Tuesday, September 8, 2009

I ♥? LON

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.
(This video has nothing to do with the post, but the song rocks.)

My photos:

Fly Brother welcomes your views. If this post hit the spot, please comment and/or click.


nyc/caribbean ragazza said...

My black British friends are similar to my West Indian and African friends in America.

They say there are British but they still have very close ties to their home country or parent's home country.

Like you said African-Americans have a different history in the States since they have been there since it was "discovered".

rhonalala said...

I totally understand about not being "Wow'd" I was so looking forward to this when I visited Paris but I felt nothing close. It was nice but not what I expected at ALL!

Stephanie said...

I adore London. I'm not sure New York is the best city to compare it to, for me it is much similar to Washington DC with it's mix of culture, history and politics.

But you are right at least halfway about the average looking people. My guy friends were all unimpressed with the women of England, I on the other hand was completely bowled over by the charming men and dashing accents. Eh, maybe it's a personal preference thing.

Tusker Baridi said...

Nice write up. Talking as an African who has visited both cities, I can tell you London wins hands down, and here's why:

1. Soccer
Most Africans are crazy about soccer which is a culture on its own. And lots of them are Arsenal fans.

2. 8 hrs direct flight to the motherland.
Sure beats flying from NY via Europe to Africa.

3. Londoners are more travelled.
Lots of Brits are very well versed about Africa so its easier to relate to them.

Fly Brother said...

Ragazza: Even as expats, I think black Americans tend to embrace our hard-won identity moreso than other groups. I love Brazil, but I´m not keen on complete assimilation for myself nor my children. I´m sure you feel the same about Italy.

Rhonalala: It´s as if I were pushing for a relationship with someone that, in the end, I just wasn´t all that into.

Stephanie: I can see where you´d draw the comparison, but I´d be much more inclined to compare DC to Paris, if only for the French-inspired design and large black cultural influence. You´re right about my assessment of British beauty - it´s indeed highly subjective. ;-)

Tusker: As an American, you know we don´t give (or know) two craps bout no soccer. Is that like snooker? Seriously, points 2 and 3 very well taken. The majority of Americans, sadly, also don´t give or know two craps about Africa. Thanks for commenting.

A Cuban In London said...

You have to live in London to dig London, man. Never been to New York, but I am dying to go one day. I am a Yankees fan. Many thanks for your beautiful post about my adopted city. Just came back from Spain myself.

Greetings from London.

Tusker Baridi said...

You're right about the state of soccer in America, and I dont see it ever getting better.

As for Americans not knowing or caring about Africa, lets hope US ambasadors like yourself will begin to expose Americans(and especially African Americans) about Africa.

Growing up in Kenya I saw so many white Americans but never any African Americans. But with the election of Barack Obama, I've seen African Americans' interest in Africa increase. This can only be good for both parties.

Anonymous said...

Wow man, I just stumbled upon your blog a few hours ago, and have been reading reading thru it ever since.It is very informative, witty, and well written. As your fellow well traveled, young, black, southern american male I can truly appreciate your experiences. Best of luck and enjoy your escapades.

kwerekwere said...

i agree with tusker -- and i guessed that he was kenyan from nothing else but the flight time from london. [it's only 4.5 hours to lagos from london, and only 4 to accra, depending on the plane.]

that the black professional class in the uk is so small is one of the major reasons i left. [i got tired of being the only black male in my office who wasn't cleaning it.] an even sadder bit is that there are black students from throughout europe in london working on their english so that they could get out of there to move to the united states, where the glass ceiling isn't as low.

[in the uk, you can get on your tip-toes and touch the glass ceiling; everywhere else, you hit the glass ceiling while doing the backstroke in a swimming pool.]

i wouldn't say that it's less yoked by racial baggage but that people have much more clue. don't worry, if you look/listen hard enough, you'll hear more interesting racial complaints; eg, when i talked to my born-in-wolverhampton-to-jamaican-parents friend the other day, he was talking about the "pakis that are ruining english cricket." i had a serious chuckle at that because that was one of the things i noticed during the last cricket world cup: there hadn't been this much color on the english cricket team since i was in high school and windies owned world cricket. [yes, i know, americans care even less about cricket than about soccer.]

soccer in america is strange -- the united states and canada are the only countries in the world where soccer is a sport of the middle classes and not the poor.

hm, ernest. i don't know about your transport thing. while the subway service is 24-hour, its 24-hour-ness is only really useful if you live in manhattan. [i didn't know you had money like that.]

wrt london, knowing the times of your bus home makes it easy to know when you want to leave the club.

the 4 quid price on the tube is tourist prices. oyster card, moving around zone 1 is half that price, if that much -- weekly and monthly passes are your friends.

london is awesome. i learned yoruba in london [and it's a shame that i've nearly lost it], which is only one of the many reasons it's awesome by the way. i think you need to be there for a good couple of months for it all to sink in.

it's ridiculously expensive, but as your twitter feed says, you can get away to almost anywhere in a short amount of time.

Tusker Baridi said...

Kwere, you're so right about soccer in North America, its too sanitized.The only way for Americans to improve skills and passion for soccer is to introduce it to the streets and the inner city. That's how the great soccer players in Brasil to Italy to Ghana acquired their amazing skills. But so long as its confined to surburbia, it will always remain a fringe sport only played by rich kids.

America has potential to dominate soccer if they put their minds to it. They have the talent pool and the resources to do it. I was very pleased to learn that of all the World Cup tickets sold so far, Americans lead by an overwhelming majority. And that the 94 World Cup in US still remains the most successful modern World Cup by far.Go USA!!

brian said...

As a New Yorker who has spent alot of time in London I can say I like the civility and relative calm of London. Folks dont discriminate when it comes to dating and marriage, which is refreshing.

But the nightlife is definitely better in NYC. Running for the subway before it closes sucks. Energy wise, nothing beats NY.

Both cities have representatives of every nation, sexual orientation, creed, color, and interest on the planet Earth. Fantastic.

They both have their good and bad points.

And we Americans will NEVER care for soccer. We have American football, baseball, and basketball to keep us occupied. After grade school we don't play soccer. Beckham came here to play for the Galaxy and can walk the streets with Posh because no one cares who they are!

kwerekwere said...

nah, brian.

you see "folks not discriminating when it comes to dating and marriage" and i see "immigration policy that is not particularly different than what happened in the stolen generations in australia". sitting on a train and watching black men clearly favoring the lighter of their mixed-race children is a sign of pathology to me. but then again, i'm pretty unashamedly pro-black [and i've completely called out said parents on mass transit too, because i'm ignorant like that].

you really don't want to know what i've said to people who discuss, in front of their children, their clear preferences for almost-white skin and their desire for white grandkids. again, pathology -- albeit one aided and abetted by immigration and citizenship policy; it's up there with the whole mejorar la raza thing. ugh.

depending on where you live in south london, the above-ground trains are 24 hours; tube service south of the thames is pretty abysmal anyway. and, again, it's not like the night buses are not convenient or anything like that. [for many, many people, they're more convenient than the trains.]

footbal and basketball are sports where middle class americans gawk at poor americans; baseball is a sport where middle class americans gawk at poor dominicans. soccer in america is a sport of the middle classes to begin with, and middle class america can't look at [or talk down to] its own in a similar manner.

and, man, where did people posting here party in london to say that new york nightlife is definitely better? i call it a coin toss. new york wins on if you want latin american flava, but london wins if you want african flava. [in a mighty big way, too.] london's house-party scene is stronger than new york's though. houses built that could withstand german bombs also have the beneficial side effect of being pretty soundproof. you can have noise levels at a uk house party that would get you arrested and/or evicted in most of the united states, where walls in houses are so *thin*.

M said...

Hi, Mr White :P.. its me Mariana, I just started my own blog, although its more like a poem/writings thing not really quite like yours, which I find very entertaining, I am glad you like your banner, and if you ever find the time to take a look at my writings that'd be cool, just to see what you think.

diablo911 said...

You have to live in London to dig London. Spent 2 weeks in NY and yes I had a good time and it was lovely. But in my books, London wins. You’ve got to love it for the eccentricities it has. Let me lay it right down for you, I live in London and I DO London:

The markets (Brixton, Camden, Brick Lane)

The culture (Tate Modern, West End Theatre, Notting Hill Carnival, The Proms, The Southbank)

The touristy bits (The Eye, Big Ben, Piccadilly Circus, Tower Bridge, Buckingham Palace)

The galleries and museums (National Portrait Gallery, British Museum, The V&A and the National Gallery, the Saatchi)

The parks (Hyde Park – poetry on The Serpentine anyone? Regents Park, Victoria Park)
The transport system ( The Tube – gotta love the iconic map, Oyster cards, The buses – totally dig the No.15 Routemaster between Traf Sq and Towel Hill on a lazy summer weekend, Regent’s canal, St Pancras Station)

The nightlife (over and above the generic club scene there’s Jazz cafe, Roundhouse, Shepherds Bush Empire, Brixton Academy, Hammersmith Apollo)

Eating out (you need borrow my Taste London card to experience the food)

The iconic bits (The Queen, Houses of Parliament, Nelson’s Column, The Thames, Eros, Hyde Park Corner)

The quirky bits (Postcodes, curious names, The Queen’s head on everything important, the endless rain)

You weren’t around people like me. I don’t think London is burdened with plenty racial baggage. Yes, I may the only black guy in my professional circles but race has never been the issue. People kinda envy my friends and I for being the quirky Africans who’ve dabbled in everything and have been everywhere. I live and breathe London everyday (live in WC1 and work in W1).

Cuban: totally agree with you. We should have a drink and toast London.

sherene said...

I am surprised that you, as someone with a bad case of wanderlust, did not mention that being based out of London has one unbeatable perk that NYC does not - fabulous connectivity to Europe, Asia, Africa et al. Imagine trying to plan a weekend getaway from NYC to anywhere outside the USA & you'll know what I mean.

London is not kind to its visitors but makes for a fabulous home city. It takes time to discover your own set of secrets about the city - cheap eateries, fab shopping spots, hidden alleys et al. And we have a whole host of street festivals too, beyond Notting Hill Carnival, just went to the Brazilian fest last month & there was a Venetian Masquerade thing the month before and so on... Hard to keep track of all that happens at any given point of time in London, really. Check out the Southbank Festival site or Londonisfree.com! While both NYC & London have musicals & commercial forms of theatre, London's scene in more traditional forms of theatre is unbeatable (think Shakespeare's Globe, Wilton's Music Hall, etc). Free museums & art galleries & a hell lot of them - big win for London although the Met, MOMA etc in NYC are fab too.

And for anyone with a fascination for historical charm, London has much to offer than NYC can't, but on counts of public transport, party scene & cost of living, I must concede that NYC trumps London!

Both are fabulous cities, aren't they? And yes, I will shut up and go write on my own blog now :D

sherene said...

@cuban & @diablo911 - Some serious London lovin' happening here, count me in for meeting up for a drink & a toast to the city ;)


Ali la Loca said...

I've never been to London. My first time will be in 10 days, on a layover en route to San Francisco.

I found your analysis super interesting - would love to be able to have an opinion, but sadly haven't been to NY since I was 13...so I suppose I'll sit this one out! :)


Fly Girl said...

Fly Bro, I don't know where you were partying either. Between dancehall, house and grime parties, London has just as much energy and excitement as NY. Kwerekwere is totally right, the racial politics are more complex than they appear on the surface. I spent a big portion of my time discussing the divide between Africans and Caribbeans and why the U.S. is not less racist than Britain, which was the assumption. I still love me some London.

Lenox Ave said...

I enjoyed London alot when I visited. I'm a NYer and had fun tooling round the city. I was very comfortable there because it had a similar energy to NYC. I'm biased because NY is home, so nothing can compete. :-)

I dig different cities for what they bring to the table. I loved Venice for its mystery, Rome for its chaos and Florence for its Academic setting.