Creative Class vs Creative Underclass

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Last week I sat in the barber chair while Jay snipped away at the remains of what was once a magnificent and wild mane of locks. My hair was nearly down to my ass when we met in 2000; I was waiting tables on Tate Street and he was at the beginning of a career that wound through Chakras, the day spa and salon that was at the center of that particular downtown resurgence, and, eventually, this place.

We talk often of those years, when Greensboro’s culture and economy was still in the pupal stage, the front end of a rebuild after we realized that tobacco and textiles were not coming back.

After the turn of the century, city visionaries espoused the work of social scientist Richard Florida, who floated the notion of the “Creative Class” — skilled workers, generally in tech or something reliant on it, with creative or knowledge-based jobs that demand above-average salaries — as the solution for urban post-industrial malaise.

Greensboro was but one of many cities nationwide that began a series of events designed to attract these individuals, whom Florida theorized could drive economic development to the next level.

The greenway, the downtown performing arts center, Center City Park and other public and private projects were designed to entice these types of workers — underrepresented in our own labor pool — to move to Greensboro and start developing our economy. Florida wasn’t clear exactly how.

If we did get an influx of new, game-changing talent back then, Jay and I were too busy working and partying to notice.

We were part of an existing creative underclass, hundreds of us living in cheap apartments and humping it in the various service industries while learning our crafts, finishing our degrees, building our businesses, discovering our talents and figuring out how to use them.

In his downtown salon, we agree that the city has come a long way. Large capital investments — particularly in downtown, Midtown, South Elm, Revolution Mill and the coliseum, but really the whole city has seen an upgrade since then — are still creating fertile ground for opportunity.

We’ve seen it with our old friends, who have since opened restaurants, coffeeshops, real estate agencies and all manner of small businesses. Some of our old Creative Underclass friends do exactly the sort of work — creative, technical, highly skilled — that Florida promised our new crop of wandering geniuses might do, were they to come to town in that mass migration for which we were preparing.

Florida’s Creative Class theory has taken a lot of shots since then, as does the work of all futurists, ultimately. No one can truly see the future.

But he wasn’t too far off. A new wave of creative entrepreneurship has taken seed in Greensboro: thousands of new businesses, industries and entire commercial districts that didn’t even exist when the Green Bean opened its doors in 2002. We have undoubtedly leveled up.

It’s just that Florida was looking in the wrong place. We’ve been here the whole time.

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