The Rise of the Creative Class
The Hegemony of the Street
For more than a century, the mark of a cultured city in the United States has been to have a major art museum plus an "SOB"—the high-art triumvirate of a symphony orchestra, an opera company and a ballet company. In many cities recently, museums and the SOB have fallen on hard times. Attendance figures have declined and audiences are aging: too many gray heads, not enough purple ones. Consultants have descended to identify the problems and offer solutions. One problem is static repertoire. In a museum, for instance, the permanent collection is, well, permanent: It just hangs there. A typical solution is more packaged traveling exhibits, preferably interactive multimedia exhibits, with lots of bells and whistles. In the SOB, not a lot of new symphonies and operas are being written and fewer are performed, because staging them is expensive. One solution is to augment the experience. It’s not just a night at the symphony; now it’s Singles Night at the Symphony. At other times, orchestras bring in offbeat guest performers—a jazz or pop soloist, or a comedian for the kids. Or musicians are sent out to play in exotic locales—the symphony in the park, a chamber group at an art gallery, the symphony playing the 1812 Overture at the Fourth of July fireworks. All this is reminiscent of the efforts of oldline churches to fill seats by augmenting the experience—how about a guitar and drumset with the organ?—or the efforts of many professional sports teams, with their mascots and exploding scoreboards.
Meanwhile, the Creative Class is drawn to more organic and indigenous street-level culture. This form is typically found not in large venues like New York’s Lincoln Center or in designated "cultural districts" like the Washington, D.C., museum district, but in multiuse urban neighborhoods. The neighborhood can be upscale like D.C.’s Georgetown or Boston’s Back Bay, or reviving—downscale like DC’s Adams-Morgan, New York’s East Village, or Pittsburgh’s South Side. Either way, it grows organically from its surroundings, and a sizable number of the creators and patrons of the culture live close by. This is what makes it "indigenous "
Much of it is native and of-the-moment, rather than art imported from another century for audiences imported from the suburbs. Certainly people may come from outside the neighborhood to partake of the culture, and certainly they will find things that are foreign in origin or influence, such as German films or Senegalese music. But they come with a sense that they are entering a cultural community, not just attending an event. I think this is a key part of the form’s creative appeal. 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, were handed a program, and proceeded to spectate. The people in my focus groups and interviews say they like street-level culture partly because it gives them a chance to experience the creators along with their creations.
The culture is "street-level" because it tends to cluster along certain streets lined with a multitude of small venues. These may include coffee shops, restaurants and bars, some of which offer performance or exhibits along with the food and drink; art galleries; bookstores and other stores; small to mid-sized theaters for film or live performance or both; and various hybrid spices—like a bookstore/tearoom/little theater or gallery/studio/live music space—often in storefronts or old buildings converted from other purposes. The scene may spill out onto the sidewalks, with dining tables, musicians, vendors, panhandlers, performers and plenty of passersby at all hours of the day and night. Ben Malbon provides a vivid description of the late-night street scene in London’s Soho drawn directly from his research diary:
We stumble out of the club at around 3-ish—Soho is packed with people, crowding pavements and roads, looking and laughing—everyone appears happy. Some are in groups, bustling their way along noisily—others are alone, silent and walking purposefully on their way.... Cars crawl down narrow streets which are already impossibly full of cars, Vespas, people, thronging crowds. This wasn’t "late night" for Soho—the night had hardly started.
It is not just a scene but many: a music scene, an art scene, a film scene, outdoor recreation scene, nightlife scene, and so on—all reinforcing one another. I have visited such places in cities across the United States, and they are invariably full of Creative Class people. My interview subjects tell me that this kind of "scene of scenes" provides another set of visual and aural cues they look for in a place to live and work. Many of them also visit the big-ticket, high-art cultural venues, at least occasionally, as well as consuming mass-market culture like Hollywood movies and rock or pop concerts. But for them, street-level culture is a must.
Consider just the practical reasons for this. Big-ticket, high-art events are strictly scheduled, often only on certain nights of the week, whereas the street-level scene is fluid and ongoing. As a large number of my interview subjects have told me, this is a big benefit for creative types who may work late and not be free until 9 or 10 P.M., or work through the weekend and want to go out Monday night. Moreover, creative workers with busy schedules want to use their cultural time "efficiently." Attending a large-venue event, be it a symphony concert or a professional basketball game, is a single, one-dimensional experience that consumes a lot of recreational resources: It is expensive and takes a big chunk of time. Visiting a streetlevel scene puts you in the middle of a smorgasbord; you can easily do several things in one excursion. The street scene also allows you to modulate the level and intensity of your experience. You can do active, high-energy things—immerse yourself in the bustle of the sidewalks or head into an energized club and dance until dawn—or find a quiet cozy spot to listen to jazz while sipping a brandy, or a coffee shop for some espresso, or retreat into a bookstore where it is quiet.
Everything Interesting Happens at the Margins
Consider, too, the nature of the offerings in the street-level smorgasbord. In culture as in business, the most radical and interesting stuff starts in garages and small rooms. And lots of this creativity stays in small rooms. Aside from Garrison Keillor and Spalding Gray, for instance, not many serious monologue artists have hit it big in the United States; you’ve got to go to the street-level venues to find them. These venues in Austin, Seattle and other cities offer a dense spectrum of musical genres from blues, R&B, country, rockabilly, world music and their various hybrids to newer forms of electronic music, from techno and deep house to trance and drum and bass. Nor is everything new. The street-level scene is often the best place to find seldom-performed or little-known works of the past. Recent offerings in Pittsburgh alone have included a small theater company staging Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s eighteenth-century play The Rivals; a gallery specializing in historic photography; a local jazz-rock group performing old American political songs such as "For Jefferson and Liberty" and "The Farmer Is the Man Who Feeds Us All"; and a street musician who plays violin pieces you won’t hear on the classical radio programs that endlessly recycle the equivalent of the symphonic "Top Forty.