For generations of New Yorkers, “only in New York” is a proud and complex motto, at once wised-up verbal shrug and brash rallying cry. Above all, it’s the mantra of New York exceptionalism, the rosary we all say to remind ourselves of our belief that ours is the One True City. It’s a good line—as sharp and convincing as a hard jab. But after four years of living in London, we’re no longer so sure it’s true.
If Paris was the capital of the nineteenth century and New York of the twentieth, London is shaping up to be the capital of the 21st. It is not Britain and the United States that have a special relationship, it is London and New York—and it is that of wayward siblings, blood brothers who can’t stop wrestling for the top prize. They seem engaged in a constant battle for financial, cultural, and social supremacy, and the conjunction of their experiences (their oddly complementary mayors, the way the ritual dates 9/11 and 7/7 are inscribed in the memories of their residents, the speed with which the working class of each city is being priced out) only intensifies the competition. Increasingly, it seems as though London has the upper hand.
The signs are everywhere. Construction is booming, and a new wave of skyscrapers is being planned and built: Low-rise London is about to get high. Norman Foster’s eye-catching 30 St. Mary Axe building in the City of London, built in 2004 and widely known as the Gherkin, has garnered the most attention. But it’s only the first pickle out of the jar. Renzo Piano is planning a 1,000-foot building known as the Shard at Tower Bridge, SOM’s 540-foot Broadgate Tower near Liverpool Street Station is swiftly taking shape, and work is primed to start on a KPF-designed 940-foot tower just south of it. According to Mayor Ken Livingstone, London may have as many as twenty skyscrapers by 2015. This is transformative architecture, on the scale of Berlin or Shanghai in the nineties. How long has New York been waiting for a revamped Penn Station? Not to mention the dismal end result at ground zero.
To Londoners now, there’s a sense that the future belongs to them: It can sometimes seem as if there’s nobody over 30 on the streets, and that a great experiment in mass immigration and assimilation is under way. For a century, New Yorkers have taken it for granted that the most tired, the most poor, and the most huddled would bring their sharp-elbowed talents, their richness of spirit, to these shores. Increasingly, London may be their destination. Bengali, Portuguese, Turkish, Polish, and Vietnamese are the languages of the streets and buses. According to the 2001 census, some 2.2 million Londoners—30 percent of the city’s population—were born outside England. Some estimates suggest the figure is as much as 40 percent now; Poles, Lithuanians, Latvians, and others from Eastern Europe have been arriving at the rate of 16,000 a month since Eastern European nations were admitted to the EU in May 2004. At this rate, London will soon reach the level of foreign-born residents in New York during its great age of immigration, in the 1900s and 1910s. The extraordinary city that grew in those decades and the ones that followed owed much to their energy and enterprise, and the same is already true of London.