When I first moved to Durham 22 years ago, a co-worker told me that the Triangle was the pat of butter on the bowl of grits that is North Carolina. Now the folks at DesignBox and others want to stake a claim for the Triangle as something more: the creative hub of the South.

Having lived in three other Southern states, I could eat that notion with a spoon. In fact, I’m signed up for a Spark Con workshop and I’ve sent a CD of my sculptures for the ImageSlam to be shown on a 20-inch-wide screen at Moore Square on Saturday night with the work of 85 other artists. I’m looking forward to hearing the speakers and workshop participants. I think it’s a good idea to host a conference that will tally the ways that Triangle leaders and citizens can nurture the work of creative people and make this area more attractive to them. I like it when people work together to generate positive change.

But I’m a little apprehensive, too. Richard Florida in his book The Rise of the Creative Class–an acknowledged inspiration for Spark Con–offers a few warnings that may surprise people who have not yet read the book:

  • “It appears that the Creative Economy does little to ameliorate the traditional divide between the white and non-white segments of the population. It may even make it worse.”
  • “Vast numbers of Creative Class people are concerned mainly with building their resumes, building their bodies and acquiring the status kit of our age: a stylishly renovated home with a Sub-Zero refrigerator, Viking stove and an SUV in the drive.”
  • “What is elitist–and inequitable, inefficient and even dangerous–is the persistence of a social order in which some people are considered natural creators, while others exist to serve them, carry out their ideas and tend to their personal needs.”
  • Heavy stuff.

    On a lighter note, Florida also makes the point that in the 21st century, creative people drive the economy, or what the DesignBox folks refer to as the “economic ecosystem,” of a region. But how does this square with the economists’ and politicians’ formula that wealth comes from investing in freeways, convention centers, stadiums and manufacturing plants?

    It can be best explained, I think, with starfish. In the 1960s, University of Washington zoology professor Robert Paine studied the rocky coast of that state and learned that the inshore ecosystem became less stable and less productive when one species was removed. That species, a starfish called the purple ochre sea star, played a role in sustaining its community (or ecosystem) that was far larger than its small size or modest population would indicate. Paine coined the term “keystone species” to describe this creature’s disproportionate role.

    Florida, a professor of public policy at George Mason University and senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, groups artists, designers, scientists and other creative people into a creative class composing 30 percent of the working population. Although the creative class is less than a third of workers, it earns about half of the income in the United States and generates a disproportionate share of the gross national product. If we choose to think of the economy–rightly, I believe–as an ecosystem, it’s not a stretch to see the creative class as a keystone species spinning off new products and new ways of living–or stimulating new thoughts, feelings and actions enriching the urban wilderness.

    So I hope those of us who participate in Spark Con will generate a catalog of improvements to enhance life for creatives and others and perhaps lead to a reputation for the Triangle as the creative hub for the South. I imagine some of those suggestions might be more affordable studio space, more Percent for Public Art programs, greenways, a SXSE music festival and other worthwhile goals. But having captured those good ideas, what–I wonder–will keep that catalog from gathering dust on a shelf while public dollars support more Anywhere USA Sprawlmarts?

    And while creatives may be a keystone, we have to remember that we are not really a different species, and that as unsupportive as the environment may be for our creativity, we need to support a world that allows others to express their creativity, as well. In our “live and let die” culture, what’s to keep the three specters–segregation, selfishness and elitism–spawned by the creative economy from flourishing in the Triangle as we rollerblade down a greenway for a microbrew at some faux downtown mall?

    The short answer is, the work of creatives, but perhaps not exactly the kind of work we’re used to doing. In fact, some creatives openly disdain and avoid the kind of work this will require of us: politics.

    Imagine what the Triangle would be like if our creative abilities were turned toward the moral use of the political power available to all citizens in a democratic society. Imagine the difference that would make in the likelihood of accomplishing the goals to be recorded in a few days at the Spark Con workshops. Imagine a Triangle less burdened by the segregation, selfishness and elitism that Florida warns us of.

    Florida points out that creative class members don’t yet see themselves as a class, but they need to for their own benefit and for the benefit of members of the working class–people in manufacturing, construction, transportation–and the service class–the folks who feed us and clean up after us. Hundreds of years ago, the rising middle class played a leading role in democratizing countries ruled by monarchs. In this century, when the working class was dominant, they outlawed child labor, created the social safety net and imposed a 40-hour workweek. Florida contends that it’s now the turn of members of the creative class to play a leadership role in building a better world for everyone and overcoming the hazards in our society.

    We’ve already watched the creative class play such a role on another continent, but under far worse conditions than we face here. Vaclav Havel, a playwright who served time in prison for his role as a dissident intellectual leader, went on to serve several terms as president of Czechoslovakia and the Czech Republic after the Soviet empire fell in Eastern Europe. He tells the story of his and his country’s transformations in a book of speeches called The Art of the Impossible. The title is a reference to the often disappointing results of politics being excused as the art of the possible. Struggling in an environment where Soviet bureaucrats had ruled and where no middle class or democratic institutions existed, Havel and other artists and scientists played midwife to new open societies under conditions of crumbling economies and a ravaged environment.

    We don’t face such daunting hurdles, but we may still find Havel’s words useful. (Let me note that people whom Florida would describe as creative class, Havel calls “intellectuals.” For the sake of clarity I have replaced the word “intellectuals” with “creatives” in some instances.)

    “I wonder whether genuine intellectuals, philosophers, and poets are not virtually duty bound to stop fearing and loathing politics and to take upon themselves all the risks and requirements that go with it, even though they find them rather strange. Is it not time for [creatives] to try to give politics a new, and as it were, postmodern face? … I do believe their presence in politics could contribute something that politics badly needs. That, of course, can only happen if they learn to move in politics in a way that develops rather than denies their identity.

    “Who, for that matter, is better equipped to perceive the global context in which political actions take place, to assume a share of the responsibility for the state of the world, and to restore to political prominence values such as conscience, love for one’s fellow humans, and respect for nature, for the order of Being, and for the pluralism of cultures? … Politics should be more than just the art of the possible, and power should not be an end in itself…. In my view, politics should be principally the domain of people with a heightened sense of responsibility and a heightened understanding of the mysteriousness of Being. If [creatives] claim to be such people, they would virtually be denying the truth of that claim by refusing to take upon themselves the burden of public office on the grounds that it would mean dirtying their hands. Those who say that politics is disreputable in fact help make it so.”

    No, I’m not advocating that Spark Con generate a slate of candidates for the next election. In fact, I’m happy to leave it to thousands of other local creatives to come up with a hip new face for urban politics. While we compose our creative hub wish lists this weekend, I will simply advocate that we take a minute, look each other in the eye, acknowledge that what we’re doing is important in ways we can hardly count, and say out loud “I’ll get my hands dirty to make this happen if you will.”

    For more on Spark Con, visit www.sparkcon.com.

    Frank Hyman is a garden designer, sculptor and writer and has served in two elected offices.