By Tony Filipovitch
William B. Helmreich, The New York Nobody Knows: Walking 6,000 Miles in the City (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2013).
In The New York Nobody Knows Helmreich proposes to evaluate the city sociologically as a whole, and make it come alive. To write this book, he walked all 6,000 miles of streets in New York City over a period of four years. Along the way, he recorded what he observed and the conversations he had with people on the streets.
Besides the introduction and conclusion, the book is divided into six sections: newcomers, communities, leisure, spaces, and ethnicity. Each chapter is supported by the author’s direct observations and by references to scholarly writing and newspaper accounts—the footnotes are frequently an important part of Helmreich’s argument.
Unfortunately, the title choice suggests a personal appreciation of a place. This work also positions itself with other great urban ethnographies. But lacking the tighter focus of these earlier works, Nobody Knows fails to combine the individual mosaic tiles into a coherent picture.
And yet, Helmreich has provided a valuable initial reconnaissance of a difficult terrain. He avoids the pitfall of so many city portraits that present the story as a monolithic, inescapable march to the present; he insists on the messy, often incoherent diversity that distinguishes the city from the village. There are two particularly interesting conclusions that deserve further scrutiny. While the trend is to assimilation, large numbers of city residents prefer to live among religious or ethnic groups with whom they identify. A corollary to this is that gentrifiers may live among the poor, but they do so as neighbors not friends. Second, there is an emerging trend, especially among the young, of hybrid identities that combine cultural elements in new ways.
Helmreich has left us a debt yet to be paid, one that could keep a generation of researchers happily engaged for years to come.
The full book review will appear in an upcoming issue of the Journal of Urban Affairs.
Tony Filipovitch, Minnesota State University Mankato, Anthony.Filipovitch@mnsu.edu