By AnnaPurna Consulting business intelligence practice based in New York.
A report from the British Social Mobility Commission has concluded that elitism is so embedded in Britain that “it could be called social engineering”. The findings, which detail the dominance of all aspects of social, cultural and political life by a tiny, Oxbridge-educated minority, reminded me of why I am glad that I left London for New York – and I say this as a beneficiary of many of these privileges. For sure, elitism is a dominant credo in both cities, but New York retains an ambience of dynamism and fluidity that London has struggled to match. Sixty-five years after E.B. White published his gorgeous love letter, Here is New York, many lines still resonate: “On any person who desires such queer prizes, New York will bestow the gift of loneliness and the gift of privacy. … The residents of Manhattan are to a large extent strangers who have pulled up stakes somewhere and come to town, seeking sanctuary or fulfilment or some greater or lesser grail. The capacity to make such dubious gifts is a mysterious quality of New York. It can destroy an individual, or it can fulfil him, depending a good deal on luck. No one should come to New York to live unless he is willing to be lucky.”
There is a great freedom in being a legal alien, but New York’s love of reinvention is particularly inviting. New York has afforded me freedom and anonymity, an escape from the stifling social structures of London, where I feel I classify and limit myself within 10 seconds of opening my mouth. The city’s unforgiving qualities are well known, but I felt its affection immediately. After three years, it’s starting to become my home.
However, New York and London have many similarities. Each has less and less in common with the nation that surrounds it, and the two cities’ fates seem correspondingly interwoven. Raw kale, scrubbed wood and a farmer’s market aesthetic dominate their dining scenes. Both cities are experiencing the sad, slow extinction of quirky originality in favor of chain stores, chain restaurants and bland landscapes that render neighborhoods indistinguishable. New York, for instance, just tore down 5Pointz, its graffiti Mecca. The construction of such gleaming urban landmarks as the Shard is equally tragic for those who mourn London’s Bohemian past. A blog called Jeremiah’s Vanishing New York (http://vanishingnewyork.blogspot.com/) tracks the replacement of New York’s independent restaurants, bars and delis by vendors of frozen yoghurt and mobile phones. There’s a shared yearning for lost authenticity. In London, grunge is back: Blur your eyes in a bar and this could be the early 1990s, with only smartphones betraying the moment. In New York, a booming subculture of speakeasy bars, burlesque shows, and immersive theater has sprung up; you can dress up and interact with ‘30s gangsters while drinking gin from teacups.
I wonder if this transatlantic yearning for a more analogue era is a symptom of middle-class fear that its lifestyle is under threat. In both cities, the apparently unstoppable growth of the property markets and Generation Y’s perpetual dependence on rented homes stir anxiety; the stateless mega-rich are the bogey men held responsible. The US Census Bureau estimates that 30% of apartments between Fifth and Park avenues and between 49th and 70th streets are empty for up to 10 months per year, with 30% of condo sales to foreign, (often shell) companies. In 2013, foreign buyers bought 75% of new homes in central London and reportedly accounted for more than 49% of all properties worth more than GBP1m. The attractiveness of both cities to money launderers – and the ease with which their respective real estate industries support this – has not gone unnoticed in the media (New York Magazine http://nymag.com/news/features/foreigners-hiding-money-new-york-real-estate-2014-6/, the Times of London http://www.thetimes.co.uk/tto/news/uk/article4193960.ece and the New York Times http://www.nytimes.com/2014/03/08/opinion/londons-laundry-business.html?_r=0). Talk of the dearth of affordable housing for ordinary people never seems to bore anyone. Battered by tides of hot money, New York and London’s middle classes cling like limpets to vanishing enclaves in South London, New Jersey and Queens. Or quietly pack up.
It seems odd that the developing world‘s middle classes are so much angrier about corruption and money laundering than their counterparts in London and New York, whose response ranges from denial to resignation. In Brazil, Turkey, India and across the Middle East, the public sees corruption and inequality undermining its standard of living and asks – who is moving money and hiding assets? Protestors point fingers and demand reform.
Meanwhile, in London and New York, ordinary people have been ignoring the shadowy interests that drive local real estate conditions. The Occupy Wall Street movement briefly and popularly asked questions, then collapsed like a bubble. On the surface, there seems little demand for financial transparency, crackdowns on offshore ownership, and curbs on the easy mobility of criminal money. Last year, New York elected its most left-oriented mayor since 1969, but construction and development continue unimpeded. The developing world focuses on its own kleptocrats – not on the First World structures that allow them to thrive. I wonder when the people of NYLON will wake up, ignore the reassuring scent of artisanal coffee, and breathe in the smell of dirty money.