Courting the Creative Class

Courting the Creative Class

Beaumont artists working to reshape the future

Ten years ago, an obscure Carnegie Mellon University professor named Richard Florida noticed a guy on campus “sitting slouched over on the grass, dressed in a tank top. This young man had spiked multi-colored hair, full-body tattoos and multiple piercings in his ears. An obvious slacker, I thought, probably in a band.”

But Florida’s keen sense of observation failed him that day; he learned the young man “was a gifted student who had inked the highest-paying deal of any graduating student in the history of his department” — right there on the university lawn.

The company that recruited the new grad was Trilogy, an Austin-based software company that scouted top talent in Pittsburgh and beyond. But Professor Florida wondered why the guy would abandon the amenities of the big city for a smaller city in the middle of Texas, a place with a small airport and no professional sports teams, without a major symphony, ballet, opera or art museum comparable to Pittsburgh’s.
“It’s in Austin!” he explained to an intrigued Florida: There are lots of young people and a tremendous amount to do — a thriving music scene, ethnic and cultural diversity, fabulous outdoor recreation and great nightlife. Though he had several good job offers from Pittsburgh high-tech firms and knew the city well, he said he felt the city lacked the lifestyle options, cultural diversity and tolerant attitude that would make it attractive to him.

That set the professor to thinking, and the result was a path-breaking book, “The Rise of the Creative Class: and How It’s Transforming Work” about the forces that were reshaping our economy, our geography, our work and our whole way of life.

Florida attributed the transformation to what he called the creative class: “a fast-growing, highly educated, and well-paid segment of the workforce on whose efforts corporate profits and economic growth increasingly depend. Members of the creative class do a wide variety of work in a wide variety of industries — from technology to entertainment, journalism to finance, high-end manufacturing to the arts. They do not consciously think of themselves as a class. Yet they share a common ethos that values creativity, individuality, difference and merit.”
This became even more important when upstart creative companies including Microsoft and Google would eclipse traditional behemoths General Motors, Ford and General Electric – with Apple growing larger than Microsoft and Google combined and Facebook absorbing entire economic sectors with the end result yet to be determined.

The mostly young minds sparking this revolution followed the social relocation impulse described by both Vladimir Lenin and Ronald Reagan as “voting with their feet” – migrating to places more tolerant, diverse and open to creativity: Seattle, Boston, Washington, D.C., the San Francisco Bay area and Austin, which soon had a large, modern airport. These are places where employers were willing to make the adaptations necessary to attract and retain creative class employees including relaxed dress codes, flexible schedules, and new work rules in the office.

Florida lamented that most civic leaders failed to understand that what is true for corporations is also true for cities and regions: Places that succeed in attracting and retaining creative class people prosper; those that fail don’t.

To calculate a city’s potential to attract and keep this demo, Florida devised his Creativity Index by measuring four factors: the creative class share of the workforce; high-tech industry; innovation, measured as patents per capita; and diversity, measured by something called the Gay Index, a reasonable proxy for an area’s openness to different kinds of people and ideas.

Ranking Beaumont

Among the top five small-size cities, Madison, Wis., topped the list followed by Des Moines, Iowa; Santa Barbara, Calif.; Melbourne, Fla.; and Boise City, Idaho. The inclusion of Boise on the list suggests creativity is not confined to any particular geographic region.

The small-size cities on bottom of the Creativity Index in 2003 included Beaumont, which had a respectable 27.8 percent of the workforce rated as creative but ranked near the bottom in innovation and diversity. That put us behind Hickory, N.C., and Lakeland, Fla., but ahead of Fayetteville, Ark., despite the presence of the University of Arkansas. Ranking even lower were Killeen, Texas, home of Fort Hood, and Fayetteville, N.C., home of Fort Bragg, suggesting that despite its value to the nation, a large military presence is not necessarily seen as a boost to creativity. Even the presence of gambling boats on the river couldn’t elevate Shreveport, La., out of last place on the small-size cities list.

In Florida’s estimation, “Places are also valued for authenticity and uniqueness. Authenticity comes from several aspects of a community — historic buildings, established neighborhoods, a unique music scene, or specific cultural attributes. It comes from the mix — from urban grit alongside renovated buildings, from the commingling of young and old, long-time neighborhood characters and yuppies, fashion models and ‘bag ladies.’ An authentic place also offers unique and original experiences. Thus a place full of chain stores, chain restaurants and nightclubs is not authentic. You could have the same experience anywhere.”

So where does this leave Beaumont? Common factors to which we can aspire include the fact that leading creative centers provide a solid mix of high-tech industry, plentiful outdoor amenities, and an older urban center whose rebirth has been fueled in part by a combination of creativity and innovative technology, as well as lifestyle amenities.

Many of those elements are already in place here; others are potentially within our reach. It won’t happen overnight, but a journey of a thousand miles starts with a single step. Before we can hope to attract creative types to our town and region, a good beginning would be to persuade our homegrown creative class to stick around and do something here.

That was the idea of Lorena Head and Grace Mathis, two young Southeast Texas women who are not urban planners or social scientists. They are artists, trend-spotters and fashionistas who are providing the push to drag Beaumont into the 21st century – a mere decade after it began. Together with their circle of like-minded friends, artists and mostly amateur visionaries, they staged an event in 2011 at the Fire Museum that started as an avant-garde fashion show and quickly grew into a cross-cultural celebration of the arts they called REcreate.
The 2012 edition July 14 filled a city block between the Jefferson Theater and the Hotel Beaumont with an explosion of music, food, magic, art and fashion that celebrated Beaumont’s past and present – and maybe provided a glimpse of the city’s future. The usual suspects from the smart set were in attendance (see Out and About in this week’s Entertainment Guide), but the energy driving REcreate came from a mélange of younger citizens who transcend traditional categories of class, race, gender and sexual preference and are prone to body art including multiple tattoos and piercings. If it were a soap opera, you might call it “The Young and the Illustrated.”

Robin Wiebusch, 21, is an artist who pays the bills working as a foreign car mechanic and host at Carrabba’s. A graduate of Hardin-Jefferson High School, he chose to remain in this area.

“Why relocate when you can recreate?” asked Wiebusch. “We’ve got to convert what’s here into a new community — there are enough people here to support the arts in a meaningful way.”

He also participated in what Head labeled a DIY – do-it-yourself – fashion show. The 6-foot-3 Wiebusch wore a long-sleeved white dress shirt with necktie above short pants suggesting perhaps a Mormon missionary in the East Village.

“I’ve always liked Ralph Lauren,” he explained. “I was going for more of a Polo schoolboy.”

Other representatives of the creative class included Katy Hall and Jessica Hamilton, who conduct new drug trials for Southeast Texas Clinical Research. Hall was resplendent in a vintage outfit suitable for Sunday in the park with George while Hamilton’s striking Harlequin costume was a gender-bending half man – half woman. They blended in well with the diverse mixture of men, women and those of undetermined gender who strolled down the fashion show runway.

Chef Monica Cobb’s Bành Mon trailer dispensed her trademark hybrid version of the Vietnamese/French sandwich, Bánh Mi. Waitstaff with trays of goodies from Rao’s Bakery, Suga’s, New York Pizza & Pasta and Zydeco Louisiana Diner circulated through the crowd though former Examiner writer Lucy Biebel – dressed creatively as a marionette – took exception to a suggestion she was the tart tart.
Jennifer Wilcox was accompanied by her bulldog Belvedere, who many in the crowd called by name, perhaps attesting to the relatively small circle that is the Beaumont creative class. Wilcox is a registered nurse who works in the operating room of a local hospital. The open sleeve of her dress revealed a large tattoo of a grinning orange skull on her upper arm, which might disconcert a patient who wakes up and sees it, but she said it is always covered when she is working.

In future listings on the Creativity Index, the numbers for Beaumont should tick upward as advancements in high-tech, innovation and diversity are recorded. Lamar University and the Lamar colleges in Port Arthur and Orange will contribute to those efforts but it is the desire and hard work of this loose-knit community of artists and other creative types that will make a real difference.