The boom in London may be most evident on the culture front. The Frieze Art Fair has in just four years helped transform a once staid art scene into a vital stop on the art-world circuit, and there has been an outpouring of English films, such as Michael Winterbottom’s Wonderland and Stephen Frears’s Dirty Pretty Things, that take the city and its changing population as their subject. It’s only a matter of time before someone makes a film as atmospheric and lyrical about London as Paul Strand and Charles Sheeler’s Manhatta. Oh, wait—members of the band St. Etienne already did: Finisterre, a paean to London’s jagged rhythms and moody charm. Even the city’s robust theater scene is experiencing an especially rich moment, with new plays by Tom Stoppard, David Hare, Michael Frayn, and Peter Morgan (the writer behind The Queen) being produced; Harold Pinter performing in Beckett’s Krapp’s Last Tape; and Kevin Spacey leading the resurgence of the Old Vic. As Simon Stephens, an acclaimed young English playwright, says, “I worked with emerging playwrights in New York last year; they had a palpable sense of cynicism about their industry. I don’t about mine: In London now there is an exceptional hunger from theatre producers for new plays that are bold, challenging, provocative, and alive.” All of this combines to give London a striking self-confidence, even—dare we say it—a New York City–like swagger.
There is also a civic boldness about London now, an ambitious sense that one need not, in the end, choose between Jane Jacobs and Robert Moses. A £10 billion east-to-west London rail link is being planned, new libraries are opening, and the city has managed to make the Thames a central part of urban life. By contrast, New York emerges as the suspicious, security-addled city that long ago turned its back on its wonderful waterways, that lost out on the Olympics, and that is swiftly losing its claim to being the financial capital of the world. In short, New York is cardiganed Woody Allen, and London is party-dressed Lily Allen. And even the Woodman is setting his movies across the pond.
Yet along with the swagger, London retains a profound self-doubt, a gloomy tension that accompanies its freewheeling spirit. A friend there proposed a London version of the “I Love New York” slogan. It would be, he said, “I Find London Just Fine.” In fact, much of London’s dynamism seems to stem from its overt competition with New York. Londoners are obsessed to distraction by New York: There are photos of and features about New York in the papers virtually every day, and shops with names like NY Shoe and Manhattan Donut abound. David Beckham and Posh Spice named their first child Brooklyn, after all. To Londoners, the idea of a city with so strong a sense of identity and self-pride (er, self-love) is especially enticing. Once, at a book party in the crypt of St. Martin-in-the-Fields, an English editor asked us where we’d come to London from. When she heard New York, her face crumpled as she said, “Good God! And you’ve come here?”
But in its effort to capture the flag from New York, London risks losing some of what makes it so … London. For all of its cultural vigor and economic success, what makes London especially great is that it’s not New York: the thin strips of sidewalk, the low-rise expanse, the twists in its streets. It’s the only city we know in which most residents carry a book-length local map, and being lost in London is what gives the city some of its distinctive feel. It’s the anti-Manhattan.
And though there was much crowing when London discovered it had won the right to host the Olympics in 2012, Londoners may end up ruing that decision: Though regeneration promises to bring much-needed mass-transit links and affordable housing to the East End site of the Games, such promises have gone unfulfilled in past Olympics, and the project now threatens to practically bankrupt the city. Losing the Games to London may be one of the best things to have happened to New York in recent years.
Meanwhile, an inch of snow can paralyze the city, decent street food is hard to find, and there’s a heaviness about London that can pull you down. Sukhdev Sandhu, the chief film critic of London’s Daily Telegraph, spends part of his time in New York. He says, “Sometimes it’s the middle of winter. The paycheck’s been exhausted. I’m feeling tired and lonely, and my heart is heavy. Then I think to myself, I’m tired and lonely, my heart is heavy—and I’m walking down Broadway! Even my crapness feels theatrical and epic.”