|The World's Greatest City
||[Apr. 1st, 2004|05:29 pm]
|||||The Beatles - Paperback Writer||]|
Sometimes, self-proclaimed greatness is true (Mohammed Ali); more often, such claims are not (Donald Trump, Michael Jackson). The same applies to cities. Cities of course cannot speak for themselves, so they tend to have boosters pointing out their superlatives. New York City was regularly described as the "world’s greatest city" by then-Mayor Giuliani. London’s voice of hyperbole isn’t an actual person, it’s a magazine: Time Out London. The cover of this week’s issue of TOL yet again proclaims London to be “the greatest city in the world”, as virtually every single Time Out publication on London repeatedly does. This bragging raises the question whether any city can be called the greatest, and if so, what criteria can be used to bestow this title. It also raises the question whether a city that is really the greatest would need to keep proclaiming it all the time. Sounds like an inferiority complex masquerading as a superiority complex to me.
Claimants to greatness generally have to combine a ridiculous excess of everything that makes up a great city: size and diversity of population, business and finance, politics, culture, educational institutions, cuisine, fashion, nightlife, media, etc. To be the world’s greatest city, it is essential to have a dominant influence over the trends that ultimately make their way around the world. Based on all of these factors, I can think of four cities that possibly meet these standards: New York, London, Paris and Tokyo. Paris gets disqualified due to its unimportance as a global business and financial center, and the limited global reach of its French-language media. Tokyo may currently be the world’s hippest major city, but it doesn’t win as the world’s greatest city because of the limited population diversity and the fact that virtually no one outside of Japan speaks Japanese. So that leaves New York and London as contenders.
I have lived and worked in both cities during the past decade and think that I’m a good judge of their respective merits. I wasn’t born in either place, so I don’t have a native’s biases. I’ve spent time in both as a relatively poor student, and spent even more time in both as a relatively successful business dude, so I've seen them from all sides. I’ve spent the past week in London and will return soon to NYC. So I think I have the credentials to determine which of these really is the world’s greatest city. Here are some of my initial thoughts; more to come:
Cuisine: It’s not true that the food stinks in London. It only stinks if you’re not filthy rich or on expenses. That rules out 95% of the people in London, for whom the food does stink, with a few exceptions:
1. If you like to eat sandwiches for lunch every day, London is awesome.
2. If you like to eat Indian food for dinner every night, London is nirvana.
3. If you, like most Brits I know, skip dinner every night because you go from work to the pub, drink too much and eat a couple of bags of chips (crisps to the Brits), then London’s food is just fine.
4. If you manage to track down and get a seat in one of London’s several gastropubs, you just may have a well-prepared meal that doesn’t cost and arm and a leg.
Everyone else is bound to be disappointed. On the other hand, anyone who has spent any time in New York knows how amazing the food is there, at every price level, from street food up to five star restaurants, so I won’t bore you with the details. New York wins the food category.
Nightlife: For me, nightlife takes place at night. Night usually starts when it gets dark and ends when it gets light. Assuming it gets dark on average at 6pm, the peak of nightlife should occur around midnight. Unfortunately, at midnight in London the pubs have already been closed for an hour, all the bars and clubs that are still open have horrendous lines ("queues") in front, and the tube is about to close down for the night. Granted, the places that are open after 11pm are pretty cool, but there are just too many obstacles to overcome, they're just not accessible enough. So New York wins this category too (smokers may disagree).
Culture: This is where London is a real contender. I think London’s contemporary music scene is more diverse than New York’s. The Brits discover happening US bands before the US does, and the Brits are so passionate about contemporary music. London has an amazing classical music scene, great museums, excellent opera (except when they’re firing overweight sopranos). London's National Theatre is a treasure and is excellent enough on its own to beat New York when it comes to theatre. London is weak on modern dance and especially jazz as compared to New York. London seems to have more cinemas showing artsy or classic films. So I’d give London a slight edge on culture. However, one cultural product that is terrible in London is paperback books. They cost the same as in the US, especially given the current exchange rate, but they are printed on deeply inferior acidic paper that turns yellow within a year or two. Dear sir or madam, if you plan on building a lasting paperback library, don’t buy the books in the UK.
So far it’s 2-1 in favor of New York. More to come.