The New York Nobody Knows: Walking 6,000 Miles in the City, by William B. Helmreich

Flora Samuel on a sociologist’s observations of everyday life in the Big Apple

October 24, 2013

William Helmreich is a sociologist with unusual methods. His way of getting to know New York is to walk every block, of every street, of every neighbourhood, collecting his thoughts into an overall impression of what is clearly his favourite city, which has, apparently, “never been scientifically studied as a whole by sociologists”.

What I like about this book is that it recognises the fact that the everyday experience of the city – the people you meet, the odd things that happen – are important. Quite whether it is necessary to walk 6,000 miles to do this is debatable. The New York Nobody Knows is not a forensic mapping of street encounters; it feels more like a slightly schmaltzy ode to the city that Helmreich has made his home. As he states, “the ultimate aim of this book is to present a picture of the inner life, heart and soul of New York City, to apprehend its spirit and make it come alive for the reader”. In this he is certainly partially successful.

Helmreich is unapologetic about the resolutely qualitative nature of his research. His observations are augmented with his own experience of the city. In some ways, although he never says so, this is a participatory action research project. The only problem here is his inconsistent level of self-critique. He never really says how his own worldview affects the project. Which part of the city has he chosen to live in? What is his political or religious take on the matter at hand? We are left to work this out for ourselves. Does Helmreich’s gender influence who he talks to and how they respond? The vast majority of the meetings recorded here are with men.

The recordings of everyday encounters are supplemented with observations by key commentators, among them the late Ed Koch, former mayor of New York, and others emerging from the pages of The New York Times. Again the situated nature of Helmreich’s authorship comes into play. Some key commentators are included and some are not; Susan Fainstein is a notable omission for me, with her detailed work on the justice aspects of New York omitted even from this book’s bibliography.

How then do you structure your reflections on such an overwhelming project? Helmreich focuses his attention more on people than on the more mute structures of the city itself. The illustrations are limited, and there is almost no reference to maps. The chapter topics, he says, “were chosen because of their importance and because they were particularly suitable for observation”. They are divided broadly under the following themes: immigrants, communities, enjoying the city, “spaces in the Big Apple”, gentrification and the future of ethnic New York.

For me, the best bits are Helmreich’s detailed descriptions of chance encounters. I wish there were more of these. He gives a powerful depiction of the numbing dullness of some people’s jobs, from the security guard in the museum to the man waving a flag outside a garage. These are described with tenderness and not a little wry humour. His focus, unsaid, is largely on the multi-ethnic residential areas that border the city centre. We hear nothing of the areas inhabited by the global super-rich or left empty as commodities in the world property market.

Helmreich’s observations add up to a convincing tale of successful immigrant integration and intermarriage and a somewhat uncritical conclusion that “New York is a resounding success story” and “that it will remain one of the great cities of the world for a long time to come. That is its destiny.”

The New York Nobody Knows: Walking 6,000 Miles in the City

By William B. Helmreich
Princeton University Press, 480pp, £19.95
ISBN 9780691144054 and 9781400848317 (e-book)
Published 20 November 2013

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