Pete Martin: Shining up a Wee Apple

Leith's already a bit like Brooklyn. But can't you see how the Highlands can become the Hamptons?
Leith's already a bit like Brooklyn. But can't you see how the Highlands can become the Hamptons?
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UNLIKELY as it may seem, Auld Reekie knocks the spots off New York City – and as a cultural powerhouse it has the potential to grow into something even better.

Why aren’t there any popular songs about Edinburgh, I wonder? New York, New York – it’s so good that drunks sing about its postcode every night. But can you imagine that one day Auld Reekie could rival New York’s fame and influence? I can.

It’s true: I don’t “heart” NY. Before going to live in Manhattan, I’d been a few times on business and thought it was great. Then I got a job on Madison Avenue. I was well-paid, enjoyed fun times, and met people I still count as real friends. But, unless you’re very young, very rich or very gay, I can’t really recommend the New York state of mind.

Such is the mythic glamour of New York that people are taken aback if you suggest that Edinburgh offers a better balance of life, work and culture than NYC.

For all of us exposed to New York’s on-screen image, the reality holds a number of surprises. First off, there’s the weather. Sometimes the sun shines and a cool breeze blows. You can imagine the Iroquois reaching the “hilly island” of Mannah Hatin and thinking they’d found paradise.

Those few weeks soon vanish into thick air. From early summer, the city suffocates. Every building pumps humidity on to the streets. The sidewalks can stink, and the rich head for the Hamptons. Then there’s the real chill in NY. When the winter wind whips down from Canada, the cold is more bitter than anything you’ll feel in Scotland.

But the public transport system is a miracle. It’s a miracle it works at all. The Metropolitan Transport Authority embodies the madness and genius that lets millions of people migrate daily to work on an island. The best thing about the MTA – transport minister Keith Brown please note – is that city-wide travel cards can be bought directly out of payroll with pre-tax dollars, representing a 40-50 per cent saving for staff and a huge boost for public transport.

It’s fairly pointless having a car, so most New Yorkers walk a lot. With a sudden downpour, hordes head for the subway – and are put out when the system fails. Then the avenues are thronged with soggy, grumpy people and taxis are as rare as saints on Wall Street. Like everyone else, you’re on foot. And, with the freezing cold or stifling heat, practicality matters more than style.

So, to your surprise, it’s not a city of snappy dressers. Still, in SoHo – Manhattan’s hippest shopping district – you’ll find Prada’s flagship store. This surreal skateboard-ramp-meets-design-museum is worth a visit, especially if you think paying $1,200 per shoe is funny. But when other main street attractions are Zara, H&M, French Connection… you’d be as well wandering down Princes Street.

Even if fashion disappoints, food doesn’t. They say you could eat out every night in New York for 46 years without visiting the same place twice. For example, there are more than 500 pizza joints in New York. Grimaldi’s over the Brooklyn Bridge is (allegedly) the best there is. It’s great, if you like your pizza with a slice of attitude. But you wouldn’t queue for it, though plenty do.

Without a car, there are not many places you can “supermarket-shop” either. So, you’ll find yourself heading home like a cliché: carrying tonight’s deli-bought dinner in a brown paper bag. If your level of forward planning is like mine, you end up eating out or ordering in a lot. Which brings us to the cost of living.

If you get a good job in New York, expect to be paid two or three times your UK salary. Before you go tap-dancing down to the bank twice monthly (since you get paid fortnightly), consider this: federal taxes, state taxes, city taxes, health insurance, dental insurance, eye insurance…these deductions amount to half your wages.

Even a modest Manhattan lifestyle can be drastic on the plastic. For example, our Upper East Side apartment had an open-air deck – considered a luxury. But, to my eye, the duplex itself looked more like a council flat with kitchenette rather than the luxury apartment you might expect for nearly $5,000 per month.

Even if you room with friends well out of the city, sky-high property prices mean ordinary people are often “working for the rent”. Grind your way to work in a crummy service job every day, and it’s little wonder the anger’s quite close to the surface on the subway. Above ground, the city is tolerant. You can be as camp as chicory coffee and there’s not much chance of being the only gay in the village. From boho to hobo, from oddball to amputee, you’ll see counter-culture every day. But don’t be fooled. It’s still a snob town with cultural power invested in privilege.

There’s money in Manhattan and financial muscle on Wall Street. But, in reality, the city runs more on pedal power. The little Latino boys who deliver your dinner for free by bicycle are living symbols of the stratified, low-wage economy that makes the high life possible.

So how can a small European city like Edinburgh compete with a megapolis that’s a global magnet for cash, talent and people?

I’d venture that, for the average person, the ’burgh offers a better lifestyle than any of the Five Boroughs. While New York may have more cultural highs and lows, our museums, galleries and theatres need doff no cap across the Atlantic. We have the world’s biggest arts event too. If the Festival and Fringe can develop as a chance to consume unique culture rather than generic international booze, they will remain priceless assets. And not just in terms of tourism.

All business is people-business. To the smartest employees and entrepreneurs, an open, creative society is a good proxy for life opportunity. So, the idea that “Edinburgh rocks” can attract talent more than money. On top of which, with European bank stocks being undervalued, there’s the likelihood of a powerful rally in Edinburgh’s financial fortunes.

But it’s not just the potential for culture and cash which gives Edinburgh the opportunity to compete with global cities.

When I worked with major clients in Latin America or Asia such as Femsa (makers of Sol beer) or telecoms giant NTT DoCoMo, it was obvious they didn’t know much about Scotland. Except whisky and golf. Yet they always seemed glad that you were from Europe rather than America and that you spoke English as a first language, without actually being English.

That could work for Edinburgh too. It’s the most cultured English-speaking city in Europe that isn’t in England. (Sorry, Dublin.) As such, the Scottish capital has the potential to be an important, hugely prosperous portal to the world’s second biggest economy, the European Union. (Just as New York provided a gateway to America’s markets.)

Certainly, the city’s still too small. Alex Massie recently floated the idea of a points-based “tartan card” for immigrants and that would help. If deadbeat buildings could be let cheaply to be colonised by artists and hipster businesses, we could also speed area regeneration. Oh, and if anyone could please sort out the transport infrastructure, that would be tickety-boo.

But you can already see how Edinburgh is growing into a “Wee Apple”. Young people from all over the world want to move here. You can hear foreign voices in every supermarket and pretentious tosh in any cinema queue. And then there’s the obsession with micro-areas and what each means socially. Leith’s already a bit like Brooklyn, isn’t it? But can’t you see how the Highlands can become the Hamptons? How Fife can be the new Jersey Shore? And what if Falkirk could be floated as our answer to Staten Island? Maybe not.

In decades to come, let’s keep dreaming of a city feted in karaoke song. All we need is imagination, self-belief and civic pride – and at least one word to rhyme with “Edinburgh”.