Book Review Preview: The Brooklyn Nobody Knows

By John Shapiro

William B. Helmreich, The Brooklyn Nobody Knows: An Urban Walking Guide (Princeton, NJ:  Princeton University Press, 2016).

Did you know that…

  • Barak Obama once lived in Park Slope. So did Al Capone.
  • Bushwick’s unconstrained graffiti art is really a changing exhibit managed by a collective.
  • In Gerritsen Beach, a favorite pastime is giving wrong directions to outsiders.

Such facts are dispersed throughout William B. Helmreich’s first contribution to his intended Nobody Knows series for New York City’s boroughs, expanding on his successful The New York That Nobody Knows. For each of 44 neighborhoods, Helmreich reports on his observations from and conversations while walking 816 miles through Brooklyn. Read it one neighborhood at a time before making a visit, and it is a guide book. Read it cover-to-cover as I did, and you realize the thoroughness with which Helmreich describes the people and condition of Brooklyn in the 2010s, at the height of the Brooklyn hype.  As is the case for the WPA Guide to New York City of the 1930s: while the reportage will become dated, it will enjoy a second life as an historical record.

As a local city planner, I can vouch for his accuracy—though there are places where the common wisdom he retells is incomplete, the urbanism story goes unreported, and he might have delved deeper into the community development movement, which originated here. But as a fourth-generation Brooklynite, I say fuhgeddaboudit: If you love walking cities, buy the book.

The full book review will appear in an upcoming issue of the Journal of Urban Affairs.

John Shapiro, Professor, Pratt Institute

 

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