Monday, 14 October 2013

Book Review: The New York Nobody Knows by William B. Helmreich

William B. Helmreich has accomplished a rather remarkable feat. Over the course of four years, the graduate professor of sociology at City University of New York has covered all 6,000 miles of New York City's streets by foot. While his book includes the subtitle, "Walking 6,000 Miles in the City," his pedestrian (here I am obviously referring to the noun rather than the adjective) accomplishment is not the focal point of The New York Nobody Knows. Instead, he presents a detailed and insightful examination of the various sociological aspects of the city. He bolsters his analysis by drawing from his experiences walking New York's streets as well as from his day job as an academic. Helmreich's book is an engrossing and very informative sociological study of New York that is especially strong when covering the less-popular boroughs that are far less popular in the literature about the city. It was published by Princeton University Press and is certainly a valuable resource for any student of the field but The New York Nobody Knows is a worthwhile read for anyone interested in learning more about the city and its various and often colorful inhabitants.

The book is ordered thematically rather than geographically, further demonstrating that Helmreich's purpose is not to merely outline his four years of constitutionals. Instead, it is organized thematically. Helmreich looks into sociological subjects such as immigration, gentrification, and crime as they relates to New York. He devotes some time to the built environment, but he mainly concerns himself with getting to know the people of the city. Helmreich often stopped various people on the street for interviews, including in the more dangerous areas such as East New York and South Bronx. These impromptu conversations really enrich the book as they are able to provide additional perspective, and Helmreich's sit-downs with former mayors Dinkins, Giuliani, and (soon-to be former anyway) Bloomberg are highlights as the author is able to spend quality time with all of them. The book is filled with compelling anecdotes from his travels and the various characters he encounters, such as a converted Orthodox Jew from Colorado who shills special kosher cheese to Hasidic Jews in Brooklyn and what they can tell us about the city. In addition, he did plenty of homework in the bibliographical department and he draws from a plethora of other studies when making his points.

Helmreich is incredibly knowledgeable about the city, having grown up in Manhattan and previously worked as a cabdriver as well as a sociological researcher on urban issues such as homelessness. He writes well and my interest did not lag at any point. There were, however, certain passages that read a bit dry and reminded me that this is a professor writing a book published by a university. Though the title was likely tacked on by an editor (neighborhoods such as Williamsburg and Harlem get their fair share of ink and feature prominently in several sections (not that they shouldn't)) Helmreich does not gloss over the more obscure boros and neighborhoods. He draws many examples and anecdotes from neighborhoods in Staten Island and Queens which helps separate the book from other urban sociology books on the city more focused on more popular areas.

In Sum
One great thing about graduating college was that I could bypass informative articles and books on my academic fields without any guilt. I could really cherry pick the economics and urban policy literature to find works that actually interested me and abandon those that didn't. The New York Nobody Knows definitely falls into that "actually interesting" category. While I learned quite a bit about the city and its citizens, I also had a legitimately good time while doing so. The book is worth seeking out for any fans of Jane Jacobs or books such as Sidewalk by Mitchell Duenier and The Power Broker by Robert Caro. 


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