Saturday, July 31, 2010

Patina versus Gloss

If one is what one eats, drinks and wears, then I suppose it isn’t too much of a stretch to say that one is also where one holidays. Many of the people I know prefer to use holidays and weekends as a time to retreat to some place quieter and calmer than Bombay, choosing to withdraw to Kerala’s backwaters, Goa’s beaches or even Pune’s bylanes. I, on the other hand, am an inveterate city-lover. On holidays and otherwise, I enjoy visiting cities – exploring them, discovering them. I enjoy approaching cities intellectually – decoding not only the cities themselves, but also my own responses to them.

I spent the better part of my most recent holiday in New York. I’d visited the city earlier once, many years ago. It was a classic tourist’s trip – a three day whistle-stop rush through Manhattan’s most crowded attractions - but memorable enough that it made me keen to go back for more. Consequently, this trip was about experiencing New York, figuring out what made it tick. I was also very curious about understanding the difference between New York and London (one of my favourite places in the world). It’s obvious that both cities are different, and extremely so. Nevertheless, I wanted to understand and articulate how this difference played itself out for me.

It’s a trickier question than it seems at first glance. Both London and New York buzz and hum, attract people from across the world and boast of world class museums and cultural institutions, while also harbouring thriving urban sub-cultures. Both have captured our global imagination, not least because they are home to instantly recognizable symbols.

But in spite of all of this, both cities cultivate different ways of being. To put it simply, the way one feels in London is very different from the way one feels in New York. Even if one is just passing through.

The most striking difference is the topography of these cities. London is horizontal, with just the Gherkin and the Wheel creating some semblance of a dynamic skyline. To walk around London is to experience a sense of monumentality – everything seems solid, unyielding and dignified. Structures like St. Paul’s and the Bank of England don’t just impress themselves upon one’s consciousness; they loom over one, implacably asserting their weight and majesty. Surprisingly enough, this is also true of the more modern structures and the newer parts of the city – almost as if imperial power has leached into London’s bones and refuses to drain away in all that insistent rain. London is old. Beautiful, but imperious. Don’t believe me? Take a walk within the City on a quiet weekend morning. It’s difficult not to feel humbled and insignificant.

New York, on the other hand, is all bristling verticality. In Manhattan, especially around Midtown, skyscrapers cluster around one other, jostling for elbow room. Streets, for the most part, seem squeezed into the spaces between lobbies and parking garages. Are the buildings impressive? Yes. Intimidating? No. There is too much proximity; it seems too easy to walk off the street and into one of these metal and glass behemoths. There is no opportunity to be awed. You’d like to take a step back to take the view in, but you’d probably walk off the pavement into traffic.

While travelling is about experiencing the new, there is always some excitement associated with encountering the familiar in a strange place. London has been made familiar to me, before I ever even visited, by history books and literature. Dickens, Conan-Doyle, Austen, Heyer have mediated my expectations of the city. New York, on the other hand, has been made familiar to me by comic strips, T.V. shows and movies. For some reason, Batman and Sex and the City come to mind immediately, followed by legions of good, middling and awful films – Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Serendipity, Maid in Manhattan. So before I even began travelling, I had already had the chance to see New York. But I had only been able to imagine London. I suppose this says more about the difference between text and visuals than it does about either of these cities, but it did make New York feel more accessible and familiar to me. I’m willing to bet that this holds true for many others.

And there is also the crucial difference between Londoners and New Yorkers. Social distinctions in London are more sharply drawn – people are more polite, but less friendly. Unless it’s late on Friday or Saturday night, in which case all bets on hygiene and manners are off. New Yorkers are less courteous, but much more approachable. They’re quick to strike up conversations and make small talk. Being crowded into a subway car with Londoners is a very different experience than in New York. In London, people keep up the pretence that they’re alone and possibly invisible, even if someone’s poking them in the small of their back. In New York, people will laugh, chat and find out where you’re from and how long you plan to stay.

I suppose what I’m trying to say is that London is a harder puzzle to decipher – it’s not easy to insinuate oneself into the rhythms of London life. It always feels that there are parts of the city that are holding themselves back from you, that there is a pace to events that is completely different than yours. London has too much of a sense of its own past to reveal all its mysteries at once. And then, of course, there is the weather, the fine mists of rain that colour all one’s perceptions of the city. New York, on the other hand, is easy to tumble into. It has a tangible, accessible energy. It’s a city that’s entirely of the moment, taken with its own youth and promise. It will accept you and forget you as easily.

It’s funny, actually, how closely these two cities reflect their national zeitgeists. Especially when one considers the fact that both London and New York are self-contained, and do not serve as handy microcosms for their countries. What is the difference, then? The perennially old versus the forever new? Two points along a continuum? Two different stages of city-state evolution? An old-world patina versus a shiny new-world gloss?

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