Ramchandra Guha on Why London Outdoes NY

♠ Posted by Emmanuel in ,, at 12/06/2012 07:51:00 AM
With all due respect to our readers from the Big Apple, I still hold that London is the world's capital for reasons both fair and foul. Quantitatively speaking, you can cite trading volumes in various financial markets to argue that London truly deserves the title of "the world's financial capital" unlike what you keep hearing on CNBC. It is also considered more open to all comers regardless of race, colour, or creed (unless you're an intolerant sort like Captain Hook). Throw in the astonishing buoyancy of its real estate market even as economic times are difficult--not something that can necessarily be said of New York--and the quantitative evidence for London's supremacy is overwhelming.

But, there are also qualitative aspects to this designation. Ramchandra Guha, the renowned Indian historian who succeeded Niall Ferguson at our LSE IDEAS as the Philippe Romain chair (see his recent WSJ interview as well), serves up a fond reminisce of his year in London that also bolsters the case that it is indeed the world's capital:
New Yorkers may contest this judgement, but despite the many attractions of the Big Apple, London still holds the edge. For one thing, the architecture is more appealing. The buildings are elegant, and on the human scale. They speak to you in a way that skyscrapers cannot [I can only assume he did not spend a lot of tie in the City of London!]. The city’s crescents and squares lend it an eccentric charm that the straightforward grid of Manhattan does not contain. And there are many more parks in London, as well as water bodies of various shapes and sizes.

London is also, in social terms, at once more diverse and more integrated than New York. On its streets and subways, Arabic and Hindi jostle with English and French (and, increasingly, Polish). New York, by contrast, is essentially monolingual. (To be sure, first-generation immigrants speak their language at home, but on the streets at least it is mostly all English). At the same time, in London, blacks and whites and coloureds are less rigidly separated by social class or place of residence. As a result, there are more mixed groups in the parks and restaurants of London than in the parks and restaurants of Manhattan.
To be sure, the academically inclined also have huge benefits by virtue of its unique place. He mentions the absolute wealth of speakers who would come on campus to speak. While the relatively younger LSE is not quite up there with Cambridge and Oxford in the prestige sweepstakes, the sheer volume of top-class speakers from academia, business, civil society and government who would come to speak is astounding since they inevitably come to (obviously English-speaking) London to be heard if they are in Europe:
The LSE has, however, one inestimable advantage over those other places of learning — it is located in a city in the centre of the universe, and thus regularly visited by scholars from Asia and Africa, North and South America, and of course Continental Europe. Its location and its attractions mean that a Mozambiquan historian wishing to travel to Brazil is very likely to route his journey via London. So too the Indian sociologist travelling to San Francisco or the American political scientist studying the Congo.

Making use of this strategic location, the LSE showcases a more impressive series of public talks than any other institution in the world. Harvard or Columbia might have specialists from other universities coming in for departmental seminars, and occasional public lectures for a wider audience. But the LSE has, during term time, as many as four different public lectures every day. The student, professor and alert private citizen are all spoilt for choice. Thus, on the same evening, one might have Paul Krugman speaking in the Sheikh Zayed Theatre, the lawyer who attended on Nelson Mandela speaking in the Old Theatre, and an expert on Egypt speaking at the Hong Kong Theatre. 
Geographically speaking, the LSE's place at the centre of London which is in turn the "centre of the universe" cannot be bettered. Heck, my very own boss hosted John McCain prior to the US elections. As I like to point out, though, you're not out of luck if you don't happen to be in central London since most of the events are recorded and podcasts if not videos are available online. Enjoy...but don't expect our NYU colleagues or others from Noo Yawk to offer the same sort of amenities for reasons Ramchandra Guha so eloquently makes!