To anyone reading my columns it’s no secret that I have a passion for exploring by foot city neighborhoods, parks, and institutions. I have always felt the best way to understand the essence of the city can be found in the Parisian poet Baudelaire’s notion of "a passionate spectator" who observes the "ebb and flow of movement" of the crowd. It’s the quality that makes one a keen observer of the complex, ever-shifting life of the street and of the varied neighborhoods of New York.
I see myself as doing a fair amount of city walking and looking, but my wanderings are nothing compared to 69 year-old CUNY sociologist William B. Helmreich’s walking 6,048 miles, covering almost every block in the city’s five boroughs: Queens, Manhattan, Staten Island, Brooklyn and the Bronx. That feat took him four years, walking an average of 1,512 miles a year. He wore out nine pairs of shoes, and produced a book, "The New York Nobody Knows" (Princeton University Press).
Helmreich admits: "You have to be a little crazy to explore the city as I did." But his method takes us beyond the set of shallow journalistic generalizations and clichés that are often used to depict the nature of contemporary New York. Immersing himself in the city’s streets, Helmreich spends a great deal of time hanging out, attending neighborhood meetings, concerts, and sporting events, and just talking with a wide range of people. His method is based on "direct observation, and sometimes participation" to gain an understanding of what’s going on in the city.
Helmreich is a sociologist, and as such is much less interested in the city’s impact on his own consciousness, his memories, feelings and desires, than in its social and physical structure and the dynamics of neighborhood life. He writes in a clear, jargon-free prose, and has a knack for noticing telling details in parts of the city that tourists and Manhattanites rarely venture into.
For example: the procession of some 2,000 people following a statue of the Virgin Mary through the Pelham Bay area of the Bronx; a "tiny, beautiful park" in the uninviting South Bronx of my boyhood that contains a number of shade trees and offers an oasis of serenity; and a six-story mural painted on the side of an apartment building in Washington Heights portraying a man whose arms are wrapped around vegetables, and a woman holding a baby.
He loves New York, and views its renaissance as stemming from both the tremendous drive of new immigrants, and "gentrifiers," who have reclaimed it from violence and squalor into a radiant metropolis with great commercial potential, a city that the world’s moneyed rush to inhabit. (In a number of New Yorkers’ opinion, a mixed blessing.) However, though Helmreich’s view of what’s happening to the city is a bit too optimistic, he still offers some qualifications. For example, he is aware that though gentrification adds to the city’s attractiveness and livability, it can mean neighborhoods become too expensive or culturally alien for many of its original residents to live in.
The distinctiveness of Helmreich’s book does not lie in his solid commonsensical analysis of what has happened to the city in the last decade. However, he’s particularly discerning about the choices of identity immigrants make -- assimilationists, those who cleave to their ethnic identity, and those who lean towards a middle course.
Where he’s strongest is his gift for capturing the specificity of the ethnically diverse life of city neighborhoods. On his endless walks, he interviews an elderly Hasid in South Williamsburg who talks about "how important their set of rituals are to the community’s survival," and visits a Bronx Irish enclave, Woodlawn, where restaurants serve Irish sausages and travel agencies advertise help in obtaining a green card. Helmreich absorbs everything about New York, and he succeeds in whetting the reader’s interest in a wide range of neighborhoods’ physical spaces, human interactions, and activities.
Reading the book moved me to take a walk with a friend through the East Village and the Lower East Side. Beginning on Second Avenue. I pass by a building housing Ukrainian organizations whose sidewalk is filled with flowers and candles, and front is both covered with photos of those killed by security forces in Kiev and handmade posters calling for "Russian soldiers out of Ukraine." Our walk then takes us to Avenue A, where gentrification is still a mixed bag. Homeless men line up with bulging bags of bottles for deposit at a downscale Key Food, renovated tenements dominate the housing stock, and there are many empty stores. So, it’s not a seamless world of glitter, despite the innumerable cafes, an upscale grocery or two, and young, confident-looking men and women walking purposively on its streets.
Crossing Houston to the Lower East Side proper, I see luxury towers and hotels completed or in process on once hip Ludlow and teeming Orchard, and boutiques and eateries catering to their well-heeled inhabitants like the Clinton St. Baking Company. But shabby bodegas, and giant billboards for Shapiro Wines and Streit’s Matzos can be seen on the upper floor of Rivington Street buildings that still house these venerable shops, and long-time neighborhood artists and rock musicians continue to gather in Cakeshop where indie and garage rock are played in the evening.
There is no way that the LES’s immigrant past could be sustained except by the Tenement Museum’s exhibits, but many of its streets feel bare and bereft of people. There’s one moment on the walk, that I fantasized peddlers’ carts lining the gutters, shops selling cut-rate clothing, and crowds of women in housedresses haggling for bargains. That neighborhood has long disappeared, but it’s not forgotten.
Leonard Quart can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org