Amanda and I drove down I-55 at the end of April to attend the Memphis Manifesto Summit, a 20-hour event billed by its organizers as an unprecedented gathering of the Creative 100, the best and brightest, most active and creative young minds from across the U.S. and Canada.
To be honest, when we arrived I was looking to find fault. It wasn't hard. For starters, there was the $300 conference fee (not including the hotel and travel), a little detail that wasn't mentioned until after I'd already submitted my application and been selected to attend. I'm wary of honors that cost money, but of course I paid it anyway. I mean, who wouldn't want to be named one of the Creative 100? Flattery will get you everywhere. Later, I found out that everyone I know who nominated himself found his way onto the short list, raising doubts about how stiff the competition was.
The high admission price assured that almost no professional artists or musicians were able to attend. According to behind-the-scenes organizer Tom Jones, Memphis-based corporations underwrote the summit to the tune of about $110,000. Initially, the plan was not to charge attendees, but they came up $30,000 short. As someone who has organized a lot of events, some of them pretty big, budgets with that many zeroes shock me. I can't figure out where all the money went, especially since the presenters weren't paid for their participation outside of their airfare costs. (As an aside, if anyone out there has that kind of money and is looking for a way to spend it, $140,000 would completely fund this Web site and all the fabulous programming at The Commonspace for more than two years. Let's talk.) Apparently, the odd product placement at the conference didn't pick up the slack. The creative revolution is coming, and it will be brought to you by Nike (thanks for the shiny, silver bag for my conference materials!) and Altoids (thanks for the curiously strong, curiously paper-like mints!).
To continue with my carping, the process at the summit had a very corporate feel, at least during the first two days, with "creatives" being shuttled between a battery of various PowerPoint-infused expert presentations and small breakout sessions. Richard Florida the host of the summit and author of The Rise of the Creative Class played the role of motivational speaker at this retreat, delivering his introductory remarks in his standard jeans-and-untucked-black-shirt uniform. He even had his own theme song something by Jefferson Airplane, I think. (What's the deal with boomers whose musical tastes are suspended in amber?) Dr. Florida repeatedly insisted that the conference was not about him, even though his face is plastered all over the Memphis Manifesto Web site and he was clearly the star of the show.
Shortly after arriving and talking with the other participants, most of my initial surliness dissolved. It was incredibly heartening to meet so many other people who care about their communities and are working to make them better places. You'll get to hear from some of them from now through July 2004 in the Elsewhere section of this site. Although the representatives from the different cities were concerned about many of the same issues (diversity, inclusive leadership, quality of place, mass transit, development patterns, recreational and cultural opportunities, etc.), for the most part, we'd been isolated from one another. The most valuable thing to come out of the summit was the self-identification of the Creative 100 as members of the same movement.
Richard Florida is the perfect front man for such a movement. One part academic (he's an economic development professor at Carnegie Mellon with a Ph.D. from Columbia University), one part rock star (true story: he asked a bartender in the Peabody Hotel lobby where the Rendezvous [a famous BBQ restaurant] is, and a nearby female guest replied "my room."), he's able to spin on his feet with the best of them. Give him a topic and one minute to compose his thoughts, and he'll have everyone in the room nodding in agreement. The only person in St. Louis that I know of with similar oratory skills is Vince Schoemehl.
The key message at the summit was that creativity is the next economic engine. Prosperous communities foster creativity. Whereas people used to move to where the good jobs were, these days, jobs move to where the good (creative) people are. Chambers of commerce would do well to focus on making their cities cool (attractive to creative people) rather than prostituting themselves for Fortune 500 companies. On the other hand, Fortune 500 companies have a vested interest in making their hometowns cool to attract the best talent. Creative people are looking for authenticity. Successful cities build on their unique assets to develop a distinctive sense of place. In St. Louis, those assets include the river, our musical heritage and our historic architecture.
As one of the speakers at the summit put it, creativity lies at the intersection of diversity, expertise and interaction. Diversity is a big part of what makes cities like San Francisco and New York cool, and that diversity grows out of tolerance for different cultures, sexual orientations, lifestyles and ideas. Being accepting of different people outside the mainstream is not just the PC, nice thing to do; it's a financial imperative in today's economy. Richard Florida has developed a bohemian index and a gay index that are closely correlated with the list of cities that have hot local economies. Most city leaders are already familiar with the importance of expertise and education in the workforce. The third part of the equation interaction is where The Commonspace and other third places come in. We've intentionally built an informal gathering place, a public living room where chance meetings can occur. Our goal is to bring together different groups of creative people to cross-pollinate and build community. Knitters and breakdancers unite!
The final product of the summit was a document called the Memphis Manifesto, which consists of a preamble and ten guiding principles. The standard joke was that Richard Florida had already written the manifesto before the summit and was just waiting for us to sign it. Actually, Carol Coletta, the tour de force behind the conference, wrote the first draft based on input from the presentations and breakout sessions. The Creative 100 refined the initial draft in a somewhat chaotic session that at times resembled Showtime at the Apollo, complete with an applause-o-meter.
As expected from a document that was cobbled together from the opinions of 100 people (anarchists to city managers) from 48 cities (Toronto to Fort Wayne), the manifesto speaks in generalities. It's a good start, though. It's up to individual civic activists and leaders to apply the manifesto to their own communities and fill in the specifics. Nothing in the Memphis Manifesto is earthshaking to say, but it is earthshaking to do.
St. Louis is a textbook case of how to mess up a city. In 1900, St. Louis was the fourth largest city in the United States. A hundred years later, we're 49th and slipping. There's a flip side to that, though, and it's beautiful: we also have a chance to be a textbook case of how to bring a city back.