‘Who’s Your City’, Place, and Creative Energy

Richard Florida‘s work, about the rise of the creative class, has been a key influence in how I think about the direction of the world and its economies ever since I read The Flight of the Creative Class in school last year. Since then, I’ve read The Rise of the Creative Class, and am now deep into Who’s Your City, his book about how where we live deeply influences our chances of success and happiness. And in Chapter 11, he makes a very intriguing point about creative energy and where you live.

Florida posits, based on his research and studies into human psychology, that a sense of place has a very profound effect on a person’s energy level. He tells a story (pg. 199) about a man who, upon moving to a new city, finds that he becomes negative angry and plagued by low energy levels. This is ultimately credited to his new choice of city, which shares very little with him in terms of attitudes and values. He just didn’t fit in. Florida then explores, with the help of a trio of prominent psychologists, the idea that energy, based on happiness and positivity, is even more an indicator of success than raw talent (203).

Thus, even a prodigious talent can be utterly destroyed in an environment that makes them feel as if they don’t belong. This is a very intriguing theory, and has some personal relevance.

Those who know me are usually aware I hail, not from Toronto, but from Barrie, Ontario. Barrie is one of the fastest-growing cities in the country, and as of 2006 had the 9th largest metropolitan in Ontario (and 21st in the country). It’s basically a halfway point between the larger city of Toronto to the south and cottage country to the north. Despite the statistics I noted, its population at last count was still below 200,000, making it a fraction of Toronto’s 5.1 million.

Barrie is 94.2% white. When last checked in 2001, it was 45.7% Protestant, 27.7% Catholic, and 21.4% with no religious affiliation. The entire scope of the rest of the world’s spirituality was contained to less than 20% of the population. This is, I state loudly, not a population known for its diversity. Which is a shame, because one of my best friends in high school was Iranian, and she was (I assume still is, though we don’t speak much these days) brilliant, dynamic and creative. I’d love to say she was one of many, but despite the handful of great non-white folks I knew and liked, it was just a handful.

Though I encountered little-to-no homophobia in Barrie, it was also not a very welcoming place in terms of living openly gay. I knew few people who were, and most of those were within a specific ‘artsy’ group in high school, where such things were acceptable. There’s one gay bar there, and it’s only a few years old. Despite keeping up economically, attracting plenty of patrons, its under plenty of pressure to close up shop. The other places downtown, so I’ve heard, are hardly more queer-friendly.

Barrie is a car city. If you do not have a car, you shouldn’t be there. The public transit system is awful, and getting anywhere on foot is a journey. I’d walk about 1.4 km from my house in the subdivisions to the ‘nearby’ Tim Horton’s to sit and hang out. This is a bad thing for anyone who is, say, poor. Or young. Or has no driver’s license. Or a woman travelling alone. I myself learned quickly that unless a car is involved, don’t bother making plans. I lived comfortable at a lower-middle-class life, where the need for a car was just an inconvenience (albeit, a significant one in terms of my social life). For anyone without an automobile, or loses one, their mobility is both severely restricted and expensive. And for plenty of lower-income families I knew, and still know, the system is cruel and breeds even worse situations. A dear friend of mine, a mother of four who recently gave birth, and lost her car in a disastrous divorce, is forced to spend all day trekking on a bus, with a baby in a stroller, just to get downtown. And the numbers of young people I knew who were born into bad family situations, where the ‘gatekeeper adult’ system is not only untrustworthy but dangerous, the system let them down as well.

This is not a hit job on Barrie. It’s a great place for families, particularly new ones with comfortable wages and a yearning to be in a growth area. But as a creative, excitable, queer, and independent young person, Barrie was not where I belonged. I needed a place where I didn’t need the services or a gatekeeper to transport myself. I needed to be able to meet and mesh with new, diverse kinds of people. I needed a framework by which to grow my entrepreneurial spirit. Some of my needs were eventually fulfilled, including an amazing group of wonderfully talented people I grew up with, but I could not have stayed in Barrie upon graduation. It offered me very little, and almost none of what I wanted.

Toronto, by comparison, is immensely diverse. As of 2006, 46.9% of the population were visible minorities, a number projected to exceed 50% by 2017. Though the religious makeup is similar in broad terms (2001 Census: 31.1% Catholic, 21.1% Protestant, 18.7% no religion), the three main categories eat up a much smaller piece of the pie: Barrie’s 94.8% vs. Toronto’s 70.9%. As these numbers are old, both sets dating back to the 2001 Census, I expect both have changed somewhat since, but the differences are still striking. In my personal life, too, it’s immediately different. The large majority of the friends I’ve made since moving here are non-white, including most of my very best friends here. That’s allowed me to learn new things, try new things, and interact with viewpoints I’d never have encountered in Barrie.

If you can afford to live here, Toronto is much more pedestrian-friendly, with its emphasis on public transit, bike lanes, and consolidation. Within those 1.4km I walked to Tim Horton’s in Barrie, practically my entire life in Toronto can fit. Google counts seven Tim Horton’s in that walking distance from my apartment, one as close as only 450m from my doorstep. My school and work are 1.1km away, and within that distance are dozens of restaurants, shops, a massive park, bars, pet stores, grocery stores, thrift shops, my school campus… one could ask what isn’t within 1.4km of my apartment. Also within that are 2 subway stations and probably a dozen or more bus and streetcar routes.

Having a deeply independent transportation network is deeply important to me, but also important are creative outlets and the ability to access both those with similar creative bends, and likeminded fellows for friendship – and dating. The Gay Village is only two blocks away, with a score of gay-themed clubs and bars, and the downtown area is largely not just accepting, but inviting. Florida relates both immigration and queers, as well as artistic ‘bohemian’ times, as key indicators of a city’s openness to new ideas and cultures, and Toronto is indeed succeeding there. And the high number of universities and artists keep the creativity flowing.

Why did I go into such detail about where I grew up, and where I live now?

When I lived in Barrie, I yearned creatively but was hampered by a lack of independence. Until I reached high school, I was barely present in my own life; even once I got there, it wasn’t until my last year, with a particularly charismatic teacher and an assignment that demanded self-reflection that I managed to become a self-determined and self-directed creative agent in my own life. My productivity was weak, my drive was near non-existent, and the bulk of my time was spent waiting for more. I had no ambition and I had no fire.

Once I moved to Toronto, though it took some hard work, I slowly changed completely. I developed a drive and an ability to work far beyond my previous means. I was engaged in a network of creative people, and able to control my own schedule without the assent of anyone else. The independence was more than just the rush of living independent of home and having income for the first time. If I’d lived in Barrie and gone to, say, Georgian College, I don’t believe half of what’s become of me would have ever happened. It’s a different place.

How do I know this? Because a number of friends of mine, languishing still in Barrie, have found themselves unable to build the support systems they need to move forward. One, seeking friends as smart, creative and engaging as she is, was left behind when the bulk of her more artistic friends left the city for more satisfying ports. Another, trapped in a job far too simple for her, is having trouble building a net by which she can pursue her artistic endeavours as more than a sometime hobby. Both are brilliant, but despite their fondness for Barrie, it doesn’t satisfy their needs.

Ultimately, I believe Florida’s position that place has a direct effect on both our energy level (which has a deep effect on our creative output), and on our ability to have good days. It’s definitely shown up in my life, and I have a feeling others have experienced this dissonance too.

Comments are welcome, but those being overtly hostile may not be approved. Otherwise, though, much love!

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4 responses to “‘Who’s Your City’, Place, and Creative Energy

  1. Simone Benedict February 8, 2011 at 12:17 am

    Great post! I do agree to a point. I spent a lot of time in places that stifled creativity, as well as diversity. For myself, I found that after I lived in places that were more accepting, I could bloom wherever I was planted. Thankfully, I did get the chance to go out and see the world. In doing that, I found myself. 🙂

    • R. Lackie February 8, 2011 at 1:32 am

      Hi Simone! First off, thanks for commenting. 🙂 Much appreciated.

      I’m glad to hear that once you bloom, you can’t put your soul back in the box. Makes me less afraid of living in new, less-Toronto-ish places. There is something to be said, bloom aside, about having that net at your fingertips. I wouldn’t want to leave that behind, even if my own growth were to stick. Then again, with this whole Internet thing, the idea of the creative web is a lot wider than one would think!

      It’s funny where you find yourself. I found myself (I think, I’m still just 20!) in a classroom in Barrie when I realised, “I don’t -do- anything. I’ve never -done- anything!” That small moment changed my life, my entire approach to things. Now, I wonder what I’d discover in Barcelona or Paris…

      Sucks to hear you’re stuck in Kansas against your hopes. Fingers crossed that opportunity will knock!

  2. Pingback: Diversions in Literature II: Unexpected Progress | The Diversionist

  3. Pingback: Diversions in Literature II: Unexpected Progress | The Diversionist

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