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Don't be daft, London is still a world-class city

London, that grandfather of big cities, is going through a rough patch. After three terror attacks in recent months, many Londoners are wondering whether the authorities can protect them. The boneheaded British decision to leave the European Union threatens to weaken the economy and undermine London's role as one of the world's top financial centres. And the gruesome Grenfell Tower fire, in a disadvantaged corner of a wealthy district, has stirred new debate about the divide between rich and poor.

Are London's glory years coming to an end? Don't bet on it. In fact, its recent troubles may turn out to be no more than a blip in its dazzling rise.

That ascent has been a marvel to behold. When I first came to London in the early 1970s, it had a grim, grey look. The shadow of the war and the long years of austerity that followed still lingered. The Tube stations were dirty, the buildings blackened by soot. Riding the bus meant enduring the pong of wet overcoats and unwashed bodies. British cuisine richly deserved its wretched reputation. Keeping warm in the bone-chilling London damp meant huddling around the glow of an electric fire or, in older flats, putting a chunk of coal in the fireplace.

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Despite the sixties upswing symbolized by Twiggy, Carnaby Street and the Beatles, London was a city in decline. Crime was on the rise. Many Londoners were fleeing to the suburbs or leaving the country altogether. The city's population fell by two million between 1939 and 1979, reports Tom Dyckhoff in his recent book The Age of Spectacle. From 1961 to 1971 alone, London lost 600,000 residents. Jobs fled, too, as the docks declined and manufacturers left for greener pastures.

Official policy was to move people out of London to "garden cities" and "new towns" where they would have more space to breathe. Seeking to "de-slum" the inner city, authorities loosed the wrecking ball on many old neighbourhoods. London was the victim of the same anti-urban bias that affected cities in North America. New York was reaching its nadir at the same time.

But then something unexpected and quite wonderful began to happen. Middle-class people attracted to the charm of the old began to move into beat-up parts of the city. Boutiques started popping up in rundown districts such as Covent Garden. A wave of financial deregulation made London a hub for banking and other financial services, creating hundreds of thousands of jobs and drawing people from Europe and around the world. Governments started investing in the city again. The Tube network was expanded and refurbished. The glorious St. Pancras Station, once threatened with demolition, was made over as a glistening portal for rail travellers. Foreign money flooded in.

The past 20 years have transformed London from the decaying capital of a clapped-out postimperial power to a humming world city where Land Rovers roam the avenues, tourists flock to ride the London Eye and Russian oligarchs build swimming pools under their Georgian townhouses.

London has been on such a roll that it is no wonder people are wondering if it might come to a crashing end. There are plenty of reasons for worry. Homegrown extremism is a continuing menace, as it is in many countries. London still suffers from its share of crime; the latest threat comes from thieves on scooters who race up to pedestrians and grab their phones. The rising cost of decent housing has put home ownership out of reach for many young people. The visible divides of class and income – a feature of London life for centuries – continue to rankle.

Brexit was a spectacular own goal. This month the newspapers are full of the flailing attempts of wounded Prime Minister Theresa May to come up with a coherent plan to do the impossible: keep the advantages of belonging to the EU without actually being a member. London, which opted firmly to remain in the union but was outvoted by the rest of England, stands to lose the most from the break with Europe.

And yet, even in the shadow of all this, London carries on. The rattle of jackhammers and the beeping of reversing trucks fill the streets as the city's building boom rolls on. New tall buildings are rising left and right to stand alongside the creatively shaped skyscrapers that Londoners have nicknamed the Shard, the Cheesegrater and the Gherkin.

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The Thames, once lined with decaying docks and warehouses, now boasts ranks of new housing. The continuing growth of the Docklands, transformed from crumbling postindustrial landscape to high-rise office hub, is a phenomenon. Down around Westminster Bridge, the site of a recent terror attack, the crowds are as thick as ever. Throngs of visitors speaking dozens of languages overrun London's countless sights.

Betting against it now would be rash. The city still boasts many advantages. Not least of them is the fact that it is, well, London.

As its former mayor (now Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs) Boris Johnson puts it in his book The Spirit of London, the city is a global brand. Its pull is magnetic, its resilience famous. "It is plainly a city that can come back from almost anything – massacre, fire, plague, blitz."

There are practical reasons to bet on London, too. As much as Londoners complain about it, the public transportation system in the birthplace of the subway is a wonder. Looking to the future, the city is bulking up with the huge Crossrail project, designed to link the city's east and west.

Although London has pockets of alienation and ghettoization, its live-and-let-live approach to newcomers has served it well. Its multiculturalism is astonishing and, despite the seams of anti-immigrant feeling exposed in the Brexit debate, broadly successful when compared with many places across the Channel. Its popular mayor Sadiq Khan, son of a London bus driver who immigrated from Pakistan, has been a calm, intelligent presence through the city's recent travails.

London's revival is part of a broad trend, visible from Toronto to New York to Pittsburgh. The dark days of decaying inner cities and wholesale flight to the suburbs are past. Across the developed world, cities are thriving as never before. London leads the pack. Its current anxieties notwithstanding, its outlook is brilliant.

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About the Author
Toronto columnist

Marcus Gee is Toronto columnist for the Globe and Mail, Canada's national newspaper.Born in Toronto, he graduated from the University of British Columbia in 1979 with a degree in modern European history, then worked as a reporter for The Province, Vancouver's morning newspaper. More

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