Who's Your City? Trick Or Treating And The D.C. Region
Richard Florida, the social demographics guru who taught us that, even in this age of globalization and virtual geography, you are where you live, moved out of the District last year, settling in Toronto.
The man who brought us "The Rise of the Creative Class" and other bestselling ruminations on the meaning of our choices about location is back with a book called "Who's Your City?" in which he argues that selecting a city or region inevitably involves deciding who you are and what kind of folks you want to surround yourself with.
So why did Florida move from his lovely house in Northwest Washington clear across the border to Canada's most eclectic city? Simply put, he got a better offer, shifting his base from George Mason University to the University of Toronto. But he also got to move away from a place where his life was divided among three realities--the bustle of Dupont Circle, U Street and other engaging D.C. neighborhoods he cherished, the quiet of his remote residential section of Northwest Washington (he lived in Forest Hills, just off Tilden Street NW), and the relative isolation of Fairfax County, where he worked but swore he would never live. Now, he says, he can have it all--living, working and playing in an urban setting that has the smart people and ethnic mix of the District, without the high crime rate, and with the addition of a sense of community he found lacking here.
Florida is a guy who moves around a lot, perhaps for largely professional reasons, but also because he's a searcher by nature, someone who believes in place as a key to the perfectibility of the human experience. For years, he has preached that it makes sense for young people to go where the smart young people are, and the District comes out on top of any list of magnets for that crowd (18 percent of D.C residents are college graduates, the highest figure of any city in the nation, followed closely by San Francisco.)
Florida looks at a social map of this country and sees us clustering ourselves according to our passions and pursuits. Washington, he writes, is home to 78 percent of the nation's political scientists, "as well as a huge share of economists, mathematicians and astronomers," while New York is where more than half of all fashion designers work and Houston is home to more than a third of petroleum engineers.
But while Washington still top's Florida's list of cities for young singles and is one of the top five for gays, he is down on the District as a place for families with children, preferring places such as Kansas City, Minneapolis and San Jose. (He nonetheless still ranks the Washington area--meaning the suburbs--as the nation's best for families with kids.) For Florida, the great revelation came his first Halloween in Toronto. In Washington, "not a single kid came to our door in three years" on the night of the great candy hunt, he writes. But in Toronto, "our house was mobbed by children of a mosaic of races."
This is where Florida loses me. We lived less than 20 blocks apart when he was here, but our experiences were as different as could be on what he calls the "Trick or Treater Index." Our block has always been a busy one on Halloween, and here's the difference: For reasons that always baffled me, this great bard of urban vibrancy, a latter-day Jane Jacobs (the spiritual grandmother of the smart-growth movement), chose to live in about as anti-urban a city setting as could be had, nowhere near a Metro station, way up on a hill, in a beautiful setting right near Rock Creek Park, but well away from any of the amenities he preaches for in his books. Of course he didn't see kids on Halloween--what halfway intelligent kid would waste his time wandering around in a dark neighborhood of widely separated houses well off the main drag? Just a few blocks away lie street after street that are just teeming with trick or treaters each year.
Florida is surely right about some of the other reasons families with children tend to move out of the District--the lousy schools, the crime rate, weak city services. But I'm puzzled by the Place Man's own decisions about where to live. Toronto is a terrific city, in many ways an urban model.
In the end, however, it seems Richard Florida chooses where to live more the way many of us do than the way he advises in his books: He doesn't necessarily go where the most creative and exciting people are. Rather, he goes where he gets the best job. There's not the least bit of shame in that, but Florida's answer to "Who's Your City?" may well be "whomever's making it worth my while."
By Marc Fisher |
April 3, 2008; 8:00 AM ET
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