GMU Professor: I'll Work in Fairfax But I Won't Live There

Richard Florida, George Mason University's new hot shot economic geography professor, told Post columnist Marc Fisher there was no way he could live in Fairfax. Read Fisher's column:

Richard Florida is a best-selling author who teaches that in this competitive world, regions thrive only to the extent that they cultivate the creative class -- the artists, entrepreneurs, scholars, scientists and professionals who get paid to think.

Florida has carved out a niche as the cobbler of indexes that rank cities, regions and countries' ability to attract the talent that gives them an edge. His work tells us which places are coolest, most tolerant, most creative.

So when Florida quit his job in Pittsburgh and headed off to take advantage of his newfound success, fans of his "The Rise of the Creative Class" wanted to know: Where would Mr. Creative Class choose to live?

"I have always, always wanted to live in Washington," Florida says over lunch at Raku, the hip Asian spot in Dupont Circle. Born in Newark, educated at Rutgers, MIT and Columbia, Florida fell for Washington as a young intern for Maryland's Sen. Barbara Mikulski. So when George Mason University went after the hottest name in economic geography, Florida jumped.

But there was no way he was going to live in Fairfax County. "I just couldn't do that," he says. "I might get too isolated in Fairfax. The District had the energy, the diversity for me."

I figured I'd find Florida in a spectacular Logan Circle rowhouse, a Victorian paradise from which he could walk to just about anything. But no -- the champion of urban vitality, after looking in Georgetown, Dupont and hot, hot Logan, has bought a house in Forest Hills, near the Hillwood Museum, in one of the District's leafy, quiet, close-in neighborhoods.

Florida's house, a five-bedroom colonial built in 1978 on a hillside near Rock Creek Park, is a quarter-mile -- an easy walk -- from Connecticut Avenue's shops and a Metro station but also comes with a two-car garage.

"I tend to be car-dependent," he says. "Here, my friends can park, and I can wash my car, which is really important to me because I did that with my dad. In New York, you need two houses to do this, but D.C. is one of the last cities where you can have the benefits of urbanism and the space you associate with suburbia."

What Florida loves about where he lives, in addition to the crisp, minimalist lines of his furnishings and new kitchen, is the mix of suburban ease with the chance to be where "people are really smart and engaged. There's no better place in the country to write serious nonfiction. There's no better place to be public intellectuals."

Florida's work takes him to George Mason, the Brookings Institution and the Gallup Organization, the last two downtown. He schmoozes with mayors. His graduate students tend to be working professionals, managers at big nonprofit groups, rising stars from both major political parties.

Florida's work emphasizes how essential it is for regions to plan beyond city and county lines. He sees that need in the daily frustrations of life in the District. "All my car service is in Montgomery or Fairfax," he says. "I have to leave the city to go to Costco. The city has restaurants, dry cleaners and great food shopping, but anything to do with the car is a 15-mile schlep."

And the city's real estate boom is fraught with danger as it becomes more difficult for middle-class families to live in town. "I'm lucky," Florida says. "I'm a 47-year-old professor without kids who stored some money away. Otherwise, I'd be living in a shoe box." Without affordable housing, a city risks losing its creative energy. The legendary urban theorist Jane Jacobs told Florida that "when a place gets boring, even the rich people leave."

Social divisions threaten our success. This area has a big and growing gap in income between haves and have-nots. Florida finds "a palpable resentment among people in less urban areas against singles, yuppies and gays who stay in cities. The middle class says, 'Why not me?' "

Yet Florida says the District will continue to benefit from suburban congestion, as empty nesters and others move in. The D.C. area will thrive because of its creative capital, which supports biotech along Interstate 270 and infotech in the Dulles corridor.

"L.A. draws highly skilled Asians and San Francisco draws highly skilled gays, but D.C. draws highly skilled everybody -- gays, Latins, Asians, Africans, scientists and so on," Florida says. "The trick will be to avoid pricing ourselves out of that creativity."

By Steve Fehr |  September 26, 2005; 5:05 PM ET  | Category:  Colleges and Universities
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