The New York Nobody Knows: Walking 6,000 Miles in the City
William B. Helmreich
On Wednesday, I had the opportunity to hear William Helmreich read excerpts from his new novel, The New York Nobody Knows, at the Community Bookstore in Brooklyn. In four years, Helmreich walked all 6,000 miles of Manhattan, Brooklyn, Queens, Staten Island, and the Bronx. Along the way, he spoke with panhandlers, hot dog vendors, and every other kind of New Yorker imaginable. He tracked down historical records and stories of interesting things he found along his journey and stressed the importance of walking slowly at all hours of the day and night, believing that “things change when the sun sets.” Most importantly, if he walked too quickly, he’d miss the premise of his book: finding the New York nobody knows.
“You need to walk slowly through an area to capture its essence, to appreciate the buildings, to observe how people function in the space, 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.” -William B. Helmreich
We’re all guilty of walking too quickly. One of my favorite Brooklyn haunts is Prospect Park. In the summer, its meandering paths, waterfalls, ponds, and canopy of trees is nothing short of a dream. On good days, I’ll take a blanket and spend time observing the things around me. On others, I’ll jog the loop, looking forward to reaching the end. On one of my jogging days, I needed to take a break and walk for a bit. Among the things I usually pass too quickly to notice, I found a plaque marking the historic location of Battle Pass where the American army held their ground against Hessian soldiers during the Revolutionary War. It was humbling to realize how much we don’t know about places we call home until we stop to look (really look).
When asked if he was finished walking now that his book was done, Helmreich looked appalled. What started as a game he played with his father as a child, “Last Stop,” where they took any train to the end of the line and walked around, has become a lifetime commitment. “New York is always changing,” he said.
When he and his father had finished every last stop on the subway, it became the second to last stop, and so on until they were back to the beginning again. It’s dizzying to think that in a city as big as New York, as ever changing and dynamic as the City is, constantly being shaped and reshaped by new generations and the influx of changing communities, there will never be an end of the line: there will never be an end to the journey or a moment when we can truly say we’ve seen it all, but for Helmreich the journey is the destination, and an inspiring reminder of what it means to live in the City that never sleeps.