Sitting in the basement café of the Regulator Bookshop in Durham, Rose-May Guignard explains why she wants to move to the Triangle as soon as she can. She’s in town for the weekend visiting friends, which she’s been doing as much as possible. There’s a buzz of energy in the room, and it’s coming from her. Young, single, about to finish her Ph.D. in Public Affairs and Public Administration at Virginia Tech, she’s ready to settle in a place full of cool people who are taking risks with their lives. “At a party, someone asked me, ‘So are you one of those people who’s going to find a job and go wherever your job takes you?’ I said, ‘No, I’ve made up my mind. I want to move here.’ And they gave me that quizzical look and said, ‘Why?’ I said, ‘You know, it’s that concentration of educated people that I can go and have an intelligent conversation with.’ For me what made Durham so interesting is that here I meet so many people that are not just talking about what they’re going to do, they’re trying it out. That’s exciting to be in a place where people are like that.”

Guignard is just one of a growing group of people who are building their lives around the city they want to live in. She is a member of what author Richard Florida calls the “creative class,” a group defined not by income level but by one common quality: creativity. In his provocative book, The Rise of the Creative Class: And How It’s Transforming Work, Leisure, Community and Everyday Life, Florida, a professor of regional economic development at Carnegie Mellon University, lays out who this group is and why they drive the new economy by creating new ideas, inventions, patents, and technology. Florida rates the Triangle as one of the top ten creative centers in the country. That means SAS software developers, Sierra Club organizers, Duke professors, graduate students, self-employed consultants, indie rockers, lawyers, biotech researchers–basically, anyone who has the luxury of thinking for a living–is taking part in the cultural shift.

Since its release this spring, the book has gotten a lot of buzz–far more than the typical book on regional economic development. An excerpt ran as the cover story of the May issue of the Washington Monthly with the headline, “Why cities without gays and rock bands are losing the economic development race.” The book sends an emphatic message to cities: Keep your historic buildings occupied and your downtowns thriving. Treat your artists and rock bands with some respect; they draw economic prosperity. And stop spending all that tax money on sports stadiums and shopping malls, it’s not what brings the people you want.

Most provocative is the thesis that cities without a thriving gay scene are likely to lose out economically. In charting his research on creative centers, Florida found that it correlated almost exactly with a colleague’s research on gay centers. He calls gays and lesbians “the canaries of the new economy”–their presence is an indication of the tolerance that draws other non-traditional creative types. And he lumps all “creatives” together, from starving artists to six-figure earning engineers, asserting that anyone generating new ideas or inventions spurs economic growth. “You can’t have high-tech innovation without art and music,” he writes. “All forms of creativity feed off each other.”

The Triangle’s part of the way there
More than a third of the Triangle’s roughly 1.2 million residents are members of the creative class, drawn here because of the community’s diversity and its high concentration of educated people. We’ve got a major high tech center in the form of Research Triangle Park and some of the nation’s top universities. We’ve also got the permanent geographic advantage of being so close to both the mountains and the beach, which draws creatives who are drawn to the outdoors.

But we’ve got problems, too: Sprawling developments of the 1970s and ’80s have left us without a true urban center. We lack pedestrian friendly city neighborhoods that make other creative centers of about the same size, like Boston and Seattle, so appealing. And the last decade’s population boom has only worsened the problem of sprawl. Even with thousands of new creative workers moving to the Triangle, we still lack a critical mass of people to make our downtowns thrive. That means we’re missing a crucial element of the creative center, and run the risk of losing our long tradition of diversity–a black middle class, gays and lesbians, our mix of natives, Yankees, and immigrants–that has lured so many people here in the first place.

Creative people tend to be drawn to the same kinds of cultural offerings: They buy good cheese at Fowler’s, wine at A Southern Season, and meet on the patio of Lilly’s Pizza for a slice. They hike in Umstead State Park and like to go to the monthly gallery walks in Raleigh and Carborro. You’ll see them at City Market in Raleigh, Weaver Street Market’s Sunday jazz brunch in Carrboro, and catch them dancing at the DADA bands showcase in downtown Durham later this month. They tend to eschew traditional politics for a more localized, globally minded approach–they might use their creative entrepreneurialism to start a recycling company, or launch an oral history project to bring together people in the neighborhood.

“There is a growing segment of the population, specifically among the highly educated,” Guignard says, “that is saying no to the mainstream way of life, is reviving our notion of a ‘good society,’ and is reconnecting with civic life on its own terms. That’s why they are creative.”

Location first, job second
In the focus groups that form the major part of his research, Florida asked people across the country how they chose the cities they live in. They replied in overwhelming numbers that they look for interesting places, with lots of nightlife and a good music scene; places with people from different countries and ethnic backgrounds; educated, risk-taking people like themselves. Most significantly, they said they first look for a cool place to live, then worry about the job. Jobs change, but the city is where the energy is–most important is to find a place they feel they belong and can have fun. As a result, companies now follow people, nesting in cities with a built-in talent pool. This migration has altered cities, changing some into creative centers, while Florida cites others–such as Greensboro, Detroit and Pittsburgh–that have lost their talent pool and risk sliding into economic decline.

There is no doubt that the creative workplace has been the force behind the Triangle’s economic boom over the past two decades. High-tech companies like the SAS Institute, Red Hat, and countless start-ups have lured transplants to the area with the promise of a creative work environment and good benefits. But those companies wouldn’t be here if this were a giant tobacco farm, nor would the people. The Triangle itself is the lure, drawing people who feel they can find the good life here. And because those people are here, the Triangle is poised to make it out of the recession and still be on top of the list.

Jim Salmons and Timlynn Babitsky are charter members of the creative class. He from Baltimore, she from New Jersey, they met in Southern California and worked as software developers, which brought them across the country and to Japan during the high tech boom of the late ’80s and early ’90s. “We just rode the opportunity to work in a bunch of interesting places,” Salmons says. He and his wife are calling me from their home office. A high tech consulting job brought them to the Triangle, where they worked with a small software company that was later acquired by IBM. So they settled in Raleigh, but the corporate job wasn’t what they wanted. “We hated it,” Salmons says. “It was killing us.”

They loved the technology and liked many of their talented colleagues. “We thought, ‘How can we look at technology as a means to an end, and what end is important to us?’” Eventually they set up their own company, Sohodojo, to help small businesses, especially those in rural areas and distressed areas. (The name stands for Small Office Home Office, a dojo being a martial arts school.) Babitsky explains the goals behind their business. “We’re not interested in contracts based on the money. We first say, ‘Who do we want to work with?’” Salmons chuckles and adds, “It’s much more fun to work for fun, smart people than it is to work with corporate minions.”

“What drew us here initially,” Babitsky says, “was that there were technically creative people we wanted to work with. The fact that they were in Raleigh was incidental until we looked around and said, ‘Hey, this is a cool place.’” Being in the state capital has helped them to advocate for employment policies that “level the playing field” for small businesses and independent workers, especially temps and contingency workers who helped drive the economic boom of the ’90s, but often didn’t reap its benefits. “The smallest companies are individuals,” Salmons says. “It isn’t so much that what drives the economy is companies. More and more, you don’t have to be part of a company to exercise that influence. In fact you can have a lot of freedom.”

The couple has found a strong community of people in the Triangle who take advantage of the Web to network locally. And this flexibility will make the difference. “The downturn in the economy can actually be an opportunity for experimentation,” Babitsky says. People who’ve been laid off from their corporate jobs sometimes find they didn’t find those jobs fulfilling in the first place, he points out. “There will be folks trying new things, saying, ‘Gee I’ve always been interested in this aspect of my life. Maybe I can turn this into a self-employment situation.’”

Though Raleigh-Durham rates high on the list of creative centers, there is scant discussion of our neck of the woods in the text of the book. A brief reference in the chapter called “Building the Creative Community” points to one problem that the area will have to keep facing head on in order to stay on top. Florida cites an interview that Joel Kotkin, author of The New Geography, did with a local real estate developer who complains that sprawling developments have made the Triangle a harder sell in the 21st century. “There’s not much of a sense of place here,” the developer laments. “The people I’m selling space to are screaming about cultural issues.”

But we all know the trouble with focus groups: People say they want to live in a place with a vibrant downtown, but they still go to the malls and the stadiums and buy houses in new subdivisions outside the beltline. Just think of the hordes of Southpoint and Triangle Commons shoppers who came out for the grand openings. And the decline of small, independent businesses on Franklin Street in Chapel Hill is an ominous consequence. One thing Florida found in his interviews was that people often pointed to lifestyle options like rock climbing and art galleries as a draw, even if they never took advantage of them. They just like having the option. So the success of independent businesses — like a downtown coffee house or a new music venue — requires a critical mass of people who not only want the option but realize that if they don’t vote with their dollar, the option is likely to dry up. Consider it choice consumption with a civic attitude.

Perhaps this is part of what Florida means in his chapter “The Creative Class Grows Up,” when he urges its members to see themselves as a group and take the responsibility of mobilizing as such. “Class is a dirty word in America,” he writes. “But for the Creative Class and society as a whole, a little class awareness would be a healthy thing.” He exhorts the group to get organized around three goals: investment in creativity (i.e., schools over stadiums and research centers over factories); overcoming the class divide and finding a channel for the creative potentials of people in the working class and service class; and “building new forms of social cohesion.” If you’re not into traditional politics, fine, he says, but get involved. “Unless we design new forms of civic involvement appropriate to our times, we will be left with a substantial void in our society and politics that will ultimately limit our ability to achieve the economic growth and rising living standards we desire.”

Beneath the surface
Walk through downtown Raleigh on a sunny Saturday afternoon, and you’d never guess the city is home to more than a quarter of a million people. Right outside the new $50 million Exploris museum and IMAX theater, a few lonely souls are sitting in park benches in Moore Square. The City Market is empty, most of the neighboring restaurants are closed, and those that are open are empty except for the employees. The feeling is almost eerie: Where did all the people go? During the week, downtown buzzes with workers. But by 6 o’clock on Friday, they’ve left the city center.

But look closer, and it turns out there’s more here than what jumps out at you. Ventures like Artspace and Humble Pie are creating an arts scene that returns week after week. Navigating the urban culture that exists in the Triangle is somewhat like navigating its confusing streets — you have to know what you’re looking for, and it helps to ask somebody. Betsy Kane would make a good guide.

“I could live anywhere in the country,” she says in an email, “but I stay here because I like what Raleigh has to offer.” An attorney and city planner, she lives close to downtown in an old brick apartment building, and likes to spend time at Cup-a-Joe on Hillsborough Street and the nearby Reader’s Corner. “The neighborhoods of central Raleigh are filled with people who sponsor house concerts, create art or music, participate in civic life and politics.

“Yet there’s nothing effete about this wonderful city,” she continues. “The core of Raleigh is all train tracks and muskmelons and brickyards. There are lots of neat old brick industrial or warehouse buildings, which are fascinating whether they are in various stages of interesting disuse, or whether they are undergoing adaptive reuse as art studios, urbane-with-an-e apartments, and restaurants and other gathering places.” She sees a distinctive charm in the way the city combines upscale restaurants and the State Fair, “the down-to-earth with the high-falutin’.” “This city hasn’t yet succumbed to glitz or hype. It’s my hope it won’t. In the words of a friend, it would be too bad if we were so busy trying to be a second-tier Charlotte or Atlanta that we forgot to be a first-rate Raleigh.”

Babitsky and Salmons, who have lived here for almost ten years, say the downtown neighborhoods are getting steadily more fun. “I don’t think you’re ever going to have San Francisco here in Raleigh,” Babitsky says. “But downtown Raleigh could be really cool, and downtown Durham and Chapel Hill are getting more cool.”

“We consider our public office to be the outdoor patio of Greenshields in downtown Raleigh. That’s where we meet all our clients and collaborators,” Salmons says. “Local economic developers need to realize that what really attracts and creates momentum is, you want to have interesting places to live and recreate and work. That’s probably one of the real opportunities that Raleigh has. There are older buildings looking for new leases on life. As long as we see more of those things being turned into lofts, artist spaces, restaurants and so on, that creates the possibility of an urban lifestyle.”

When Rose-May Guignard talks about what attracts her to Durham, a sense of place is a big part of the draw. She finds a balance here between the aggressive networking that goes on in big cities like New York (where she lived for two years) and the laid-back feel of a small town. “I think people here are open to making connections with people, and I find it across race, gender, sexual orientation, age.” She sees in this community an opportunity for the entrepreneurship that Florida talks about, a chance for homegrown businesses to start up. She’s attracted to Durham’s history and its racial diversity. She’s drawn to places “that have some history and uniqueness to them that can’t be manufactured.” A native of Haiti, she’s fascinated with the historic neighborhood of Hayti — a place that was nearly destroyed by the construction of the Durham Freeway. And that’s the danger of development, that it can often remove unique buildings and public spaces, turning downtowns into soulless and sterile shopping malls.

Drive through Old North Durham on a weekday evening, and you’re unmistakably in an urban neighborhood. Kids are playing in the front yards of old houses and the parking lots of apartment complexes. Neighbors meet on the sidewalk to chat. A woman who looks like she’s coming home from an office job puts her key in the door of a small bungalow. On the porch of a home owned by TROSA, a rehabilitation residence program, folks are sitting around chatting and watching the warm evening sky. Somebody’s walking to the corner store. Looking down the hill, you catch a glimpse of the old tobacco buildings downtown. People who appear to be from all different races and socio-economic backgrounds call this place home, and their visibility, the simple busyness of the street, makes it feel safe.

Jim Emery is a researcher at UNC’s School of Public Health and president of the Old North Durham Neighborhood Association. Over lunch at the Mad Hatter’s café recently, he tells me that he’s lived in Durham for three years, but has lived in the Triangle off and on throughout his life. “People like me are really attracted to places like Old North Durham because there is so much diversity — in terms of race, old people, young people, gays, straights, and group homes that are regenerating people into society.” He sees the ideal neighborhood as one that is “walkable, livable, where you can bike easily.” While he would certainly qualify as part of the group that Florida describes, he’s not sure that such a group will be able to build neighborhoods like this. “I’m a little concerned that the creative class can become myopic and self-interested, and not contribute as much to the betterment of our society as to the products or expressions they are creating. It’s important to also focus that creativity to improve the systems that govern our lives.”

Emery lived in the San Francisco area for about five years in the late ’80s. “When I think about when I was in Berkeley, a lot of people I was hanging out with were highly creative, and channeled it no matter what they did.” The same creative energy they used in art and work extended to forms of advocacy, grassroots organizing and activism. Emery says he now works with people in Durham who see local neighborhood issues like land use and public transportation as part of a larger whole. They use listservs and Web sites to keep informed and connected.

“I’m seeing Durham as a place that is really emerging and starting to roll — maybe that’s because I’m tied into it.” But he’s troubled by the high number of transplants to the Triangle who buy houses in new developments on the outskirts of town, generating more suburban sprawl that then drains resources away from the city’s core. People say they want to live in an urban village, but they don’t always vote with their mortgages.

If Old North Durham has an opposite, it would be the cul-de-sac streets of Cary. Ask someone from Carrboro what they think of Cary, and their eyes are likely to roll. Some even refer to it as “Scary.” This is because, in spite of its population more than tripling in the past two decades, Cary has never developed as a city in its own right. It’s constantly fighting the reputation of being a bedroom community void of diversity. It doesn’t help that there are some strange rules there, like the sign ordinance in effect since the 1970s that forbids neon and signs with more than two colors. A June 2001 article in National Geographic magazine, titled “Suburbia Unbound,” reported that “Cary resembles a futuristic Pleasantville.” Yet the town is as representative of Florida’s creative class as any — most of its residents work in high tech companies like SAS Institute, Cisco, IBM, and Lucent Technology.

“The consumerist monoculture is typified by Cary,” says Babitsky, who sees the issue as indicative of the challenge that the Triangle faces in defining itself. “There is a potential in this area to either become really exciting or to be swallowed up by the monoculture.” Struggling to cope with its boom, Cary will be one place where the Triangle’s creative class will have to show its true colors.

Getting involved
Florida’s book sounds like great news: A bunch of offbeat creative types are driving the economy. But there is a danger that “creativity” so-defined can be not much more than a sum of lifestyle options — sure, creatives might do yoga and buy organic produce, but their civic involvement is rather dismally unreflective of their professed values and opinions.

Where the creative class goes, prosperity follows. But what that prosperity looks like is still up in the air. Will it be miles of unchecked development with water shortages? Or will the cities of the Triangle grow into true urban villages, distinctive and alive?

Ultimately, it comes down to individual choices. “It’s not like this cultural class that Florida talks about is a single unit that moves in forceful ways,” Salmons says. “It’s more like a growing number of people, how we live and what we do over time, that will make a difference in the culture.” EndBlock