Friday, January 2, 2015

Book review: "The New York Nobody Knows"

One of the most fascinating books I've read recently is a sociologist's study of an American city in which I've spent exactly four days. It says a lot about our cities and how we relate to them.

Helmreich, who teaches at the City College of New York as well as the City University Graduate Center, is a lifelong New Yorker whose love of exploration through walking was instilled in him by his father. So he was already very familiar with the city when he began, a few years ago, the project of walking every block of its streets. The book is not the story of those walks, but is informed by them: the chapters deal with typical topics of urban sociology like gentrification, immigration, economic life and safety. His anecdotes are lively, but with qualitative data his conclusions are cautious: When all is said and done, gentrification is a complex issue.... By observing it on the ground, it becomes possible to see these complexities from different angles, many of them positive, some not necessarily so (pp. 294-295). Those looking for the answer to gentrification issues will be frustrated, but those who are willing to walk with him (mentally, at least) will find their understanding of the issues enriched.

One aspect of New York that Helmreich openly challenges is that most outsiders' concept of the city is primarily Manhattan, and Lower Manhattan at that. (I'm probably guilty there, or at least I was before I read this book: all four of my days in New York were spent on the island. Mets tickets that might have at least gotten me into Queens were useless because the players were on strike. At the same time, I wonder how accurate are the mental maps even of city residents?) Tourist attractions, Greenwich Village, Central Park and the 1990s TV series Friends are hardly ever mentioned, as Helmreich walks us around the other boroughs, into neighborhoods that are as uncharted to Midwesterners as, say, the Bowman Woods subdivision of Cedar Rapids is to New Yorkers. An encounter with an Orthodox Jewish worker at Meal Mart in Kew Gardens Hills gets him and the students with him invited to the gentlemen's succah. He talks gentrification with residents of Dumbo/ Vinegar Hill. He literally stumbles upon a parade in honor of St. Theresa in Pelham Bay, and chats up parade-goers. "Are you kidding? Do I look rich?" he says as he laughs off a man trying to shake him down in Red Hook.

After reading this book, I have a lot of admiration for Helmreich, both as a person and as a writer. He makes social science research readable, which I can say from personal experience is not as easy as it might appear, and using qualitative research (which a lot of social scientists look down their noses at) speaks intelligently to social problems. His keystrokes make the whole city live, and I'm determined to get out of Manhattan next time I'm there. I might stay out of Red Hook, though.

Beyond New York, The New York Nobody Knows has a number of points to make to those interested in urban issues and improving their cities.

1) Look at the whole city. I think there's a lot to be said for focusing on downtown, an area which is (or should be) common to all city residents, and the core around which the city will contract if necessary. If you can't solve all problems at once, it makes sense to start here. Yet this shouldn't blind us to other parts of the city that might be interesting in any number of ways. My concept of my own city consists, admittedly, of predominantly residential areas occasionally interspersed with shopping plazas. But who knows what hidden gems some serious exploration might uncover?

2) Emotional intelligence helps. Helmreich seems able to strike up a conversation with almost anyone, anywhere. It's important to note that, completist though he may be, this project was about more than covering territory. You can learn something about a place by walking it, but you can't learn what it's like to live there unless you talk to people who do. Gulp. For Pete's sake, isn't there an app for that? Helmreich cannot teach us how to be as cool as he is, but he does advise: I never began an interview with a standard: "Excuse me, could I ask you some questions about this community?" Instead, I would say something like: "How come you're dressed like this?" or "Is this neighborhood safe?" or "What's a horse doing in that guy's backyard?" (That really happened, in Gerritsen Beach, Brooklyn.) (pp. 4-5)

3) You can't beat walking. Driving through, or even biking through, occurs too quickly to acquire deep knowledge. As Helmreich cautions: You need to walk slowly through an area to capture its essence, to appreciate the buildings, to observe how the people function in the space, and to talk with them. Driving gives you nothing more than a snapshot. More to the point, it creates a physical wall between you and the neighborhood. (p. 10)

4) The elements that make neighborhoods succeed are similar. In describing the renaissance of the city since the 1970s and 80s, Helmreich repeatedly returns to the fact that most areas of the city have seen a substantial decline in violent crime. That's worth celebrating, but it's a little disturbing that many people have opinions on why that occurred, but there's little definitive to go on. So we hope the trend will continue, but can't appropriately predict with confidence that it will. Besides safety, all-day activity, residential stability, access to transportation, economic prospects and things to do are hallmarks of successful neighborhoods that come across throughout the book.

Helmreich's book is a landmark, not because it breaks new ground in how we think about cities, but because it adds so much raw material to the conversation.


William B. Helmreich, The New York Nobody Knows: Walking 6000 Miles in the City (Princeton, 2013)


"The 'New Normal' Economy and Place," 20 November 2013,

"Taylor Area Neighborhood," 14 August 2013,

"Walking Down to the Edge of Town," 2 August 2013,

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