The comparison is overused, but with London and New York City being the pillars of global culture and finance, as well as the launchpad and rocket booster, respectively, of the new millennium’s lingua franca, there’s almost no way to avoid comparing the two cities. Even culture bible Time Out London had to ask if New York was the better, upgraded, 2.0 Beta version of the swingin’ British capital.
Though New York isn’t a national capital and was never the center of a colonial empire, it’s always been a magnet for immigrants from overseas and transplants from the nether regions of the US. Still, London has a greater percentage of its population born outside of the UK and is home to much larger groups of various ethnic communities, whereas New York has a little bit of everyone, but certain groups have greater numerical dominance. London wins the diversity prize.
Speaking with some of my newly-minted black British friends in London, it’s interesting to see the relative lack of a unified identity similar to that of black Americans (which, essentially functions as our ethnicity). Unlike black Americans, who’ve been an established part of the US since its very inception, the black British experience has essentially been one of immigration over the past five or six decades, so each different group, be it Nigerian, Kenyan, Jamaican, Belizean, has a different set of identity markers and occupies a different place vis-a-vis other immigrant groups on the path toward assimilation into “British” culture and society, a necessarily basic response to being an immigrant. Folks are too busy trying to survive in a new and sometimes hostile environment to focus on carving out a shared identity with other strivers. This means a less coherent sense of pan-African/”black” identity and therefore less organized efforts to fight discrimination or encourage community empowerment. My friends also tell me that the black professional class in London is comparatively miniscule. Score one for the NYC.
That being said, I certainly see more thorough interaction between people of various ethnicities in London than in New York. I once went to a hip-hop club in Manhattan where there was an even mix, numerically, of blacks and whites. But even though people danced in close proximity to one another, they remained clumped into their racial groups, the dancefloor from above looking like a Dalmation fur rug. In London, I saw countless racially-mixed friend groupings and a few black American expats in the city confirmed that day-to-day interaction in the UK is less yoked by racial baggage than in the States. London’s up on this one.
Notting Hill Carnival was fun, but much more subdued than I expected. There has been recent violence, and a teenager was killed this year, so with ordinarily staid British society trying to deal with that, maybe some of the flavor was lost. We Americans are some violent, aggressive, gun-totin’ brutes, so a shooting at a street festival doesn’t faze us as much. Besides that, summer in Noo Yawk means West Indian Day, Puerto Rican Day, Brazilian Day, Dominican Day, the Irish Festival, concerts in Central Park, house music in Fort Greene Park. Seriously, can hottie watching get any hotter?
Tranportation: New York, all the way. 24-hour subway service. Stations every few blocks in Manhattan. One-way, undiscounted cash fare, US$2.25 (compared with £4.00 on the London Underground – thas almost $7). Though “This is the Piccadilly line for Cockfosters” does sound better cooed over the PA system in Received Pronunciation than “Stand clear of the closing doors (ding, ding)” in some random chicken-fried twang.
Overall, I found London to be exhilirating in some aspects (people-watching in the Circuses, space-age window displays, the accents, the history!), underwhelming in others (semi-wack nightlife, uninspiring pubs, very average-looking people). I had very high expectations of the city and was all set to have it sweep me off my feet as it has several of my good friends, to consider a move to “the centre of the world” and knock ’em dead as the Next Big Thing From Across The Pond (yeh right), but that just never happened, despite heavy lobbying by my London peeps, Lord love them. I liked it. I didn’t ♥ it.
I’ll be back, though.