Hell on Shoe Leather
By CONSTANCE ROSENBLUM
Annie Ling for The New York Times
William B. Helmreich poked his nose into many a storefront and dead-end street while doing
the legwork for his new book, “The New York Nobody Knows.”
Annie Ling for The New York Times
Among Mr. Helmreich's discoveries is the often-overlooked George Hecht Viewing Gardens at the busy
intersection of Third Avenue and Ninth Street.
During the golden weeks of autumn, it seemed as if everyone in the world wanted to go for a walk with William B. Helmreich. The journalist from Norway. Students who have lapped up his courses at City College and the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. The publicist at Princeton University Press, which just published “The New York Nobody Knows: Walking 6,000 Miles in the City,” his doorstop-size account of four years of trekking into every corner of the five boroughs, dead-end streets and desolate industrial areas included.
“New York is so varied,” said Mr. Helmreich, who has practically made a second career out of explaining so ambitious an undertaking. “But if you don’t walk the streets, you never really understand that. Plus my philosophy is, everything’s interesting.”
Mr. Helmreich, who is tall and blue-eyed with close-cropped gray hair, likes to call himself a flâneur, in a tip of the hat to the boulevardiers who strolled the streets of 19th-century Paris. This particular flâneur is 68, the child of parents who immigrated to New York from Switzerland in 1946 and settled in a tenement apartment on the decidedly unchic Upper West Side.
Mr. Helmreich, who also describes himself as the ultimate city kid — “I was a member of the little gang on my block” — stayed put in New York until 1984, the year that he and his wife, Helaine, a writer, moved with their three children to Long Island, albeit to a town just a 15-minute walk from the Queens border.
Mr. Helmreich’s popularity as a tour guide is hardly surprising, because his 449-page book is a chatty, buoyant and, despite his four decades in academia teaching classes on New York City and sociology, an unstuffy love letter to the delights of street-smart walking. His publisher described the work as “four years plus nine pairs of shoes plus 6,000 miles equals an epic journey,” and judging by the reactions of people who study the city for a living, the approach has much to recommend it.
“Too many of the current crop of book-length urban analyses rely on statistics, policy, and critiques of earlier theories of city life,” said Cassim Shepard, the editor of Urban Omnibus, an online publication of the Architectural League. “Mr. Helmreich’s book should provoke all urbanists worth their salt to leave their desks and get out into the street.”
Fran Leadon, a City College architecture professor who is writing a history of Broadway, agreed. “New York is much more complex than people think,” Mr. Leadon said. “But nobody knows the whole story because the city is too big and too complicated. So the discussion about New York gets reduced to a few predictable topics: politics, restaurants, the supposed death of the middle class. That’s the reason Mr. Helmreich’s project is so important.”
And as an author of the most recent A.I.A. Guide who walked many of these same streets, Mr. Leadon understands the challenges Mr. Helmreich faced. “It takes a lot of courage to walk through all of New York,” he said. “The city is full of surprises, and not all of them are pleasant.”
Mr. Helmreich doesn’t just walk. A gregarious man who seems hard-wired to strike up conversations with strangers, he pokes his head into one storefront after another, engaging the occupants in chat. As his wife affectionately summed up his approach: “Bill will talk to a stone. What’s more, the stone will answer.”
A mile-long trek along Ninth Street one recent Friday gave Mr. Helmreich a chance to display his expertise and revisit a few haunts. He ticked off a few famous occupants of the long-defunct Women’s House of Detention — “Dorothy Day, Ethel Rosenberg, Angela Davis: Can you imagine if they were all under that roof at the same time?”
Then he ducked into World Class Cleaners, at 66 West Ninth Street. A plaque proclaimed that the business had been honored by the American Academy of Hospitality Sciences. “Good customer service,” said the woman behind the counter when Mr. Helmreich inquired about the award.
He asked what it would cost to have a Hermès tie cleaned, and was told it would set him back $21. Hermès might not be Mr. Helmreich’s designer of choice, although he was looking dapper this day in chinos and a natty blue and-white-striped Ralph Lauren shirt. Generally, he said, he avoids bright blues and reds that might be read as gang colors, but attire provocative in this way is hardly an issue in the manicured West Village.
A reminder that this neighborhood once served as an epicenter of Japanese culture stood at Third Avenue. A nondescript doorway led to a second-floor emporium overflowing with everything from Japanese-language editions of Golf Digest to packages of mascara emblazoned with bold Japanese lettering.
At Whiskers Holistic Pet Care, 235 East Ninth Street, where sales clerks remembered Mr. Helmreich from a visit five years ago, he leafed through a binder bulging with handwritten tributes to the store’s remedies and employees. “Phil has rejuvenated my 5-year-old English setter,” one grateful customer wrote.
Once in a while the streetscape offers up flashes of Mr. Helmreich’s personal history, as it did at Mud, a cafe at 307 East Ninth Street. A beatnik brother-in-law of Mr. Helmreich’s lived for a time in an apartment in the rear, and a portrait of his bearded face gazed out from a mural near the front door. A few steps down, another local boy, named Jimi Hendrix, was memorialized by a sign that urged passers-by to write him letters and place them in an orange mailbox nearby, promising that they’d go “directly to heaven.”
At Veselka, the Ukrainian restaurant at Second Avenue, Mr. Helmreich took time to trace the roots of his passion for urban walking. His father, who died recently at 101, had been a prodigious walker, helping him to come to know and love the city early on. “I feel at home on any street in New York,” he said. “East New York, South Jamaica, the West Bronx. You name it.” Over the decades he has walked in cities and countries around the world, even clocking 500 miles in car-obsessed Los Angeles.
This book, Mr. Helmreich’s 14th, grew out of a suggestion by his department chairman, Philip Kasinitz, and an early plan was to focus on 20 iconic streets, like Myrtle Avenue and Broadway. Then came second thoughts: “I asked myself, what’s iconic in a city of 120,000 blocks?”
So he began walking, his tape recorder and pedometer in a pocket along with little maps annotated like tick-tack-toe games, a line drawn through each street after he completed it. He walked in the heat, in the cold, in the rain, covering at least two miles a day. “People thought I was crazy,” he said cheerfully.
And although he had walked the city’s streets many times before, this time he approached the task systematically, sometimes joined by his wife (800 miles) or by his second most reliable companion, Heidi, who appropriately is part Swiss mountain dog (400 miles).
He also did more than walk. He danced the bachata in a club in the South Bronx. He attended community meetings. He conducted formal interviews with mayors past and present. “And I have to admit that I cheated a little,” Mr. Helmreich said. He skipped 300 miles, mostly in homogeneous residential neighborhoods like Marine Park, Brooklyn.
But such lapses were rare, and by the end he had covered 6,048 miles and come away with vivid observations about everything from the transcendent impact of immigration on the city to the clues that a neighborhood was poised for gentrification.
“In East Williamsburg, for example, you see half-million-dollar apartments in a tower across the street from a city-run shelter, and people don’t mind,” Mr. Helmreich said. Friends in the real estate business ask him to recommend areas where it’s still possible to buy property and make a killing. His answers include the Lower Grand Concourse in the Bronx and Prospect-Lefferts Gardens in Brooklyn.
Although New York is far safer than in years past, Mr. Helmreich admitted to an occasional close call, notably the time he found himself unexpectedly surrounded by a knot of young toughs. “I suddenly realized that I was in the middle of a drug deal that was going down, and they clearly thought I was a cop,” he said. “Believe me, I walked out of there fast.”