[10 February 2014]
“A Tale of Two Cities” was the income-inequality theme of Bill de Blasio’s successful New York City mayoral campaign last fall. The New York Nobody Knows, by a City University of New York professor, could be called “A Tale of Many Cities”. Helmreich walked every block in the city (and wore out nine pairs of shoes) in order to collect data on the changing ethnicity and culture of the Big Apple.
Some of us may know some of what he now knows, but he sure did find a lot of variations besides the obvious dichotomy of rich and poor.
At first, I feared that his introduction—the “how I did it” part– might be the best part of the book. That fear turned out to be unfounded. Helmreich tells how he dressed (inconspicuously, except for a pedometer) and how he engaged people in conversation without coming across as intrusive.
Indeed, his approach was the opposite of what a reporter might do to get a “man on the street” story. Instead of flashing credentials and holding a notebook, Heimreich had a tape recorder in his pocket. He used it wherever possible, but did not insist on recording everyone. He sometimes had long subway rides, so he would carry a book, but he used what he called the “Tic-Tac method” to put it in safe keeping once he reached a neighborhood. He would buy a box of the breath mints at the first small grocery he found, and ask the proprietor to hold both his purchase and the book he was carrying until he returned. They could keep both, he told them, if he did not come back.
Hardly anyone refused to talk to him. Moreover, walking was crucial for noticing the smallest details, e.g., the letter “M” engraved on the facade of a building, the relative cleanliness of a street, the number of men, women or children in a park on a given day. Walking is also the sport New Yorkers excel in; no one would question his choice of transportation.
There are no surprises here. Summing up his findings on page two, Helmreich writes: “New York is a city with a dynamic, diverse, and amazingly rich collection of people and villages whose members display both small-town values and a high degree of sophistication. This stems from living in a very modern, technologically advanced and world-class city that is the epitome of the twenty-first century. To which any savvy New Yorker might retort: “So what else is new?”
What is new is Helmreich’s accretion of details. In talking to a homeless panhandler, he learned about the man’s careful attempt to look presentable and his daily take ($60 to $70 a day, although that can’t be verified.) He noted how different ethnic groups play cricket at a Staten Island park while others play dominoes and still others play chess. He was a tireless visitor at religious services and processions. He astutely noted the impact community gardens can have on a neighborhood’s attractiveness.
He discovered out-of-the-way gems that most New Yorkers know nothing about, such as the Chinese Scholars Garden at Snug Harbor on Staten Island and the Hebrew charter school in Brooklyn where one-third of the students are black. He found million-dollar homes in Brooklyn’s Dyker Heights whose Christmas decorations have become tourist attractions. He did not hesitate to walk through dangerous gang-ruled sectors of the city like Fordham in the Bronx.
If the book has an overriding theme, it has to do with gentrification; do newcomers really mix in with old-timers in gentrifying areas? What happens to the poor who are displaced? While he has no pat answers, Helmreich coins a few good terms. Parts of North Williamsburg display “nouveau grit” – meaning they are both gritty (decaying industrial buildings) and hip (new music venues and ferries as fast transport to Manhattan give it cachet). What seems like a cultural and ethnic stew in some neighborhoods is actually “daygration”, a mingling of people during the daylight hours that changes when the Korean or Yemeni deli owners in white or Hispanic areas, or the black service workers at white senior centers, return home from their work locales at the end of the day.
The author’s walks are supplemented by formal interviews with the four recent mayors, Edward I. Koch, David Dinkins, Rudolph Giuliani and Michael Bloomberg, whose tenures span 35 years. Because his research took place from 2008 to 2012, what he actually saw was the Bloombergian New York, with its sharp decline in crime, pedestrian and bicycle thoroughfares and ever-present construction cranes. (Because he stopped in June 2012, he makes no mention of the devastation wrought by Hurricane Sandy.)
As a sociologist, Heimreich is extra cautious about rendering judgments, and if anything, he errs on the side of optimism. After one conversation with a white Canarsie resident, he notes that the man harbors “strong prejudicial views”, but conceals them: so he can do business with people he dislikes.
On the other hand, Helmreich suggests that the drop in crime can be misleading. In one tough neighborhood, Verizon made a pact with a street gang; the company won’t touch the graffiti on the wall of one of its buildings as long as the gang leaves its employees alone.
Helmreich’s shoe leather was worth it; the book is a thorough study, even if many of his observations might sound self-evident to New York residents. His statistical data are interesting (one tortilla factory in 1985, six tortilla factories producing millions of tortillas weekly in 2001), but his anecdotes give the book life. He wonders why people would become the first gentrifiers in a neighborhood and the answer is “more space” or “lower rent”, but there is also an attitude that more gentrifiers will soon bring better amenities to a neighborhood such as North Williamsburg. Once that happens, the common complaint is that an area is becoming “too commercial”.
What does Heimreich leave out of his amazingly thorough New York experience? Two elements that I miss are the gay and lesbian influence on the city mosaic and the role of big-foot universities, principally NYU and Columbia. The latter altered historic areas with their power grabs for more and more real estate. Both topics are touched on only lightly.
Also, a question Helmreich doesn’t raise is whether he would have found so many New Yorkers as “friendly and open” if he had been a woman or a dark-skinned black man strolling on the turf of others.
Having put in so much time on this project, Helmreich remains a man in love with his native city. It’s a “living theater” and “the world’s largest outdoor museum”, its population indelibly marked by the events of 9/11 yet committed to a path of more assimilation of diverse newcomers. It has so much to offer, he assures readers,that its destiny is to remain a great world city for “a long time to come”.
A key question now, as the city has emerged from the Great Recession and the huge displacement caused by Sandy is: Does Helmreich capture the dynamic pace of change in a city that as he points out, is very different now than it was even 15 years ago? He knows that he cannot. So don’t take The New York Nobody Knows as the final word on New York ethnography. This city of immigrants is constantly changing, growing and gentrifying, even when no one is taking such copious notes.