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Exile Nation: “The Yuppie Guru & The Memphis Manifesto”

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The Yuppie Guru and the Memphis Manifesto

Author’s note: Due to threatened legal actions against former employees of the Florida Group, several of the people quoted in this passage have requested anonymity.

The sprawling BBC documentary The Century of the Self examines the use of psychology as a tool of social control in Western democracies. In this film we are shown the origins of the individuated-conformist consumer culture we live in today. The film opens by explaining how Sigmund Freud’s ideas of the Unconscious were used to craft methods of marketing products and ideas as a means of sating the dark forces of humanity and advancing political agendas. It goes on to show how the rebellion against Freudian psychology and consumerism, symbolized by the radicalism of the 1960s and 1970s, evolved into the “Human Potential Movement” of the late 1970s and 1980s. This movement was tasked with bringing about a revolution in consciousness.

The ostensible political revolution of the 1960s and 1970s, from which a more just and equitable economic system should have arisen, had failed. But a cultural revolution, in which sexuality, diversity of expression, and increased opportunities for both genders and all races, emerged in its place. In many ways this cultural revolution served to stave off a true political revolution that would have overturned the ruling order and permanently altered our society. In the end, Americans seemed much more interested in perceived personal freedoms than collective political ones.

Ultimately the “consciousness revolution” failed, and was co-opted back into the control of politicians and advertisers.  

Filmmaker Adam Curtis explains:

“Both New Labour, under Tony Blair, and the Democrats, led by Bill Clinton, used the focus group, which had been invented by psychoanalysts, in order to regain power. Out of this grew a new culture of public relations and marketing in politics, business and journalism… They set out to mould their policies to people's inner desires and feelings, just as capitalism had learnt to do with products… The politicians believed they were creating a new and better form of democracy, one that truly responded to the inner feelings of individual. But what they didn't realise was that the aim of those who had originally created these techniques had not been to liberate the people but to develop a new way of controlling them.” [1]

One key creation of this shift in political philosophy was the rise of political correctness and “identity politics” in the 1980s and 1990s. As the antiwar and civil rights movements fizzled (or incinerated, depending on your point of view) in the mid 1970s, dozens of smaller movements emerged in what was arguably the most radical period of cultural transformation in American history, certainly since the dawn of the industrial revolution.

Out of this polyglot political morass sprang the environmental movement, the feminist movement, the gay rights movement, the American Indian movement, the migrant workers movement, the militant black nationalist movement, the commune and back-to-the-land movements, the marijuana reform movement, the prison reform movement, and of course, the aforementioned “personal transformation” movement.

There was only one problem: unlike most democracies, which have diverse, multi-party parliaments capable of representing diverse societies, there are only two viable political parties in the United States, and only one of them was even tacitly interested in representing this rabble of special interests. Thus the Democratic Party became a catch-all for everything from the center to the far left.

By subsuming all of these very different voices and communities into the Democratic Party, it became exceptionally easy to control them to prevent another outbreak of radicalism. But it also hamstrung the party, morphing it into a political Tower of Babel. This allowed the Democrats to be easily outmaneuvered by the much wealthier, more homogenous, streamlined and vertically integrated Republican Party, who were just beginning to reap the rewards of courting the Religious Right with Ronald Reagan's landslide 1980 victory. 

By the time my generation came into economic power, this one party was left to speak for African-Americans, Latino Americans, Asian-Americans, Indian-Americans, Jewish-Americans, Gay Americans, Wine & Cheese Liberal Americans, Blue Collar Union Member Americans, White Collar Tech Sector Americans, Medical Marijuana Americans, Soccer Mom Americans, Farm Bill Americans, Environmental Americans, Antiwar Americans, and Media Elite Americans, to name but a few. I somehow doubted they would have room for Disenfranchised Ex-Con Ex-Crackhead Radical Activist Artist Reformer Americans.

The problem the Democratic Party has been facing for decades is, how does each constituent group penetrate the byzantine layers of individual, local, group, and corporate interests, just to be able to fight for the scraps left over after the corporations extract their pound of flesh? It seemed obvious there wasn’t an answer. But what if there was a common thread, a common value, that transcended the entrenched system of identity politics and offered a larger body or belief to belong to? One that still catered to “identity politics,” and retained the uniqueness, individuality and integrity Americans so feverishly fought for in the cultural revolution? What could possibly create a viable political bloc big enough to effect real change?

Whatever it was, it would have to be diverse, broad-based and cross-generational. The Sixties still stand as a painful reminder that one generation does not think monolithically. The Baby Boomers allowed themselves to be divided against each other many times over, and it's clear now that we would be living in a very different country today had they acted as a unified force and overthrown the existing ruling order.

Born between 1946 and 1963, the Baby Boomers represent some 70 million Americans. They were at the time the largest American generation ever, and held similar status in other Western nations. All over the world the Boomers were a special generation, the first generation born after the cataclysms of the two World Wars, replacing nearly one-for-one the 70 million people who perished during those wars.  There was a certain unity of purpose to the student movements of the mid to late ‘60s that erupted in the US, UK, France, Mexico, Czechoslovakia, Canada, Germany, Italy, Greece, and Japan. In the end, though, their’s was a revolution driven by idealism and ideology, the dream of Utopian Socialism, and without practical grounding, it was destined to fail.

Boomers were eventually eclipsed in size, if not in prosperity, by their children. Variously called “Echo Boomers,” (if you have two Boomer parents) “Millennials,” or “Generation Y” (those born after 1980), they number close to 80 million, and have the odious distinction of being the first American generation that will not live better than their parents. Sandwiched in between them like a thin layer of mayonnaise, numbering a piddling 17 million, is my generation, Generation X (born 1964-1980).  Our small size and inherent cynicism about the system is the primary reason we have never been considered much of an economic or political threat. This is also why our ascendancy into the upper echelons of corporate management and government has been, well, somewhat retarded (in the literal sense), to say the least, the election of Obama notwithstanding.

With the rise of lifestyle politics in the 1980s and 1990s, people no longer voted along ideological lines like liberalism, socialism or libertarianism, but instead voted for the policies that best suited their individual identities and lifestyle choices. Alongside the emergence of the tech-driven “New Economy” emerged a new economic class. This new economic class had extraordinary unrealized political potential, but what they didn’t have was a common identity or narrative to give them form and meaning and purpose.

Enter into the picture Carnegie Mellon economics professor Richard Florida, author of the best-selling, The Rise of the Creative Class: And How Its Transforming Work, Leisure, Community, and Everyday Life (2002, Basic Books). Florida took this new economy paradigm and made a case that those working within it are part of a new class of Americans who make their living and craft their lifestyles around their creative pursuits. They include artists, musicians and professors, those who work in advertising and media, scientists and engineers, lawyers and researchers, even accountants (given the Enron and Andersen "creative accounting" scandals of the day, the designation was not that far-fetched0. They are an educated, mobile workforce, living in vibrant urban environments, who have specific cultural and consumer demands. By Florida’s estimation they comprised nearly 40 million Americans, and accounted for many billions of dollars.

"To belong to a ‘class,’” Florida wrote, "people must have more than common characteristics. These characteristics must also create common elements of identity, values and behavior. If you and I make $50,000 but we don't have anything else in common—not our consumption habits, personal values, political beliefs, lifestyles or religious preferences—then we don't truly belong to the same class. What binds the ‘creative class’ together are shared work habits, cultural values and lifestyles."

A similar book released around the same time, The Cultural Creatives: How 50 Million People Are Changing the World by Paul Ray and Sherri Ruth Anderson, also argued that there was a new class of Americans emerging. This one, however, was not defined by economics, but rather by values:

“The Cultural Creatives care deeply about ecology and saving the planet, about relationships, peace, social justice, and about self actualization, spirituality and self-expression. Surprisingly, they are both inner-directed and socially concerned, they're activists, volunteers and contributors to good causes more than other Americans. However, because they've been so invisible in American life, Cultural Creatives themselves are astonished to find out how many share both their values and their way of life. Once they realize their numbers, their impact on American life promises to be enormous, shaping a new agenda for the twenty-first century.”

It seemed like what these authors were describing was a marriage of the creative and the conscious into a potent force for economic, social, and political change. If that didn’t describe to a “T” what I was looking to do, I don’t know what would. My immediate thought upon reading both of these books was, how can we harness the transformative political power of this demographic? In a review of The Rise of the Creative Class that I wrote for Newtopia, I argued that if this new “class” could figure out how to work as one political bloc, and look past traditional partisan or generational or spiritual differences, then they had the intelligence, education, resources, affluence and conviction to literally change the face of the nation. [2]

This inner conviction would be born of outward validation, because everyone would understand their creative value to society. It was this theme above all others that seemed to resonate strongest with me on a personal level.  As I explained in the review, the revelation that I actually belonged to something important, particularly then after only a year of recovery, was quite powerful.

“Most importantly, my feelings of being marginalized my entire life evaporated in an instant as I suddenly realized I was a highly prolific and productive member of the core group of the new 38 Million member strong Creative Class. The work that I was always told was impractical whimsy had suddenly become highly sought creative content.”

I was so moved in particular by the almost gushing manner in which Florida described the vital importance of creative professionals that I perhaps overlooked some of the more glaring questions and criticisms of his work. After many months of dithering, I decided to contact Florida and see if I could get on his radar, so I sent him my review of his book and asked him if I could pick his brain about my political idea, and maybe interview him or something.

I had no real expectation of a response, so accustomed had I become to brush-offs in those days, that it was a total shock when I received a reply from his business manager and close personal associate, who blew my mind even further when he told me he and Richard had already read my review.

“We really appreciate what you wrote, Charles,” he told me when we connected by phone. “You have a grasp of these ideas and of the big picture surrounding them like no one we have come across yet. We’re putting together a kind of ‘Creative Class Summit’ in Memphis for the Spring of 2003. We’ll be inviting 100 creative professionals to come together and create a plan for creative city building. We think you could be a valuable part of that discussion.”

The effect this had on me cannot be understated. Here I was some obscure former crackhead writer with an underground online magazine, and I was being asked to participate in a high-profile confab hosted by Florida and Carol Coletta, the inspirational host and producer of the award-winning public radio program, Smart City. I was exultant. Someone was finally taking me seriously.

“The beauty of Richard’s work,” an associate would tell me years later, “is that it validated outsiders. All of a sudden these people who previously thought themselves worthless in this society had value, because of their creativity. That’s what fueled me. I’ve been an outsider my whole life, and to have our worth validated in such a scientific and methodical way was very affirming. It carried many people a long way.”

The Memphis Manifesto Summit was held the first week of May 2003. It was the first official international gathering of the “creative class,” and those in attendance were known as “The Creative 100.” They were selected from nominations from 48 states, Canada and Puerto Rico. I had assumed from the moment I got involved that I was going to be one of these 100 and I was happy just to be a part of it, but  when I arrived in Memphis and realized that I was also one of the ten or so featured speakers, I seriously wondered for a moment whether there had been a mistake. They were exceedingly magnanimous with me, and I simply had never been treated with that much respect before. I really don’t think I knew how to handle it.

The goal of the Summit was to define not so much who but what the “creative class” was; what they believed in, stood for, and what their values were. They tasked us with emerging from this conclave with what amounted to a collection of identity materials, a coherent statement of these newly determined values, and a tangible plan of action for cities across the continent.

I don’t know what I expected, but one thing I definitely did not expect was the eclectic, somewhat bizarre mix of people that showed up in Memphis. In hindsight, I marvel at our ability to come together across cultures and belief systems as we did, in the midst of a war that deeply divided the public, and work together towards a fixed goal. At the time, however, I was a bit overwhelmed, and felt more than a little like an outsider.

If I expected anything, I suppose it was that both the people and the format would have been a lot freer and, well, more creative than they ended up being. I expected a melange of artists, musicians, academics and thinkers, eccentrics, extroverts, and educators; in the end I think there were a half dozen of us, and we stood out starkly. The bulk of the crowd were policy wonks, urban planners, and civic development organizers, a decidedly square and reserved crowd.  

Florida was not what I expected either. He made his first public appearance at the Summit during a cocktail party on the first night, but not by politely mingling with his guests. No, they had us sit down in rows of chairs surrounding a small stage. They lowered the lights, and cued some corny rock anthem. With music blaring, Florida entered the room like Steve Jobs about to address his stockholders, climbed on stage, folded his arms, and turned a slow 360, giving each of us the once-over as he held his finger to his pursed lips. For the rest of the conference, he never got more intimate with us than that. At least not with the men, upon whom he foisted a kind of bored contempt. With the women, his Lothario was excruciatingly obvious, particularly for the ilk and setting.

During the plenary presentations on the first day, I sat back and watched as one by one these very straight-laced professionals gave detailed powerpoint presentations about economic development zones and civic arts funding and demographic shifts. I had been asked to talk about Newtopia, and I had this whole political speech prepared that I think would have been much more appropriate for an antiwar rally than a wonk summit. I was panicked. This crowd was not looking like it was going to go in for radical politics. I mean, I was in Memphis, Tennessee, for chrissakes. Early morning, April 4. Shot rings out, in the Memphis sky.

Carol Coletta introduced me by way of reading the definition of Newtopia, putting special emphasis on the adjective definition: words or ideas used for the development of new possibilities, theories, and solutions for a better world. Often confused with the word ‘idealistic.’ She closed by saying that it was this that we needed to tap into this week in order to craft our “manifesto,” which I thought was pretty cool.

At the last second, I decided to wing it. Nearly every speaker before me had based their presentation around what was going on in their particular city, so I decided to just talk about Chicago. Getting up, I reached way way down into the nether-regions of my ass, and essentially improvised a forty-five minute talk about Chicago. My presentation was probably closer to a stand up routine than a professional address, but it seemed to work. Amidst a profusion of weird stares I got people to laugh, something that was sorely needed there.

Looking back I am very happy I made the choice to change my talk, because what emerged from this diverse collection of people, who were clearly from both sides of the culture war, was an astounding and beautiful synthesis of ideas that articulated a common vision of what our cities, and our nation, could look like if we worked together. Had I given the talk I had prepared, it would have polarized the group along political and cultural lines, and we might not have gotten anywhere.

In a flurry of group collaboration we hammered out the following document, our “manifesto.” (below) It is, as you will see, a brilliant, naive, obnoxiously PC and exceedingly idealistic, statement of principles. But the fundamental message—that diverse, creative collaboration is the key to our continued prosperity, and that this could be done either within or outside the existing system—was more radical than any of us understood at the time.



Creativity is fundamental to being human and is a critical resource to individual, community and economic life. Creative communities are vibrant, humanizing places, nurturing personal growth, sparking cultural and technological breakthroughs, producing jobs and wealth, and accepting a variety of life styles and culture.

The Creative 100 are committed to the growth, prosperity and excellence of communities, and all who live and work there.

The Creative 100 believe in the vision and the opportunities of a future driven by the power of ideas. Ideas are the growth engines of tomorrow, so the nurturing of the communities where ideas can flourish is the key to success. Ideas take root where creativity is cultivated and creativity thrives where communities are committed to ideas.

Creativity resides in everyone everywhere so building a community of ideas means empowering all people with the ability to express and use the genius of their own creativity and bring it to bear as responsible citizens.

This manifesto is our call to action.


The Creative 100 are dedicated to helping communities realize the full potential of creative ideas by encouraging these principles:

1)    Cultivate and reward creativity. Everyone is part of the value chain of creativity. Creativity can happen at anytime, anywhere, and it’s happening in your community right now. Pay attention.

2)    Invest in the creative ecosystem. The creative ecosystem can include arts and cul- ture, nightlife, the music scene, restaurants, artists and designers, innovators, entrepreneurs, affordable spaces, lively neighborhoods, spirituality, education, density, public spaces and third places.

3)    Embrace diversity. It gives birth to creativity, innovation and positive economic impact. People of different backgrounds and experiences contribute a diversity of ideas, expressions, talents and perspectives that enrich communities. This is how ideas flourish and build vital communities.

4)    Nurture the creatives. Support the connectors. Collaborate to compete in a new way and get everyone in the game.

5)    Value risk-taking. Convert a “no” climate into a “yes” climate. Invest in opportunity- making, not just problem-solving. Tap into the creative talent, technology and energy
for your community. Challenge conventional wisdom.

6)    Be authentic. Identify the value you add and focus on those assets where you can be unique. Dare to be different, not simply the look-alike of another community. Resist mono- culture and homogeneity. Every community can be the right community.

7)    Invest in and build on quality of place. While inherited features such as climate, natural resources and population are important, other critical features such as arts and culture, open and green spaces, vibrant down- towns, and centers of learning can be built and strengthened. This will make communities more competitive than ever because it will create more opportunities than ever for ideas to have an impact.

8)    Remove barriers to creativity, such as mediocrity, intolerance, disconnectedness, sprawl, poverty, bad schools, exclusivity, and social and environmental degradation.

9)    Take responsibility for change in your community. Improvise. Make things happen. Development is a “do it yourself” enterprise.

10) Ensure that every person, especially children, has the right to creativity. The highest quality lifelong education is critical to developing and retaining creative individuals as a resource for communities.

We accept the responsibility to be the stewards of creativity in our communities. We understand the ideas and principles in this document may be adapted to reflect our community’s unique needs and assets.

The undersigned commit to our communities and each other that we will go back to our communities to infuse these ideas into our social lives and public policies and share the accomplishments with each other so that we all can move forward and succeed together in a more creative existence.

The Creative 100


It literally spread like wildfire. Virtually overnight the Memphis Manifesto became the blueprint for urban revitalization efforts across the county, and Creative Class-inspired development organizations bearing the names “Creative Ft. Wayne/Cincinnati/Dallas/Boise/St. Paul/Kansas City” popped up everywhere. Everyone wanted to woo the Creative Class to their city. Everyone wanted lofts and coffeeshops. Everyone wanted “density” and nightlife. Everyone wanted their city to be “cool” like Austin, Chicago, San Francisco, New York or Portland. Somehow they believed this alone would make them cool too.

Following the Summit, the Creative 100 formed a website for the Memphis Manifesto, from which anyone could download a copy, and we formed an online discussion group so that we could keep working together and honor the pledges and commitments we made. Back in Chicago I was approached by a guy named Tom Tresser, who had read Florida’s book and Newtopia’s May 2003 issue on “The Creative Economy.” He told me he was a community organizer and after reading The Rise of the Creative Class he had an epiphany that this "class” could become a potent political force.

You get where I’m going with this. The idea, as they say, had some legs.

Tresser began pitching me on an idea he called “Creative America.” Based on a model created by the Wellstone Action Center, a grassroots activism training school created by the late Minnesota Senator Paul Wellstone, “Creative America” would train “creative professionals” to run for office and manage campaigns. If I could have been accused of being idealistic back then, Tom was the Grand Poobah of political idealism. Tresser believed that once creative types got into positions of power they would create new policies more aligned with our values, and by employing creative solutions to existing problems, he was convinced it would lead to a much more progressive society overall.

I mostly agreed with him, even though I thought he was being naive about the overall possibility and probability of creative people going into politics. I began flooding the Creative 100 list with political content and calls to action. My colleagues were remarkably patient for a while before turning on me rather abruptly and essentially running me off. They weren’t interested in getting involved with politics, all they wanted to know how to get artists to move to their city and build lofts. When pressed, it became clear that, at least this group was a decidedly moderate “new urbanist” type lot that was not so much interested in changing the world as they were in changing their address by gentrifying inner cities and turning them into Yuppie playgrounds.

I would argue, repeatedly, that we had a greater responsibility than just being “creative consumers,” and that we had more in common than we thought. Critics of Florida, like Ann Markusen, disagreed, arguing that those who “qualify” as being in the Creative Class had no real concept of group identity, thus, to think they would find real political affinity was misguided at best. [3]

Richard Florida himself didn’t see the Creative Class as a political entity, nor does it appear he ever have any kind of formal discussions with the Florida Group about creating a unified political movement. He saw it more as an identifier, and because he lacks a sense of political astuteness, was content to focus on the economic and cultural angles at the expense of the political. This would later hamper his ability to make any kind of progress with a Creative Class lobby on Capitol Hill. Florida found himself unable to gain any traction in that particular cesspool, his nasally, Midwest accent falling upon deaf Congressional ears.

“Richard’s book was the speech that launched a thousand initiatives,” another longtime associate explains. “It inspired literally hundreds of grassroots movements, which definitely threatened the existing order, and the power elite doesn’t like that. So, much of it ended up fairly marginalized as seditious in many places, especially DC.”

Ultimately, this “radical” message of using grassroots strategies to advance development agendas by eschewing the “recognized power silos” caused anyone with a “Creative Class” type proposal to get labelled a “troublemaker” in municipalities with entrenched systems of patronage and machine politics. We want your tax dollars, they seemed to say, but not your ideas.

The darker side was, of course, blowback from the right wing and the more reactionary forces, who believed “creative” was just a veiled euphemism for “liberal,” and “Creative Cities” strategies were Trojan horses for redrawing districts in favor of Democrats. Politically, the Republican-controlled Congress and White House were having none of it.

Case in point, Tom Tresser’s application for 501(C)3 not-for-profit status for “Creative America” was repeatedly denied. They reason he was given was that “Creative” meant “Progressive,” and thus, Creative America was a partisan (read: Liberal) organization. Aside from such apparent hypocrisies as Bush's "Faith Based Initiatives," it certainly said a lot about how Conservatives viewed themselves, and I struggled to comprehend how anyone could have an "anti-creative" bias.

Meanwhile, the hoi palloi of the academic world qustioned Richard’s methodology and the way he flaunted his new-found fame. I attended a gathering of University of Chicago students and faculty in June of 2003, in advance of a speaking appearance Florida was to make, and found myself assailed by critics who shreiked that the Creative Class was no class at all! Florida consistently overemphasized the economic influence of this so-called class. He completely overlooked the negative aspects of his inherently elitist philosophy. His “40 million member” figure was “absurd.”

These dissenters were mostly devotees of University of Chicago sociology professor Terry Nichols Clark, a sacred cow in urban studies. Clark claimed that the core of Florida’s argument—that wherever there was a high concentration of gays, there was a corresponding presence of high-tech creative industries—rested on misapplied data. Florida had used demographic studies on gay men conducted by Gary Gates of the Urban Institute, so Clark used the same data to tear this correlation apart, effectively bitch-slapping Florida with his own book. Clark looked at the 50 largest US metro areas plus an additional 300 smaller metros, 3,111 counties, and surveys of 84,989 citizens, Clark determined that Gays alone are “generally insignificant.” [4]

Another key factor that challenged any potential for a unified political movement was the recognition that those who would self-identify as “Creative” aren’t necessarily followers or joiners of movements or other organized political groups. Moreover, their political beliefs tend to be diverse across the spectrum. Florida did not assume that everyone in the Creative Class would be progressive, which I suppose I did. The reality was that there were many within the whole “Creative Cities” milieu who were decidedly unprogressive, if not regressive.

When the president of the Chicago-based Congress for the New Urbanism, Former Milwaukee Mayor John Norquist, published a sardonic and harshly worded op-ed in favor of gentrification, he claimed that the objections voiced by critics and the threat felt by poor people was "grossly exaggerated in all but a few mega metros,” blithely stating, “obsession with the perceived threat from the moneyed class slows needed reinvestment in most large US cities." In other words, in Norquist's view, class resentment was not valid, and it was annoying the rich folk, who wanted their cheap real estate, never mind what happened to the poor folk inhabiting these areas. The "moneyed class" certainly was not lining up to build affordable housing and amenities for the poor with this "much needed investment." Norquist's comments belied a fundamental preference in the urban planning and development community for unregulated private investment, certainly a symptom of the civic addictions caused by the easy money of the housing boom, even though it was clear that public investment could accomplish the same goals.

Incensed, I countered with a rebuttal piece that argued that the War on Drugs was being used as a tool of gentrification in inner cities. Property was being seized from drug related offenders under the pretext of Federal seizure laws, and then sold off to waiting developers for pennies on the dollar, who then built ridiculously overpriced Yuppie housing and retail developments.[5] This was the machine they wanted to keep chugging forward.

By the response, you would have thought I advocated Communism.

The Urban Planning set responded in chilling form. Their reactions were shockingly conservative, and without the slightest shred of comprehension or compassion about the reality of poor people’s lives. Poor people living in inner cities were not viewed as human but, as one planner put it, “feral,” a plague that needed to be removed. Prominent designer Andres Duany quipped, "Why do the poor have a permanent right to inhabit the inner city?" [6]

In the end, everyone loved the shiny idea of a diverse, vibrant, multicultural “Creative City” but no one wanted to address the sticky politics attached to it. The political movement envisioned by myself, Tom Tresser, and many of Florida’s associates from that time was never born. More personally cutting was the realization that I was looked at by this crowd as more of a sideshow oddity than a serious thinker. Although I can certainly admit that I didn’t do myself any favors by the voracious manner I plied them with my politics, the net result was that I was fairly quickly marginalized out.

The final insult came when Tom Tresser asked me to be on the Board of Creative America. When I told him I had two drug convictions, he rescinded his offer, explaining that he needed to maintain the project’s “credibility.” Even though this decision ultimately became moot when the organization was never granted Not-for-Profit status, it still hurt, and it really threw me into a state of despondency about my future professional prospects. When I was sent to prison in 2005, some from this crowd who had been in Memphis went back to their various organization websites and removed my name from the list of authors of the Memphis Manifesto.

Florida turned out to be somewhat of a reprehensible character. Tales abound of his self-serving narcissism, Machiavellian lack of empathy, and savage legal tactics. He has a reputation for suing anyone who publicly criticizes him, particularly former employees. This is precisely why no one will go on the record, which should tell you all you need to know. Former colleagues, friends and associates are only too quick to pull up their shirts and show the bruises on their backs and shoulders where Florida clambered over them on his way to the top.

Once he hit it big, he all but broke the sound barrier escaping provincial Pittsburgh and Carnegie Mellon, the school that gave him his first university post and then employed him for eighteen faithful years while he incubated his Creative Class fame. All indications are that he has not been missed. And as a farewell gesture to his longime associates and employees, to show his appreciation for all their years of service, he left them jobless and hanging. When some sued for what was owed to them, in order to receive their money, Florida gagged them with non-disclosure agreements which are still enforced to the letter today.

After upgrading to the Brookings Institution and a teaching post at George Mason University in Washington DC, Florida flirted with moon-faced dreams of becoming a Beltway powerbroker. He lasted less than two ineffectual years before the whole “Creative Cities” meme burnt itself out as a talking point, and the development boom began to implode, making grandiose civic plans glaringly unaffordable and politically moot. It didn’t matter to Florida, he emerged unscathed. When DC proved too inhospitable, the Martin Prosperity Institute at the University of Toronto threw him a $10 million dollar lifeline and a full professorship. With two-best selling books, the Brookings post, the Martin endowment, and a place on the contributing staff of The Atlantic, he earned his place in the Bush-era intellegensia, which isn't saying much. He now lives comfortably as an overpaid yuppie guru and erstwhile econ pundit peddling pusillanimous postulates about populations to the nerd circuit.

I am reminded of the adage, “those who can’t do, teach.”  Richard Florida, and the thousands of local politicians, planners, and policy wonks who subsequently seized upon his ideas, and fame, were not looking to support artists any more than they were artists. They just wanted to use them (us) as a vehicle for economic development. After all, real artists don’t have any money, so they are useless as a constituency, and generally have pesky politics and offensive lifestyles.

Emblematic of the Bush years, it seemed like those who represented the commanding heights of our cultural and political institutions were vaingloriously ill-suited for their positions. Is that cruel? I’m not so sure. This was, after all, the era of “heck of a job, Brownie,” the “Wolfowitz Doctrine,” of Judith Miller’s “slam dunk” on Weapons of Mass Destruction, of milquetoast intellectuals like David Brooks, moron demagogues like Bill O’Reilly, Karl Rove, and Roger Ailes, airhead bimbi like Jessica Simpson, pseudo-doctors like Dr. Phil, and pseudoscience like The Secret. Richard Florida was elevated to the paragon of creativity in America, a designation he most certainly did not deserve. He built his name upon the backs of those real artists and radical thinkers—the real creatives—who remained poor and unrecognized, and who were marginalized out of his movement and anything that could have been built upon it.

Mainstream politics and academia are dirty rackets, and these days there are cracks in the power silos, the rats have gotten inside and are spoiling the feedstock. If I was to find anything, if I was to change anything, it would not be through these established channels. I would have to find another vehicle more hospitable to actual change, more responsive to radical thinking, and less entrenched in the systemic orthodoxies and dependencies of our image-and-fame-obsessed consumer society. 



  1. The Century of the Self: "Eight People Sipping Wine in Kettering" (pt.4), BBC, Thursday 2 May 2002
  2. “The Creative Class and the Ambivalent Society” by Charles Shaw, Newtopia, September 2002.
  3. Markusen, A. 2006. “Urban development and the politics of the creative class: Evidence from the study of artists.” Environment and Planning A, 38 (1): 1921-1940.
  4. Urban Amenities: Lakes, Opera, and Juice Bars Do They Drive Development? by Terry Nichols Clark (2003). The City as an Entertainment Machine (Research in Urban Policy, Volume 9), Emerald Group Publishing Limited, pp.221-234
  5. “Gentrification Reality Tour: Neither Benign nor Benevolent,” Planetizen, June 15, 2005 (reprinted in Contemporary Debates in Urban Planning (2007, Island Press)
  6. ibid (comments section)


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Exile Nation copyright©2010CharlesShaw.Allrightsreserved.

Charles Shaw's work has appeared in Alternet, Alternative Press Review, Conscious Choice, Common Ground, Grist, Guerrilla News Network, Huffington Post, In These Times, Newtopia, The New York Times, openDemocracy, Planetizen, Punk Planet, Reality Sandwich, San Diego Uptown News, Scoop, Shift, Truthout, The Witness, YES!, and Znet. Hewas a Contributing Author to the 2008ShiftReport from the Institute for Noetic Sciences, and in Planetizen'sContemporaryDebates in Urban Planning (2007,Island Press). In 2009 he was recognized by the San Diego Press Club for excellence in journalism.

Charlesis the Director of the Exile Nation Unheard Voices Story Project, the Editor of the openDemocracy Drug Policy Forum, and the Editor of the DictionaryofEthical Politics, collaborative projects of Resurgence, openDemocracy,andtheTedworth Charitible Trust. He was Editorial Director of Conscious Enlightenment Publishing (Conscious Choice, Common Ground, Whole Life Times, and Seattle's Conscious Choice), the founder and publisher of Newtopia,head writer for thenationally syndicated radio show Reality Checks, Senior Staff Writer for The Next American City, and a Contributing Editor for Worldchanging.

Along-time activist and former official for the Green Party of the US, he is a native of Chicago who lives on the West Coast…for now.


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