Tribute to William Helmreich From The Graduate Center Ph.D. Program Sociology

Professor William Helmreich

I wrote all of you a few days ago informing you, with great sadness, about the death of William (“Willie”) Helmreich (1946–2020) who taught at The Graduate Center and at City College starting in the ’70s until he passed away earlier this week, on March 28th, from the coronavirus now devastating our city, nation, and the world. Many fortunate Graduate Center students and alums came to know Willie for his wondrous and encyclopedic knowledge of New York City, and for his ethnographic commitments, sensibility, and determination to share with students, faculty and the world the multi-faceted preciousness of our shared urban home that he called “the world’s greatest outdoor museum.” 
But what I did not know about Willie were things I learned not from him directly but through the outpouring of articles, coverage (in and beyond The Graduate Center) and emails that have been paying steady tribute to his life and the importance of his work — some of which, including from CNN and The New York Times and (most recently) The Graduate Center’s own tribute, can be seen below.
I did not know, for example, that Willie came to the U.S. as a child from Switzerland and that his parents were Holocaust survivors. Nor did I know that he had written 18 books, including The World of the Yeshiva: An Intimate Portrait of Orthodox Jewry, making him a scholar of religion as well as of urban life. While I knew of his famous The New York Nobody Knows (for which he walked 6,048 miles to cover every city block in four years, and wore out nine pairs of shoes), I did not know that — as The Guardian recounted in its rave review (November 29, 2013) — the book was partly inspired by Willie and his father playing “Last Stop,” a game whereby they rode the subway from 103rd Street on the West Side to the end of the line like “intrepid explorers” after which “they would discover the area’s secrets on foot.” Nor did I realize that after Princeton University Press offered him five new book contracts (one for each borough after the New York volume’s earlier success), Willie had already finished The Manhattan Nobody Knows. According to Sam Roberts in The New York Times (September 6, 2018), “William B. Helmreich has done it again”; as Roberts continues, “Professor Helmreich is not the sort of tour guide who can be supplanted by a fact sheet, no matter how encyclopedic. He is, first off, a storyteller. His New York narratives are drawn from the extraordinary characters he more or less randomly encounters along his route.” Then too as Mitch Duneier, an admirer himself of Willie’s ethnographic work, pointed out, Princeton University Press is about to bring out The Queens Nobody Knows in the fall; Willie, with great and apparently characteristic attention to detail, had just recently endorsed the book’s cover-to-be with enthusiasm.   
Last but not least, I did not know enough about Willie to realize how avidly his students enjoyed and were engaged by his classes at City College and The Graduate Center. Whereas Rate My Professors often portrays faculty negatively and ungenerously, when looking up Willie, one is greeted with sincere-sounding and close-to-perfect rave reviews such as “He’s a caring person, he’s amazing”; “His class was very inspiring”; “Best professor I ever had”; and “… his class was always something to look forward to.”
Before turning to colleagues’ vignettes and memories, though, I wish to confess that I myself did not know Willie very well before becoming the Executive Officer of the Sociology Program nearly three years ago. But I recall, now very fondly and meaningfully, his walking into my office to introduce himself and starting to tell me about his five-book series with pride and patience. Willie seemed (even at first meeting) so kind and friendly and utterly committed to teaching and participating in the life of The City University of New York — his beloved academic home. He did a “First Friday” lunch in our Ph.D. program that I attended, usually an hour-long event but which went over (to more than two hours) as Willie captivated the faculty and students assembled with his amazing stories and knowledge of the New York nobody but he seemed to know with such assiduous detail and from patient scholarly excavation. It makes me sad, as I write this, to recall that we had an appointment this May for Willie to take me on a long walk into Queens neighborhoods. Yet his books — and most of all, his amazing commitment to New York City, a place now struggling, but which I suspect Willie would trust can emerge even stronger from our current trials — will go on to delight and interest New Yorkers, locally and from afar, academics as well as a wider range of readers.  Willie himself, I believe, would be proud of the respect and love his life and work have inspired.
While my own memories are brief, I would like to pass on other stories from Willie’s colleagues for whom his enthusiasm about life and the city likewise became contagious. In addition to emails I received from Ruben Rumbaut, Norma Fuentes-Mayorga, Leslie Paik and many others, here, for example, are some thoughts from Roz Bologh and William Kornblum. In Roz’s words,
"I was fortunate to have had the experience of accompanying Willie on one of the walks he was taking for his first book on walking New York. Willie had told me much earlier that he was doing this book and had remembered to call me to ask if I still wanted to come see my old neighborhood with him. I jumped at the chance. It was wonderful being back on the block where I had grown up. When I told Willie that I had gone to the elementary school at the end of the block, he suggested we try to get inside — not something I would have thought to attempt. It was a privilege to see how Willie worked. I was impressed with how structured he was about the walking. He was very aware of the time and how much of the Bronx (which neighborhoods) he wanted to cover on that day. While I was interested in reminiscing and re-experiencing the past, he was focused on the task at hand — seeing and learning what there was to see and learn about the place as it was now. I remember three conversations he had with people he came across. Two of the conversations were extremely brief — more like casual greetings, one was lengthier and quite interesting. To call them "interviews" would convey the opposite of what he did. He would just engage somebody in the same way he might engage them if he just happened to be walking in that neighborhood. One could not say that he was looking for people to engage. He was looking at the neighborhood. 
"I gained a completely new appreciation for librarians after Willie engaged the librarian in the library I used to go to as a child. In another neighborhood, he just asked a simple question about the place we were seeing and was satisfied with the one sentence
answer; he did not try to extend the conversation or "extract information." 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."
And, according to Bill (Kornblum),
"Bill Helmreich — it’s impossible for me  to think of him in the past tense — is an unforgettable character. 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 invited me and many others to walk  the neighborhoods with him. The editor who signed his books at Princeton, Eric Schwartz, wrote to me that, “during the writing of the first book he took me out for walks a few times and it was magic to see him in action, especially places he had been before. Everyone remembered him.” 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."
Thank you for reading this and please don’t hesitate, anyone else, to write in more that we can store in our Sociology Commons for others to read now and in the future.

Professor Lynn Chancer
Executive Officer of the Ph.D. Program in Sociolgy

Submitted on: APR 3, 2020

Category: News | Sociology