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The City as Factory

February 11, 2008, 5am PST | Josh Stephens
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Josh Stephens reviews "The Warhol Economy: How Fashion, Art, and Music Drive New York City", by Elizabeth Currid -- a look at the planning, sociology, and history behind New York's creative economy. While Currid's observations and theories are enlightening and sometimes entertaining, the book misses its opportunity to establish a strong case for planning's role in the cultivation of a creative economy, says Stephens.

 Josh StephensElizabeth Currid is cooler than you.

Perhaps the only urban planner ever to conduct fieldwork in stilettos, Currid slips past velvet ropes to argue in The Warhol Economy that New York City's bounty resides not in the office tower but rather in the street, where art and creativity propel the city's economy and distinguish it from the overgrown office parks that pass for American cities in the postindustrial age.

A professor of urban planning at the University of Southern California by day, Currid locates herself along a continuum leading roughly from Jacobs (Jane) to Jacobs (Marc), with a stop at Florida (Richard) along the way. Her stylish, sassy account weaves history, sociology, economics, and public policy into a compelling primer on a colorful segment of society wedded to its cityscape but alien to many planners.

Andy Warhol's Factory provides Currid with a metaphor for New York's "creative economy," in which hanging out, getting high, and dancing until dawn supplant board meetings, rounds of golf, and, indeed, factories themselves. The city's unique combination of density, diversity, public transit, and distinctive enclaves enables artists, designers, musicians, writers, and other intergalactic visionaries to live, work, and hang out in "the same twenty-five square miles or so." These tight quarters foster chance encounters and the "new combinations" that Jane Jacobs considered the hallmark of healthy economies; in the Warhol economy, they just happen later at night.

 The Warhol Economy

The Warhol Economy: How Fashion, Art, and Music Drive New York City By Elizabeth Currid 258 pp. Princeton University Press $27.95

Amid descriptions of after-hours clubs, rock shows, gallery openings, streetcorner jam sessions, and the borderline deviance inherent to the creative process, you can almost taste the cocaine. Yet Currid does not rely on qualitative analysis alone.

She also offers a raft of census data and a decidedly wonky algorithm for determining a city's "location quotient" - the relative ability for different cities to foster different industries. She concludes that "art and culture are New York City's crucial competitive advantage-meaning they form the sector in which New York has a unique lead over any other city." In other words, nowhere else could you call "next" in a pickup basketball game and end up designing album covers for the Beastie Boys.

But this much almost any progressive urban theorist could have told you. Currid's more breathtaking conclusion is not that creativity owes itself to New York, but that New York owes itself to creativity.

No matter how big their Benjamins may be, Currid claims that the brokers, lawyers, and financiers who populate New York's office towers have little to do with the collective enterprise in the semipublic realm. Compared to the real geniuses, New York's businesspeople as mere hangers-on who enjoy the milieu of the creative economy but could otherwise be outsourced to cubicles above Dallas and dream of happy hour at TGI Friday's. "Art and culture are not the little sisters to finance or management," she writes.

Given the traditionally fraternal relationship between cities and big business, Currid's implied planning question is twofold: How can New York's hipsters continue to thrive, and how might other cities get in on the fun and profit? In her final chapter, Currid finally steps out of Candace Bushnell mode to focus less on the sex and more on the city. Her analysis is not encouraging.

The book's greatest failing is, in fact, the scant number of pages that it dedicates to planning per se. Currid pays most of her attention to history and a description of activities that are already going on, but she has relatively little to say about how to cultivate the creative economy. It's as if she's taunting planners and policymakers with images of a world that they can never hope to create.

Currid derides formal civic institutions, such as museums and foundations, and refers to public arts initiatives and city grants as piddling and half-assed. She writes that "public policy frequently misses the mark in terms of what cultural industries and producers really need to sustain and optimize their work." The vagueness of creativity befuddles policymakers and planners, and they can promote it only in oblique ways. However condescending, Currid implies that her colleagues are a bunch of squares.

No to be sucked into a bureaucratic discussion, Currid offers only a few concrete recommendations: zoning that accommodates live-work spaces, artist lofts, adaptive reuse, strategic tax breaks and other trends associated with urban revitalization. She hearts art schools, wishes that the cops would give nightclubs a break, and encourages dialog between the art community and the public sector. (She fails, however, to consider whether artists need to play ball and conceive of themselves as a political constituency.)

These ideas may be all well and good for maintaining the status quo in New York, but if dense, vast urban neighborhoods are the art world's true palate, then other cities might have to acknowledge that the Warhol economy may be as unique and enigmatic as its namesake.

Excepting hesitant concessions to Los Angeles, Currid notes that creativity rarely turns a profit elsewhere. Without the critical mass of potential collaborators, promoters, and media outlets, everywhere else amounts to a quaint artists' colony. She says that other cities should focus on sectors that allow them to capitalize on their own strengths, which may or may not include art. "In order to fully participate in the art and culture economy, you pretty much have to be in New York," she writes, without irony. And even in New York, where the art scene flourished amid the decay of the 1970s, gentrification is now taking its toll.

Ultimately, Currid admits that promoting the creative economy in New York, or anywhere else, is an "ambiguous task." You wonder whether Currid should have had a fewer martinis and spent a little more time thinking about planning, but at least she is trying. She takes the creative economy seriously and deserves credit for going where policymakers and other scholars have feared to tread. She gives planners plenty of economic reasons to fight for friendly, vaguely chaotic cities and, indeed, to come up with their own creative strategies.

There's also a compelling performative aspect to The Warhol Economy. Currid gets an obvious thrill from prancing about, dropping names, and delving into the personalities at the heart of the creative economy. Her exuberance ought to remind us that, regardless of its economic benefit, art is fun. It's fun to produce, and it's fun to live with. And it's a lot more fun to read about than parking requirements, setback restrictions, and floor-to-area ratios.


Josh Stephens is a former editor of The Planning Report and the Metro Investment Report, monthly publications covering, respectively, land use and infrastructure in Southern California. Josh also blogs on Planetizen Interchange.

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