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Using Paparazzi For Planning

Say George Clooney went to Nobu last night and ran into Diddy in the valet line, where they discussed their mutual affinity for Kiton suiting. How do we know? Photographs, of course. Why do we care? Not sure, but USC Planning Professor Elizabeth Currid has taken a stab at it. 

Three years ago Currid gratified the hipster set with The Warhol Economy (Princeton University Press), a glowing account of how creative industries -- broadly defined -- have elevated not just the culture but in fact the economy of New York City. Her analysis, which included both in-the-know accounts of things that cool people do as well as a rigorous economic analysis of creative industries, met with generally enthusiastic reviews (including one from me) from both the trade and mainstream press, in part because her topic itself was inherently seductive. Currid is emerging as a cross between Andres Duany and Michael Musto. While Warhol barely mentioned any place other than New York, Currid's forthcoming book, Starstruck: The Business of Celebrity (Faber & Faber), promises to give a little more love, and hold a little more relevance, to her adopted West Coast. Starstruck does not come out until November, but I had the good fortune of hearing her speak on it yesterday in, of all places, Cambridge, Massachusetts (a place where both the celebrities and the planning go back a wee bit further than, say, Miley Cyrus). I went to find out if her work holds any clues for how California -- at least the famous, sparkly part of it -- can prosper from its association from fame and, more importantly, whether the built environment has anything to do with the fortunes of its stars.

If New York has a monopoly on creativity, we know intuitively that California surely has few rivals in the area of celebrity. That is, in fact, the conclusion that Currid draws empirically: Los Angeles and New York are the mega-galaxies in the universe of stardom. London plays a supporting role, and, beyond that, a smattering of odd places Park City, Cannes, Canada (broadly defined), and Las Vegas play host to celebrity escapades, accomplishments, and media events.

Currid's research employs a new methodology that seems incredibly fun and increasingly trendy. She gained access to Getty Images' database of celebrity-related photos and used Natural Language Processing to comb through over 600,000 photos of over 71,000 people in 200 locations. With some statistical wizardry, she used the photos to identify the hottest celebrities and the hottest places where they appear in public (or at semi-public events). This methodology is rife with biases, but it's a fascinating use of the vast natural database that emerges now that everything is available electronically. With more rigorous testing, it may inform planning for generations to come -- the realization of the potential of Web 3.0. As online databases grow, planners from almost anywhere can find photos of their cities and draw conclusions about how people use space within them. The Warhol Economy was mainly a descriptive piece, but it did conclude with some compelling recommendations that imaginative planners could consider in order that the built environment (and, in some cases, city economic development policy) be designed to promote creative economies. Her thesis is that creative industries thrive almost exclusively on personal contact and that personal contact relies on venues where it can take place. Control and production are one in the same and therefore happen in the same place, unlike, say, industrial production in which headquarters might be located in cities while factories have long fled overseas. Unfortunately for planners, Currid pans out rather than zooms in this time. In her talk she gave little heed to Los Angeles' built environment, noting only that a small handful of neighborhoods (Hollywood, Beverly Hills, and West Hollywood) host the vast majority of celebrity-related events. Otherwise, she takes her theoretical cues from Saskia Sassen to discuss the ways that celebrities create inter-regional linkages between cities that serve more as nodes than actual places. In some ways, this is only appropriate, if you think that celebrities are images and not real people, I suppose. Only in the question-and-answer period did Currid address the irony of celebrity and cities: the super-famous and super-wealthy live within camerashot of many of the least privileged people in the country, living and working in neighborhoods that are far from flashy. Great disparities in wealth and disproportionately large underclasses emerge in many major cities, but in Los Angeles the difference is so much more pronounced because the latter often appears literally in the background of the former. On that point, Currid said, and I quote loosely: I don't know what you do. This is where policy is very important. It [wouldn't be] policy for stars or for cultural industries. It's policy for equitable cities. Rent or social services that make people's lives all right as they get priced out. Those are real kinds of things we can do that are in many ways removed from the phenomenon I was talking about today. They are more about the global cities with the elite and poor service workers, and that latter group is disenfranchised.

Currid seems to approve of stardom and the creative industries, at least to the extent that they create significant economic benefits for their host cities. She is careful to point out, though, that it's impossible to know whether the industries created the cities or vice-versa. As much as her current work is removed from the actual practice of planning, it presents planners -- at least those in Los Angeles -- with the challenge of not accepting this unclear correlation and in fact figuring out how the city can be designed both to keep the celebrities happy and to capture the economic spinoff effects of their wealth.

Currid makes it clear that Hollywood (the industry) isn't leaving Hollywood (the place), and yet the industry's urban currency is quite different from that which takes place in New York. It also seems to address the rest of Los Angeles with indifference, if not contempt. Whether planners in Los Angeles and its neighboring cities can create more places not where awards galas can take place but rather where creative folks can get together and share ideas, and figure how to use the celebrity economy to the benefit of the entire place. The first step might be to encourage LA's public to spend less time reading Us Weekly and more time looking around their own city.
--Josh Stephens