Over Four Years, A Professor Walks New York City


The great urban activist Jane Jacobs wrote about the sidewalk ballet of New York’s streets, how the streetscapes of this great city are backdrops to an unscripted dance between neighbors and passersby. These improvisations unfold on every block, every day, never to be repeated.

Over four years, sociologist William Helmreich meticulously choreographed his own distinctive movements in every borough, walking at a steady stride, slow enough to take in architectural details, signage, street level shops and institutions, makeshift memorials, landscaping, parking patterns, graffiti and people. From Cambria Heights, Queens to Morningside Heights, Manhattan, from Bergen Beach, Brooklyn to Mariner’s Harbor, Staten Island and Throg’s Neck in the Bronx, the CUNY professor has pounded the pavement of every city block. Recognizing that the best way to see and understand the city is on foot, he walked about 30 miles a week, on nights and days, weekends, summer and winter.

It took him nine pairs of shoes to complete the research for his new book, “The New York Nobody Knows: Walking 6000 Miles in the City” (Princeton University Press). His book is an uncommon portrait of the city in 2013: a look at its diverse neighborhoods and the urban issues — like immigration, community, use of public space and gentrification — that run though all of them. The book is not a guidebook, but a very accessible sociological study, full of color and anecdote. In this work, he’s more ethnographer than statistician.

To mark the publication of the book, Helmreich and I set out last week on a tour of unknown New York. We met at the 167th Street Station in the South Bronx, and traveled by car and on foot, covering about 20 miles. On a perfect autumn day with clear blue skies, every corner of the city was shimmering in the sunlight, even those blocks where Helmreich advised caution.

Helmreich has been walking the city since he was a 7-year-old. He and his father would play a game of their own design called “Last Stop.” On weekends, they’d take the subway — riding a different line each week — to the last stop and get out and explore before returning to their Upper West Side home. After they ran through the last stops, they turned to second-to-last stops, and so on, for about five years. The book is dedicated to his late father, who died a few years ago at 102. Until his 80s, the senior Helmreich was walking seven miles a day.

Our tour follows the highlights of some of his own well-worn pathways. Helmreich has a near photographic memory, so he recalls every building and curve in the road. That he once drove a yellow cab contributes to his sharp sense of direction.

He’s a man who’s yet to meet a stranger. As he’s walking, he looks people in the eye and greets them. When he spots someone he wants to talk with, he simply “walks into the conversation,” either making a comment or asking a question. Our first stop is Junior High School 22, on East 167th Street and College Avenue. Here, the lone Jewish staff person is Tuvia Tatik, a Lubavitch guy who serves as dean, in charge of discipline. Helmreich ran into him on the street outside of the school, quite surprised to find a chassid in this African, African-American and Latin-American neighborhood.

“I don’t see myself as a police officer,” the soft-spoken dean says. “[The students] need some one willing to listen to them and understand them.” He says that the kids and parents no longer notice the beard and tzitzit, and the staff is accommodating of his Shabbat schedule. For him, working in the South Bronx (and getting up at 4:45 in the morning to get there from Crown Heights) is part of his God-given purpose, to help elevate the world. So our tour is off on a spiritual note, even in this once-Jewish neighborhood, where just about all of the Jews are gone. Nearby, we pass the once-grand Temple Adath Israel, a congregation going back to the 1880s where Richard Tucker was the cantor; its neoclassical building now houses Grand Concourse Seventh Day Adventist Church.

Helmreich thinks the Bronx is ripe in many neighborhoods for the kind of gentrification that has altered the face of Brooklyn — and there may already be signs of it, like new housing stock, an occasional gallery or Internet café. A block of Morris Avenue, with a row of well-kept townhouses with bay windows looks like Back Bay Boston or Brownstone Brooklyn. We turn a corner on Grand Avenue to pull up in front of a brick house that is Eclesia Catolica Cristiana, a church whose outdoor announcement board lists weekly exorcisms. Helmreich explains that the minister, who died seven years ago, was considered a saint. We get lucky when a young man on the street responds to Helmreich’s greeting, and it turns out that he is the minister’s grandson, who confirms that indeed Father Rodriguez was a good soul. But this young college graduate was too scared to attend the exorcisms.

While we had intended to spend little time in the Bronx, Helmreich is an enthusiast of this borough. We visit a little-known and beautiful waterfall off of Boston Road and East 180th Street and drive past some suburban-looking houses on Charlotte Street built after Jimmy Carter’s visit in 1977.

Our one quick stop in Manhattan is a puzzler: In Harlem, at the corner of Madison Avenue between 129th and 130th streets, the Church of All Saints is an ornate gothic building designed by James Renwick, who also designed St. Patrick’s Cathedral. Large carvings of the Star of David adorn three gables at the top of the building. One of the ministers told Helmreich that a Jewish man who owned the property was not comfortable selling it to a church, and insisted that the church have some marking to show that this was once a Jewish-owned property. To verify this, Helmreich tried checking city building and real estate records, but couldn’t find any. Perhaps it’s an urban legend, but no better story was offered.

Helmreich, who has been teaching a graduate course on New York City for 40 years, whether at City College or the Graduate Center, interviewed former mayors Ed Koch, David Dinkins and Rudy Giuliani, along with Michael Bloomberg. A resident of Great Neck, L.I., he is the author of 13 previous books. About half have Jewish themes; while this new book is a general work, there’s much of Jewish urban interest.

Back in the car, we make our way to Brooklyn, first to the industrial area of East Williamsburg where the large walls of buildings make for great canvas for muralists, at the intersection of Messerole and Waterbury Street, and then to Bushwick, where there’s an explosion of color at the corner of Troutman Street and St. Nicholas Avenue, made by a group called the Bushwick Collective. In the south Bronx, the murals are less professional but still beautiful. Some of those are gang-related or memorials, and some are painted to prevent graffiti. On subsequent visits, they may be gone.

On the way to the chasidic section of Williamsburg, we pass Chabad of Bushwick, and then a kosher butcher with live chickens and an Internet and business store also labeled kosher, not for the food (there is none), but for the filters on what can be viewed. We have lunch at the glatt kosher Gottlieb’s Deli, whose menu and decor are testament that some things do stay the same.

We walk along Flushing Avenue, the border between the chasidic community of South Williamsburg and the mostly black neighborhood of Bedford-Stuyvesant. Across from new apartment houses that still have sukkahs on their terraces, the Marcy Houses are solid brick buildings. Along the curved walkways, impromptu gardens and displays show someone’s effort to beautify the place. Helmreich notices everything.

“Every block counts,” he says. “New York is the greatest outdoor museum.”