Know your place in alphabet city

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I have recently come to the conclusion that there is one book that captures the essential difference between New York and London. It is not a novel or a work of history or theology or social science, but a street atlas – A-Z London.

It is a book that is as essential to survival in this city as a durable umbrella or an ample line of credit. London is so spread out and so complicated that even people who are born here can’t venture very far without their “A to Zed”, as the locals call it. Since moving to London from New York about a year and a half ago, I rarely leave home without my copy, with its 177 pages of maps, followed by an index, printed in painfully small type, that runs to nearly 200 pages.

The cover of my A-Z proclaims that there are more than 69,000 streets inside and the sheer array of names is mind-boggling for anyone used to the relatively simple urban grids of New York, Chicago or other similarly designed US cities.

For example, the A-Z index has entries for Manor Avenue, Manor Brook, Manor Circus, Manor Close, Manor Cottages, Manor Court, Manor Crescent, Manor Dene, Manor Drive, The Manor Drive, Manor Estate, Manor Gardens, Manor Gate, Manor Grove, Manor House, Manor Lane, Manor Mews, Manor Mount, Manor Parade, Manor Park, Manor Place, Manor Road, Manor Square, Manor Vale, Manor Way, Manorway, Manor Waye and The Manor Way.

From a New York perspective, it’s unsettling. To me, the the coolest New Yorkers were always the ones who could cover the most territory, like princes of the city – without any guide books. In this regard, I don’t think it’s any accident that so much of the music that is closely associated with the wide-open spaces of the western US was actually written by boys from Brooklyn, such as Aaron Copland, composer of Billy the Kid, and Elmer Bernstein, who gave the world the theme from The Magnificent Seven (also known to some as the Marlboro man music). New Yorkers, for better of worse, like to think big.

If you have seen the movie The Godfather, you will remember a scene that depicts this free-wheeling side of the New York personality particularly well. In it, the Corleone family is plotting to kill a rival gangster, called Sollozzo, to revenge his attempt on the life of their boss, Vito Corleone. Sollozzo has invited Vito’s son, Michael, to hold peace talks, and the Corleone plan is to plant a gun at the location of the meeting so Michael can use it to shoot Sollozzo dead. The rub is that the Corleones don’t learn the location of the sit-down until an hour and a half before it’s set to start. They get a tip that it will take place at a place called Louis’ Restaurant in the Bronx and that’s when Tessio, a Corleone stalwart, delivers a remarkable analysis.

The Corleones are clearly not Bronx people. Like my family, and so many others in New York, they seemed to have followed an arc that took them from the immigrant neighbourhoods of lower Manhattan to Brooklyn and then to the Long Island suburbs. But Tessio, who repeatedly talks about his territory being in Brooklyn, knows all about Louis’ in the Bronx – even describing the old-fashioned box toilet behind which a gun can be hidden for Michael.

The depth of Tessio’s knowledge makes sense to the viewer because it is so consistent with the self-image of so many New Yorkers. As a man of the streets, Tessio would be expected to know his way around places like Louis’, particularly if it has the best veal in the city, as Sollozzo tells Michael when they finally sit down to eat. In New York, extremism in pursuit of culinary gratification is no vice.

Now that I live in London, I try to imagine how you would write a scene like that in this city. What if Sollozzo wanted to meet at a café on Manor Way? Would the Corleones have planted a pistol on Manorway? Or Manor Waye? Or The Manor Way? Or would Tessio have just turned to Michael and said, as New Yorkers do: “Fuggedaboudit!”

The fact is, only a small number of people really know their way around London – mainly drivers of cabs who spend years learning what they call “the Knowledge”. What happens when you live here is you lead more of a village life, sticking to the parts of London that you know well and avoiding the rest. As a result, it is not uncommon to meet people who live north of the Thames and who hardly ever venture south of the river.

To me, it feels constraining. People in London literally go by the book – the A-Z – and the longer I live here, the more I suspect it’s a habit of mind that carries over into other areas. Through its very design, London is a city that teaches you to stay in your place.

gary.silverman@ft.com

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