July 20, 2012 7:39 pm

What makes London different

If they want to be Londoners – to be part of this thrilling, rich city – people have to rub along together despite fantastic inequality
London’s diversity illustration©Luis Grañena

I was at a reception in London recently, watching a bizarre spectacle: a black woman, a Jewish man and an Asian chap, all of them British, arguing with some Frenchmen about Arsenal Football Club. Because I left London years ago, I noticed the ethnic mix. The Londoners probably didn’t. To them, it was just London.

I know several supposedly “diverse” cities. Paris, Miami and Amsterdam have countless “communities” speaking innumerable languages. However, these towns are almost as segregated as Johannesburg, where my parents come from. Even New York is less mixed than London. Trevor Phillips, chair of Britain’s Equality and Human Rights Commission, says, “If you want to know the answer to the Rodney King question – ‘Why can’t we all just get along?’ – come and spend time in London.” In 2005, London’s diversity even appears to have persuaded the International Olympic Committee to give the city the upcoming Games. So what is London’s recipe?

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Simon Kuper

One cliché says London has a centuries-old history of diversity. That’s not right. True, foreigners have always come here, but not many, and they usually weren’t welcome. In the early 1950s, only a few thousand West Indians, Indians and Pakistanis lived in London. Signs in the windows read, “Rooms to let – no Coloureds” (or “no Poles, no Hungarians”).

Yet most postwar immigrants bedded in quickly. Phillips told me: “My mother, when she came, was like a lot of Caribbean women: rather lonely, because she worked in a sweatshop. Until she got to be friends with one of the women who sewed next to her, a woman called Peggy, who, as it happened, was Irish. And that was her entrée. These women were meeting people who were not like themselves. And I think that’s why it works in London: we have a high level of interaction between people of different ethnicities.”

That’s largely because of the wartime bombs. They created an unplanned, higgledy-piggledy city. Many bombsites were later filled with cheap social housing. Mathieu Lefevre, executive director of the New Cities Foundation, recalls, as a student in London, renting a basement from a Royal Navy admiral who had a Jaguar parked outside. Across the street was a rough estate.

Londoners with Jags generally send their children to private schools (often extremely mixed). However, most London kids attend the local school. The London author Zadie Smith recalls growing up with girls in headscarves, Jewish boys with yarmulkes and “Hindu kids with bindis on their foreheads … United in the same primary schools, we were neither mesmerised by, nor especially frightened of, our differences.” Even last summer’s riots were multicultural. As Smith writes: “We riot together, and together we clean the streets.”

Each ethnicity might have liked to build itself a ghetto, but it couldn’t. London lacked space. People squeezed in where they could. And so the city has no monolithic ghettoes. Tower Hamlets is fairly Bangladeshi, Stockwell fairly Portuguese and South Kensington a bit French, but none of these groups has a local majority. New York, by contrast, has clearer “communities”. A friend once gave me an anthropological tour of Queens. He showed me the block for Indians from a certain state, the Polish bit, the Korean street. “There are unofficial, self-imposed borders in these communities,” he explained. “You will rarely see a south Asian at a Colombian restaurant.” In London you do.

Crucially, London is fairly safe. Like New York, it has about eight million inhabitants, but London had 125 murders in 2010, whereas New York – supposedly the safest big American city – had 536. Consequently, London has fewer “gated communities”. You can wander around Knightsbridge at midnight, ogling oligarchs’ mansions unchallenged. Despite fantastic inequality, people mostly rub along.

If they want to be Londoners – to be part of this thrilling, rich city – they have to. I learned this from a very English Englishman I played cricket with in London. One sunny afternoon years ago, chatting on the boundary, he told me he’d stopped voting Conservative in dismay at the party’s anti-immigrant rhetoric. He had come to prefer the Natural Law party, whose platform was transcendental meditation.

“Aren’t you against immigration?” I asked.

“Of course not. I live in London,” he said.

“If you don’t like foreigners here, you can’t work anywhere, you can’t go to the pub, and you can’t sleep with most people.”

Craig Taylor, author of Londoners, an oral history of the city, rightly cautions: “I would never over-romanticise the extent of mixing.” But even poor Londoners seem to feel they have a stake in London. Recently, the economist Jonathan Portes showed me a remarkable statistic. In Tower Hamlets, the London district with the worst child poverty in Britain, children at primary school whose first language is not English get slightly better scores for English than the national average. So do kids from foreign language-speaking homes across London. My theory is that those kids and their parents think London has a place for them – a semi-detached house in Chingford, perhaps. Put simply, they believe in the London dream.

simon.kuper@ft.com

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