March 19, 2008
On Sunday nights, ‘The George’ on Dublin’s George’s Street hosts a drag queen evening. Shirley Temple Bar, of telebingo fame, MCs the spectacle. The bingo is followed by a drag-fest, where wannabe drag queens get put through their paces. This might not be everyone’s idea of a night on the tiles, but research from the US indicates that shows like these are crucial to the economic fortunes of the nation.
In the US, those cities with flourishing gay scenes are also the ones with the highest income per head, the most highly paid employees, the most creative industries and the best environmental record. They are also the type of place which polls reveal are heavily weighted behind Obama. The reason is very simple. The types of cities that tolerate a gay scene are also likely to tolerate other sorts of outsiders, non-conformists and free-thinkers. In his book on “creative cities”, Richard Florida suggests that these are the type of urban, literate workers who give a city a dynamic edge. In a globalised world, where cities are driven by services and the entertainment industry, the lifestyle a city can provide becomes part of the economic, as well as cultural, armoury. In short, drag queens are now firmly part of Ireland’s comparative advantage.
For cities to attract creative people, they need to have a cultural and environmental, as well as economic, vision. This means all the agencies that run the city subscribe to an idea of what the city should look like, not next year, but in fifty years’ time. Great cities need to be looked after — they need care and love if they are to prosper.
A successful city is like a well-tended garden. The gardener spends time and energy thinking about what to plant, what will flourish, what will allow others enough light to blossom and how the entire ecosystem works. It doesn’t happen overnight, but via a process of trial and error that takes years to perfect. The gardener will be cautious about introducing new strains that may overshadow existing flowers. He is always weighing up, assessing and imagining what fits where.
If there is no overall plan for the city, it, like an untended garden, will grow wildly, before giving way to weeds that will ultimately strangle it.
The economic energy of Dublin is amazing because for years in Ireland, political and economic debate has focussed on relocating industry and financial opportunities from Dublin to the regions. The rationale being that people and money accumulate in the city at the expense of rural Ireland and so, it is incumbent on the elected representatives from “the country” to make sure some of the goodies are divvied up more equally. Dublin has been portrayed, unfairly, as a long shadow which blights and darkens the countryside. In fact, the opposite is the case. Dublin, and big cities in all countries, are the dynamos of the national economy. Without the heat generated from cities, there would be no such thing as a national economy.
Why do cities, rather than the countryside, generate wealth? Why do cities generate inventions and why is economic history not the history of countries, but the history of cities?
Given the “pathological regionalism” which dictates Irish economic debate, these questions are worth considering. If you look around the world, you see that cities generate innovations. Most inventions, even those which ultimately increased the yields in agriculture, were made in cities. Since the Middle Ages, cities fostered an economic dynamic usually based on trying to make stuff in the city which previously had to be imported. Back then, for a city to grow economically strong, it had to achieve two things.
first, the city had to produce nails, hammers and tools of all sorts, so that it could wean itself off imports and, thus, dependency. Second, it had to excel at something so that it could export and generate currency to sustain itself.
By being an economic dynamo, traditional industrial cities created a demand for food that, in turn, sustained the countryside around it. So this history of modern Europe and the US from the Hanseatic League and the first Puritan settlers, right up to the end of the Cold War, is the history of cities. Countries such as Switzerland and the regions of Northern Italy and Southern Germany achieved this diverse patchwork of trading cities and towns each with their own specialities and skills. Even today, these places are at the forefront of highly profitable business, usually still in the hands of family firms. Similarly, Japan, in the second half of the 20th century, operated the same type of economic model, based largely, again, on family firms.
Ireland never developed like this and, instead, we have sought to attract foreign capital by making it cheap, by giving it a tax break. This has worked spectacularly well and, at the moment, Ireland is a significant cog in the global economy’s supply chain.
But herein lies our vulnerability. We are part of a global supply chain and, as such, are a supply region. As long as we can supply part of the manufacturing process at a competitive cost, we are fine, but what happens when, not if, that changes?
Here is where the drag queens come in. In the coming years, it is not our ability to import capital that will dictate the success of Ireland, but our ability to retain and attract creative people. Brain power will be at a premium and the city that can produce the lifestyle to attract the best brains will win. And, if Dublin wins, Ireland wins too.
That lifestyle involves blending architecture, infrastructure and culture together. The battle is not between Dublin and Cork or Limerick but between Dublin and Amsterdam, Antwerp, San Francisco, Boston, Berlin and Paris.
The Dublin experience has to be something memorable. We have to create a city that talented people will want to move to and that talented locals will want to remain in. Part of this package will be an increased tolerance on the one hand, while preserving that which makes Dublin unique on the other.
Without care and affection this won’t happen. Is it time for a directly elected mayor with full executive powers? Certainly.
The buck has to stop somewhere, and a powerful Mayor of Dublin might just be the solution.