Whilst watching YouTube last week, and gurgling appreciation at a Broadway display of a brilliant tap dancing spectacle, the same thought comes into my head as it always does. The New Yorkers do it better. They do shows better, they do service better, they do professionalism better, they do confidence better. They have the musical theatre gene in a way the British don’t. It’s difficult to quantify but its true. Especially the section of a show I was watching – which was so quintessentially American that it may as well have been waving a Stars and Stripes flag – a vast number of Broadway hoofers playing a musical on Times Square about a vast number of Broadway hoofers playing a musical on Times Square. It’s only right that they should be better than us at that sort of thing. They invented it. Along with jazz, it’s one of the comparatively few purely American art forms.
In the last ten years or so – since the beginning of the last cycle of economic boom – it has been acceptable for London and New York to wrestle for the title of hippest, or best, or most perfect city. This tells you how far London has come. Twenty five years ago comparing the restaurants, style, financial innovation and downright coolness of New York with London wouldn’t have been considered. New York was always, always cooler. New York was just it. It had the edge, the swagger, the sophistication, the cool, it’s wonderful provocative swagger and a gritty glamour that never had to battle with London’s gloomy low skies. But then something extraordinary happened and London, like the heavy, bullish city it is, rapidly started the close the gap. New Yorkers used to fear coming to London, as there was never any edible food for them when they got here. Now London boasts 43 Michelin-starred restaurants to New York’s 39. London’s City Square Mile became one of the most powerful square miles on earth, more powerful than Wall Street. London fashion reached an almost 1960s Carnaby Street-esque supremacy, we merged our pretty little city and created a monolith called NyLon, and who would have thought that by March 2007, New York magazine would state “If Paris was the capital of the nineteenth century and New York of the twentieth, London is shaping up to be the capital of the 21st.” (New York magazine, Mar 18, 2007)?
Our supremacy with restaurants and our ridiculously high quality of dining really seems to bother them. It’s one crown New York never wanted to relinquish. New Yorkers thought the awfulness of London restaurants were part of our national heritage. Check out this surprised article on London here entitled Has the Food Over There Really Become Edible? http://nymag.com/guides/london/29444/. New York had to work in a different way to develop European sophistication in its restaurant culture. For sophisticated restaurants; read Europe. Us Londoners are, on the other hand, so close to Europe that we absorb its influences rapidly and heartily. In London, European way of life, culture, language and form is the norm. European sophistication is a thing of reverence in New York – it’s foreign, distinctly unAmerican in its style and cultivation and self-consciously mutates into an art form. Americans in the main eat too early to be true Europeans anyway. Londoners take it easily; it’s more natural for us to be Europeans, because we actually are Europeans.
But this week, ever since those tap tap tapping toes bled into my mind on Friday, I have been preoccupied with trying to work it out. Which is the better City? Is there such a thing as a better City? Are we different places? Are New York and London basically in the same place? Are we NyLon or , well, cotton? Are we all Europeans now, or all Americans? We’re both damn fine, cool, sexy places my friends. If the same cliches ring true – in London we have no ventilation or heating on the underground, it is also nigh impossible to get a meal past 11pm on a weekday, unless you happen to be in Frith Street, it rains here but no one ever seems to work out they should put a hat on etc etc – how much have we really changed? Sitting in Bar Italia yesterday afternoon, in bright, unapologetic sunshine of late September, it did feel like an American autumn, or that silly thing they call it – FALL – as if everything falls down or something. In England, Autumn smells of bonfires, sausages and Guy Fawkes and rainy Oxford Street on Saturday afternoons. In New York, autumn smells decisively of tree. In Bar Italia I was in a urban, Italian space. Not English. Not American. Could be New York. Could be London. Could be Abyssinia, before the Italians gave it back. Could be any lovely city in the world. It doesn’t matter. It’s an urban experience in an English speaking country, admittedly one where I don’t have an obligation to tip. After all, earlier in the day, didn’t I – in a classic New York moment – bump randomly into my sister in law in Regent Street and have a quick lunch, in a scene that could be straight out of a Woody Allen film? All that was missing was the plaintive black and white film and a trad jazz soundtrack. Then later in the afternoon I bothered my brother at his West End office, grabbing a coffee and sitting patiently at the pavement table whilst he spent 20 minutes shouting into a phone in the street which – again – is a City experience, as New York as it is London because he talks into his mobile phone all over the planet, it seems.
Of course I went through the inevitable “I’m 22 and I’m going to move to New York!” stage. Everyone who has ever fallen in love with London and then gone to New York does. I got it. I went over at 22, had the piquant experience of sharing a hotel room with my mother and my brother (don’t try it), shopped at Macy’s, saw Christian Slater in a Broadway play, got my face done by MAC at Bloomingdale’s (very late 1990s) and ended up in the East Village at a peculiar club with a load of other Londoners, who told me that the East Village was “a bit like Islington but with Camden market in the middle of it”. Aha, I thought. This is the place for me! I want some of that. So, the next year I went back. For two weeks. And discovered one of the most distressing experiences of New York : a heatwave.
At first I thought I had got on a flight to Singapore, and rounded up in a City atmostphere so cloying I thought someone had melted my kidneys and removed them. Someone had forgotten to pour the oxygen in. Why were the natives taking this shimmering, smug smog with shoulder shrugging nonchalance? How can they stand it? I realised I had been naive about why the subway was ventilated; it wasn’t because everyone was American and valued excellent customer service. It was because if it hadn’t been ventilated everyone would basically be dead. I loped and schlepped along Broadway, diving regularly into department stores, blinking the sweat out of my eyes, purely for the whoooosh! of their air conditionning. At night in the apartment me and a friend were using on E. 36th Street, I couldn’t sleep. I couldn’t sleep because of the sound of the air conditionning unit, which was like sleeping in a one room apartment with an industrial catering size fridge. It was too noisy to sleep with it on, and too hot to sleep with it off, as we were doused in a pool of humidity. I couldn’t breathe or think; I hadn’t known heat like this, not in Watford. The smog stank. Everything sweated, even the lampposts. No one warned me that when you order a drink in New York, you don’t get our measures. You get a Gin and Tonic that is half rubbing alcohol and half water. Ever been drunk in a heatwave on your birthday and have to crawl up six flights of stairs to your apartment weeping with dehydration because the lift is broken? I have, my friends, and it wasn’t pleasant. The next time I went to New York it was January, and that was fucking horrible too. I went for 96 hours, but had forgotten my moisturizer. By the time I returned my face was falling off. I am not kidding. The windtraps of the long New York streets had flaked my skin into dry strips. For five days after I came back I couldn’t break a smile, lest my cheeks would fall out. The force of the wind had been so strong that for two days we could not walk. It was what I imagine the Arctic Circle would be like. In winter. You could only speak if you were walking uptown; if you were walking downtown the icy wind would blow your face into a fleshy balloon and your eyes would water until they hurt. I thought “Bugger this for a game of tiddlywinks, I’m going back to West Hampstead.” And that’s exactly what I did. The truth is, although London closes at early at night, New York shuts down for the whole of frigging January. Greenwich Village was a ghost town. Have a nice day.
And if the East Village, is a “bit like Islington with Camden Market in the middle of it”, then why don’t we just go back to London? Why would anyone on earth travel 3471 miles to get to Camden? I know it can feel like that on the Northern Line sometimes but it is actually much, much closer. If you look for the shortcomings, then, there are many. New York taxi drivers don’t know where they are going. New York has no National Theatre. Their buses aren’t smart and red like ours are. New Yorkers are never, ever laid back. Manhattan is frequently grid locked (the centre of London actually hardly ever is) Their Sunday newspapers are a bitter disappointment after ours; the general quality of broadsheet newspaper journalism cannot touch the UK’s. Buying a book in New York will cost you twice as much as buying one in London. There’s never much to watch on TV. On my return from my New York State of Mind, I never again complained about London rain. It amused me – look how gentle it is! Observe the lack of brain-crushing, 112 mile an hour winds! Drizzle! Drizzle! How pleasant. London is temperate. New York is on the edge of some kind of Atlantic wind chill / heatwave / seaboard / mad zone. London is of brick and dust; New York is a thing of steel and compounds, metal and perfunctory grids. In London you walk where the Romans walked. I now think our hip zones are decidedly hipper than their New York counterparts. Visitors say their is a heaviness to London; it’s the worst characteristic, as the deep clouds and lack of light pulls you down on dark days, but it is still composed of gentler stuff, and our evolution into our cityscape has been an entirely organic one. In New York you have a man made grid city of glass, emerging brilliantly from the tiniest slither of island. Of course it’s magical. It’s brilliant. It’s a wonderful city, and there’s no place like it. But there’s another place there’s nowhere like, 3,471 miles away from it – home.
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