Skip to main content

Not So Much 'New York Poor' as 'Pittsburgh Rich'

What will happen when young talent starts refusing to subsidize the creative industries that aren't really profitable in America's most expensive cities?
  • Author:
  • Updated:
The Shadyside neighborhood of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo: Tomcool/Wikimedia Commons)

The Shadyside neighborhood of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo: Tomcool/Wikimedia Commons)

If not dead already, "Slacker" Austin is dying. In its place comes ambition, purpose, and a career. Along with the embrace of success comes the gentrification of what made Austin, Texas, so attractive in the first place:

That would have disqualified Dutton from the contest American-Statesman columnist John Kelso once held to find Austin’s biggest slacker. Wammo, the musician and DJ, insists he could have won, had he cared to enter. He said the ability to live as a slacker enabled him to stay here until his band got well-known enough to make a decent living touring.

There was a time Wammo rented an old warehouse space in East Austin for $180 a month, including utilities. Eventually, he married a woman from Pittsburgh, played on the road a lot and grew out of the “Slacker” mindset.

“I’m probably making it sound too rosy, because there were tough times, but it still was fun while it lasted,” he said.

He doesn’t have a good sense of how prevalent the “Slacker” vibe is in 2014.

“I moved to Pittsburgh nearly three years ago,” he said. “Austin just got too expensive.”

Wammo is now Pittsburgh rich instead of Austin poor. Cool has a price point. The foundation of Richard Florida's "Creative Class" enterprise is crumbling:

I wrote a book in which I tried to make sense of all of this, drawing from my experiences in Newark, my memories of my father's factory, and the struggles I had seen in Pittsburgh. Pittsburgh had a lot of good attributes as a city but my students couldn't wait to leave it. I wanted to know what a city would have to do to become a place they would want to stay and work in and build a future -- how it could become a more tolerant, inclusive, creative place, where people and businesses would flourish and grow.

Florida recently said those words at the graduation ceremony for Rutgers University. In doing so, he demonstrates how poorly he understands migration. He's describing a brain drain plug for a city that didn't need one. All the words spilled about the "The Rise of the Creative Class" were based on that erroneous assumption. Wammo's move from Austin to Pittsburgh is not at all ironic, as Richard Florida would have you believe. Florida got the economic development story backwards.

Momentum and mesofacts keep certain migration patterns alive. We go where we know. Sometimes how we get to know a place is through other people whom we trust. The legacy attraction of New York City:

For young people, moving to New York City hasn’t made much mathematical sense for decades. The jobs don’t pay enough, the internships don’t pay at all, and the rents are prohibitive by any sane standard. ...

... “The fact that people think it’s a good deal makes me think people here are brainwashed,” he said.

There’s a lot about New York City that loses its shine when Mr. Trout is doing the looking. He sees Manhattan as “just a place,” doesn’t know why he should subsist on noodles “just so I can live in an area with a few parks nearby” and is troubled by the New York tax on a simple sub. “Knowing there are people on this planet who think their sandwiches are worth $10 apiece bothers me immensely.”

Emphasis added. For Austin or Brooklyn, the young and the restless will swim against a rational (and intolerant) tide. The above article indicates that student loan debt will be the last straw for naive talent willing to subsidize creative industries that aren't really profitable in such an expensive city. I would characterize it as the final nail in the Williamsburg coffin for a trend that Richard Florida did not see while wearing his shroud of Rust Belt shame:

In a broad sense, Pittsburgh, like Portland, is already a potential destination for those who need to "go somewhere cheap and figure out what they wanted to do," she said. What's changed -- and what may separate Pittsburgh from other, similarly situated cities -- is the newfangled buzz, however subjective that sort of thing is.

"If Pittsburgh becomes some kind of hipster enclave, I don't think they'd be the type of hipster you'd find in Brooklyn or Williamsburg or Portland," she said. The true believers among them -- unlike, she said, "the remnant of what was the hipster" culture -- will be attracted to Pittsburgh precisely because it offers the authenticity they're craving, without the yuppie affectation that follows it.

I'm not saying you can't find [that] in other cities. But Pittsburgh has a great setup for people who want to come to the city and make art and have a creative scene," she said.

Writer and actress Elena Passarello came to Pittsburgh from Georgia in the mid-1990s, then left for Iowa in 2005, to pursue a master's degree in nonfiction writing. (She's in town to act in barebones productions' "Jesus Hopped the 'A' Train," at the New Hazlett.)

It's while she was at the University of Iowa, she said, that she first heard "a lot of Brooklynites throwing Pittsburgh's name around [as] a place where you could be your artistic self and finish your novel."

Emphasis added. For Richard Florida and his Creative Class, Austin was exotic. Austin was not Rust Belt. Cool couldn't be the place where you were from. Thus, Florida rejected Pittsburgh. Pittsburgh was a failed place. Pittsburgh was a place people left, data be damned. All the while, Pittsburgh has been the model for Austin and New York. In Pittsburgh, slackers can slack and have a successful career that won't cause a tragedy of the commons.

Pittsburgh didn't become a destination for young adults because the city followed Richard Florida's script. Pittsburgh became a destination because it zigged when Florida zagged. Better to be Pittsburgh rich than New York poor.