Soon after Richard Florida’s book The Rise of the Creative Class was released three years ago, the term “creative class” began tripping off the tongues of people all over the country: Mayors who want to move their cities up on Florida’s list of creative centers promote cultural offerings to companies seeking a new HQ; arts groups, thrilled to have their work validated by a business professor, speak “creative class” as a common language with private sponsors and government funders, finding traction with Florida’s arguments as they lobby for their own survival; commercial developers push the “creative class” appeal of their projects. But not everyone who quotes the book has actually read it.

Like any zeitgeist term, “creative class” has taken on a life of its own. The heart of Florida’s argument is that culturally rich, unique, diverse cities draw the most creative people–educated people who, in the author’s broad definition, have jobs that draw on their intellect and ingenuity, be it teaching, computer programming, music or law. The presence of those people is what attracts successful companies to locate there, or better yet, to spring up on their own, bringing economic prosperity and quality of life. The downside is that the service economy is growing almost as quickly, widening a class divide that the nation must grapple with.

Social conservatives have claimed Florida is advancing a gay agenda by arguing that tolerance is crucial for a city’s success. His insistence that the American economy depends on the influx of educated immigrants does not go over well among the anti-immigration set. Attacks have come from the left, as well, from urbanites who feel besieged by business leaders, politicians and investors taking a sudden interest in their gay-friendly artistic enclaves–the familiar cycle of gentrification is glorified by Florida’s “creative class” theories, they say.

In his new book, The Flight of the Creative Class: The New Global Competition for Talent, Florida responds to critics and proponents alike. Expanding to a global scope, the book compares America’s creative centers to the rest of the world’s, and things don’t look good for us. Florida’s plea for a sea change in the economic conversation has much in common with Thomas Friedman’s new book, The World is Flat, which argues that America no longer dominates the world economy. Florida argues that cutting arts funding and restricting immigration will hurt the American economy more than the outsourcing of manufacturing jobs.

So how is our corner of the world doing? In 2002, the Triangle ranked sixth as a “creative center” among regions of more than 1 million people. We maintain that rank in Flight. The bad news is, Florida has added some matrices: We also rank sixth in the income inequality index and 30th in housing affordability.

This is the first in an ongoing series of articles about the impact of the creative class debates within the Triangle. In the coming months, we will explore the changing faces of our downtowns, economic and policy decisions that affect creative people, and, most of all, how the discussion of Florida’s theories has affected the arts.

To tell us more about what we’re doing right and wrong, Florida spoke with the Independent by phone from his GPS-navigated car as it rolled through the streets of his new hometown, Washington, D.C.

Independent:You’ve spent a lot of time here. What’s your perspective on how your ideas are being absorbed, or not, in the Triangle?

Richard Florida: I think the Triangle as a whole is doing pretty amazingly. It still remains pretty much a success story, particularly as a smaller metro. I think the whole story of leveraging university capability is really critical. But the other thing, the untold part of that story that’s just like Austin, is the development of a more broadly creative scene, particularly in arts and culture and the music scene. When I saw that Rolling Stone like two years ago named the Triangle area–I guess it was Chapel Hill–the number one or three music scene in the country, I thought, that’s what I’m talking about. The investments in arts and culture, certainly the creation of a music scene and the creation of music fans, has been important.

The challenge now is the growing housing inaffordability. Yesterday, I was at a meeting at SAS, and I was bemoaning how expensive housing is in Washington, D.C. and someone said, “Yeah, and here too.” This was a younger person at SAS. It isn’t as affordable as it once was. You’re pretty much up there in the rankings. The housing ranking isn’t as bad as the income inequality one, but the inequality one says a lot.

There are two great things I’ve learned since writing The Rise of the Creative Class. The first is that this is a competition across the world. It’s not that Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill is competing with Austin and Seattle and taking people away from Pittsburgh and Cleveland and St. Louis. You are competing with Sydney and Melbourne and Toronto and Bangalore and Beijing. It’s no longer a fait accompli that the person who would have come from India or Asia or Australia or Europe to be at one of your great universities and go on to work for a high-tech company–and those people have a lot of options. Those people are being restricted, they’re not able to get into the country.

The second point is that the creative economy, which is so powerful and so innovative and so entrepreneurial, is also giving rise to this horrific inequality. There’s two kinds: The inequality between Raleigh-Durham and a declining place like Buffalo or Cleveland, but the other thing is that within these creative centers, inequality is just becoming very pronounced. Because it makes sense: Those who participate in the creative economy–I mean, don’t get me wrong, people in technology struggle, artists and musicians struggle, but they don’t struggle the way someone in the service economy struggles.

That’s the most common critique that I hear. I’ve found in reporting on these issuesI reported on downtown Durham’s arts scene–I find that your book or the idea of the creative class is like a Rorschach test. I can tell immediately what the person took from it and what they didn’t take from it, and where they’re coming from. If I mention it to someone who’s a commercial developer, it’s a completely different take than if I mention it to someone in the arts. The biggest critique among people in the arts has been that it glorifies the idea of some guy in a rock band who’s really working in restaurants all his life.

That’s exactly what the book says! The new book is saying this again, but in a more clear way, that this creative economy is producing a class divide that’s getting worse and it’s actually tearing our country apart. I said it in the first book: Each and every human being is creative, but we’re only benefiting some. And I’m saying it even louder in this book because it needs to be said again and again and again. This country is dividing in a way that we have not been divided for a century. And it is terrifying. We divided this way in the industrial revolution and it almost tore this country to bits, until people like Franklin Roosevelt emerged who said we’re not going to let this country divide, we’re not going to let class warfare rage, we’re going to build an industrial economy that benefits real blue collar people.

The real group that we have to bring into the creative economy is the people in the service economy. I’ve said this and I’ll say it a million times: The jobs you’re not going to outsource are the people who cut your hair, take care of your garden and wax your legs. We think in a place like North Carolina we have to protect the manufacturing jobs, the manufacturing jobs are going overseas. What about all these jobs we are creating in the service economy? Why can’t we do what we did in manufacturing jobs 70 years ago? People who worked in a steel mill or a car plant 70 years ago had the worst jobs in the world. They were paid horrible wages, they were maimed at work, they had arms and legs cut off, they were burnt in vats and in furnaces. But we created occupational health and safety and we allowed them to organize themselves and we increased their wages. We made those good jobs that we bemoan losing. We’re creating all these jobs in the service economy–why can’t those jobs be made better?

Are you saying we should unionize service workers?

I don’t think it’s unions. I can’t say to you what exactly that mechanism is, but we’ve got to find some way. I think it’s a national commitment to taking the jobs we are creating and making them good jobs.

I just did an interview with somebody in Florida. These are two states in the country, but I think North Carolina more so, where you have the thriving creative haves alongside the creative have-nots right there in one state. The real question is not how do we build a more thriving creative economy in your region; it’s how do we make more and more people participate in the creative economy? That’s the point of this book: It’s not enough to build these nodes of creativity. With all due respect to that artist who works in a restaurant, their life is not nearly so bad as the new immigrant who has to toil two jobs washing dishes in a restaurant.

What I see happening in America, which was reflected in the election we just had, I think was all about people being left out of the creative economy. They’re scared, they’re anxious, they’re stressed, they don’t know where their job is going to be, they don’t know what’s going to happen, and they just react. They see successful people in these cities–artists, musicians, immigrants, gay people, young people–and they just get mad. Other people push their fear button, and they say, “That’s it, I don’t want any more of this crap. Shut down all this crazy stuff going on in Durham and places like that. Who cares about these universities? They’re not benefiting me.” I think we have to show regular people that they can benefit from the creative economy.

I’m most interested in how the arts have been affected by this debate that you’ve started. You’re not coming from an arts background, you’re coming from a business background and so you’re writing to business people about the value of the arts. Arts groups have found some traction with your arguments as they lobby for their own funding and survival, because it’s like a common language. But is it really a common language? Is it really working for their benefit?

I wrote it for an audience of businesses and economic developers who probably like the book less than I would have imagined. I thought that audience would have just gone crazy and said, “Can I work with those people?” and “You’re absolutely right.” There was success in some quarters and a very negative reaction in others. The best thing about writing the book was how many friends I made in the arts. It opened up a whole new group of people who I never thought would read my work. Never, ever did I think I would address Americans for the Arts in my life. So it was a fabulous experience for me.

I think it has helped arts groups make their case, but I think this country is still neglecting the arts. At the national level we’re cutting arts funding and in most states they see arts as an extra, a frivolity, and they’re building these stadiums. When I see sensible mayors, like Mayor Bloomberg, and I see my city, Washington, D.C., spending hundreds of millions of dollars on stadiums, or in Bloomberg’s case wanting to spend over a billion, you know, I can’t believe it. I think spending on arts, culture, research, making your city a better place, quality of life, those are things that make good economic sense and they’re not expensive. Spending money not necessarily on great arts institutions but spending money on real working artists, that’s what makes a lot of sense because they’re investments in creativity. So I think it’s been helpful, but I’m afraid that it hasn’t been helpful enough.

In Raleigh, they’re building another convention center. In Durham, there are plans in the works to build a theater for touring acts. There was a big controversy last year because the plan at that time was to lease the theater to Clear Channel. There’s a cluster of music people downtown that were against it. Both sides were quoting your book. The proponents believed this theater was about promoting culture and they didn’t understand why the local musicians were so mad.

And they don’t understand what the people in Austin understand, that what you promote is the local musician. You don’t need these great edifices; what you need is support. That’s why my friend Jim Butler, who’s director of development for the music scene, his focus is on making sure that the local musicians and the local producers of music, the people who actually make the music, are taken care of and the local venue owners are taken care of, rather than these big fixes which never work!

Are you frustrated when you hear stories like that?

Yes. I’ve had people wave my book around and say we need to build another stadium. I learned what Michel Foucault said a long time ago: You don’t really write a book; the people who read it write it for you. Most of the critics of my book are criticizing a construction of their mind, and many of the people who are proponents of the ideas get them completely wrong. “Oh, we’re going to fix my city with this great new music venue.” That’s not what we’re saying. We’re saying basically in the book, be an open and tolerant place that values people. And not just creative class people. Value the creativity of each and every individual, invest in it, nurture it and be open to it. That’s what the book’s message is. But both critics and proponents get that wrong. I never realized that a book could be a vehicle for other agendas. I thought that a book was an empirical statement.

Empirical research is going out of style in this country.

Absolutely. Then people just make fun of it and say it doesn’t matter. Well, it does matter. Data’s imperfect, but it tells you something. Facts really do matter. So yeah, it’s frustrating. But I have learned the hard way that this is a vehicle for having a conversation.

I know you’ve made several trips to this area. Last year you spoke at the North Carolina Museum of Art in Raleigh, and you go to SAS frequently. What do you think is a good execution of the ideas and what do you think maybe isn’t so good?

I actually don’t know enough about the region to be a commentator. It would be great for us to do a real assessment of the region, but I clearly have not done that. I think the region has built from a technology infrastructure of branch plants, the IBMs and the imported companies, to creating a group of its own. It’s fortunate to have a company like SAS that employs thousands of people and has created an enormous amount of income and wealth. So I think the technology piece has been good.

Obviously, it’s a place that’s been focused on building its artistic and cultural capital, on two fronts. One is the art museum front. I particularly like the bike trail and the art park. What’s good there is the movement of art out of the museum building and the connection between the art museum and the community. The other thing I like, and I don’t think there’s been any policy at work, but it’s been the development of a local music scene, which is powerful. Honestly, I think the community needs to do more, not necessarily to nurture it directly but it should make sure not to screw it up, to disrupt it or to mess it up or to drive it out with high rents or to over-regulate it. Having that music scene and musical excitement there is really a part of the Triangle becoming a real serious creative region.

I’m surprised–and I don’t mean to be negative–I’m surprised about this convention center thing. Here’s what surprises me, and I’ll say it by comparison. The fact that a city like Washington, D.C. would distract an entire debate over how to become a world class city, when kids don’t have high school football fields to play on or basketball gyms to play in, but they’re building a $500 million stadium. With all the issues going on in New York, that Mike Bloomberg would direct all of his attention to trying to build a billion dollar plus football stadium for the Jets. These big–what I call elephant–projects not only suck up community money, worse than that they suck up community attention. They divide the community and they throw a monkey wrench into things.

I can certainly understand why Las Vegas wants a convention business. I don’t understand why smaller towns, ones that have high quality of life, have to get embroiled in these debates over becoming convention towns. The future of the Triangle isn’t in the convention business. It’s in fostering its own creativity, investing in the creativity of its people, making sure it can compete against other world centers–the Sydneys, the Melbournes, the Vancouvers of the world–as a place for creative talent, investing in its universities, making sure that the people who come to their universities have the opportunity and are excited enough to want to stay in your region.

There’s another positive in your region which I don’t think I’ve ever mentioned. I had a student named Erika Jefferson, who happened to be an African-American student, at Carnegie Mellon, who did a study of where talented and creative African Americans choose to live. There were three metros that came to the top of that list. One was Washington, D.C., another was Atlanta, and the third was your metro. This incredible history of historically black colleges is an enormous asset to the region. The fact that it is one of three places that is attracting talented and creative African Americans, that’s a huge positive.

Those are the things to work on, to focus on. And making sure that artists and creative people aren’t displaced. In Austin, the whole debate right now is not about how do we grow more Dells, it’s how do we protect the quality of life, the music scene, the authenticity, the realness, the diversity that made Austin Austin? Over the long run, doing that will probably pay more dividends than creating another Dell.

Stay away from the elephant projects. Focus on investing in the creativity and making sure more and more people can participate and connect to the creative economy.