Many cities have love-hate relationships with larger or more prominent ones. Sometimes this takes the form of an urban chip on the shoulder, like Philadelphians’ insistence that New York is rude and unpleasant, and dammit, Philly’s pretty cool too. Other times there’s a smugness to city rivalries, like the Bay Area’s insistence that its lifestyle is so much better than L.A.’s (a debate that leaves many Angelenos indifferent).
London has had several such fixations. One of its previous city crushes was on Paris—that sophisticated-seeming rival just across the English Channel. In the present day, it’s infatuated with New York, and how to bring parts of The Big Apple to The Big Smoke. It’s not uncommon to read or hear comparisons between the two cities: Londoners envy New York’s 24-hour subway system, for instance, but pat themselves on the back for their better Indian food. Oh, and there’s that little matter of the additional centuries of history.
Nowhere is London’s veneration of New York more apparent than when it comes to food. No trend beloved, however briefly, of New York foodies can escape importation by London entrepreneurs. See in recent times: the rainbow bagel, the cronut, the red velvet cupcake. When the sandwich chain Upper Crust offers a New Yorker baguette, or when The Big Apple Brixton pops up in all its ‘70s NYC-themed glory, they’re selling a romanticized idea of the gastronomic hedonism across the Atlantic as much as they’re selling pastrami and tater tots.
Part of New York’s massive food influence comes down to Brooklyn’s status as the epicenter of global hipster culture. Brooklynitis hasn’t infected only London, of course. It’s just very apparent in London, where you can start your day at Brooklyn Coffee, get a Brooklyn hot dog for lunch, stop at a Brooklyn Brewery counter for a beer, and hit up Brooklyn Bowl after work.
A user review of Brooklyn Coffee notes approvingly that it’s run by bona fide New Yorkers, and indeed the presence of American migrants in London is one factor in the ubiquity of New York-themed enterprises.
London also likes to show that it’s au fait with specific neighborhoods in Brooklyn and other boroughs. Various London establishments trade on the cachet or inspiration of Bushwick, Far Rockaway, Bleecker St.—the list goes on and on.
One of these vaguely New York-sounding areas is Midtown. These two syllables have stirred up debate over the rebranding of London. Several years ago, a centrally located business improvement district attempted to rechristen the area of Bloomsbury, Holborn, and St. Giles—a historic area dripping with literary and cultural significance—using the blandly New York-sounding appellation “Midtown.” The organization’s earnest attempts to make “Midtown” London a thing, complete with signage, tours, and promotional materials, met with derision. London doesn’t have an uptown or a downtown, went the popular thinking. Thus the attempted imposition of “Midtown,” in an area with enough historic character to not require rebranding, felt to many like marketing gone awry.
Of course, the geographic imprecision wasn’t entirely the point. “Midtown,” like “Brooklyn” or “The Big Apple,” is an idea as much as a location. Perhaps tellingly, the headquarters of the business improvement district in midtown are in Sicilian House, on Sicilian Avenue, a neoclassical pedestrian area itself showing how trends in regions borrowing from each other change over time.
Midtown isn’t the only skirmish in London’s war over place names. There’s also Times Square, in the East London neighborhood of Aldgate; and Central Park, much further east than Aldgate. London’s Piccadilly Circus and Leicester Square don’t appear to have made the reverse journey across the pond.
What’s especially fascinating is when New York is used as a mediator of hybrid cultural authenticity. London has several New York-style Italian restaurants, for instance. Here, New York is as much a signifier of heritage as the pizza or pasta.
This layering of history and authenticity goes even further back than the selling of Italian food the way Mama did it not in Sicily, but in Queens. New York’s SoHo was named partly as a nod to London’s Soho, while NYC’s Chelsea was so designated by an Englishman in New York. Cities have ridden on each other’s coolness coattails for centuries…and if you wait long enough, a particular trend might just reverse, as it has with London and New York.