Feargus O'Sullivan is a contributing writer to CityLab, covering Europe. His writing focuses on housing, gentrification and social change, infrastructure, urban policy, and national cultures. He has previously contributed to The Guardian, The Times, The Financial Times, and Next City, among other publications.
London is one of the world's great cities. So why do its businesses and marketers feel the need to import ill-fitting, faded concepts from across the Atlantic?
Much as I love my hometown, sometimes London makes me wince with embarrassment. Especially when it tries to copy New York. London is one of the world's greatest cities, so why do its businesses and marketers feel the need to import ill-fitting, faded concepts from across the Atlantic?
Developers are probably the worst for this: right now, London has two flashy new towers coming that pretend very hard that they've escaped from somewhere in the 212 area code. In South London's Elephant and Castle, a boring new high-rise complex called Tribeca Square is currently being built, while over near the Olympic Park in East London’s Stratford, a far higher, wriggle-shaped residential skyscraper is going up by the name of Manhattan Loft Gardens.
Bar a few out of town investors, they’re not fooling anyone. If you've ever been to Elephant or Stratford, you'll know their future chances of having a Manhattan-like ambience is slim – the former is a bit like downtown Brooklyn, the latter more like a poorer part of Queens. Manhattan is actually being paid a barbed compliment by these towers' New York aspirations. Both of them are crass community displacement projects whose height seems mainly designed to give residents good views of the class struggle going on down below. Is this what New York really "means" to the rest of the world?
London's publicists are just as guilty of ripping off NYC, though they're easier to ignore. They've even tried importing the much groaned-over New York trend for acronymically named neighborhoods. A few years back, developers building a major project north of London's Oxford Street tried to rename the area Noho, because it lies to the north of Soho (not itself an acronym in London’s case). The move was hugely unpopular, partly because the developers knocked down a fine 1920s hospital to build some utter dross, but mainly because the area already has a name – Fitzrovia. Then, more recently, there was a much-derided attempt to rebrand the section between the City of London and the West End as "Midtown." This was laughed flat. As the historic neighborhoods of Holborn and Bloomsbury, this area is too heavily loaded with cultural freight for such a fluffy rebrand to ever catch on.
This scorn doesn’t mean Londoners themselves are immune from aping New York. In fact, trends New York has often left for dead a while back get taken up here as the height of novelty, especially when it comes to food. New York's gourmet hamburger obsession of the 1990s, for example, has arrived only recently, leading to people hungry for yawnsome, overpriced greige meat lumps joining burger lines that snake out into the London drizzle.
What makes these hopeful New York imports excruciating is not the admiration London reveals for another fine city– any decent metropolis should manage that. It's that they deliver the opposite of what they promise. They don't give London any extra metropolitan edge, they just make it look deluded and provincial. London can never be a proxy New York – its sidewalks are too narrow, its spaghetti jumble of central streets is too muddled, it's general feel too intimate. It's not a place that would ever hatch the sort of make it there/make it anywhere delusions you can get looking for miles on end down a skyscraper canyon.
Nor should it try to. On its own strengths, London is as great or a greater city as anywhere. It's not just about history and good architecture – both London and New York have plenty of each – it's about daily life and opportunities. New York's culture scene may be excellent, but London's still puts it in the shade. Our museums and galleries are mostly free and our music offerings (especially classical) more diverse. We have more, better theaters, and they often cost barely half New York prices. Indeed, American acts that come here and charge NYC prices invariably tank with audiences who feel ripped-off (I’m talking about you, Sarah "£50 a ticket" Silverman).
Despite an uptight reputation, London is also more fun. New York clubland may have legends in its history, but now it has preposterous cabaret laws pouring iced water on pleasure. London is a better place not just to dance, but generally to behave as breezily as you want to without being scowled at or arrested. Certainly, the cost of surviving here can be crushing, but at least we get proper holidays to actually enjoy the place. And vitally for me, London is still less hampered by the bloodless, unashamed careerism that make large chunks of contemporary New York seem so prim and dull.
In other words, long live the difference. No amount of plate glass will turn Elephant and Castle into Tribeca, and there aren’t enough publicists in the world to transform Holborn’s Kingsway into Fifth Avenue. For that, both Londoners and New Yorkers should be very grateful.