Book review: The New York Nobody Knows

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Front cover detail, "The New York Nobody Knows," William Helmreich (Princeton, 2013)
Front cover detail, “The New York Nobody Knows: Walking 6000 Miles in the City,” by William B. Helmreich (Princeton, 2013)

Sociologist William B. Helmreich spent four years exploring New York City block by block, visiting virtually every neighborhood in every borough the best way you can — on foot. Now his experiences are gathered in “The New York Nobody Knows: Walking 6000 Miles in the City” (Princeton University Press). Just the walking itself is an impressive accomplishment; Helmreich, a professor in the Colin Powell School for Civic and Global Leadership at City College, wore out nine pairs of shoes. But the real gold is in his detailed accounts of interactions with people he meets along the way.

Helmreich shows the complex weave of New York through interviews with hundreds of people in every corner of the city. The writer’s easy going and gregarious nature leads him to dozens of candid, personal conversations, which in turn help define large scale concepts like community and space, and illuminate social issues such as access to education and exposure to crime. Helmreich’s interactions with the people he meets give a face to topics usually described in terms of impacts rather than experiences.

The chapter on gentrification is particularly enlightening and relevant as the city’s extremes of wealth, and finite supply of real estate, keeps this issue at the forefront. Helmreich begins with the question “Who moves?” and uses this as a starting point to examine those who are moving into neighborhoods and those who are leaving, as well as who is staying put.[pullquote align=”right”]In the perennial New York story of changing neighborhoods, Helmreich finds that gentrifiers do not mix with natives, preferring people like themselves.[/pullquote]

This demographic description evolves into a conversation about why residents move or stay, which neighborhoods are changing and why and how this change affects the city as a whole. His firsthand accounts illustrate that gentrification — often associated with the outright homogenization of a neighborhood — can also result in disparate groups sharing the same space but with minimal interaction. The author elegantly sums up this idea, stating, “After four years of walking the neighborhoods of New York and conversing with many people, as well as from personal observation, I’ve concluded that most gentrifiers do not really mix well with the natives, often preferring people who, like them, are new to an area instead.”

The broad concepts Helmreich addresses are not new to urban thinkers, and the dynamics he uncovers might be familiar to anyone that lived in New York for any length of time. An aware citizen doubtless already knows that there is a widening gulf between rich and poor in New York, that gentrification frequently causes friction, resentment, and cultural clashes, and that the city isn’t often a melting pot. A salad bowl, with each component remaining distinct but part of a larger whole, might be the truer description.

But as an expertly guided, and very personal, overview, newly landed college students will definitely find Helmreich’s portrait of the city an eye opener, as would anyone whose idea of New York is confined to Manhattan. The personal anecdotes drive the story and there are definitely times when you can’t believe that people are telling him the things that they are telling him. And Helmreich’s engaging nature carries through to reader, as we travel the city through his eyes.

And those contemplating moving to a new neighborhood could also be well served by reading this book, as it elegantly illustrates the cultural complexities at play in this vast urban space. At its core, “The New York that Nobody Knows” is about what it means to live in a city that is both constantly changing and perpetually resistant to change — and where the resulting reality is endlessly fascinating.