The Graduate Center Mourns the Loss of Professor William Helmreich Whose Perambulating and Prose Revealed ‘The New York Nobody Knows’

William Helmreich

The Graduate Center community is deeply saddened by the passing of Distinguished Professor William Helmreich (GC/CCNY, Sociology), who died on March 28 at the age of 74. His family said that the cause was COVID-19.
 
Helmreich’s scholarship focused on urban sociology, ethnography and race, ethnicity, migration, and religion. He was the author or editor of 18 books, which included his acclaimed series of books about the neighborhoods and people of New York City, starting with The New York Nobody Knows: Walking 6,000 Miles in the City and encompassing The Brooklyn Nobody Knows and The Manhattan Nobody Knows.
 
“Bill Helmreich — it’s impossible for me to think of him in the past tense — is an unforgettable character,” recalled Professor Emeritus William Kornblum (Sociology). “His engaging self is alive in his wonderful New York books. They will be baselines for measuring what is lost and what survives in the neighborhoods he walked through, and the restaurants and shops where he schmoozed with everyday people. … He will be fondly remembered and sorely missed. We were friends for over 40 years and shared our love for the city and its great public university, before this biological and social disaster stole him from us.”
 
Helmreich was born in Switzerland, the son of Holocaust survivors, and emigrated with his family to the United States when he was a child. He grew up on the Upper West Side of Manhattan and received his undergraduate degree from Yeshiva University in New York. He completed his doctorate at Washington University in St. Louis.
 
He said his father inspired his explorations of the city with a game they called “Last Stop.” The two would take a subway to the end of the line, get out, and investigate the neighborhood.
 
His enthusiasm continued to inspire his work. Interviewed by The Graduate Center upon the publication of his book, The Manhattan Nobody Knows, he said he loved both informing readers about a neighborhood and the impromptu conversations with strangers.
 
“I love them both! I don’t plan my interviews. I want them to be as spontaneous as possible. If I prepared an outline, I’d miss everything that didn’t fit into it. So, the ideas 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.”
 
He blazed his own scholarly path from his early research, including The World of the Yeshiva: An Intimate Portrait of Orthodox Jewry, which Brandeis University Professor Jonathan Sarna said pioneered a subject few at the time were studying. Along with his widely ranging books, Helmreich’s articles were published in The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, and Newsday and he was the subject of two features in The New Yorker. He was a frequent guest on television and radio, from CNN and NPR to Oprah Winfrey.
 
Helmreich, who taught sociology for many years at The City College of New York was described by CCNY President Vincent Boudreau, as, “gregarious, optimistic, and unremittingly curious about the lives of those around him.” Boudreau said that Helmreich “loved to talk. It was his scholarly methodology and personal code of conduct: Find a person, get them talking and remember what they said.”
 
He applied this methodology to his series of studies about New York City. In a profile in The New Yorker, Helmreich said, “I love the city. I love to read about the city, to live the city, to walk the city.” And he did, walking thousands of miles, down nearly every street of the five boroughs to engage the people he met and capture a New Yorker’s New York.

"Not all sociologists are naturally 'social.' Willie was amazingly so," said Presidential Professsor Philip Kasinitz (Sociology), the former executive officer of the Ph.D. Program in Sociology and a fellow urban sociologist. "He could, and did, talk to literally anyone: from ultra-orthodox yeshiva students, to members of the Black Panthers, from Haitian villagers to Cajun musicians, from cops to drug dealers. More important: he could listen to anyone. He asked strangers the simplest questions — 'What’s going on here?' 'Why are you doing that?' 'Where did you guys get those neat jackets?' — with a such an unpretentious openness that, most of the time, the most unlikely people would respond openly and honestly. "
 
Professor Roslyn Bologh (GC/College of Staten Island, Sociology) accompanied him on one of his walks in the Bronx neighborhood where she grew up.
 
“He was neither a tourist nor a social scientist, he was just Willie walking and looking around and talking to people as he always did — not as if he were observing and interviewing to gain information for a book,” she recalled.
 
Speaking to CNN of his father’s work, Helmreich’s son, Jeffrey Helmreich, a professor at the University of California, Irvine said, "He was so intensely human as a scholar. It was so much about learning with his feet, with his heart, with his intuition, with his gut. He talked his way into everyone's hearts and revealed it to the rest of us."

"It is an especially cruel irony that, just a moment when we are so cut off from public life, from the streets, from the world of chance encounters, we have lost one of the great chroniclers of that world," said Professor Kasinitz. "I mourn for that world, just as I mourn for Willie, taken from us far too soon." 
 
The latest book of the series, The Queens Nobody Knows: An Urban Walking Guide, is scheduled for publication this fall. He was working on his study of Staten Island when he died.
 
“It makes me sad … to recall that we had an appointment this May for Willie to take me on a long walk into Queens neighborhoods,” Professor Lynn Chancer, executive officer of the Ph.D. Program in Sociology, wrote in a tribute to Helmreich. “Yet his books — and most of all, his amazing commitment to New York City, a place now struggling, but which I suspect Willie would believe eventually will emerge even stronger from our current trials — live on to inspire and amaze New Yorkers, locally and from afar, academics as well as a wider range of readers. Willie himself, I believe, would be proud.”
 
Helmreich is survived by his wife, Helaine, and three children.

Submitted on: APR 3, 2020

Category: Faculty | GCstories | General GC News | Sociology