Mai Perkins remembers attending a concert at Central Park SummerStage with Cassanda Wilson, partly because of an observation the jazz singer made about Perkins’ new city. “She made a comment that I thought was so applicable to the city’s diversity. She said, ‘California has landscape, New York has people-scape!’” It was a sentiment that the native Angeleno could relate to.
Perkins is no different from the millions who migrate across the country for school or for a new job. She moved to Washington DC over ten years ago to attend Howard University and ended up in New York City to pursue her career as a writer.
So what makes New York a more complementary fit for her than her hometown? Maybe that has something to do with the creative economy, a concept much discussed by “urban expert” Richard Florida in his book “Who’s Your City: How the Creative Economy is Making the Place Where You Live the Most Important Decision of Your Life,” which explored an interesting pattern of how one’s city environment influences productivity and creativity.
“I really think that being in New York and seeing people living and thriving outside of conventional standards has really benefitted my personal and professional trajectory in ways that would not have been realized had I remained in Los Angeles,” said Perkins. The Brooklyn resident and adjunct professor at City University New York believes that the high level of diversity in New York fosters creativity and comfort with one’s personal identity.
When applied to the Black experience, will analyzing the creative economies explain why cities like Brooklyn or Philadelphia produce so many musical artists or why Atlanta has such a high percentage of Black entrepreneurs? According to the social theory, location is critical whether you know it or not. It’s not only about infrastructure and city government but also about the atmosphere created by people themselves. For many Blacks, just having a presence within a city is a major element.
“A majority of Blacks have a strong racial identity. If a person has a strong racial identity, it matters whether they live in a city that has a sizable percentage of that racial group,” said Rashawn Ray, an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Maryland. “Cities that have a thriving Black middle class, Black political representation or politicians clearly invested in issues that affect African-Americans, stable housing prices in black neighborhoods, public spaces conducive to physical activity, and an educational system that has a track record for graduating Black youth and assisting with college attendance are positive places for Blacks to live.”
And what about the impact of living in a city where there’s not much Black representation? Growing up in either Atlanta or Brooklyn/Harlem is a far different experience than living in a California city where Blacks only represent 6.6 percent of the state population according to the 2010 US Census Bureau Results. Although cities like Los Angeles have a Black population of nearly 12 percent (2000 Census), New York’s black population exceeds 26.6 percent (2000 Census) and Atlanta boasts a large 61.4 percent Black population (2000 Census).