'The Manhattan Nobody Knows' Guides You Through the City at Eye-Opening Level

New York trekker William B. Helmreich's latest urban walking guide, The Manhattan Nobody Knows, can feel like a series of bite-sized Joseph Mitchell essays, and as such is great fun to read.

The Manhattan Nobody Knows: An Urban Walking Guide
William B. Henlreich

Princeton University Press

Dec 2018


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.






PM Picks Playlist 1: Rett Madison, Folk Devils + More

The first PopMatters Picks Playlist column features searing Americana from Rett Madison, synthpop from Everything and Everybody, the stunning electropop of Jodie Nicholson, the return of post-punk's Folk Devils, and the glammy pop of Baby FuzZ.


David Lazar's 'Celeste Holm  Syndrome' Appreciates Hollywood's Unsung Character Actors

David Lazar's Celeste Holm Syndrome documents how character actor work is about scene-defining, not scene-stealing.


David Lord Salutes Collaborators With "Cloud Ear" (premiere)

David Lord teams with Jeff Parker (Tortoise) and Chad Taylor (Chicago Underground) for a new collection of sweeping, frequently meditative compositions. The results are jazz for a still-distant future that's still rooted in tradition.


Laraaji Takes a "Quiet Journey" (premiere +interview)

Afro Transcendentalist Laraaji prepares his second album of 2020, the meditative Moon Piano, recorded inside a Brooklyn church. The record is an example of what the artist refers to as "pulling music from the sky".


Blues' Johnny Ray Daniels Sings About "Somewhere to Lay My Head" (premiere)

Johnny Ray Daniels' "Somewhere to Lay My Head" is from new compilation that's a companion to a book detailing the work of artist/musician/folklorist Freeman Vines. Vines chronicles racism and injustice via his work.


The Band of Heathens Find That Life Keeps Getting 'Stranger'

The tracks on the Band of Heathens' Stranger are mostly fun, even when on serious topics, because what other choice is there? We all may have different ideas on how to deal with problems, but we are all in this together.


Landowner's 'Consultant' Is OCD-Post-Punk With Obsessive Precision

Landowner's Consultant has all the energy of a punk-rock record but none of the distorted power chords.


NYFF: 'American Utopia' Sets a Glorious Tone for Our Difficult Times

Spike Lee's crisp concert film of David Byrne's Broadway show, American Utopia, embraces the hopes and anxieties of the present moment.


South Africa's Phelimuncasi Thrill with Their Gqom Beats on '2013-2019'

A new Phelimuncasi anthology from Nyege Nyege Tapes introduces listeners to gqom and the dancefloors of Durban, South Africa.


Wolf Parade's 'Apologies to the Queen Mary' Turns 15

Wolf Parade's debut, Apologies to the Queen Mary, is an indie rock classic. It's a testament to how creative, vital, and exciting the indie rock scene felt in the 2000s.


What 'O Brother, Where Art Thou?' Gets Right (and Wrong) About America

Telling the tale of the cyclops through the lens of high and low culture, in O'Brother, Where Art Thou? the Coens hammer home a fatalistic criticism about the ways that commerce, violence, and cosmetic Christianity prevail in American society .


Literary Scholar Andrew H. Miller On Solitude As a Common Bond

Andrew H. Miller's On Not Being Someone Else considers how contemplating other possibilities for one's life is a way of creating meaning in the life one leads.


Fransancisco's "This Woman's Work" Cover Is Inspired By Heartache (premiere)

Indie-folk brothers Fransancisco dedicate their take on Kate Bush's "This Woman's Work" to all mothers who have lost a child.


Rodd Rathjen Discusses 'Buoyancy', His Film About Modern Slavery

Rodd Rathjen's directorial feature debut, Buoyancy, seeks to give a voice to the voiceless men and boys who are victims of slavery in Southeast Asia.


Hear the New, Classic Pop of the Parson Red Heads' "Turn Around" (premiere)

The Parson Red Heads' "Turn Around" is a pop tune, but pop as heard through ears more attuned to AM radio's glory days rather than streaming playlists and studio trickery.


Blitzen Trapper on the Afterlife, Schizophrenia, Civil Unrest and Our Place in the Cosmos

Influenced by the Tibetan Book of the Dead, Blitzen Trapper's new album Holy Smokes, Future Jokes plumbs the comedic horror of the human condition.


Chris Smither's "What I Do" Is an Honest Response to Old Questions (premiere + interview)

How does Chris Smither play guitar that way? What impact does New Orleans have on his music? He might not be able to answer those questions directly but he can sure write a song about it.

Love in the Time of Coronavirus

Fire in the Time of Coronavirus

If we venture out our front door we might inhale both a deadly virus and pinpoint flakes of ash. If we turn back in fear we may no longer have a door behind us.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.