Why London Is Better Than New York

“Major world cities are increasingly alike,” Josh Barro of New York magazine recently tweeted, agreeing with Megan McArdle’s recent columnin the Washington Post. I know where they are coming from — New York and London have similar coffee shops and craft cocktails — but as a frequent traveler, I’d like to argue that there is a robust global urban diversity.

I am writing this from Jerusalem, having just taken the bus from Haifa, and even those two cities seem almost like different countries. Haifa has a peaceful feel, like many a shore town, and its substantial Muslim minority is combined with a noticeable Christian and Baha’i presence. Jerusalem had riots earlier this week and is a major center of global tensions. It comes across as far more religious, far more bustling and more sophisticated.

Maybe Israel is an outlier. Still, those two cities are less than two hours apart, which suggests that diversity across urban areas is readily possible. I’ll next be headed to the “cool” and highly secular Tel Aviv.

As for elsewhere, Dublin and Belfast are about two hours apart by train, sharing a common language and landscape. Yet the two cities feel very different. Dublin is booming and optimistic and ever more closely tied to the European Union. Belfast, which depends much more on British government aid, is still visibly a manufacturing city in decline and feels much “grittier.” There is something pre-modern about the way clashes over religion and politics still feel meaningful and perhaps unresolvable there.

The two cities indeed have some similar chain stores and restaurants and similar-looking private spaces. Still, it is begging the question to assume that is what matters.

Maybe it is only the “major” cities that are becoming more alike. If so, what is “major” supposed to mean? Among the more populous cities I have visited are Lagos, Tokyo, Mexico City, Delhi, Sao Paulo, Shanghai and Cairo. I can find very real similarities among their gyms, coffee shops, hotels and smart phones used by the locals. Still, it is hard to argue they are converging on some common set of experiences or cultural memes. Those cities show different movies (for the most part), play different kinds of music in public spaces, serve different dominant cuisines, exhibit different modes of personal dress, and of course speak different languages.

Nor is English always present, and even in Delhi and Lagos, English fluency is hardly to be taken for granted. As I’ve written, even the Chinese megacities are pretty different from each other.

What about London and New York City, the original point of comparison? I submit that they are very, very different — and for New York City, I don’t mean just “Manhattan plus my favorite parts of Brooklyn.” Is there anything in Greater London similar to the South Bronx, Chinatown in Queens or the bowling alleys of Staten Island? You hear a lot of French and Russian in central London, and Urdu on some of the fringes. In New York Spanish and Haitian Creole are spoken widely, and they also carry a very different set of cultural resonances.

Even central London and central Manhattan have fundamental differences, and that is without bringing Harlem or East Harlem into it. I almost always feel pleasant and relaxed walking around London. In central Manhattan, I often feel a bit stressed. I go to Manhattan to hear jazz, to visit contemporary art galleries, to soak up the energy of the streets. When I am in London (less frequently), I visit well-stocked bookshops, eat Indian food, and absorb a very different vision of government and politics.

To be blunt, if the two cities are so similar, why do I much prefer spending time in London? It can’t be completely explained by Anglophilia or even the lure of the unfamiliar. Nor is it that in New York I am more likely to get stuck in a blizzard or a heat wave. And I won’t get into a comparison of possible side trips from each city. (OK, just a little: From London I have gone on day trips to Oxford, Greenwich and the bohemian city of Bristol. From New York I have gone on day trips to Yonkers, Long Island and New Jersey. Need I say more?)

I grant that my preferences are, like all preferences, subjective. Still, I think a general observation applies: More than ever before, London and New York offer more good ways of having different experiences.

Rest assured, then, that global diversity is alive and well. True, globalization may be reducing diversity along some dimensions, but the losses are typically foisted on small indigenous groups, ruined island paradises and overwhelmed small cities such as Venice. Larger cities are the big winners. If you visit them, I assure you: You will find that the world has never been more interesting, or more diverse.

 

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