May 7, 2014

Author’s Trek Across All of New York City Is Described in His Book at Library Talk

It has taken him four years and nine pairs of SAS walking shoes, but William Helmreich has walked every block of New York’s five boroughs. Having documented his experiences in the Princeton University Press book The New York Nobody Knows: Walking 6,000 Miles in the City, Mr. Helmreich will be at the Princeton Public Library tonight, May 7, as part of the “Evenings with Friends” series of talks and dinners.

“New York is really made up of hundreds of different communities,” said Mr. Helmreich, a sociology professor who grew up in a rough section of the city’s Upper West Side. “In each of these neighborhoods, people have a distinct identity that relates to where they live. The way they say ‘on my block’ or ‘in my building’ shows how strongly and locally they identify.”

As part of the courses he teaches at City University of New York and City College of New York, Mr. Helmreich takes students to a different neighborhood once a week. “We walk around for a couple of hours and then go have dinner,” he said. “They have a good time doing it. I happened to meet Peter Dougherty, director of Princeton University Press, and we started talking about this. He asked me for a proposal, and the next thing I knew, I had a book contract.”

Mr. Helmreich has previously published books on such subjects as black militants and Holocaust survivors. When he wrote his proposal for The New York Nobody Knows, he intended to focus on only 20 streets. “But then I discovered I really couldn’t find a justification for claiming they were truly representative of a city made up of 6,000 miles,” he said. “So reluctantly, or not so reluctantly, I decided to walk the whole city.”

On his sojourns, Mr. Helmreich dressed to blend in and talked to countless people from many walks of life. “Nobody refused to talk to me,” he said. “They didn’t realize I was interviewing them.” What he found was that neighborhoods, blocks,  or buildings are really little villages in themselves.

“One woman who owns a boutique on Ninth Street in the East Village complained that like in a small town, everybody on the block knew each other and knew each other’s business,” he said. “They know your car, they know when you have a fight, and you have to say hello to everyone. She didn’t like that. That’s one side of it.”

What makes New York’s little “villages” different from communities across the country is this: “They happen to be placed in the most advanced city in the world,” Mr. Helmreich said. “That’s what makes them special. If I live in the Bronx, I can get on an express bus and be in the financial district in 45 minutes. You can’t do that in Nebraska.”

Mr. Helmreich grew up on West 105th Street. “Our neighborhood was not good,” he said. “I had a fight a day. I had to belong to a gang to protect myself. Most of the people on my block were either dead or in jail.”

It was an illuminating trip across the country in his youth that sparked his interest in sociology. Mr. Helmreich worked as a corn husker, a hog kicker, and an assistant case worker for the welfare department in Los Angeles as part of this adventure. “In order to understand the city, you need to have perspective by seeing other cities, too,” he said. “I got a real slice of life doing this.”

Mr. Helmreich is enthusiastic about his experience with Princeton University Press, which published The New York Nobody Knows last year. “It was the best publishing experience I’ve had,” he said. “The whole staff was amazing. Peter Dougherty and the editor Eric Schwartz were so interested they actually went on a tour with me before the book came out.”

The book is going into its fourth printing. Mr. Helmreich credits its success, in part, to the fact that New York is “an international city, a destination city,” he said. “People simply had not imagined that you could walk a big city the way you do a national forest. When I started talking at bookstores, I would see that most of the people in the audience were under 40. They’re hikers, walking enthusiasts. A lot of people are crazy about the importance of walking.”

Mr. Helmreich figures that in his life, he has walked all of New York about 16 times. “Everything brings back a memory of something that happened to me,” he said. “I have a very good memory, so everywhere I go, I remember something.”

He once wondered aloud, to a colleague, why no one had ever written a book like his before. The colleague said, “Maybe no one was as crazy,” Mr. Helmreich recalled. “So I asked him, is it crazy to run a marathon? Marathons are accepted, but people don’t generally walk like this for exercise. He confused the destination with the journey. For me, the destination is already there.”