After a week in Berlin, I’m back at my friend’s flat in Hackney, East London, where I’m staying for the duration of my time here. The flat is in an old, Georgian building, just off Clarence Road. This was the centre of the London riots in August last year. The burning car featured in countless newsflashes was just minutes away from where I am. But I feel safe here, notwithstanding my knowledge that everything exists in a tense balance. A large part of that is because the faces around me are so multi-ethnic that I fit right in and don’t feel like I’m under threat from anyone.
One thing I deeply appreciate about London is its diversity, which is integrated into the City’s culture in a way that just doesn’t exist in other cities. Take a Tube anywhere in Central London and you’ll find a United Nations of people in the same carriage as you are, from a diverse range of socio-economic backgrounds. Stroll down the streets anywhere and you find the same eclectic mix of peoples.
This diversity is not just skin-deep. Pop into any Waitrose or Tesco’s (supermarket chains) and you can get curry powder, fish sauce, soy sauce, jerk seasoning, ras el hanout, as easily as rosemary butter, strawberry jam, goose liver pate and baked beans. Branches of these supermarket chains in London’s various boroughs are even more ethnic, catering to the population mix in the immediate vicinity. The Waitrose in Edgeware Road, for example, has a more complete Arabic / Middle Eastern selection; the Tesco’s in Hackney has a large Afro-Caribbean aisle (and also an Asian aisle).
I had the good fortune to live in a very ethnically diverse area when I was studying in London last year. The area was North Deptford – a swiftly gentrifying area that until recently, was dangerous and crime-ridden. Deptford High Street is one of the most colourful streets in London (and maybe even the world) because of the dizzying array of restaurants and small independent grocers that one could find on the street. Anything you could ever imagine, you could get! Fresh herbs and vegetables from the Turkish grocers; fresh fish from the Persian fishmongers; Chinese sauces and my favorite brand of instant noodles from the Vietnamese-Chinese mini-marts; fresh halal meat and game (pheasants and rabbits) from the Pakistani butchers; and (if I wanted to) dried catfish and whelks from the Nigerian store-holders. Secreted amidst these small independent stores were restaurants of every major ethnicity represented in London. It was a cornucopia of delights, at very affordable prices.
Here in Hackney, I’m experiencing the same comforting diversity. Londoners of European descent co-exist with those of Afro-Caribbean, Oriental or Middle-Eastern descent. I popped into the nearest Marks and Spencers and saw Arab women in complete abayas, shopping alongside young (white) East London creative types. In the McDonalds I pass by on the way back to the flat I see Chinese or Korean girls sipping coffee alongside a whole gaggle of high school girls of mixed African, Indian and European descent. I know that I’m perhaps idea/yllising this scene of diversity somewhat, but the fact remains that people of different races seem to be able to brush up against each other on a daily basis without too much difficulty.
This diversity would have been easy to take for granted, if I weren’t also living in another city known for its diversity – New York. Unfortunately, I find New York’s model of diversity superficial and skin-deep. The major ethnicities segregate themselves into ghettoes, leaving central Manhattan and bits of Brooklyn lily-white. Take the subway anywhere south of Harlem and you’ll notice that almost all of the faces are white, and of a specific socio-economic background and (aesthetic) look. You might as well be in some second tier city in Europe. Go into Chinatown or Harlem and you’ll find that all the faces there (bar the tourists) are largely also monochrome – as though it were Hong Kong or…well…Harlem.
It is also painfully difficult to find ethnic foods outside of the ethnic ghettoes. The average supermarket chain doesn’t stock a wide range of ethnic foods and if they do, it’s often of the Americanised variety. Those that do have a larger range of ethnic foods – Whole Foods, for example – tend to charge exorbitant prices. And so I’ve found cooking in New York to be a particularly trying experience since there is no easy way to get what I want to get from where I live in Williamsburg, Brooklyn.
Incidentally, the area of Williamsburg where I live is regarded as a very edgy and hip district in New York. Coincidentally, or perhaps not, it is also one of the whitest areas in New York, populated with young hipsters and creative types, and yuppie couples with their children living in luxury condominium developments. There is a huge Puerto Rican and Dominican community in the area, but they pretty much keep to themselves in their community, religious and commercial spaces. There is also a huge Hasidic Jewish population in the area, but they live in their own hermetically sealed world. And so on the main thoroughfares – Bedford, Driggs, Berry, Wythe – on any given day, you’d be hard-pressed to spot passers-by who are not of the specific kind of eclectically-dressed, liberal, American of European descent.
Personally, I don’t think Williamsburg is edgy or hip at all. I think it rather boring. It is remarkably un-diverse: everybody looks the same, talks the same, buys the same, eats the same (organic), wears the same, thinks the same, aspires to the same. My view is: on any single day, even Central London is so much more edgy, hip and interesting than Williamsburg (or New York, for that matter) could ever be.