Posthumous Love Letter to New York City from The Graduate Center’s William Helmreich, Early Victim of Coronavirus

Distinguished Professor William Helmreich and his book "The Queens Nobody Knows: An Urban Walking Guide"

The fourth and final book by Distinguished Professor William Helmreich, who died at 74 in March during the city’s initial coronavirus surge, gives his many readers, fans, and students a last tribute to the city he called “the greatest outdoor museum in the world.”

The Queens Nobody Knows: An Urban Walking Guide, recently published by Princeton University Press, follows Helmreich’s volumes on Brooklyn and Manhattan, which in turn grew out of the popularity of his 2015 book, The New York Nobody Knows. For each, he walked thousands of miles, famously visiting just about every street in the city. 

The sheer New Yorkiness of his obsessive pursuit, along with his energy and enthusiasm, made him a recurring profile subject, including in The New Yorker and The New York Times. A tribute to Helmreich was one of the earliest to appear in the Times’ Those We’ve Lost, a series featuring individuals who have died in the pandemic.

Helmreich estimated that he’d walked the entire city 16 times over 60 years, going back to his explorations with his father. In an interview with The Graduate Center in December 2018, he said he’d just finished writing The Queens Nobody Knows. “Right now I’m walking the Bronx,” he said. “Which is maybe turning out to be the most fascinating borough of all.”

He estimated that he walked about 30 miles a week: “The body is not like a car — you get stronger when you walk.” A believer in the idea that there’s no such thing as bad weather, just bad clothing, he laughed at the idea of giving himself a day off: “Yesterday I walked 40 blocks in the middle of a snowstorm down Broadway.”

Helmreich joined The Graduate Center in 1980 and was beloved by his students. He often took them on guided walking tours — sometimes ending at restaurants in Queens that he’d come to know through his walks — and even inspired one to replicate the concept in Tel Aviv when she returned home to Israel. Recently the Finkler Institute of Holocaust research at Bar Ilan University dedicated an ebook, Creating Under Covid, available in English and Hebrew, to Helmreich, who was the son of a Holocaust survivor.

Over the course of his long career, Helmreich authored or edited more than a dozen books in sociology. His early research, including The World of the Yeshiva: An Intimate Portrait of Orthodox Jewry, is considered a pioneering book in a subject few were studying at the time. Against All Odds: Holocaust Survivors and the Successful Lives They Made in America was described by the Times as “a data-driven study that highlighted the survivors’ resilience and achievements and contradicted the commonplace image of them as irremediably traumatized.”

Helmreich’s son, Jeffrey Helmreich, a professor at the University of California, Irvine, said to CNN at the time of his father’s death: “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.”

Speaking about his walking guides to The Graduate Center two years ago, Helmreich summed up the pleasure he took in his work: “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: NOV 18, 2020

Category: GCstories | General GC News | Sociology