New York City is obviously part of the United States in a legal and geographic sense, but culturally it can feel like another country entirely. I mean that in the nicest possible way, as someone who spent more than a decade living in Manhattan and about five more decades living elsewhere in the US. One of the most fundamental ways that Manhattan (a.k.a., the County of New York, and also the borough non-New Yorkers are most likely to be familiar with) differs from, say, Lincoln, Nebraska, is that it’s a city of walkers rather than drivers. Yes, the streets may be jammed with vehicles, but if you look more closely, you’ll see a preponderance of buses, yellow cabs, and delivery vehicles, plus a few terrified out-of-towners behind the wheel who probably wished they’d just taken the train like a knowledgable person probably told them to. Even more to the point, the sidewalks of Manhattan are full of pedestrians, and walking is an everyday means of getting about, rather than something reserved for the occasional sightseeing tour.
Walking in New York City is more than just a means of getting from Point A to Point B as efficiently as possible: it’s also the best way to experience the city in all its diversity and richness. That sentiment is central to William B. Helmreich’s The Manhattan Nobody Knows: An Urban Walking Guide, which is based on his experience of walking every street in Manhattan. And not just once, but at least twice, since 1. he walked all of New York City for The New York Nobody Knows (Princeton University Press, Oct 2013), then walked Manhattan all over again for this one, and 2. he’s a native New Yorker who grew up exploring the city with his father, and thus had worn out a lot of shoe leather on the city’s sidewalks long before he began writing about it.
Helmreich is a professor of sociology in the Colin Powell School for Civic and Global leadership at the City College of New York (located in the Hamilton Heights neighborhood of Manhattan), with research interests including Urban Studies and Ethnicity and Race, and draws on his academic work as well as his lived experience when writing about New York. He has a lot to say about how the city has changed over the years, for better and for worse, and about the positives and negatives of living at close quarters, but ultimately he’s a great advocate for the city and is optimistic about its future.
New York is not just any city, and The Manhattan Nobody Knows is not just any guidebook. Its organization may be conventional—self-contained sections treating the city’s different neighborhoods, from Marble Hill in the north (that’s uptown for you out-of-towners) to the Financial District in the south (downtown)—but the content is anything but conventional. Helmreich is not interested in providing a Fodors-like list of vetted places to see, eat, and sleep, but instead strives to give you a sense of the unique texture of each neighborhood. He includes substantial historical and cultural detail in each section, but also spends a lot of time describing the people he’s met and passing on the stories they tell. In that sense, this volume can feel like a series of bite-sized Joseph Mitchell essays, and as such is great fun to read.
Those people include a Korean War veteran who lives in a cave in Inwood, a Harlem waiter who describes his heritage as Gabonese, French, Polish, and Chinese (and then concludes that “I guess I’m just an American”), an antiques dealer whose lack of customers hasn’t dampened his spirits, a young man trying to make it as a stand-up comic, the owner of a bistro called Il Bastardo (the name honors the illegitimate child of one of the partners), and two female park employees working in Battery Park. And many more, of course, because the population of Manhattan is about as diverse as you will find anywhere, and every person has their own story of how they came to be there and what specific niche they occupy in the city’s ecology.
The Manhattan Nobody Knows weighs in at a hefty pound and a half, so it may not be the book you want to carry when you explore the city, but it’s a great resource for planning your next adventure. Every section includes a detailed street map, with particular locations highlighted, as well as numerous black and white photographs to give you an idea of things to look for in a particular neighborhood. Indeed, The Manhattan Nobody Knows belongs as much in the travel essay section of the bookstore as it does in the guidebook section, and can be enjoyed even by people who never plan to set foot in the city. Or, for that matter, by people who have lived there their whole lives, because there’s always something new to discover. For example, I didn’t realize that Marble Hill, which is geographically part of the Bronx (and thus of the US mainland), is administratively considered part of the island of Manhattan. I’ve never been there, but you can bet that it’s on the itinerary for my next trip to Manhattan, once the weather turns nice.