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Report: Creative Class Town Hall @ Toronto Free Gallery – By Leah Sandals

By Leah Sandals

It was standing room only at "Town Hall: Demystifying the Creative City" the Richard Florida –critiquing panel and convo at Toronto Free Gallery last night. Even with the back room opened for a simulcast of the proceedings—complete with bar—viewers often spilled out onto the street, testifying, perhaps, to the degree to which people want to see more critical takes on Florida and his ilk.

What follows is my general report on the event. Speakers and commenters covered a lot of ground, so unfortunately I’m not going to be able to reproduce all their observations. (The group Creative Class Struggle did videotape the event, and say they hope to post it in sections on their website in the coming weeks, so that might provide a fuller picture.) Anyone who would like to note their observations are very welcome to add to this report in the comments section.

Fuse Magazine publisher and event co-coordinator Izida Zorde kicked off the town hall with a helpful summary of its aims—namely to discuss critiques of Florida and his colleagues that she feels have largely been missing from media coverage of his work.

Zorde said she is not interested in simply a “creative city,” but in a “just city,” and that Florida’s model seems to work against the latter. She also noted that an outcome of the meeting would be the eventual drafting of a joint statement on creative city theories. (Also worth noting here is Murray Whyte’s report that Florida was indeed invited to attend. But he was nowhere to be seen last night–maybe the speaking fees weren’t high enough?)

Panel moderator and York University PhD student Heather McLean then provided a quick recap of Florida’s creative class theories and its impacts on urban planning, which includes architectural megaprojects and the designation of cultural districts. She also posed three questions I found quite helpful:

1) What is the creative class? Does it make sense to lump CEOs together with graphic novelists, corporate lawyers with college scholars? Does it hold water even as a means of defining a group of people?

2) What does creative city planning mean for citizenship? Who is encouraged to participate (or have greater influence) in city governance under this model? Who is discouraged from same?

3) What happens in the creative city model to the people and places left behind? (In terms of people, one could say that the thousands of people in cities who work in maintenance, service, social services, policing and other “non-creative” fields are devalued. In terms of location, Florida has made a fetish of joining geographic location and economic success, and has famously said he is happy to let small towns die.)

Following this introduction, the floor turned to the three panelists. The most effective and energetic of these is, I would say, Uzma Shakir , a community-based researcher, advocate, activist and a past Executive Director of Council of Agencies Serving South Asians (CASSA) and the South Asian Legal Clinic of Ontario (SALCO). Shakir’s charisma and humorous, theatrical delivery would make her, I say, a wonderful foil to Florida in any panels to possibly come.

As Shakir put it, her reaction to Florida is complex. “All you [Florida] want is for me to unleash my creativity? Well, that doesn’t sound so bad. I don’t know whether to love you, like you, hate you or despise you.”

Shakir also turned it around as well, saying “Hey, supposedly I am the creative class. Richard Florida was attracted to Toronto by people like me… I make the city exotic.”

In the end, Shakir underlined that she remains frustrated by the popularity and governmental influence of Florida’s theories because they simply serve to reinforce existing patterns of racism and unequal opportunities for immigrants. As she put it, “[As far as the Canadian government is concerned] People of colour have never been meant to be nation builders. Now we are doing the same thing and calling it the creative class.”

She also regretted the irony that, trapped in a world of precarious, temporary, minimum-wage work (what Florida might simply call “mobile” work) hundreds of thousands of immigrants and people of colour never have the time or resource to develop their own true creativity.

Pamila Matharu, a Toronto-based artist, activist, educator and cultural organizer/ producer who has been working for the past couple of years at a Parkdale high school , also gave an interesting presentation. In it, she discussed how her group of art students—which came from both the class-privileged “IB” program and the regular non-IB “NIB” program—researched ideas of the creative class and how much truth or falsehood they hold in the neighbourhood of Parkdale.

As Matharu describes it, some of the key questions students researched through video were:

  1. Where is my place in the creative city?
  2. What does a creative community look like?
  3. Can a community be creative without selling out?

It was great to some of the students’ videos, in which sidewalk passerby, students and even a policeman were interviewed about their perceptions of the Parkdale neighbourhood and its strengths within and without the creative class model.

Finally, Liette Gilbert , associate Professor at York University, took a more scholarly (and admittedly more dry in presentation) approach. Her final analysis: Creativity is not the problem with Florida’s theories. It is how Florida depoliticizes creativity to the service of capitalism and creating an illusion of racial/sexual/class tolerance—while class separations actually become more pronounced.

Gilbert also pointed out that Florida’s theories prioritize the “3 B’s”—Business, Boosters and Bohemians—to the detriment or loss of almost everything else.

Following the panelist presentations, a commenter from the floor raised a tough question. It was along the lines of: Everyone here at this town hall fits into a description of the creative class. And while we all sat here snickering about Florida and his theories tonight, we are implicated in them, just like this gallery in a gentrifying area is. So what the hell are you actually going to do about these issues after you get home tonight?

Reactions to this commenter included:

  • In addition to being superficially praised by Florida, we artists are actually quite economically vulnerable now and would be later under his policies. Florida encourages glorified temp and contract work, which is what the arts and culture community has always been run on.
  • The question isn’t who has privilege or not but how do we organize together against that which is unjust.
  • The key is to act and speak in solidarity with people who are not in the room.

Where it will go from here remains to be seen. McLean noted that in October, a group is planning to hold an alternative “Creative Places & Spaces ” conference to critique the $625-a-ticket official version scheduled for the same time period. Will Florida himself decide to attend that one? Only time will tell.

Leah Sandals is an art writer and editor based in Toronto, and a regular contributor to the National Post, NOW Toronto and Spacing Magazine . Leah blogs at Unedit my heart where this town hall report originally appeared.

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