You know how all those fashion, foodie mavens are telling you your life will only be better if you embrace a philosophy of having the best of everything? They may be wrong.
Never more is that apparent than in the belief, which is firmly lodged in liberal thought, that we cannot survive without design oriented everything. Now I work in art and design and I do appreciate a nice chair or an elegant garden as much as the next person. But I don't feel the deep need to duplicate other peoples' water features and antique plants. The general belief is that the educated and moneyed class will start moving back to the center of well designed communities and as a result millions are being spent by cities that can ill afford it on public art. I am just not sure that looking at a nice piece of public art is going to take the sting of unemployment away. At any rate, I copied a part of a long article that I think is well worth reading.
In the late 1990s, my wife and I got in a U-Haul, hit I-90 and headed west for a few days until we came to Port­land, Ore­gon. We had no jobs, no apart­ment, and no notion other than get­ting out of Minnesota.
We chose Port­land mainly because it was cheaper than the other places we’d liked on a month-long road trip through the West (San Fran­cisco, Seat­tle, Mis­soula), because it had a great book store we both fell in love with, and because I had a cousin who lived there in the north­east part of the city, which was some­what less trendy back then. (Our first night, police found a body in the park across the street.) The plan was to stay a year, then try the other coast, then who knows? We were young! But we loved it and stayed for nearly five years. Then, when we started think­ing of breed­ing, like salmon, we decided to swim back to the pool in which we were bred.
For a vari­ety of not-very-well-thought-out rea­sons, this brought us to Madi­son, Wis­con­sin. It wasn’t too far from our fam­i­lies. It had a stel­lar rep­u­ta­tion. And for the Mid­west, it pos­sessed what might pass for cachet. It was lib­eral and open minded. It was a col­lege town. It had cof­fee shops and bike shops. Besides, it had been deemed a “Cre­ative Class” strong­hold by Richard Florida, the prophet of pros­per­ous cool. We had no way of know­ing how wrong he was about Madison…and about everything.
Florida’s idea was a nice one: Young, inno­v­a­tive peo­ple move to places that are open and hip and tol­er­ant. They, in turn, gen­er­ate eco­nomic inno­va­tion. I loved this idea because, as a free­lance writer, it made me impor­tant. I was poor, but some­how I made every­one else rich! It seemed to make per­fect sense. Madi­son, by that rea­son­ing, should have been clam­or­ing to have me, since I was one of the mys­ti­cal bear­ers of prosperity.
Soon after we arrived, how­ever, I was sit­ting at my desk won­der­ing where all these cre­ative, self-employed bohemi­ans might be, when I watched an unset­tlingly large woman lum­ber out of the apart­ment next door. She stood in the sun and blinked like she hadn’t seen it in years. It took her an ago­niz­ingly long time to shuf­fle across the park­ing lot to the dump­ster, where she deposited her trash. Then she began the trek back. After the door slammed behind her, I never saw her again. In most parts of Amer­ica circa 2003, this scene would have been unre­mark­able. But I couldn’t get it out of my mind. It stayed with me and filled me with dread, as if there was some hid­den mean­ing in it; as if the woman was an omen, and her trash bag was filled with my dreams.
Nonethe­less, we tried set­tling in. I began writ­ing for the local mag­a­zine. My first story was based on Richard Florida’s “Gay Index,” one of sev­eral mea­sures that was sup­posed to indi­cate how wealthy your city can be. The more gays there are, he rea­soned, the more tol­er­ant your city is, and the more cre­ative class work­ers would flock there. My story was called, “How Gay is Madi­son?” The answer, of course, was “very gay.”
We tried to meet our neigh­bors. Across the hall was a guy our age who worked in the UW-Madison’s phar­ma­col­ogy depart­ment, but who seemed to strug­gle for any­thing worth say­ing. Over din­ner he asked us what our hob­bies were. Like stamp col­lect­ing? I won­dered. Like macramé? He never returned the invitation.
The guy upstairs seemed more promis­ing. He had some brain dam­age from a bar fight, in which his head was bashed into the side­walk. But he still read books and kept pet par­rots. He even slept with them, until he acci­den­tally rolled over and killed one of his favorites. In the end, we drifted apart as well.
For some rea­son, these and most other rela­tion­ships never quite blos­somed the way we’d hoped, the way they had in all the other place we’d lived. For a time, my wife had a soul­less job with a boss who sat behind her, star­ing at the back of her head. I found work in a dusty tomb of a book­store, doing data entry with cowork­ers who com­plained about their neu­ro­log­i­cal dis­or­ders, or who told me about the mag­i­cal crea­tures they saw on their way home, and who kept web­sites depict­ing them­selves as minotaurs.
I’m not sure what exactly I expected, but within a year or two it was clear that some­thing wasn’t right. If Madi­son was such a Cre­ative Class hotbed over­flow­ing with inde­pen­dent, post-industrial work­ers like myself, we should have fit in. Yet our pres­ence didn’t seem to mat­ter to any­one, cre­atively or oth­er­wise. And any­way, Madison’s econ­omy was hum­ming along with unem­ploy­ment around four per­cent, while back in fun, cre­ative Port­land, it was more than twice that, at eight and a half per­cent. This was not how the world accord­ing to Florida was sup­posed to work. I started to won­der if I’d mis­read him. Around town I encoun­tered a few other trans­plants who also found them­selves scratch­ing their heads over what the fuss had been about. Within a cou­ple years, most of them would be gone.
“And I asked, ‘Hey, aren’t you upset the schools suck?’ and peo­ple said, ‘Oh, no, i really love my school. I make sure for my kid it’s all about values.’”
One of these peo­ple was a woman named Pene­lope Trunk, a brand­ing expert, a Gen Y prog­nos­ti­ca­tor, and a ruth­less, relent­less self-promoter. Her arrival in Madi­son could not have been more dif­fer­ent than ours. She announced on her blog that she’d done exhaus­tive research and con­cluded that the best place in the coun­try for her to live was Madi­son, Wis­con­sin. Trunk’s name was splashed across the papers, and seemed to con­firm every Florid­ian sus­pi­cion. Local cap­i­tal­ists bankrolled her new com­pany, Brazen Careerist. She blogged and blogged and blogged about how best to choose the place to work and live. She was an apos­tle of Florid­ian doc­trine and flew around giv­ing speeches about how places could attract the shock troops of the cre­ative econ­omy the way Madi­son had attracted her.
One day I met Trunk for cof­fee. She was loud and brash and talked over the din of the other peo­ple. She seemed to be under the impres­sion that I’d come to her for career advice, which she gave and to which I politely lis­tened. And while I liked her energy, I could tell by the way peo­ple shot her dirty looks that Madi­son was going to be a tough fit.
Four years later, Trunk left town, which seemed odd, given her much-ballyhooed arrival. By then, we had fallen out of touch, and I was never quite clear on her rea­son for leav­ing. So I called her to find out what had gone wrong. Trunk now lives on a farm in south­west Wis­con­sin, (she divorced her hus­band and mar­ried a farmer). On the phone, she was still brash and bom­bas­tic and as she told it, her hon­ey­moon with the city started to end almost as soon as she got there. One day her ex-husband was googling, “sex offend­ers,” and he dis­cov­ered there were four reg­is­tered on their block. Next, she dis­cov­ered that the pub­lic schools were ter­ri­ble. “I started talk­ing to every­one,” Trunk said. “And I said, ‘Hey, aren’t you upset the schools suck? How is every­one send­ing their kid here?’ And peo­ple said, ‘Oh, no, I really love my school. I make sure for my kid it’s all about val­ues.’ I mean the bull­shit that peo­ple were telling me was utterly incred­i­ble. Then it just became like an onslaught. Tons of lies. Madi­son is a city full of peo­ple in denial. Peo­ple don’t leave Madi­son, so they don’t real­ize what’s good and not good.” I asked her if she had any regrets, or if the move was a wrong one, or if she had any advice for other peo­ple look­ing to relo­cate. Or maybe, I sug­gested, life was just messier than research?..."