Reading the City

Perhaps it’s a legacy from my time in academia that when I read articles about familiar topics, I find myself asking, “What gaps in our knowledge does this address?” Sarah Lyall’s New York Times article, “Lessons from Living in London,” has been doing the rounds, and I’m afraid that the lesson I have learned from it is that ex-pats don’t always see the parts of a city that make it so unique – the parts that make it different from where you left behind, and which make you fall in love with it and call it home. I’d say that even though you may be geographically within London – and pretty close to the center of it – you can’t get a good sense for what it is to actually live in London if your only experiences are of Notting Hill, Kensington, Hampstead, and Angel.

Unfortunately, at points in the article where I think Lyall is about to launch into fascinating detail, the prose falls short. For example, she writes, “Residents tend to feel more connected to their neighborhoods than to London as a whole.” And that may be true, but unfortunately for the reader, she does not elaborate on how or why. I start thinking, where is her evidence? Of course years spent in a city of over 7 million souls should make evidence thick on the ground. And far beyond simply confirming her claim, I want to read about how and why residents feel so connected to their individual dots on a map. What are those unique features high streets have that set them apart from each other within a sea of identical chain stores? Lyall could have gone into detail here and captured part of why people fall in love with London, but instead, we don’t get anything other than the standard well-off expat experience. We don’t get any sense for what those neighborhoods even are, because she doesn’t go to them. When she says “residents,” who does she mean? Who does she know, who has she talked to? American expats? Native-born Londoners? New immigrants? It’s only my opinion, but I don’t think the rich and unique life of the city is found in Kensington, a place barely anybody can afford anymore.

Now, Zadie Smith is one of those authors you either love or hate, but there is no denying she has a gift for rich description of parts of London that are far from the tourist path. You have people in middle-of-nowhere Kansas who have a rudimentary idea of what Willesden and Kilburn are like thanks to her books. To me, the uniqueness of London is found by going way up the Edgware Road, or any other main route, to where people who moved without corporate backing live. Of course, Lyall’s experiences are her own, they’re completely valid, and I would be dead wrong to criticise anybody for writing a piece that wasn’t exactly what I want to read, but at the same time, an article that is about living in London needs to go beyond what has already been written ad infinitum. If your experience of a city outside the touristed areas is the same as that of a tourist – e.g. very limited – then what is the point of living in that city? Even though the woes of newspaper publishing nowadays are well-known, the New York Times obviously wasn’t going to make her live in the places most new arrivals to London tend to land, but Kensington and Angel are essentially bubbles. They could be anywhere. Only living there and then saying you know London would be like imagining all there is to New York City is Midtown Manhattan and maybe Brooklyn Heights. Meaning, you’re missing out on so, so much.

Go beyond zone 1 and you’ll see what makes London unlike anywhere else in the world. The Tottenham High Road, now widely known for being the birthplace of the 2011 riots, has businesses catering to immigrants from everywhere from Colombia to Ghana to Poland, yet it remains distinctly a part of England with gems like Bruce Castle and the Walthamstow Marshes. Go past Hampstead into Golders Green and there’s a park with wildlife you’d associate more with Australia than North London. I don’t mean to get all “Bro do you even North London,” because Sarah Lyall can only write about what she has experienced and everybody’s life is going to be different and this isn’t a bloody competition, but it is the fact that her article seems to indicate she didn’t experience very much of what the city has to offer off the beaten path that really gets me. The article is about living in London, but I see little of the London I lived and loved. Have you had a wander through Crystal Palace Park? Gone up the hill to Alexandra Palace and looked out at all those rooftops and wondered about the people beneath them? Have you walked the canals and the reservoirs and the places where it’s hard to believe you’re actually still in a massive city? Have you gone past Canary Wharf to the little farm in Mudchute? Then walked through a public tunnel underneath the river to Greenwich? When those riots erupted, did you hear people talking about Broadwater Farm and did you know it not as someplace grown, but someplace built? Ever navigated using the Wembley Arch? Felt guilty about the nice clothes you got so cheaply at the market in Bow because errrrrrrm maybe they *cough cough* fell off the back of a lorry? Found free orchards behind a council estate in Stoke Newington and in the corner of a park in Ealing? Just got onto a bus for the hell of it and waited to see where it would leave you? Because that’s what living in London means to me. An opportunity to always find something new.

Or, stay within the center of the city, but look around the corners. Even Kensington itself is more multi-faceted than this article depicts. Notting Hill may be known to most Americans as that genteel little place from a horrible movie (sorry, I have something against Hugh Grant, it’s irrational but don’t try to convince me otherwise), but have you ever wondered why the West Indian carnival is there? Because in the middle of the last century, in a racist housing market, immigrants from the Caribbean who had little choice of where to live found one of the few places they were welcome – albeit in exchange for exorbitant rents for run-down, subdivided flats – was W11. Of course, Notting Hill is now too pricey for the vast majority of new arrivals, but the carnival is just one reminder of the movement of people around the city both within and throughout generations. 

When Lyall recalls a lost man in Soho who is fumbling with a map of Brussels, I wanted more. Because, well, I honestly don’t find anything interesting about someone’s experience of culture shock being that dry-cleaners don’t deliver to your door, or that you have to say “rubbish” instead of “trash.” Maybe the NYT editors were aiming for what they thought their average reader would identify with – though, to be honest, having almost never gotten delivery of anything in NYC, I found myself really not caring. London is an extraordinary place. Tell us an extraordinary story. 

I was hoping that when she said “geography is destiny,” we were going to be taken into a discussion of how London is growing increasingly polarized, how places like Kensington and Angel are far beyond the price range of the vast majority of native Londonders, but again, Lyall failed to elaborate. If you want to know how geography is destiny in London, I recommend reading Danny Dorling’s The 32 Stops, part of Penguin Books’ collaboration with Transport for London to publish 12 distinct books tied to the 12 lines of the London Underground. Dorling, a geographer at the University of Sheffield, writes accessibly and succinctly, using the stops on the Central Line to illustrate the extent of inequality in London. It is a quick read, but insightful and chock-full of information. The Central Line begins and ends in the suburbs, and through vignettes about imagined individuals and families, he paints tiny pictures of what matters in the lives of everyday Londoners. It is short, to-the-point, and most importantly it achieves its aim. You can borrow my copy.

Of course, this was just a short article in the travel section. It can’t go into massive detail. It’s not supposed to. And I can’t tell anybody how to experience a place. But I feel like piping up and saying that life in London is more vibrant and offers more experiences than the article might indicate. Strangely, the closest I felt to New York was in Golders Green, one of the few places in London with a visible Jewish presence. To me, it’s fascinating that despite their physical distance, I found commonality between the two cities I consider home in an ethnic enclave that resembled so much of the American counterpart. And I don’t care if the shops there don’t deliver, because the 210 bus that took me there and back crossed Hampstead Heath just fine, with a view to kill for from the front seat of the upper deck.