Is London the Capital of the World?

James Harding caused quite the stir this week when he declared in The Times that London “the capital of the world.” Mostly, he suggested that London was quickly surpassing New York as a dominant financial center, but he also cited the city’s growing status as the world’s cultural center. However, his missive actually exposes a general inferiority complex toward the Big Apple. Take this passage:

London is, indeed, the coolest city on earth. The capital of the world. New York, like Paris, has become a mini-break destination, a playground for grown-ups who enjoy the same standard tourist menu: a walk around Central Park; a shopping trip in SoHo; an entertaining, if unsurprising, show on Broadway; and a very large steak.

Yeah, if you’re a yuppie dilettante seeking a day trip out of your gentrified Brooklyn brownstone or a hapless out-of-towner milling about Times Square. How lazy is it that he repeats that old cliché that NYC is just an upper-middle-class amusement park?

It’s hard to say which personality, New Yorker or Londoner, is preferable – the ballsy versus the stoic, the gruff versus the curmudgeonly, the sharp-tongued versus the quick-witted. But the real difference between the two is this: New Yorkers come from the five boroughs; Londoners from the five continents. They are Poles, Pakistanis, Brazilians, Americans, Nigerians and more. There are, it is said, 300 languages spoken in London.

Has Harding ever been to New York? Just stepping into the subway at Port Authority, one can hear a unique cacophany of Farsi, Hindi, Spanish, Cantonese, French, Creole, Arabic, and numerous other languages. Vanity Fair editor Vicky Ward‘s description of New York’s mix is much more accurate. Speaking as a Londoner, she says:

New York is a genuine melting-pot, while London is several cities coexisting uncomfortably, like a bag of stoats. English London has very little to do with Russian London or American London or Arab London; stately-home England has very little to do with aspirational England. New York, by contrast, has such a powerful personality that it subsumes your other attachments and makes you something more: a New Yorker.

Very true. What makes New York truly different is that it encourages people to feel as if the city is a second (or third) home. It’s very easy to lose yourself in NYC’s rhythms – crowds walking en masse to the subway seem to march in step, taking in the shared experience of living in New York. You don’t get that feeling from being in London.

Erica Wagner speaks as a New Yorker in London, and she says London is less segregated than the Big Apple:

London is still more socially mixed than New York; it’s harder to make assumptions about others, and people are more likely to have a wide, strange variety of friends than to move in small, safe circles.

Yes, I’m constantly surprised at how little the New Yorkers I meet truly take advantage of the city’s diversity. Those Friends and Sex and the City myths are true: there’s little mixing of races and social classes, and most people behave according to a fixed identity. (Hipsters do “hipster things,” thugs do “thug things,” and so on.) Having not lived in London, I don’t know how much better London is at dealing with segregation.

Harding wrote a column today in response to all the negative feedback he received from the earlier piece. He says: “The response made me realize that London is not only a fact of life, but it is a state of mind.” We have nothing more to say. Yes, Mr. Harding, I guess you have us told.

Meanwhile, The Times has a guide to our fair city of New York.

Kevin Wicks

Kevin Wicks

Kevin Wicks founded BBCAmerica.com's Anglophenia blog back in 2005 and has been translating British culture for an American audience ever since. While not British himself - he was born and raised in St. Louis, Missouri - he once received inordinate hospitality in London for sharing the name of a dead but beloved EastEnders character. His Anglophilia stems from a high school love of Morrissey, whom he calls his "gateway drug" into British culture.

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