Comparing Belfast to New York is a bit like comparing a Ferrari to a bus. But it’s something I do often, having recently moved back to Belfast after living in the self-appointed ‘capital of the world’ for close to 15 years.
My most recent trip down memory lane was prompted by the closure of yet another old time New York bar, this time Smith’s Bar and Restaurant in Manhattan. This news came on the heels of the announcement of Taylor Swift as ‘global ambassador’ to the city. The singer may have her own charm, but gritty and cutting edge – words formerly associated with NYC – she is not.
I lived in New York in the 1980’s, as a child. I remember well the general spikiness and chaos of the place — and the violence. The subways were covered in graffiti, with lights that seemed to flicker off more often than they were on, plunging the car you were riding in, full of total strangers, into darkness.
Once we came home to find a dazed homeless woman ensconced on the staircase, reeking of body odour, dangling a lit cigarette over the cheap carpeting. We literally had to step over her. My father, a neighbourly Belfast man, went back to check on her, offer her some coffee and ask her to put out her cigarette, lest she light the whole place on fire.
But there was also a tremendous sense of adventure, every time you walked out the door. I spent many happy hours with my dad in his favorite the Irish bars in Midtown. I’d sit at the bar with him, drinking the Shirley Temples and breathing in the smell of burgers and cigarette smoke. I loved it.
But that city no longer exists. Taylor Swift is the perfect face for the New York of today – perky, well put together and rich.
The endless closures of old-style New York institutions isn’t just sad. It also prompts yet another round of hand-wringing over what’s become of the of the old city and finger-pointing over who is to blame for the new blandness of the place. The battle to claim authenticity in a city that never stops moving is a tiring and ultimately pointless endeavour.
Of course, in a city of 8 million people, large working class communities still exist, populated by municipal workers, cops, firemen, nannies and retail workers. There are plenty of large and lively ethnic neighbourhoods, they are just not in Manhattan anymore. These communities don’t feel like they are part of the city’s zeitgeist however. That’s been taken over by a generation of wanna- be Carrie Bradshaws and their banker beaus.
Perhaps because it’s always been a city of strivers and dreamers, there is nothing New York loves more than to talk about itself. But the levels of self-regard after too many years become utterly exhausting. Everything – where you live, where you buy your food, how you commute (car, bike or subway), your child care arrangements, all take on significance beyond the practical. They telegraph your worldview, your politics, your carbon footprint. Nothing in New York just is.
After many years of living under this magnifying glass, Belfast was a breath of fresh air for me. For a place with a reputation as a city divided, it feels, after the cacophony and angst of New York, remarkably cohesive. Flag protests and old divisions aside, the city gets on with its business of rearing children, taking care of the infirm, working and enjoying a night out on the town every now and again.
In Belfast, having been around in the bad old days is not worn like a self-satisfied badge of pride. Here, in the small social interactions that make up daily life, we like to iron out difference, put everyone on the same level. We are great at small talk.
Maybe because at its heart Belfast is a working-class town, it hasn’t got pretensions above its station. Sometimes this works against it, as entrepreneurial spirit and get-up-and-go are not always warmly greeted. And change, to put it mildly, happens slowly.
There are definitely times I wish I could import a bit of New York’s chutzpah and talent for reinvention. Belfast is still too timid and unsure of itself.
But in a very important way, Belfast has managed to do what New York has not: that is emerge from a dark, violent past while retaining a true sense of community and a quality of life that is accessible to most of its residents, not just the wealthy ones.
And even more interesting, Belfast at the moment has an energy and positivity that New York is simply too self-involved to offer. In that regard, Belfast has New York City beat.