An Englishman reflects on his travels in London vs New York…

This is the sort of article which tell you much more about urban/city economics than those so called sophisticated journal ones.

He points how London was once a fairly safe city to travel and NY was a terror of sorts. Things have changed in last 50 years, actually reversed:

Just under a half-century later, the level of civility in the two cities has switched: New York now feels safer than London. I have in recent years enjoyed walking dozens of city blocks after midnight in Manhattan without apprehension; I would hesitate these days to walk such a distance in London after midnight. Some London boroughs have more robberies in a month than all of Great Britain did in a year a century ago.

Differences in policy almost surely produced this reversal of fortune in the two great cities, at least as far as crime is concerned. New York decided that the “root cause” of crime is the criminal’s decision to commit it, which, in turn, is strongly influenced by the likely consequences to him of doing so, a theory easy to understand. London adhered to the theory, propounded by criminologists, that the root causes of crime are multifactorial and so complex as to be almost incomprehensible—vast social forces the direction of which somehow must change if crime is to fall. In other words, New York treated criminals and would-be criminals as individuals with powers of reflection and decision; London treated them as inanimate objects, mere vectors of forces. Contrary to first impressions, New York’s approach was more respectful of people than London’s, which, quite apart from its practical failure, led to all manner of equivocation, special pleading, dishonesty, condescension toward perpetrator and victim alike, and confusion as to the proper role of the police. As violence rose, the police in London (and elsewhere in Britain) increasingly took on the appearance of military occupiers instead of the traditional unarmed civilian force that they had hitherto been; or, as one commentator put it, they became paramilitary social workers, more concerned to protect the feelings of certain designated groups than the lives and property of all. The police became bullying without efficacy, the worst possible combination; and the confusion of roles led to their demoralization. If London should learn from New York, then New York should learn from London, the power of bad example being as great as that of good.


In the end, he says American cities have been copied elsewhere but has been poorly done:

The upward thrust of American architecture has been copied throughout the world, successfully in Asia but unsuccessfully in Europe, where skyscrapers tend to be shabby, unconvincing, and out of place. The reasons for this lack of imitative success are several. First, such architecture requires either enormous capital or cheap labor, or both. Dubai, for example, could not have been built without an almost inexhaustible fund of inexpensive labor from South Asia, but the result is a modernism far more imposing than anything in Europe. In Europe, the buildings go upward, but the economy goes sideways. When I look from my balcony over extra-muros Paris, for example, what I see is not Chicago, Hong Kong, or Singapore, but Novosibirsk. The City of London—the financial district—looks like a Dubai where land costs were prohibitive, labor was not cheap, capital was insufficient and had to be cheese-pared, and architects were desperate to leave a mark by designing buildings of original but ugly shape, one known as the gherkin and another as the mobile telephone (when mobile phones resembled odd-angled bricks). Any American city is better than this.

American modernist architecture is convincing compared with the European variety because America is modern, whereas Europe, ever since the end of World War I, has merely tried to be modern, limping sadly after a model. American modernity is native to its soil. European modernity is highly ideological, or at least theoretical, with either fascist or Communist roots. Le Corbusier, an architectural totalitarian with strong fascist leanings, wrote his preposterous manifestos in the imperative mood, in which repetition—which Napoleon said was the only rhetorical device of any political value—served for argument and the author’s assumption was that the past should be cleared away as so much dead wood. (See “The Architect as Totalitarian,” Autumn 2009.) In America, modernity produced the buildings; in Europe, the buildings were supposed to produce the modernity. The European way was a form of magical thinking, a little like the Zambian attempts to catch up with the rest of the world by building imitation rockets, or a hotel in Nigeria that advertised itself as “ultramodern” because it was 14 stories high and built in 1970s style. Never mind that the hotel was moldy inside because the air-conditioning in the hot, humid climate worked only intermittently and the windows had been sealed on the assumption that open windows were bad for air-conditioning, or that the guests had to carry their luggage up many flights of stairs because the elevators usually did not work: what counted was the appearance of modernity. At a slightly higher level of sophistication, such is what the French call the état d’âme—the moral preoccupation—of European architecture. Almost everywhere it has resulted in a visual hell.

American cities were built, relative to European ones, on a tabula rasa. The difference between them and the modern parts of European cities is the difference between a fruit plucked directly from a free-growing tree and a fruit raised under artificial conditions, picked unripe and transported under refrigeration halfway across the globe. But I am a European: for all my admiration of American modernity compared with its European equivalent, I prefer to be awed by more intimate beauty rather than overawed by the sheer size of Man’s productions, however glassily elegant they may be. In other words, I am a man of the past, not of the future.

Good read..


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