Sociologist William Helmreich likes to play a game with students in his intro class at the City College of New York. “You’re going to raise your hand and say what neighborhood you’re from,” he tells them, “and I’m going to tell you a story about it.” Though his students hail from all five boroughs, he’s never once been stumped, not by the edges of Brooklyn’s East New York, not by the village-like enclaves of Staten Island.
Because after 40 years of teaching in and about the city – and after spending nearly all of his 67 years calling it home – Helmreich’s seen it all. Now, this encyclopedic knowledge is quite literal. The ethnographer has spent four years on an epic quest to crisscross the city, walking all five boroughs, all 120,000 city blocks. He compares himself to a marathoner, regularly pulling out the statistic that his research has taken him the distance from New York to L.A. and back, plus another 900 miles, the equivalent of a side jaunt to St. Louis.
The result is his new book, The New York Nobody Knows: Walking 6,000 Miles in the City. The expansive sociological study relies on Helmreich’s on-the-ground research, culled from thousands of hours of observation and casual conversations with local residents, to help parse hot-button issues like immigration, assimilation, and gentrification. But more than that, the miles and miles clocked – he wore out nine pairs of shoes in his trek across the city – come through as a sort of extensive love letter to the frenetic energy and diversity of New York.
Few sociologists were as well-equipped for the task. As a child growing up in Manhattan, Helmreich used to join his father on the weekends for a game they called “Last Stop,” exploring the neighborhoods at the far reaches of the city’s expansive subway system. Since then, he’s spent four decades shuttling students from City College and the CUNY Graduate Center around the city, teaching them to use its neighborhoods as a sort of living laboratory. Just this week, he and his graduate students spent the day walking along 9th Street in lower Manhattan. “Every block can be interesting,” Helmreich says. “It’s not just about covering ground, it’s about how you cover ground.”
In his four years of research, Helmreich averaged more than 30 miles a week, but even this figure obscures the hours he spent on the task, walking up to strangers and asking about how safe the neighborhood is, or what's sold in that interesting store, or whether there are any good parks nearby. This method of ethnography is usually a far narrower process, as a researcher focuses on just a single community, neighborhood, or even block for years at a time. But, Helmreich jokes, “When you decide that you’re going to do the entire city, you can’t do that. You’d be 800 years old.”
So, with this bold title, what has he found out about New York that we don’t know?
For non-New Yorkers, the time the book spends on the outer boroughs is a fairly obvious corrective for what Helmreich sees as the tourism-generated, Manhattan-centric view of New York. And for all its diversity – the book spends hundreds of pages on the immigrant communities of the city – New York comes off as an inextricably linked web of groups that constantly must interact, change, and adjust. “It’s almost as if you dropped a hundred towns in Nebraska into the middle of the city,” Helmreich says. But what sets New York apart, he adds, is that "there's this duality to New York that you can be in these places, but you can also be in the city." Even those who live in more isolated pockets, such as the waterfront community of Edgewater Park in the Bronx, have a sense of connectedness.
This “New Yorker” identity made for thousands of hours of observation and conversation for Helmreich. “He’s gruff, fancies himself to be knowledgeable, and cannot resist a challenge of answering, on the spot, in a wisecracking type of way, a spontaneous question. That’s a New Yorker,” he says.
By necessity, given the size of the city, Helmreich calls his book no more than a much-needed "introductory work" to the diversity of New York City. His method is, in some ways, a throw back to a much earlier form of social criticism, when walking was curiously in vogue for the self-styled intellectuals and elites of 19th century Europe. Think of Charles Dickens's night walks through London or the well-dressed flâneurs of Paris. And it's one that anyone can learn from. "If I accomplish anything besides sociology," Helmreich says, "it's to encourage people to walk through what I call the greatest museum in the world."