Boho Numbers

The locally maligned creator of the Bohemian Index finally explains just why New Orleans gets ranked below Salt Lake City.



Editor's note: A few weeks ago, The Times-Picayune reported that Carnegie Mellon University professor Richard Florida's new book The Rise of the Creative Class gave New Orleans a relatively low standing in its "Bohemian Index." Here, Florida responds to the article and the subsequent volley of columns and letters printed in the T-P.

Stand up for your city -- there is probably no other like it. And feel free to rake me over the coals; I welcome the controversy. But please, let's take a closer look at the numbers.

My book The Rise of the Creative Class uses a statistical measure called the Bohemian Index to gauge the relative amount of artistic and cultural activity in a metro area. By this index New Orleans ranks only 41st out of the 49 largest metro areas in the United States -- behind such "un-bohemian" places as Salt Lake City, where calling a basketball team "the Jazz" makes no sense.

Therefore, say a host of critics, my Bohemian Index and I make no sense either. As one letter-writer to The Times-Picayune put it, "there are liars, damn liars, and Richard Florida." Don't I know that New Orleans is a unique creative cauldron?

Actually, I do. As an amateur blues guitarist with a strong taste for jazz, I well appreciate this city's distinguished role in our music. Everyone knows that New Orleans has placed an indelible stamp on American culture in other ways. When I speak around the country, and even in the book, I point out that New Orleans is a diverse and culturally creative Mecca despite its low ranking.

Yes, the Bohemian Index has limits. It uses U.S. Census data to count the number of people in a metro area -- relative to total population of the area -- who report being empployed as artists, writers, musicians, entertainers or cultural producers. It does not capture the quality, the nature or the edginess of what they create. Anne Rice, George Will and a business reporter in Dallas each count as one writer; the Mormon Tabernacle Choir gets included. Nor does the Index capture the unique spirit of a place like New Orleans, where even stockbrokers and secretaries act out their fantasies during Mardi Gras and other times.

Still, the Boho Index is a powerful metric. It captures people who are principally employed in arts and cultural activities, and is a much more systematic way of assessing cultural creativity than other commonly used metrics like counting museums or music halls or public radio broadcasts. The top five-ranked regions are all well known cultural havens: Nashville, New York, Minneapolis-St. Paul, Boston and San Francisco.

And the Boho Index has a strong relationship to high-tech innovation and economic growth -- perhaps because it captures metros that are willing and able to pay bohemians well enough for them to list their culturally creative activities as their primary job. A high proportion of paid artists reflect a region that is willing and able to invest in these cultural creators.

But, here's the main point -- the one that my critics overlook. New Orleans' role as a creative hotbed has failed to translate into economic or technological creativity. Creativity, as my book notes, is multidimensional: the technical, commercial and cultural kinds are interrelated. For a region to be economically successful, it must have all three T's of economic development: Technology, Talent and Tolerance. Any one is a necessary but insufficient condition. The most successful areas --like San Francisco, Austin and Boston -- put all the ingredients together. New Orleans scores well on the third T -- Tolerance -- but lags badly on the other two.

And that's exactly where you need to focus your energy and improve:

· Technology means a strong research and development base plus a business structure that brings the technologies to market. On two key measures -- the High-Tech Index (which gauges tech-based industry concentration) and the Innovation Index (patents per capita) -- New Orleans, of the 49 large metro areas, ranks 45th and 48th respectively.

· Talent means engineers, product designers, entrepreneurs and other such "creators" along with the artists; they're all members of what I call the Creative Class. New Orleans, with 27.5 percent of its workforce in Creative Class occupations (versus well over 30 percent for leading areas), ranks 42nd in talent.

· Tolerance means welcoming diverse kinds of people and ideas. New Orleans does well on the Gay Index (the relative number of gay couples), ranking 12th of the 49 large cities -- but only 26th in percent of the population that's foreign-born and 43rd in interracial couples.

My message: be proud of your bohemian heritage but don't rest on your laurels. You have a technology-based creative economy to build.

One final note: invite me down. My critics have been saying I should visit New Orleans to see what it's really like, and I'm ready. I'll bring my guitar.


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