Wow. Not New York, not San Francisco, not Austin or Boston or Portland, but little old Boulder, population 97,000. What criteria could possibly lead to that conclusion? Well, it’s simple, according to Mr. Florida. The rankings are based on the “three T’s of economic development”: technology, talent, and tolerance. In other words, it all boils down to high-tech companies, an educated workforce, and an openness to diversity. (Actual diversity is not necessary, which is a good thing, because Boulder has very little of it.)[gn_pullquote align=”right”]When I learned my next-door neighbor was the women’s world Ironman champion, it was no big surprise. Boulder sent more athletes to the London Olympics in 2012 than any American city except San Diego (which is 13 times bigger).[/gn_pullquote]
Let’s unpack those three T’s. Boulder does have a booming little high-tech sector, and it’s regularly cited as a top place for startups and venture capital investment. But if you look at the high-end of the workforce, it’s very monochromatic: lots of techies, followed by a number of people in meteorology and other physical sciences, thanks to the presence of NCAR, the University of Colorado, and various other research organizations and agencies. So two of those T’s pretty much collapse into one thing, with some miscellaneous nerd remainder. The most visible and tangible sector of the economy is really the outdoor industry. At the first party I went to, literally everyone I met worked in the industry—either for gear manufacturers, which are legion here, or as guides or trainers, who are also legion—and when I learned my next-door neighbor was the women’s world Ironman champion, it was no big surprise. Boulder is “America’s Best Running City,” the “Best City for Cycling,” the “Top Triathlon Town,” and, if that’s not enough, the “Best Sports Town in America.” The town sent more athletes to the London Olympics in 2012 than any American city except San Diego (which is 13 times bigger), and it has some 70 Olympians as residents. And those are just the pros. Add in the countless-thousand wannabes, and this place is thick with hard bodies and concomitant egos. When a visiting friend expressed surprise at all the spandexed cyclists (no one rides in a t-shirt here) clogging the roads on a Saturday morning, I explained my theory that there was almost a cultish quality to Boulderites’ devotion to outdoor sports, and he immediately nodded. “I see that.” (The guy who chopped off his arm to get out of the slot canyon in Utah? He lives in Boulder, as if that doesn’t already go without saying.)
As for the third “T,” Boulder is a very liberal town, but there’s very little that Boulderites really have to be tolerant of. They don’t call it the “Boulder Bubble” for nothing—there’s very little poverty, not much of a working class, very few immigrants or other minorities, and not just a lack of economic or racial diversity, but a lack of what I think is even more important: diversity of interest. People here are all into the same things, even if they’re not when they arrive. Take a normal person from, say, Ohio, and plop them into Boulder, and within a few months they’re rock-climbing and training for their first triathlon, with a side diet of yoga, acupuncture, and THC lollipops (Boulder has not been coronated Highest City in America yet, but it’s in the top ten). My first year there, I met a recent transplant from Jackson, Wyoming, and asked him what he thought of Boulder. He said, without hesitating because he’d clearly already thought about it: “It’s precious.” Not that Jackson is exactly a roughneck place, but Boulder has more consumption of organic foods per capita than anyplace in the U.S., more psychotherapists per capita than anyplace else, and more massage therapists per capita, too. In fact, it has more of just about anything that someone not in the club would consider “precious.” (It instantly became a very sticky meme in my vocabulary.)[gn_pullquote align=”right”]There is something in the culture of the place that, by making self-gratification and “lifestyle” paramount, warps the character of the culture and its inhabitants.[/gn_pullquote]
Another person I met early on said he was thinking of moving back to the midwest because he found people in Boulder “narcissistic.” I stuffed that away to ward off cognitive dissonance, but my sister, who lived there for several years in the 90s, cited much the same thing as her reason for leaving. “People in Boulder are just so full of themselves,” she’d said. At the time, I thought that was more a reflection of her own issues than anything else, but now I see that there is something in the culture of the place that, by making self-gratification and “lifestyle” paramount, warps the character of the culture and its inhabitants. It doesn’t make people “bad”—I met lots of nice people there, and still have good friends in town—it just tends to make people, on balance, more self-absorbed and self-satisfied than they might be in other climes. When people live in paradise, they tend to conclude they deserve it.Aristotle argued that the purpose of the polis, or city, was “to enable its citizens to live a life of virtue or excellence.” But excellence as he conceived it would have very little to do with, say, your latest triathlon time or the deliciousness of your meal (another Boulder claim to fame: America’s Foodiest Town), because he saw it as a measure of character and purpose. For Richard Florida, a city is “creative” (and therefore excellent) if it is marshaling human resources for economic and technological advancement, while allowing for a robust enjoyment of diverse human pleasures. But for Aristotle a city really isn’t creative unless it’s creating citizens. In other words, Aristotle’s measure is not economic growth or the production and consumption of cultural products, it’s the intellectual and moral growth of the community and its inhabitants alike. A city that merely creates wealth or helps people pursue pleasure and self-satisfaction is not doing what a city can ideally do.
I’m running the risk of tarring Boulder with a broad and clumsy brush, so let me do a little qualifying here. The city is not without a degree of Aristotelian virtue. It has a strong civic sensibility that prioritizes certain public goods over merely private ones, and a vibrant local government to implement those priorities (which is why the rest of the state calls it “the People’s Republic of Boulder”). It deserves great credit for that, given that so much of the country hardly even believes in public goods anymore. But the narrowness of the community’s concerns (environmental concerns dominate, as you’d expect for the “Top Green and Clean City”), and the isolation of the city from so many of the challenging realities of American life, make it hard to take Florida’s assessment seriously.
A year into my Boulder stint, I visited Washington D.C., where I’ve lived much of my adult life, and I found myself trying to explain to someone the problem I was having with Boulder. It was something of a conundrum, because one of the main reasons I moved to Boulder is also the reason so many other people do: I love the outdoors. I’d seriously considered moving to New York City, but I just didn’t want to be in a concrete jungle anymore. But as I talked to her, I finally hit the problem on the head: “Skiing’s fun,” I said, “but it’s not interesting.” And in Boulder, too many people think it’s not only fun, but interesting—and more than that, important.
With all due respect to Richard Florida, that’s not the priority of a truly creative polis.
The Rise of the Creative Class—Revisited: http://www.amazon.com/Rise-Creative-Class–Revisited-Revised-Expanded/dp/0465042481/
Richard Florida’s site: http://www.creativeclass.com/richard_florida/article_library?artLib=category&artLibItem=113
Daily Beast’s slideshow of the rankings: http://www.thedailybeast.com/galleries/2012/06/26/america-s-most-creative-cities-boulder-portland-and-more-photos.html#slide_18
All the reasons you’re a fool to live anywhere but Boulder: https://bouldercolorado.gov/newsroom/best-of-boulder-community-honors
Aristotle’s two cents: http://www.fordham.edu/Halsall/ancient/Aristotle-politics-polis.asp