For his latest book, City College’s William Helmreich walked 120,960 blocks – in other words, nearly every block of New York’s five boroughs. It took him four years and nine pairs of shoes, but the result is The New York Nobody Knows: Walking 6,000 Miles in the City (Princeton University Press) – the first sociological study of America’s greatest city, as New Yorkers are wont to boast.
In a recent interview, Professor Helmreich spoke about his new book – an excerpt of which appeared in the November 22 edition of The Jewish Press) – as well as two of his earlier works on the yeshiva world and Holocaust survivors in America.
The Jewish Press: Despite walking 6,000 miles, you actually did not cover New York City in its entirety. Which unfortunate city blocks missed your attention?
Helmreich: I walked all but about 300 miles. In other words, out of 6,350 miles, I walked 6,000. I’m working on the other 350 now.
There are a couple of areas in Staten Island that missed my attention, like Bay Terrace and New Dorp. There were also a couple of little pockets in Marine Park…. I guess you can say 98 percent of the city was walked.
Walking 6,000 miles must not be easy. What inspired such an endeavor?
My father was much the inspiration because when I was a kid he devised this game called “Last Stop.” We would take a subway to the last stop and then walk around the neighborhood. It was a cheap way of entertainment and it also taught me what a fascinating place New York City is.
In addition, my area [of expertise] is urban sociology, and I realized that no sociologist had ever done a study of New York, or any large city for that matter. There’s a book about Canarsie, about the Upper West Side, about 10 blocks in Greenwich Village, but apprehending a large city is much more complicated.
When I decided to write about New York, I thought I would find 20 blocks or so that represented the city – say, 13th Ave. in Boro Park or Broadway in Manhattan. But I soon realized that in a city of 120,000 blocks, I wouldn’t be able to justify or explain why 20 streets really accurately represents all of New York. So I concluded that I would have to do the entire city.
Your father was a walker as well, correct?
He walked 7-8 miles a day well into his 80s, and he lived to be 101. He died three weeks shy of his 102nd birthday in his apartment with his brain intact, so I guess it was a good idea.
What are some of the most interesting things you learned about New York while writing this book?
For one, I found that the city is a lot friendlier than people think. I rarely found anyone who refused to talk to me. People were uniformly friendly.
It’s interesting you say that because people sometimes characterize New Yorkers as sharp edged and brusque.
They have that sharp-edge, wise-guy sense of humor, but at the same time, once you get beyond that, which takes about a minute, they will be friendly. They’ll make a wisecrack, but that’s the way New Yorkers are. In another city, if a person responded that way you would think they were rude, but here it’s sort of the New York attitude. And if they make a wisecrack and you reply with a wisecrack, it’s totally different.
When older Jews reminisce about New York, they sometimes fondly recall such old Jewish neighborhoods as Brownsville and Pelham Parkway. What happened to these areas?