Feb
24

Creative cities rejoice: You will recover

Written by SIMON HOUPT From Monday’s Globe and Mail on February 22, 09

NEW YORK — Thank heaven for the recession. Haven’t you heard? It’s going to do wonders for New York, not to mention cities whose prosperity is fuelled by creativity such as Toronto, Chicago and San Francisco. People are hailing the new Age of Aquarius, in which the arts will flourish, mankind will discover the ineffable, and dogs and cats will open pie shops together.

And boy, things are already looking up as everything goes down. Echoing the long-standing belief that the city and its culture became more vacuous as the money flooded in during the past decade, the Times headlined a recent piece by Holland Cotter, “The boom is over. Long live the art!” At a newly austere Fashion Week that was sponsored in part by McDonald’s, the bacchanal boy Marc Jacobs, dropping his million-dollar holiday blowouts into an Orwellian memory hole, gushed that the city’s emphysemic real-estate market would prompt legions of new designers to move here and reinvigorate the scene.

There was even a flicker of the good old bad old days last week when rumours began to swirl late on Thursday night that a riot had broken out in Washington Square Park. Visions of revolution – of Molotov cocktails and blood in the streets – danced in the head. Might owners of $3-million East Village lofts be chased down and lynched in their marble lobbies?

Might Disney tug its animatronic tail between its legs and flee 42nd Street for the Midwest? Alas, the riot turned out to be little more than a few dozen New York University students who, trying to hold a sit-in to protest a hodgepodge of university policies, took to Twitter to carp about being denied access to the cafeteria. After all, who can man the barricades with low blood sugar?

New York magazine, sensitive as a barometer to the changes in the city’s cultural atmosphere, recently inaugurated a regular online feature known as the Downturnaround, in which journalist Hugo Lindgren celebrates tiny shreds of hope. (Example: Sure, prices of existing homes around the U.S. dropped at an annualized rate of 15 per cent, but sales were up 6.5 per cent from November to December!)

Last week Lindgren wrote, “the Downturnaround just about wept with joy” over the March issue of The Atlantic in which the “semi-famous” urban theorist Richard Florida argues that New York will be well positioned to recover from the recession by its continuing capacity to attract the creative types powering the 21st-century economy.

(Of course, Florida’s so-called “creative class” includes investment bankers who were so impressively creative that they created a worldwide financial meltdown.)

The city, feeling the need to retain laid-off bankers and their high-earning potential, last week announced a $45-million incubator program to help seed new companies in the financial sector. Aides to Mayor Michael Bloomberg suggested the program could help create 12,000 new jobs over the next five years: astonishing math, considering that over the past five years, $45-million usually supported about 12 jobs in the financial sector. But hell, fuzzy math got us into this mess, it might just get us out of it, right?

What I’d like to see are the numbers justifying the belief that the financial sector needs millions of dollars of assistance before it can create its exotic instruments (and, one presumes, wealth, if only for itself), while conventional wisdom holds that the main thing artists require is cheap space.

Because, until that cheap space arrives, the city is bleeding creativity. Opera, dance and theatre companies are shortening their seasons or closing down entirely. On Friday the New York City Ballet, struggling to deal with a deficit of $5.5-million (U.S.) on a budget of $62.3-million and an endowment that dropped from $187-million to about $138-million over the past year, announced it was letting go 11 members of the corps. Dozens of galleries are barely keeping their doors open. New York State recently toyed with the idea of taxing tickets to Broadway performances, which arts advocates suggested might be better applied to those on more stable financial footings, such as professional baseball teams.

Richard Florida may be right in suggesting that New York will thrive in the future, or he may not. But his assumptions are based in part on the continuing existence of industries that are right now undergoing shifts of a historic scale, encouraged but not caused by the recession.

Even before the markets cratered last fall, the mass media based in the city was under attack. The five daily newspapers are limping along, and only the Times and the Wall Street Journal seem to have a sense of how to make any money on the Internet. (Even those two papers are suffering deep losses.) TV viewership is in turmoil. Book publishers are feeling woozy. Even magazines, which some analysts believe aren’t as susceptible to new media threats, are shuttering.

Creative types come to New York to exchange ideas with like-minded people, but also to have the mass media spread their work. What happens when websites such as Pitchfork (started by a Minneapolis kid in his bedroom) can do much more for a band’s fortunes than Rolling Stone? What happens when fashionistas listen more to blogs than they do to Vogue?

New York used to be an important place for writers to begin their careers. But during a recent appearance at the Columbia University Journalism School, Tina Brown advised prospective graduates to go to India instead.

Maybe she was just trying to reduce the competition.

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