
(nickname isn't mine) in the Valley and commute to work in New York,
but that there aren't more small, creative companies moving to Bethlehem. Artsy events can attract creative people in their leisure time, but those people need jobs the rest of the week.
When it comes to employment in the Valley, it seems that some of the politicians have shifted from viewing the area as a bastion of the working class (with Bethlehem Steel, now defunct, and Mack Trucks, moving out of the Valley) to pinning their hopes on what Richard Florida calls the Service Class, i.e., the tourism-driven economy and the people it employs, for instance those who will be paid minimum wages at the casino being built on the former site of Bethlehem Steel. (Las Vegas scores 95th on the creativity index, up from its previous ranking of 117th.)
The emphasis on tourism as a viable economy driver for the Valley is also apparent in the obsession regarding all things Christmas-related. And the Christmas market is really very nice, but that doesn't bring well-paying jobs. This can also be said of Musikfest - the festival has become geared toward tourists, attracting crowds by booking famous performers rather than local artists. It is following the same path as Detroit's Electronic Music Festival, which elicits the following quote by one of Florida's interviewees (p.228): "This year, they... start to drop Detroit artists in favor of more well-known national acts. So more people come, but the event is losing much of the uniqueness/authenticity that makes people want to come to this event from around the world."
Bethlehem has reached a critical junction in its history. It might stay mired in the past, hoping to attract another big manufacturing company and jumping on the tourism bandwagon. But hopefully it will instead take advantage of its many assets to emerge as a creative center in its own right, out of the shadow of New York and Philadelphia.