The New York Nobody Knows –
Walking 6,000 Miles in the City
By William B. Helmreich
Princeton University Press – £19.95
In 2009, Running Press published New York 400, a visual history of America’s, if not the world’s, greatest city – to commemorate the 400th Anniversary of Henry Hudson’s arrival along the river that continues to bear his name. It’s a fascinating book that alluringly invites one to investigate the Big Apple from that of a visual perspective.
This book on the other hand, delves unto a far grittier and deeper premise, by literally investigating the city, borough by borough, street by street. And I have to say, having lived in New York for a number of years, I know first hand that walking a mere three streets in any direction, is a lot more acute, radical, potentially leery and conspicuous, than walking three streets in any direction in say London, Berlin or Paris (where I have also spent a significant amount of time). The prime reason being, three blocks away in New York, can account for an entirely different world, which, I suspect, constitutes for author William B. Helmreich having undertaken such a mammoth task to begin with.
Mammoth being the operative word here, for New York is as dense and diverse a city, as it is chaotic, exotic and simply brilliant, and this is resolutely pronounced in The New York Nobody Knows – Walking 6,000 Miles in the City’s Introduction: ”There are too many ways to analyse the city of New York. One approach is to use its geographical division into boroughs and neighbourhoods and carefully examine each of them. Another approach is to think of the city in terms of categories – Asians, whites, New Yorkers, Brooklynites, organizations, small stores, sports, seniors, children. The city can also be evaluated in terms of issues – immigration, gentrification, crime, and education. Yet another method is to look at New York City as a patchwork of physical spaces. These include streets, buildings, walls, statues, playgrounds, and memorials. All of these lines of inquiry are employed in this book, because each one helps us to better comprehend this complex metropolis.”
Halfway through this book, one does inadvertently find oneself coming to terms with and comprehending New York City in such a way that might not otherwise be possible via other publications. For how else might one find oneself in such a similarly, quixotic and dare I say it, prized persuasion?
As Phillip Lopate, author of Waterfront: A Walk Around Manhattan is quoted as saying: ”Helmreich has walked everywhere and read everything pertinent on New York, and has many astute observations about both the essential spirit of the Big Apple and its rapid changes.”
Along with topographical and infrastructure changes, it’s New York’s inexorable social changes that ultimately account for it’s magnetic allure and accountability; segments of which are touched on in chapter two (‘Selling Hot Dogs, Planting Flowers, and Living the Dream – The Newcomers‘): ”[…] groups are aware of their past differences but may wish to seize a fortuitous opportunity to try to repair them. And in that sense the city becomes a hothouse laboratory for conflict resolution, demonstrating that in another context warring groups can live together in harmony. It’s a view that reinforces the most optimistic hopes of the immigrants – namely, that they can leave their age-old conflicts behind them and start over again. Whatever the individual motivations, by the time second-generation immigrants have reached adulthood, they have been here for most of their lives, and cannot relate to conflicts with which they have no real familiarity. At the same time, if group members are taught prejudice, it may take hold.”
Such clear-cut analysis, surely warrants another book in its own right?
Returning to the book in hand however, my one and only gripe is that I wish the collection of twenty-nine, black and white photographs appeared in the book as they were written about, rather than merely being placed together in its centre. As by the time one stumbles upon them, it’s all to easy to forget what they’re in reference to.
But other than that, The New York Nobody Knows really does (socially) traverse the New York nobody knows; while in so doing, invariably opening a menagerie of colourful doors I suspect most people didn’t even know existed. Myself wholeheartedly included.