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Six Thousand Miles And Nine Pairs Of Shoes Later: An Interview with Professor William Helmreich

William Helmreich

William Helmreich

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?

It’s a complicated question. Brownsville started out as a Jewish neighborhood. It was built up at the turn of the century when the Lower East Side became too crowded. Speculators came out and built housing, but these apartments were never built very well.

And then, in the 1950s, there was a tremendous migration of blacks from the Deep South, plus hundreds of thousands of Puerto Ricans came here. The city was overwhelmed. It couldn’t care for these people. They had lousy apartments, no jobs, few libraries, very poor schools, and ultimately, because of unemployment, families broke up and a lot of children grew up with one parent in the home. Crime developed as a natural outgrowth and Jews started running away.

How about other areas that have long had bad reputations – Crown Heights or Washington Heights for example – but which have been yuppifying and gentrifying in recent years?

It’s all part of crime reduction, ethnic outreach, ethnic understanding, and various other social and economic factors.

And you hit the right neighborhoods. When you talk about Crown Heights, it’s not just the traditionally Lubavitch side of Crown Heights, but the other side – the side north of Eastern Parkway – that’s gentrifying.

And Washington Heights… look what they did. A lot of this is about image. Washington Heights is now renamed Hudson Heights and gentrification is taking place not only above 181st Street but below it as well. When people have the opportunity to live in a neighborhood 20 minutes away from work in midtown Manhattan, they’re not going to turn that down. In fact, my understanding is that apartments in Washington Heights now cost more than apartments in Riverdale.

I believe the next area ripe for gentrification, by the way, is the Bronx, and you’re seeing the birth pangs right now in areas like the Grand Concourse below 161st Street.

Have you perceived any change in Orthodox Jews’ relations with other New Yorkers over the years?

There’s been a huge change. Let me give you a little example. I was riding through Brownsville recently and suddenly came across 150 motorcycles. Almost all the riders were black except for two chassidic guys. So I walked over to them and said, “What are you doing here?” They said, “What do you mean what are we doing here?” I said, “You know all these people?” And they said, “Yeh, some of them work for us. We do real estate; we live in Crown Heights.” I said, “You’re friendly with them?” and they said, “Yeh, they’re our friends, we’re just going out for a motorcycle ride.”

They had helmets, but they also had their tzitzis out, and I looked at them and thought: This is a new phase of New York. You know, I teach at City College and you see Orthodox kids, but they’re not hanging out as a group. When I came to City College 40 years ago, groups of students sat separately in the dining hall. Today they don’t. The Orthodox kids with yarmulkes are good friends with people who are not.

Thirty years ago, you wrote a book called The World of the Yeshiva. As part of your research you interviewed many of the famous roshei yeshiva of yesteryear, such as Rav Moshe Feinstein, Rav Yaakov Kamenetsky, and Rav Shneur Kotler. Many people would probably be fascinated to listen to those interviews. Do you still have the recordings?

At one time I thought I did, but it seems that all I have are the transcripts. It’s possible that Yeshiva University, to which I donated all the transcripts, has them. In fact, I received a letter two weeks ago from someone – a grandson of Rav Shneur Kotler – who read the interviews.

Any chance they will one day see a wider audience?

It’s interesting you mention that because the fellow I was talking to told me that if I put the interviews together in the form of a pamphlet, it would probably be widely distributed in the yeshiva world. So when all this dies down – this book is only out four weeks and is already going into a second printing – I’m going to turn my attention to that because I really feel these interviews should find a wider audience especially because there’s so much revisionism that goes on in the Orthodox community.

For example, in the second chapter of The World of the Yeshiva, I write about the attempt to start a college in the mid-40s. I got hold of documents from the Board of Ed from New York State that indicated that Chaim Berlin and Torah Vodaath – Rabbi Hutner and Rabbi Mendelowitz – wanted to start a college to counter Yeshiva University’s influence on their community. They got together a charter and spent $150,000 on it and a year later in 1946 they got approval for this college – called the American Hebrew Theological University.

I have a lot of information about this that I did not put in the book. I probably want to attach that as an addendum. There’s a lot of stuff that I didn’t put in the book. When it was published, Rabbi Moshe Sherer, who was the head of Agudah for a long time, said to me, “We thank you for what you wrote; we thank you even more for what you didn’t write.”

In addition to writing the first in-depth work on American yeshivot, you also wrote Against All Odds, the first sociological study of Holocaust survivors in America. The book’s subject matter is arguably very important due to the common phenomenon today of people blaming their past for their problems in life. If there ever was a population, though, that could have justifiably complained or blamed circumstances for not being able to function, Holocaust survivors would be it. But, as you write, they largely didn’t. They bit their lips and rebuilt their lives.

Well, I think we don’t always have a lot of control over what happens to us but we do have control over how we deal with it. A lot of the survivors were damaged. My statistical study based on a random sample of survivors indicates that 15,000 of the 140,000 survivors who came here were seriously damaged. Now that’s not small potatoes, but it’s also important to understand that 125,000 managed to go on with their lives.

It has to do with a fundamental attitude. I think today, as our society has grown more comfortable materially, we don’t make the same demands nor do we have the same expectations of people that we had then. The truth of the matter is we have so much therapy available that it’s almost like we have too much therapy. It’s almost like we’re always trying to find an excuse for somebody who does something wrong rather than hold him accountable for it.

And there’s a natural tendency if you have a choice between being made to pay for what you did wrong and not having to pay, you would rather not. And if you’re given the opportunity to blame other forces, you will.

Survivors didn’t have that kind of opportunity…. And it’s also not clear that talking about your suffering really clears your head. People say, “Oh, you’re just repressing.” Well, maybe it’s better to repress. You go through your whole life, you repress, you don’t think about it too much, you die, and you’ve lived a relatively satisfying life. Or, you wallow in self-pity and you can’t go on. I think today people are much more self-indulgent.

About the Author: Elliot Resnick is a Jewish Press staff reporter and author of “Movers and Shakers: Sixty Prominent Personalities Speak Their Mind on Tape” (Brenn Books).


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