Brooklyn BookBeat: Author walked every block in five boroughs
By Samantha Samel
Brooklyn Daily Eagle
New York is a walkable city. In fact, this past fall, WalkScore.com, an organization that rates nearly 3,000 cities across the U.S., Canada and Australia to help people find a home in a walkable neighborhood, named New York City America’s most walkable city. Yet while New Yorkers might walk more than the average urban dweller, oftentimes their traveling is confined to the neighborhoods and boroughs in which they live and work. William B. Helmreich, a native New Yorker, was determined to venture beyond the areas familiar to him. After growing up on Manhattan’s Upper West Side and living in numerous states across the country, Helmreich returned to New York and resolved to get to know his beloved city inside out. Four years ago, Helmreich made it his mission to walk nearly every block in New York City and write about it.
The result, a fascinating book released this past fall by Princeton University Press titled “The New York Nobody Knows: Walking 6,000 Miles in the City,” chronicles Helmreich’s journey through every corner of Brooklyn, Manhattan, Queens, the Bronx and Staten Island. Helmreich had long been interested in the geography of the city; in the preface to his book he explains a game called “Last Stop” that he played with his father when he was nine years old: “…we walked to the local 103rd Street stop in the IND (Independent Subway System) line. From that subway we would transfer to another train and take that to the last stop on the line. Upon exiting we would explore the neighborhood on foot for a couple of hours, sometimes taking a city bus to further extend our trip […] That’s how I learned to love and appreciate New York City.”
But more than just documentation of his extraordinary walking tour, “The New York Nobody Knows” investigates hundreds of diverse residents who call the city home, revealing the innumerable ways in which New Yorkers live distinct lives while still being a part of the same unified city. Helmreich’s interview subjects range from Mayor Michael Bloomberg and former mayors Rudolph Giuliani, David Dinkins and Edward Koch, to families struggling to make ends meet. He discusses, in detail, New York’s immigrant population (the greatest concentration of which lives in Queens and Brooklyn), examining the adversity immigrants face in assimilating into the New York workforce and social spheres.
Helmreich analyzes crime and safety in the citiy, noting the “relative” safety of such neighborhoods as Bushwick. He explains that a woman told him “it’s pretty safe anywhere in Bushwick” but “certainly not late at night” because, he writes, “fifteen years ago you couldn’t feel safe in Bushwick even in broad daylight.” He explores East New York, an area of Brooklyn that he describes (and confirms with a policeman) as “about as dangerous as it gets today.”
Helmreich considers the role education plays when someone is deciding where to live, comparing such districts as Cypress Hills, Boerum Hill and Park Slope. He also notes the importance of parks, explaining that both Prospect Park and Central Park “are a major reason why people consider certain communities worth living in […] Sunset Park in Brooklyn anchors the largely Chinese community in which it is situated. It appeals to people of all backgrounds, yet Asians seem to find the park particularly enjoyable.”
Helmreich goes on to discuss gentrification as well as tradition; he interviews a Brooklyn-raised grandchild of Italian immigrants who lights up a window of his brownstone with the family's old neon grocery store sign. Helmreich's tactful blend Helmreich’s tactful blend of his first-hand observations with his extensive knowledge of the city’s geography and its history makes for a fascinating read that is at once an informative guide to New York City’s changing demographics and a testament to the city’s tremendous scope and spirit.
William B. Helmreich is professor of sociology at the City University Graduate Center (CUNY) and City College of New York, where he has shared his passion for the city with students in his popular graduate sociology course on the city for almost forty years. His many books include “What Was I Thinking? The Dumb Things We Do and How to Avoid Them.”