A little over a month ago, after I returned from a marathon trip to the British Isles, a friend asked me how I’d enjoyed London.
I suspect that this was what actor and comedian John Cleese had in mind on Wednesday when he wrote on Twitter, “Some years ago, I opined that London was not really an English city any more.” A social-media firestorm followed as people accused him of making racially coded remarks. It’s possible his critics are right; I can’t crawl into Cleese’s subconscious to check. But I read the tweet as a lament over the erosion of London’s singular character — as has happened with New York and Paris and almost every other global megacity.
Noting the increasing sameness of so many international cities is not an original observation. There is the luxury shopping strip, populated by the same international brands as the high-rent district of the city you just left. When you’re tired of shopping, you can sit down at virtually the same cafe for a nitro-infused cold-brew coffee and chocolate macaron, then catch an Uber to refresh yourself at a hotel that could be anywhere — and probably is, with a virtually identical footprint.
When you’ve enjoyed the rainfall shower and the complimentary bottle of water, and are ready to venture out again, you may well find yourself in the curiously ubiquitous generic-upscale-cocktail-bar. The bar comes in several flavors — vaguely industrial, vaguely rustic or vaguely mid-century modern — so that urbane travelers can feel they’re mixing things up a bit. The $15 cocktails will probably be excellent, unsurprisingly, because they were in New York and Hong Kong, too. That will also be true of the dinner that follows, with only minor variations on the same themes.
Now, a reader could justly protest that this describes a very specific, and very affluent, lifestyle that only a minority in any of those cities can afford. And so it does. But the observation also holds at the much lower levels of expenditure where I generally travel: The fast-food places and sandwich shops and supermarkets are converging to a single global standard nearly as fast, and no matter where you go, you will find people ready to discuss the finale of “Game of Thrones.”
That wasn’t true when I first traveled abroad, in the 1990s, and it certainly wasn’t when Cleese was a young man in London in the 1960s. Back then, to go abroad was to be disconcerted, perhaps a little terrified, as all your hard-won knowledge about how to navigate the world became abruptly useless.
That’s still true in remoter, poorer places. But in the cities that thrive on global commerce and attract global capital, it’s easy for an urban dweller to feel at home anywhere, whether a student on a budget or a banker on an expense account.
But the most trenchant defense may simply be that in world capitals, the affluent class that drinks $15 cocktails is slowly pushing everyone else out of the way, and with them, more and more of what remains of their city’s individual character. Cleese later elaborated on his tweet, saying that he found the London of his youth “calmer, more polite, more humorous, less tabloid, and less money-oriented than the one that is replacing it.”
The great global cities are ports on a great ocean of international capital, and the people who sail so profitably upon it are outbidding everyone else for a tightly restricted supply of housing. The more they dominate the housing market, the more everything else upscales and homogenizes to cater to their tastes. The result is reassuring for the traveling class, but also faintly depressing, since it removes one of the main reasons people used to travel: expanding their horizons, and broadening their comfort zone.
Of course, this might be just a fine bit of nostalgia from one old fogy, and one fogy-in-training. But while nostalgia can blind us with rose-colored glasses, it can also occasionally open our eyes to things we’ve lost, and the ones we’re letting slip away.
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