by Greg Shillinglaw
Few New Yorkers knew the city better than William “Bill” Helmreich. The City College of New York sociology professor, who passed away suddenly from the coronavirus on Saturday, was known for walking every single block in the five boroughs, all 120,000 of them. Along the way, Professor Helmreich spoke with hundreds — if not thousands — of New Yorkers about life in the city, part of his decade-long quest to find “The New York Nobody Knows.” He found it and then some, writing several books about New York’s forgotten and overlooked.
The professor’s wanderlust was inspired by his dad, a Holocaust survivor, who would take a young Bill to the last stop on a subway line and explore new neighborhoods. That passion and curiosity about the city stayed with him for decades. I was lucky enough to accompany Bill on several occasions as he walked the streets of Brooklyn and Manhattan. One of the kindest and most inquisitive people you’ll ever meet, the professor showed us parts of the city few tourists — and most New Yorkers — rarely think about.
The last time we spoke, Bill told me he was working on his latest walking guide about Staten Island and there was plenty to discover about the city’s “forgotten” borough. Always generous with his time, the professor, who also went by “Willy,” passed along a few life lessons after hearing I was getting married. It’s still hard to imagine he won’t walk another city block. Bill, we’re thinking of you and sending our best to your family during this difficult time. Thanks for showing us the New York Nobody Knows.
Interview last aired on February 12, 2020.
> IMAGINE WALKING NEARLY EVERY SINGLE BLOCK IN NEW YORK CITY.
ALL 120,000 OF THEM.
SOUNDS IMPOSSIBLE, RIGHT?
WELL, OUR NEXT GUEST TONIGHT HAS DONE EXACTLY THAT AND HE'S NOT JUST STILL STANDING.
HE'S ACTUALLY STILL WALKING.
WILLIAM, A SOCIOLOGY PROFESSOR AT THE CITY COLLEGE OF NEW YORK, SPENT FOUR YEARS NAVIGATING THE FIVE BURROUGHS AND THE ROUGHLY 6,000 MIZE OF PAVEMENT BETWEEN THEY WILL.
ALONG HIS NEW YORK JOURNEY, HE WENT THROUGH TEN PAIRS OF SHOES, SPOKE WITH HUNDREDS OF PEOPLE TO GET A BETTER UNDERSTANDING OF ISSUES IMPACTING THE CITY, GENTRIFICATION AND CRIME.
IT HAS SINCE BECOME FOUNDATION OF HIS BOOK, THE NEW YORK NOBODY KNOWS.
WALKING 6,000 MILES IN THE CITY.
AND HE JOINS ME NOW TO TALK ABOUT THAT AND HIS NEXT ADVENTURE.
THANK YOU FOR HAVING ME.
IT'S A FABULOUS BOOK.
I WAS FASCINATED BY THE GENESIS OF THIS.
THE IDEA THAT YOU ACQUIRED THIS SENSE OF WANDER LUST FROM TRIPS YOU AND YOUR DAD USED TO TAKE.
TELL ME ABOUT THAT.
SOMETIMES YOU SPENT YOUR CAREER WRITING OTHER BOOKS AND THEN SUDDENLY THE BOOK THAT YOU REALLY WANT TO DO COMES TO THE FORE, SOMEWHAT LATER IN YOU ARE DOCTOR CAREER.
IT WAS THAT WAY WITH THIS BOOK.
THE IMMEDIATE EMPHASIS, MY CHAIR SAID YOU'VE BEEN TEACHING A COURSE ON NEW YORK FOR 40 YEARS.
WHY DON'T YOU GET OUT THERE AND WRITE A BOOK ABOUT IT.
WHEN I LOOKED AT MY SYLLABUS, I SAW THAT NO ONE HAD EVER DONE ANYTHING LIKE THIS.
NO ONE HAD EVER WALKED.
THE REAL GENESIS FOR DOING THIS BOOK CAME FROM MY FATHER WHO, WHEN I GREW UP HERE ON THE WEST SIDE OF NEW YORK, 105th STREET, AND MY FATHER HAD A GAME, ENTERTAINMENT FOR US.
WE DIDN'T HAVE ANY MONEY SO THIS SEEMED LIKE GOOD WAY TO DO SOMETHING.
WE WOULD GO TO THE SUBWAY AND WE WOULD TRIED SUBWAY TO THE LAST STOP.
THEN WE WOULD GET OUT AND WALK AROUND.
WHEN I WALKED AROUND, I LEARNED A TREMENDOUS AMOUNT ABOUT THE CITY.
WHEN YOU DECIDED TO GO OUT AND DO THIS BOOK, DID YOU HAVE ANY IDEA THEN AT WHAT THE SCOPE WAS GOING TO TURN OUT TO BE?
YOU KNOW, A GREAT QUESTION.
THE TRUTH OF THE MATTER IS THAT IF I HAD THOUGHT THAT I WAS GOING TO WALK 6,000 MILES, I KNEW THE CITY WAS THE 6163 MILES OF STREETS, IF I HAD REALLY, REALLY THOUGHT ABOUT IT, I PROBABLY WOULD HAVE CHICKENED OUT.
I PROBABLY WOULD HAVE NEVER DOUBLE IT.
I COULD NOT IMAGINE MYSELF WALKING THOSE BE KIND OF DISTANCES.
YOU WALK IT LIKE YOU WALK A MOUNTAIN.
ONE STEP AT A TIME.
30 MIZE A WEEK, 1,500 MILES A YEAR, FOUR TIMES 15, 6,000 AND YOU'RE THERE.
DID ANYBODY SAY TO YOU, YOU'RE AN ACADEMIC.
YOU HAVE THESE MARVELOUS BOOKS YOU'VE WRITTEN BEFORE HAND.
NOW I SEE YOU ON THE STREET EVERY DAY WALKING AROUND.
DID ANYBODY SAY TO YOU, IS THIS KIND OF A CRAZY IDEA THAT YOU'VE LATCHED ON TO?
WELL, SOME PEOPLE SAID TO ME, YOU HAVE TO BE A LITTLE CRAZY TO BE WILLING TO DO THIS.
THE CRAZY, YOU KNOW, IN A NICE POSITIVE, FUN SENSE.
I WAS ALWAYS OUT IN THE FIELD.
I DID RESEARCH IN HAITI, I LIVED IN A HAITIAN VILLAGE FOR A WHILE.
MY FIRST BOOK WAS ABOUT A BRANCH OF THE BLACK PANTHERS.
I LIVED, WORKED AND TRAVELED WITH THEM.
SO I HAVE SPENT A GREAT DEAL OF MY CAREER WALKING AROUND, TALKING TO PEOPLE.
I'M WHAT YOU CALL A QUALITATIVE RESEARCHER AND I FEEL THAT YOU REALLY NEED TO GET TO THE ESSENCE.
IF YOU TAKE THIS BOOK, I WAS WALKING ON 178th STREET IN JAMAICA.
AND I PASSED A HOME WHERE THERE WERE BEAUTIFUL FLOWERS IN FRONT OF THE HOME.
AND I HAPPENED TO SEE THE MAN GOING OUT.
I SAID TO HIM, TELL ME SOMETHING.
WHERE DID YOU GET THESE GORGEOUS FLOWERS FROM?
AND HE SAID THESE FLOWERS COME FROM MY HOME LAND IN GUYANA.
EVERY MORNING WHEN I GO OUT, I LOOK AT THESE FLOWERS AND I REMEMBER THE BEAUTIFUL HOME THAT I HAD THERE.
MY BEAUTIFUL COUNTRY.
AND THAT HELPS ME GET THROUGH THE DAY.
THERE ARE SO MANY GREAT STORIES LIKE THAT IN THIS BOOK.
AND I THINK EVEN IF YOU DON'T LIVE IN NEW YORK CITY, I THINK IT IS A GREAT OPPORTUNITY FOR SOMEBODY TO LEARN MORE ABOUT NEW YORK CITY.
THE LAST THING FOR YOU, THE SUCCESS OF THIS SGOOK WHAT YOU'VE DONE HAS LED TO NOW, ANOTHER PROJECT.
WE'RE GOING TO TAKE A LOOK AT ALL FIVE BURROUGHS.
A WALKING GUIDED TOUR.
THE FIRST IS BROOKLYN?
THE BROOKLYN NOBODY KNOWS.
AN URBAN WALKING GUIDE MAPS AND PHOTOGRAPHS.
WE GET 58 MILLION TOURIST AS YEAR.
WE HAVE A LOT OF PEOPLE WHO LIVE HERE.
THEY'RE NOSTALGIC ABOUT BROOKLYN.
ALL THESE PEOPLE WILL, WE THINK, ENJOY A BOOK LIKE THIS.
THE FIRST TOUR GUIDE BOOK THAT INVOLVES THE PERSON, THE AUTHOR TALKING, HAVING A CONVERSATION WITH PEOPLE.
IT FOCUSES ON THE THINGS THAT NOBODY KNOWS ABOUT THESE NEIGHBORHOODS.
WHEN YOU'RE COMMISSIONED TO DO ALL 44 NEIGHBORHOODS OF BROOKLYN, YOU MUST FIND THE UNKNOWN THINGS.
GET SIX PAGES PER NEIGHBORHOOD.
I WAS FORTUNATE.
I WAS ABLE TO DO.
THIS I HAD EXPERIENCE WITH THE FIRST BOOK THAT COVERED ALL FIVE BURROUGHS AND NOW I WAS ABLE TO TAKE AN INDEPTH LOOK.
YOU CAN TAKE THIS BOOK AND HAVE A HELL OF A GOOD TIME JUST BY WALKING AROUND AND LOOKING AT ALL THESE NEW THINGS.
LIKE THE MAN IN BERGEN BEACH WHO HAD 1140 STUFFED ANIMALS IN A TREE AND NOBODY COULD UNDERSTAND HOW HE COULD HAVE SUCH A HOBBY.
WHY DID HE DO IT?
THE HOME IN BERM HILL ON YWCOFF AVENUE COVERED WITH BEES, MIRRORS, BUTTERFLIES.
GREAT STORIES THAT NOBODY KNOWS.
ONCE AGAIN, THIS BOOK CALLED THE NEW YORK NOBODY KNOWS.
I'LL SURE YOU'LL BE BREAKING OUT A WHOLE BUNCH OF NEW SHOES.
WE'LL LOOK FORWARD, PROFESSOR.
I LOOK FORWARD TO THE BOOKS AS THEY COME OUT.