Book Review

William B. Helmreich: The New York Nobody Knows

by Paul Willis  |  Published August 20, 2014

New York is a big, complex city of over eight million souls. It would be hard for a single book to do full justice to this messy and amazing metropolis but The New York Nobody Knows certainly deserves full marks for trying.

This is mainly because of the prodigious research author William B. Helmreich put in. Helmreich spent four years walking every block of the city, covering a distance of 6,000 miles – the equivalent of making a return trip from New York to LA, with a trip to St Louis tagged on at the end for good measure.

Along the way he conducted hundreds of interviews with those who live and work in the city, building up a picture of the rich tapestry of immigrants and natives, newcomers and old timers that make up modern day New York.

One of the first major themes he catches on is New York’s status as an immigrant city. It is a place founded by immigrants, that grew large and successful thanks to immigration and, looking at the evidence, it’s a trend that shows no sign of abating.

According to Helmreich: “New York City has more legal immigrants and children of immigrants than any other city in the world, with almost seven hundred thousand new immigrants arriving in the last decade alone.”

They make up a majority of the city’s population and come from everywhere on the globe, although the largest foreign-born groups right now are Dominicans, Chinese, Jamaicans and Mexicans, who between them encompass over a third of all New Yorkers. Added to this there are hundreds of thousands of undocumented migrants.

Work ethic

Immigrants (particularly the undocumented ones) do the jobs few others want. They are the parking attendants, cab drivers, restaurant dish washers, doormen and hot dog stand operators that are the overlooked backdrop to the city’s tableau.

Certain jobs are more heavily dominated by certain immigrant groups. If you take a taxi here there’s a good chance your driver will be Pakistani. Israelis, for some reason, run many of the car washes. Meanwhile delis have traditionally been the preserve of Koreans, though in recent years Yeminis have been taking over a lot of them.

But origin counts for far less in New York than what you do when you’re here. The city has around 25,000 delis, or bodegas as they are often called here. In a Brooklyn deli the author meets Sunny, who has built up his business to a $90,000-a-week concern. Sunny, a Palestinian, shows two qualities common to those who make it in New York. One is an incredible work ethic. His deli, which is named after him, is open 24 hours. “In the winter, I never see daylight,” Sunny says. The other quality is an unshakable self-belief. He tells the author: “Listen, I am a man with five languages, you know? I can make this business up to the sky.”

One of the biggest issues for New Yorkers is the wealth gap; the Occupy Wall Street protest movement was born out of this frustration and the current mayor Bill De Blasio was elected on a promise to make the city more affordable for the middle classes who have been increasingly priced out of Manhattan (the poor were forced out a long time ago).

Much of this middle class has relocated to the outer boroughs (Brooklyn, Queens and The Bronx) where they are accused of repeating the same trick by pricing out the people in those communities. Helmreich has a chapter on gentrification, a controversial term, since it implies the influx of more monied people necessarily entails an improvement to a neighborhood. He examines where and why the so-called gentrifiers move.

Turning trendy

One notable location for gentrification that he focuses on is Williamsburg in Brooklyn. Known for its nightspots and music and arts venues Williamsburg is now a byword for hipster cool. But until the 1990s it was a down-on-its-heels former manufacturing area with little to recommend it besides its proximity to Manhattan. As is often the case with gentrifying neighborhoods the process was begun by artists who held raves in deserted lofts and warehouses there.

“Then, after the place was seen as “in,” commercial establishments and upscale living spaces followed,” Helmreich writes. He says that nearby rougher neighborhoods only added to the area’s cachet with hipsters, who saw it as a mark of the area’s authenticity. The sociologist Sharon Zukin coined the term “nouveau grit” to describe this appealing mix of hip and grittiness.

Helmreich, a sociology professor at New York’s City University (CUNY), is at his best when examining these broader demographic trends. He’s less good at giving life to the colour and flavor of the city. A New York native he grew up in Manhattan’s Upper West Side, a relatively privileged neighbourhood that borders Central Park. Maybe it’s this background that gives some of his encounters with new immigrants an awkward quality, such as when he meets a Honduran man waving a flag outside a Lower Manhattan car park to alert drivers that there’s space within and then asks if he can have a go at waving the flag himself.

“’Are you okay?’ he asked, a worried tone creeping into his voice.”

Helmreich reassures the man by telling him it’s alright because he’s a professor. Though the impression here is less of a professor than of a visiting politician doing one of those walkabouts where they get to roll dough in a bakery or straddle a road digger on a construction site to prove they have the common touch.

Heart of the city

To be fair to Helmreich he’s not just in it for the photo op. He goes to extraordinary lengths to meet people. His peregrinations take him through some of New York’s most notorious neighbourhoods where the presence of a middle-aged white man ambling by is certain to attract notice. Yet he says he is largely left to his own devices and where he does encounter tension he finds, reassuringly, that a smile and a friendly greeting go a long way.

This is perhaps the best takeaway from this book, the fact that New Yorkers are on the whole a friendly, open bunch willing to talk about their lives, ready to welcome you into their neighborhoods. It might seem like a trite observation but it’s not. Especially when you consider that the stereotypes of New Yorkers, whether it’s the ruthless Wall Street banker or the tough-talking boy from the ‘hood, usually portray the opposite.

When friends or family come to visit me they are always surprised by how warm the people in my community are – I live in Brooklyn’s Bedford-Stuyvesant, one of the so-called gentrifying areas. Whether it takes a journey of 6,000 miles to reaffirm this fact or just a simple trip to the end of the block, it’s a discovery that always warrants the effort.

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