How One Man Walked 6,000 Miles Across America’s Largest Metropolis
William B. Helmreich Explores the Dynamic, Sleepless Multicultural Tapestry of New York City
A city is not a static unit. It’s a dynamic and constantly changing environment, adapting to the needs of its residents. And when that city has more than eight million inhabitants who come from every part of the globe, understanding how it works is a daunting challenge. New York City’s immense size and scope and the tremendous variety of its people make it impossible to reduce it to a set of empirically verifiable observations and conclusions as one would do with a clearly defined neighborhood—any attempt to do so cannot succeed. Rather, New York must be viewed as a broad portrait in which the sum is indeed far greater than its parts. And the stories of the city’s people and how they negotiate their lives are the vehicles that make it possible for us to enter and begin to comprehend this amazing world.
Walking New York City, block by block, brought into sharp focus a reality that I always knew was there but had never really articulated, because it was so much a part of me that I never felt a need to express it. It emerged time and time again as I spoke and interacted with people from every walk of life. To sum it up, 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. That is both the major theme and conclusion of this intense and detailed journey to every corner of the five boroughs that constitute the city.New York must be viewed as a broad portrait in which the sum is indeed far greater than its parts.
While these qualities reach a high level of expression here, they are by no means unique to New York City. They characterize people in other major cities too—Paris, London, Shanghai, New Delhi, and, in this country, Los Angeles, Chicago, and Boston. While these cities each have their own unique identity, all of them are places infused by new arrivals from everywhere who blend in with longtime residents, who are in turn energized and reshaped by the churning mix resulting from such contacts. This outlook on life and the patterns of behavior that emerge from such exposure are not expressed or realized to the same extent by all New Yorkers, yet they are present in varying degrees among the vast majority of its inhabitants.
New York City has never been scientifically studied as a whole by sociologists. In fact, none of the city’s boroughs has even been investigated as a unit. What we have are many fine studies of communities. I once mused aloud about this to a colleague. His response was, “Well, it’s a huge topic. Maybe no one was crazy enough before you did it to walk the whole city.” Perhaps he’s right. You do have to be a little crazy to explore the city as I did, though not so much if you see it as healthy, fun, interesting, and as a challenge. It’s also a matter of context. No one thinks of runners in New York City’s marathon as crazy, because it’s an accepted concept. They run about forty miles a week when training for the marathon, and as Abigail Meisel reports in The New York Times, growing numbers of cyclists are commuting from twenty to forty miles daily from the suburbs. But at least walking in Gotham is seen as an accepted form of activity. When I walked in Los Angeles, I almost never met anyone doing the same. For Angelinos, exercise meant only going to the gym, jogging, or swimming.
But the experience of walking the city is far more than that. Walking is critical to the task because it gets you out there and lets you get to know the city up close. However, you cannot merely walk through a city to know it. You have to stop long enough to absorb what’s going on around you. And the only way to do that is to immerse yourself in it—spending as much time as possible in the streets; hanging out where others gather; attending meetings, concerts, sporting events, and the like; in short, doing what those who live there do. That is why the ethnographic method—direct observation, and sometimes even participation in whatever was going on—became the primary approach of my project: The New York Nobody Knows: Walking 6,000 Miles in the City.
My initial plan was to walk twenty representative streets of the city from end to end and use them as a basis for the book. But I soon realized that there was no way any particular twenty or even one hundred streets could claim to represent a city as large as New York. To do it right I would simply have to walk the entire city, a daunting but eminently worthwhile project. If nothing else, it would be great exercise!
This decision was crucial, for I now had hundreds of examples from what I observed to write about. The many stories and vignettes presented in this book were selected either because they were typical of phenomena I saw again and again in many parts of the city or because their uniqueness enables us to learn something interesting about the city. When there is so much to choose from, you can pick the very best examples to make your points. Obtaining a general understanding of the entire city ultimately means you won’t be able to present in-depth portraits of every neighborhood, but the benefits of getting a broader picture are well worth that limitation.
I ended up walking about 6,000 miles, the distance between New York City and Los Angeles and back to New York (4,998 miles), and then from New York City to St. Louis. I covered almost every block in Queens, Manhattan, Staten Island, Brooklyn, and the Bronx, including seldom-traversed industrial sections of the city. At the end of each walk I wrote down the number of miles I had traveled, as measured by my Omron pedometer. I averaged about 32 miles a week over four years, starting with Little Neck, Queens, in June 2008 and ending with Greenpoint, Brooklyn, in June 2012. This came to a grand total of 6,048 miles, an average of 1,512 miles a year, 126 miles a month, or 120,960 city blocks (twenty blocks equals one mile). I wore out nine pairs of San Antonio Shoes (SAS), the most comfortable and durable shoes I’d ever owned. And all of the outer boroughs turned out to be much more interesting than I’d anticipated.
As I walked, I interviewed—you could also call them conversations because of their largely spontaneous nature—hundreds of people whom I met, and this too was critical to my efforts. Speaking directly with the city’s residents was the second critical approach to my undertaking. Hardly anyone refused to talk with me. I asked no one their full names, so as not to invade their privacy, but quite a few people volunteered them anyway, and when they appear in this book, it’s with their permission. Although I have changed a few minor details, most names and places are accurate.
Many people asked me why I didn’t save time and just drive through the city. I’ll start by saying that driving via the highways that go through New York City is practically worthless. From that vantage point, you’ll focus mostly on the tall buildings, like the public housing projects, and miss the gardens, trees, and smaller buildings that make up 80 percent of the area, and the storefront churches that often tell a story in their very names. From the Bruckner Expressway you’ll see five-story walk-ups in the Bronx that remind you of Bonfire of the Vanities, but you’ll miss the teeming life that is actually happening in front of them, on the stoops, and in the streets filled with playing children. Driving through the streets slowly is a little better, but not much.
You need to walk slowly through an area to capture its essence, to appreciate the buildings, to observe how the people function in the space, and to talk with them. Driving gives you nothing more than a snapshot. More to the point, it creates a physical wall between you and the neighborhood. By the very fact that you’re driving through, you are making it clear that you are not from the area and are an outsider. When you walk through a neighborhood, although people may see that you’re from the outside, the mere fact that you’re walking suggests that you’re at least visiting. More likely it lends plausibility to the appearance that you have some business there—you work in the area, or you’re meeting a local resident who might be a friend, a business contact, drug dealer, whatever. You might be a cop. Or notwithstanding the fact that you don’t resemble a native, you might be just too poor to live elsewhere. None of these thoughts (except for the cop scenario) are likely to occur to others when you drive through. Walking is infinitely more difficult, it is more time-consuming by far, but it is indispensable for anyone who is seriously interested in comprehending the city and gaining the rapport with the locals that’s necessary for it. And that’s why I chose to walk.
I walked the city mostly during the daytime, but I also traveled through its streets at night. Things change when the sun sets. The avenues throb with far more activity. People are out and about, standing, talking, and joking in front of the buildings, on street corners, and also enjoying the entertainments available after dark—the theaters, restaurants, and various squares where citizens congregate. Walking on weekends or holidays, as well as on weekdays, which I did, also makes a difference in what you see, as do the different seasons.
In my back pocket I carried little street maps of whatever neighborhood I was visiting. That’s how I made sure that I walked all the blocks. Generally I traveled to the neighborhoods by subway, where I would often use the opportunity to read a book. I would travel by car only when the area I planned to explore was an outlying one. Not wanting anything in my hand while I walked, I used what I called the “Tic-Tac method.” I’d buy a box of Tic-Tac mints in a small grocery store, pay for them, and then ask the clerk to hold the book I’d been reading on the subway until I returned, leaving both the book and the Tic-Tacs with him and saying jokingly (I hoped), “If I don’t come back, you can keep both.” They almost always agreed. On one or two occasions store owners even said to me, “You don’t have to buy something for me to hold on to your book. I’ll do it anyway.” As for the tape recorder, it was in my pocket.
Until you do it, it’s impossible to realize what walking six thousand miles really entails. If you walk west to east, just from the Hudson to the East River, down Fifty-sixth Street, it takes about forty minutes (including waiting for lights to change) and runs about two miles. Then if you go on to walk from Fifty-fifth to Fifty-first Streets, it comes to a total of ten miles. This gives you an idea of how big the city is. I walked anywhere from five to thirteen miles each trip, depending on the length of my conversations with people and the points of interest I discovered. There are times when you just lose your “research voice.” Maybe instead of writer’s block you have “walker’s block.” You’re not in the mood to talk to people, you can’t think of any interesting questions to raise, what you see doesn’t inspire any original thoughts. You start thinking, “Maybe I’ve just been doing this for too long.” I do think that when ideas, themes, and so on start repeating themselves, it may mean that it’s time to stop walking and write some more, but on the other hand, when you’re in new territory, a part of the city where you’ve never walked, that isn’t necessarily the case. You may simply need a temporary break. And if so, you should take it and fill up the time with more reading, or take a brief vacation. Fortunately, walker’s block didn’t happen to me too often, probably because New York City is just so interesting.
Excerpted and adapted from New York Nobody Knows by William B. Helmreich. Copyright © 2013. Available from Princeton University Press. The last book in the series, The Bronx Nobody Knows: An Urban Walking Guide is available now.