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Originally published Wednesday, June 29, 2005 at 12:00 AM

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Froma Harrop / Syndicated columnist

Urban heartland dances to a lively, creative beat

Quite a scene here. The beat is techno-lounge. Male hunks swirl around bare-shouldered chicks balancing pink drinks. There are more revelers...

COLUMBUS, OHIO — Quite a scene here. The beat is techno-lounge. Male hunks swirl around bare-shouldered chicks balancing pink drinks. There are more revelers outside, spilling into the cafes. It's only 11 p.m.

South Beach, Miami? No, Columbus, Ohio, the product-testing ground for detergent, potato chips and all things Middle American. Tonight's celebrants may have driven in from the suburbs or walked a block from new downtown condos. The point is, no one had to go to New York or Los Angeles for this kind of Saturday night.

And the same full moon was shining on Omaha's Old Market district, The Flats in Cleveland and probably 20 or 30 other hot Zip Codes in heartland cities. These scenes are about much more than a night on the town. They're about pumping young life into urban areas far from ocean beaches or ski slopes — urban places that coastal types think are dull.

"These places are popping up everywhere," says Richard Florida, author of the book "The Rise of the Creative Class" and an economic-development consultant. Other ascending stars include Athens, Ga., Lawrence, Kan., and Iowa City.

Florida believes that modern cities must attract "creative" workers, or they will die. By "creative," he means people in design, education, science and the arts. Such workers engage in complex problem-solving and tend to have a high level of education. They need to mix with others and want a tolerant atmosphere for gays, minorities and offbeat ideas.

Cities not known for glamour are cultivating this fizz. "That's why you see such vibrant music scenes popping up apparently in the middle of nowhere," Florida says. And these places can still sell traditional strengths, such as good schools, an easy pace and low cost of living.

Hazel Morrow-Jones, professor of urban planning at Ohio State University, notes that Columbus is the nation's 15th-biggest city, but seems smaller. She attributes this coziness, in part, to "the Midwest nice thing."

"You have a pretty big city in terms of the entertainment, resources, services and goods," she says, "but at the same time it's not a terribly expensive place to live, and it doesn't feel dangerous and scary."

Equally important to creative workers, Columbus has a reputation for being an open place. It is considered gay-friendly and one of the best cities for African Americans.

Such attributes can attract sophisticates weary of their daily struggle in the coastal mega-cities. It's hard to buy a one-bedroom apartment in Manhattan for under $400,000 and a house in Columbus for more. The heartland cities don't subject their residents to sadistic commutes. In Cleveland, for example, drivers spend only 10 hours a year stuck in traffic, according to the Texas Transportation Institute. In the San Francisco area, they lose 72 hours a year — the equivalent of three days!

Speaking of Cleveland, the Flats district is a revelation to people like Morrow-Jones, who grew up there and left. The Flats is a formerly industrial area along the fabled Cuyahoga River. The river was so polluted, it caught on fire in 1969.

"Now it's nightclubs, restaurants, bars and housing," says Morrow-Jones. "Sitting there and watching pleasure boats was surreal. I couldn't believe that it was the same river."

If Morrow-Jones was surprised, think how little people on the coasts know about the changes transforming many Middle American cities. They cling to the old stereotypes, and that may be just fine with the locals, according to Richard Florida.

"I imagine people from the heartland who know about these places would just as soon go on believing they have reputations for dullness," Florida remarked. "That's probably why there are so many hidden gems still out there."

Back in Columbus, I'm sitting with friends in the tapas bar at Spice, a high-style bar and restaurant in the North Market district. The median age here is well south of 35. And the action is so noisy, you can't even hear people yelling into their cellphones.

"I don't think Columbus was ready for this five years ago," Randy Gani, Spice's "concierge," tells us. "Places people would never go to have been remaking themselves for the service economy." Gani himself moved here from Chicago.

It's 11 p.m., and as they say, the party has just begun.

Providence Journal columnist Froma Harrop's column appears regularly on editorial pages of The Times. Her e-mail address is

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