Travelling Through: Space and Size from the UK to the USA


Ethan Reuter reflects on the differences between life in British and American suburbs and cities

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Image by Kai Pilger

By Ethan Reuter

"America’s too big to know itself” Hugh Laurie decrees to nodding heads in an educated Edinburgh audience as someone in Florida can’t possibly know what it’s like to live in Oregon. The spirit of collective agreement infuses the air. Laurie, realistically, has no business being this right, but he is, and it shows up in voting patterns and what kind of car you’re likely to drive. Therefore, I hope you’ll understand, I can’t just scribble down the character of a country from a couple week trip. My expectations are much more humble, and realistic than that, just what is integral to their culture.

Sleep then, and I'm cowering in the back of the Lego Store on 23rd and 5th, waiting for my dad to finish. Mid-dissociation, my mum mentions New York has a phonetic feel about it. What she means is that New York feels like it’s always speaking, vibrating, racing in your presence, Manhattan standing above all the other American cities, its skyline spells out anode to all the glory of the American dream. It’s more authentic than a fame riddled, intoxicatingly Instagram Los Angeles or the bureaucratic, broad streets of Washington DC. Money proudly stands as the cultural kudos and movement inextricably interlinked with its lifeline.

There is, I think to myself, only one other city like this in the world, one that feels almost interchangeable in its complexion, London. No other city matches their grandeur, scale, significance, ethos, and internationalism. An unparalleled duopoly in ambition, magnitude and inimitability.

London itself is not without its downsides and drawbacks, and neither is New York. Euston’s glass cages of finance bros, an exhibit for the unindoctrinated, or earth’s most vacuous honeypot (colloquially referred to as Leicester Square), make for an easy reference point in a debate about London and its virtues. This is to say nothing of certain aspects and parts of New York City. There are, however, interesting distinctions to be drawn between the two cities, and countries, in their cultures and mannerisms.

Manhattan, along with their quintessential yellow cabs, has a uniquely American black car service. Leviathan SUVs with grills up to your neck parade around the blocks, Caesars of the cross sectioned roads. For its mazing qualities, tinted, titanic cars may seem like a necessity for the wealthier areas of our capital, however, the closest comparison is the army of Range Rovers that roll through Kensington. There is no grip on luxury transport held by the armada of vast blackened chauffeured SUVs like there is across the pond. This is, on a microlevel, a desire to showcase success. Humour me then, in a question of greenhorn philosophy. Why, beyond the comfort and signification of success, does this, for America, make it any better? The answer lies in the idea of space, and America’s understanding of quantities.

Bodegas, themselves unique to Manhattan, sell, amongst other things, selections of soft drinks or sodas. Nothing groundbreaking from the Costcutter in Camberwell as of yet, but, when taking an iced tea out of one of their fridges, you’ll notice you can barely get your fingers around the thing. To call it a bottle would be doing it a disservice. This isn’t just the drink's natural condensation or the writer's natural incompetence, it relates to the size of the item on offer. Neither I, nor my dad, can hold the thing with any confidence. Sheer impracticality of the drink aside, it speaks again to America’s desire for something grander and larger in stature than what we have to offer on our islands. America’s solitary but enduring sum, that the greater the quantity, the greater the value, has filtered itself down to the drinks aisle.

These are examples from America’s largest and most valuable city, as such, it’d be fair criticism to ask how this translates to the suburbs. Driving through leafy Northeastern suburbs isn’t indicative of the vast majority of lifestyles or economic development, as all but one of these states are more developed than the national average. However, examining the wealthiest gives insight into people’s desires and wants for the good life if they had the opportunity in the first place. Strikingly, houses sit surrounded by moats of grass, open and unobstructed. Oliver Dowden’s quote about our ‘privet hedges of freedom’, itself unintentionally ironic considering hedges block things, hasn’t quite gonetranspondian yet. Go into one of these Mc-Mansions and you’ll be greeted with double height ceilings and eyesore chandeliers. The simple size of the space, when combining all these factors, and comparing with Britain is what stands out. The back-to-backs and terraced houses of factory towns or the idyllic Wordsworthian cottage could never dream of such a yawning entrance.

In both the cities and the suburbs there is an integral difference in mores, separated by the Atlantic. In one corner there lies Britain with its masochistic weather and cramped spaces. In the other, standing, the shining city on the hill, there is America. It’s bulking cars, giant self-serve sow-duhrs, and cavernous houses all pointing towards the same thesis. America, holds these truths self-evident, that space and size are tautological with good and better, that a posteriori reasoning isn’t required. For America, space and size are the higher forms of the realm, and in the realm of forms, the highest goods, inescapable from their reach, entwined with their culture, woven into the very fabric.