With 'The Manhattan Nobody Knows,' Professor William Helmreich Clocks Another 721 Miles of Epic Urban Saunters

Graduate Center Professor William Helmreich on a train platform in Manhattan
"I average about 30 miles a week," says Professor William Helmreich, author of The Manhattan Nobody Knows: An Urban Walking Guide.

Professor William Helmreich (GC/City College, Sociology) walked 6,000 miles for his award-winning 2015 book, The New York Nobody Knows. The book’s popularity led to a deal to write five additional volumes, each focusing on one of city’s boroughs. Having already traversed every block of Brooklyn, this December brings Helmreich’s third book: The Manhattan Nobody Knows: An Urban Walking Guide.

Like his Brooklyn book, the Manhattan guide doesn’t rehash information from the original doorstopper. And it has already won praise from The New York Times, which said Helmreich’s “New York narratives are drawn from the extraordinary characters he more or less randomly encounters along his route.”

If you live in New York, Helmreich has walked by your home — and probably talked to at least one of your neighbors. He recently spoke to The Graduate Center about the joys of urban perambulating, new discoveries, and life itself.

Graduate Center: What was the biggest challenge of this new book?

Helmreich: It wasn’t hard not to repeat the material: In a city that’s changing all the time, there’s always something new. But there are hundreds of tour guides about New York. The way this book differs from all the others is that it has hundreds of interviews with people who live in the neighborhoods. A neighborhood is a living organism; without its people, it’s nothing. Imagine if a neighborhood had only buildings and no one living there!

The whole point of this book is to show people the New York they don’t really know. My purview isn’t the restaurants and hotel recommendations. I’m interested in the veteran who lives in a cave in Inwood Hill Park, and in the man working in the smallest shoe repair shop on Grand Street. The known parts — those are easy.

GC: Have you ever gotten criticism about not covering the city’s most famous sights?

Helmreich: Someone once read a draft and asked how I could skip the New York Public Library. I decided to find something unknown about it, even though tour guides have taken people over every inch of the place.

I discovered two things. One is that some of the large marble blocks that make up part of the library’s floors were taken from the same quarry that was used to build the Parthenon in Greece. The second is that if you go to the Reading Room and stand where you fill out a call slip, and look out the center window, you will have a gorgeous view of the Empire State Building. That’s six blocks away. But for six blocks in a row, there’s an empty space between the buildings. You have this perfectly framed, narrow, elongated view, and it makes the Empire State Building look even taller than it is.

GC: What was your favorite part of working on the book? Was it informing readers about a neighborhood they wouldn’t normally go to, or the impromptu conversations with strangers?

Helmreich: I love them both! I don’t plan my interviews. I want to them be as spontaneous as possible. If I prepared an outline, I’d miss everything that didn’t fit into it. So the idea is: go out there, don’t worry, you’re going to find something every day. In 9,000 miles, no one ever refused to talk to me.

And discovering things I didn’t know about? That’s what makes it so exciting.

GC: How do you feel about the topic New Yorkers love to debate: change in the city? Do you see change as positive or negative?

Helmreich: It’s both. With gentrification, the question is where are poor people going to live. And how are they going to find employment and get to their place of work? On the other hand, change is always coming. New ethnic groups are coming in. And groups that hate each other in their own country get along here, because they have no choice.

Graduate Center Professor William Helmreich walking in Manhattan
"Whenever I teach my course ... I take my students on walks in different neighborhoods in the city," says Helmreich. Photo by Neville Elder.

GC: You’ve taught a course on the city for the last four decades. How does your walking inform your work at The Graduate Center?

Helmreich: Whenever I teach my course — and I love teaching just as much as I love the research — I take my students on walks in different neighborhoods in the city. And then we go to a restaurant.

These are students who come from all over the country. One of the reasons students take my class is that they know that they’re going to get to see the city from the ground up. Last year I had a student who got so interested that she’s going to walk the city of Tel Aviv. The goal is to inspire people to do urban-related research. That’s why I’m doing it.

GC: How did you get all the walking done?

Helmreich: I average about 30 miles a week. The body is not like a car — you get stronger when you walk. I’ve now walked about 10,000 miles, and I’ve walked the city about 16 times over the last 60 years. It started when I was a child, and my father played a game with me called Last Stop: We would take a subway line to the last stop and start walking. That’s how I developed my love of New York. Right now I’m walking the Bronx, which is maybe turning out to be the most fascinating borough of all.

GC: Do you give yourself days off when it rains or snows?

Helmreich: No. The Scandinavians say there’s no such thing as bad weather, just bad clothing. Yesterday I walked 40 blocks in the middle of a snowstorm down Broadway. I’m up at 6 in the morning and go to bed at midnight. The first thing I think about in the morning is sociology, and it’s the last thing I think about at night.

I’m going to do my work no matter what. I love what I do. The joy of discovery, of seeing something new, is what makes you want to live.

Submitted on: DEC 12, 2018

Category: Faculty | General GC News | Sociology