Just returned from 5 days in New York. I heart NY. I remember my first visit there in 1997 ... I was spending the summer in Boston working in the Famous Atlantic Fish Company as a hostess. This makes it sound as though I was greeting dignitaries in some sort of fish packing company, but I was showing people to their tables in a restaurant. We had a lot of booths which could sometimes cause problems if a customer requested one and was prevented from sliding into it by their girth. I soon managed to gauge customers by size and if they asked for a booth that I knew they wouldn't fit, I would say that it was reserved. Anyway, I was toiling away when some friends decided to go to NY for 3 days, travelling there by bus. I didn't have any holiday from Famous Atlantic and didn't think I could go. But then I thought, in years to come which will be more important - that I was a good employee to Famous Atlantic, or that I went to New York? I called in sick and went to New York.
We loved it. We had no money (probably 20$ a day) and were staying in the rather dubious Aladdin Motel in the theatre district, but it was great. We lived on slices of pizza and beers and walked from one end of Manhattan to the other, sometimes supplemented with buses as a treat. We couldn't get over the scale of the place: a city built for giants, with skyscraper canyons that stretched to the horizons. We were fascinated by the people: models doing a shoot in Central Park, rollerbladers zipping around, little ladies walking their poodles on the Upper East Side, people everywhere waving arms, arguing, honking horns, just like in the movies! We didn't darken the door of any museums but we did treat ourselves to a trip up the Empire State Building, where we saw all the lights of Manhattan below with Central Park cut out in darkness.
This was my third visit since then, and I still love it, but I'm not sure any more if it's somewhere I am actively keen to live. Meeting up with some friends who live or have also lived in London, we discussed the pros and cons as follows:
New York definitely has better restaurants. I don't know about the top-end, Michelin-starred stuff, but I think the mid-range restaurants are generally of better quality. They are much more individual. There are fast food outlets but you don't see all the mid-range chains like Strada, Pizza Express etc that you get everywhere in London. On Friday night J and I went to Westville, a tiny place in the West Village where they have a changing list of 10 seasonal vegetable side dishes, fresh from the market every day. We had a cauliflower dijonnaise dish that was one of the best things I've eaten in months. We also had amazing Mexican food at La Palapa in the East Village, and went to a nice Thai place in Brooklyn. And the service everywhere was excellent.
A, who lives in London, says he would rather not have excellent service, but just have the food brought to him to the table and save 15 or 20% of the bill. I see it differently: for a start, you pay the same price in London, but at least in NY you get great service with it. Also, eating out isn't a purely functional thing. There is a difference between having tap water brought to you as soon as you sit down, and begging for tap water four times or having to run the 'still or sparkling' gauntlet. And I think it's important that people should be rewarded for good service, and that restaurants invest in their staff, not just get whoever is most desperate to work for the least money.
Having said that ... I think London might have a better range of 'ethnic' restaurants - it definitely is better for Indian food, and I'm not sure if you get those regional pockets in NY like the Vietnamese cafes in the East End or the Lebanese/Moroccan places on the Edgeware road, which do liven up London. And also, very importantly, wine in NY restaurants is 40$ a bottle, which is a drawback.
So, on eating out: London 6, NY 8.
The subway is air-conditioned. Bad for the planet, but so nice for us. It's also never really crowded. How is that? I got it about two or three times a day while I was there, and I always had a pleasing choice of seats, even during rush hour. Whereas in London, you feel like transported veal and tube bosses are issuing people with free water to cope with the 30 degree heat (actually it must get up to 40). And best of all, the subway runs all night and is cheaper than the tube (and not just for cash fares).
However - the subway is unnecessarily hard to use. Even if you get on the right coloured line according to the map, there is no guarantee that your train will stop at the stop you want: you have to look at the station you want and see if your train's number appears on it. 'Local' and 'express' trains go 'late nights' and 'rush hour', but there's no indication of when rush hour begins, or how late at night. Your train might have a list of stops written up inside it, or it might not; it depends. Same with announcements. There is generally one small subway map per carriage which is always obscured by someone sitting in front of it. And the staff, who hide in their booth, aren't a massive amount of help. I heard many, many confused people on the subway and I don't think they were all tourists. Compare this to the tube, which is genuinely idiot-proof and which must produce thousands of words of instructions a day. Also I think the tube is faster (except when it's on strike/having repairs of course).
So: Score: NY 7, London 7 (I'm awarding NY points for the air conditioning).
Shopping in NY might be better for basics, but I think people are more stylish in London. All the creativity that goes into NY restaurants seems to be diverted into clothing in London. Which does add to the gaiety of life, I think. London has a million different styles while NY seems to have two at most (boho and uptown). Also London has Portobello market, and a general studenty approach to dressing that I find stimulating compared to NY.
Score: NY 5, London 9
I'm not sure if I can really say which is better - the Frick and the Whitney are great, and I think dance is probably better in NY, but London's museums are FREE and also pretty world-class. Theatre in NY is very expensive. People in NY queue from 4 am to see the free Shakespeare in the Park, while London has Shakespeare at the Globe for £5 and theatre in Regent's Park, and opera in Holland Park. J suggested seeing August: Osage County, but it was going to be 70$ at the very least - there don't seem to be as many cheap deals available. I don't think the classical music scene is quite as vibrant, though I could be wrong. New bands, I don't know, maybe the same but I'm not really sure.
Score: NY 8, London 9
'The New York Times, The Daily News', sang Billy Joel nostalgically when he was in a New York State of Mind. The NY Times seems very hard, and the Daily News is a total rag - I read its reports on the demise of Michael Jackson, and it kept quoting 'The London Sun' which I think says it all. I prefer London papers and I love my free London papers. These don't exist in NY (though the Onion is free). Maybe it's just what I'm used to, but I am going with London on this one.
Score: NY 5, London 9
There is no comparison. Central Park is great, and Gramercy Park looked very pretty even though it is behind bars, but aside from that it's scrubby little squares all the way - more gardens than parks. London's parks are the jewel in its crown - it has more parks than any other city in the world and they are all beautiful.
Score: NY 5, London 9
I know we bitch about the weather all the time in London, but this week's 'heatwave' feels deliciously cool after New York. It's a bit too hot there, I think, also full of mosquitoes (I now have about 30 bites on my right leg). And snow is great but three months of NY winter might get you down.
Score: NY 6, London 7
From London, you can go all over Europe. You can be in Paris in less than 2 hours. Or you can go to unspoilt beaches, moorlands, downs - England is beautiful. I know you can go places from NY, but it takes longer.
Score: NY 6, London 9
There are nice people everywhere, but it must be said Americans are especially friendly. I was also struck, when getting the subway at 1 am, that there was none of the drunkenness that I would expect to see on the tube at that hour. Maybe see above re 40-dollar bottles of wine, but there is much less of a drinking culture, possibly because people are not so afraid to relate to each other or full of class hatred. In fact, I didn't see any of the loutishness that you do see in London. Everyone I asked for help and directions was extraordinarily helpful, friendly and nice. And yet, and yet ... I like the fact that London isn't anodyne, takes its time to get to know you and can be a bit iffy and arsey. There can be such a thing as people being too uber nice all the time no matter what. Can't there? OK, maybe not.
Score: NY 8, London 6
Total: NY 59, London 70! Of course, none of this means much - maybe I'm just doing these sums so that I don't have to go through the immense hassle of trying to find a job in New York. London can be grubby and unfriendly, but it works for me. I think in fairness that New York is probably a friendlier city to strangers and an easier/nicer place to visit, but for me, London is a better place to live. And I forgot to say, it has pubs ...