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Essay Two Cities

Comparing and Contrasting London and Washington, DC

Both Washington, DC, and London are capital cities of English-speaking countries, and yet they offer vastly different experiences to their residents and visitors. Comparing and contrasting the two cities based on their history, their culture, and their residents show how different and similar the two are.

Both cities are rich in world and national history, though they developed on very different time lines. London, for example, has a history that dates back over two thousand years. It was part of the Roman Empire and known by the similar name, Londinium. It was not only one of the northernmost points of the Roman Empire but also the epicenter of the British Empire where it held significant global influence from the early sixteenth century on through the early twentieth century. Washington, DC, on the other hand, has only formally existed since the late eighteenth century. Though Native Americans inhabited the land several thousand years earlier, and settlers inhabited the land as early as the sixteenth century, the city did not become the capital of the United States until the 1790s. From that point onward to today, however, Washington, DC, has increasingly maintained significant global influence. Even though both cities have different histories, they have both held, and continue to hold, significant social influence in the economic and cultural global spheres.

Both Washington, DC, and London offer a wide array of museums that harbor many of the world’s most prized treasures. While Washington, DC, has the National Gallery of Art and several other Smithsonian galleries, London’s art scene and galleries have a definite edge in this category. From the Tate Modern to the British National Gallery, London’s art ranks among the world’s best. This difference and advantage has much to do with London and Britain’s historical depth compared to that of the United States. London has a much richer past than Washington, DC, and consequently has a lot more material to pull from when arranging its collections. Both cities have thriving theater districts, but again, London wins this comparison, too, both in quantity and quality of theater choices. With regard to other cultural places like restaurants, pubs, and bars, both cities are very comparable. Both have a wide selection of expensive, elegant restaurants as well as a similar amount of global and national chains. While London may be better known for its pubs and taste in beer, DC offers a different bar-going experience. With clubs and pubs that tend to stay open later than their British counterparts, the DC night life tend to be less reserved overall.

Both cities also share and differ in cultural diversity and cost of living. Both cities share a very expensive cost of living—both in terms of housing and shopping. A downtown one-bedroom apartment in DC can easily cost $1,800 per month, and a similar “flat” in London may double that amount. These high costs create socioeconomic disparity among the residents. Although both cities’ residents are predominantly wealthy, both have a significantly large population of poor and homeless. Perhaps the most significant difference between the resident demographics is the racial makeup. Washington, DC, is a “minority majority” city, which means the majority of its citizens are races other than white. In 2009, according to the US Census, 55 percent of DC residents were classified as “Black or African American” and 35 percent of its residents were classified as “white.” London, by contrast, has very few minorities—in 2006, 70 percent of its population was “white,” while only 10 percent was “black.” The racial demographic differences between the cities is drastic.

Even though Washington, DC, and London are major capital cities of English-speaking countries in the Western world, they have many differences along with their similarities. They have vastly different histories, art cultures, and racial demographics, but they remain similar in their cost of living and socioeconomic disparity.

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A Life in Two Cities

In the summer of 2008, I finally decided that I had had enough of living in Los Angeles.  The time had come for me to return to my native New England. However, instead of longing for the banks of the Merrimack River and the sandy beaches of my childhood in Massachusetts, I longed for the lure of the rocky, rugged coast of Maine. When the opportunity arose to move to that rugged Maine coast in Eastport, I was ready to make that leap with my nineteen-year-old daughter.

The irony did not escape me that we would be moving from one coastal corner of America to another. From the southwest to the northeast, or should I say, Down East, as Eastport, Maine is the easternmost city in Maine’s Down East region and the United States. This move from one city to another was not a mere cross-country relocation from one expansive city to another. Oh no, every aspect of Eastport was polar opposite from Los Angeles and I could not have chosen a more perfect place to detox our spirits after living in L.A. for nearly twenty years.  

What can I say about Los Angeles that is redeeming? I look back on that time in my life, when I first moved there, against my will, with my daughter and her father, and I recognize that I was set up from the beginning not to like it there. As I played out the stacked deck of cards that the universe had dealt me during my early years in Los Angeles, including the suicide of my daughter’s father, I began to settle in and make a home there for the two of us. Indeed, as the initial culture shock wore off after the move from small town Massachusetts to the big California city, I found that Los Angeles did have plenty to be desired.

Los Angeles is an extended city with many smaller cities within. It is a sprawling landscape of intersecting streets and freeways, and buildings varied in heights from one-story to skyscrapers that ascend up on the city blocks like copses of trees, from the ocean to the mountains and throughout the flat expanse of the San Fernando Valley. Palm trees swayed in the breeze and the scent of citrus blossom often lingered in the air. One could not help but marvel at the nighttime panorama from the top of the Sepulveda Pass with its vast array of city lights on both sides of the pass.

A mecca of cultures and lifestyles spilled across the city as though from a harvest basket, Los Angeles brimmed with bounty in so many aspects. Rich with amenities such as shopping, theaters, and restaurants L.A. provided the opportunity to run errands and find entertainment any time of the day or night that you sought it, seven days a week. With TV, film and music the mainstay of the Los Angeles economy, there was always a wealth of entertainment, from nightclubs, to concerts, to movies to be enjoyed. Ethnic food abounded in Los Angeles; there was no lack of great restaurants to choose from or to simply be inspired by, when cooking at home. Shopping was everywhere around us, with multiple choices of grocers, pharmacies and department stores. Produce was bountiful in Los Angeles, with year round Farmer’s Markets to be found each day somewhere in the city if you were willing to take a quick twenty-minute drive. It is said in Los Angeles that you can get anywhere you need or want to go in the city or the valley within twenty minutes.

Every day, every moment there was sound and music everywhere in Los Angeles. Music was in the streets, from street performers to loud radio’s blaring from the cars rushing by, mingling and merging with the sounds of voices, busy streets, freeways, sirens, helicopters, airplanes, all constantly creating a cacophony of sound effects that played 24/7. The sounds of a busy city teeming with a diverse population.

Los Angeles is a creative nucleus that is bursting with film, music and creative arts power players and thousands of hungry, aspiring artists longing to be discovered in the City of Angels. People watching abounded from the rich and famous, to the homeless that camped on the sides of freeway bridges, in parks, or wherever they could find. In fact, people come from all over the country and world to live in L.A.; everyone in Los Angeles comes from somewhere else. So vast was the city of Los Angeles that you could rarely walk down the street and meet someone who you knew. Los Angeles was a cold place in that regard, strangers who passed by were always in a hurry to get somewhere, because there was so much to do. There was also a harshness to the city that caused its millions of inhabitants to keep their doors locked 24/7 and be mindful of crime all the time. So many people, so much crime, it was a given of the societal make up of a large city like Los Angeles.

As the years living there wore on, I found myself longing to return to small town life. I missed the quiet of the night. I missed living near the ocean. I longed to live amongst nature in a location where I could see land and sea and not a concrete skyline of high-rise buildings. My longing came to fruition when my niece in Eastport told me that she and her husband had recently bought the duplex across the street. That duplex became our ticket to a new, quieter life where nature abounded and the sun rose over the ocean each morning.

My daughter and I packed what we could fit into a 6’ by 12’ U-Haul trailer and we embarked on what became affectionately known as my “Grand Mid Life Crisis Adventure.” That adventure would lead us across the United States to the “end of the middle of freaking nowhere,” as my daughter would come to say. Seven days on the road, with a lot of hard driving, we finally arrived in Eastport via the most convoluted directions for driving through Down East Maine, comprehending that there truly are areas of Maine that do exemplify that “you can’t there from here” saying that Maine is famous for.

Eastport is a cropping of five small islands connected to the mainland of coastal Maine by a seven-mile causeway through the tidal waters of rock, mud, sand, pines and birch trees. My first trip across the causeway breathed new life into my city-wearied soul. The perfection of the late October day shimmered on the landscape in a photographic exhibit of color, texture and light. “Oh, I could lose myself here” I said as we drove along the causeway. Gone were the skyscrapers, they had been replaced with towering pine trees that provided a year round, lush verdant contrast to the constantly changing skies and seasonal landscapes of the region.  Gone were the city lights at night, they were traded for more stars in the night sky than we had seen in two decades.

Everything that was abundant in Los Angeles in terms of shopping, entertainment, restaurants, Eastport lacked. With a year round population of 1500 residents, 3,000 in the summer, Eastport blossomed in the summer months and went to bed in the winter. Arriving in mid-fall, we watched the small shops and art galleries in downtown Eastport close up for winter. Social gatherings with aged hippies and artists were like a throwback to 1970’s parties and those get-togethers were the main source of entertainment with the lack of theaters and live entertainment in town. We grew accustomed to getting everything we needed at the small IGA, which woefully lacked in offerings of fresh produce and our favorite ethnic varieties of foods. Whatever we could not get at the little grocer in town, off we would drive for thirty to forty minutes to Calais, Maine on the Canadian border. Calais had the closest pharmacy, a supermarket and the nearest department store of sorts, Wal-Mart. Eastport had little to offer in the way of restaurants or entertainment, a meager handful of restaurants and a community theater, as opposed to the lavish choices of Los Angeles. We heard there had been a Mexican restaurant in town once, but that was gone. The convenient, open 24/7 existence we were familiar with in Los Angeles was nowhere to be found.

By contrast, to the constant 24/7, commotion of the extensive, accessible city of Los Angeles there was no constant din of reverberations in the sparsely populated, isolated city of Eastport. There were no freeways, no sirens, and no helicopters or airplanes inhabiting the auditory airwaves of the sleepy little seaport. There was perfect peace and quiet, away from the noise of teeming life. The cacophonous music of the metropolis was gone and in its place, there was bird song every day.

Like Los Angeles, Eastport too had a creative core that attracted artists, sculptors and painters, a few worn out power players, and occasionally a celebrity or two summered there. Indeed, the city of Eastport boasted that it had the highest percentage of artists living among its populace. Those artists arrived in Eastport from various parts of the country, exactly as people arrive in Los Angeles. Less tolerant and open minded than Angelenos, lifelong residents of Eastport always conveyed that those who had transplanted there from somewhere else were all from “away.” Yet, regardless of the local’s delineation of those who were from “there” and those who were from “away,” you could never walk or drive down the street without getting a wave from everyone who was passing by. Eastport’s form of people watching included just acknowledging everyone they came in contact with. Eastport was the epitome of Down Maine in that way, warm and friendly. Thankfully, as Los Angeles was teeming with daily crime, we found the sleepy little city of Eastport to be virtually crime free.

Life changed and got less complicated when there was nowhere to rush off too. The daily trip to IGA was the way to catch up on the news about town and run into new friends. Walking downtown each morning to the breakwater, where the fishing boats docked year-round, was a way of life, no matter what the season. In addition, nature was ever present daily, from bald eagles soaring overhead to fox and a large herd of deer that roamed the islands. We had been thrust into a pure sense of societal and environmental upset, so different was the context of life in Eastport from Los Angeles.

In time, we let the discordant music of the city of Los Angeles leave our souls, and we let the inaudible sound of inner peace that resonated in Eastport in to permeate our spirits with the timeless atmosphere of dwelling there. The toxicity of the 24/7 world left our city weary souls for the subtle, unhurried lifestyle of the Eastern Most City in the United States. We found quiet communion there in Eastport.

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