William B. Helmreich on The Manhattan Nobody Knows

HelmreichBill Helmreich walked every block of New York City—six-thousand miles in all—to write the award-winning The New York Nobody Knows. Now he has re-walked most of Manhattan—721 miles—to write this new, one-of-a-kind walking guide to the heart of one of the world’s greatest cities. Drawing on hundreds of conversations he had with residents during his block-by-block journey, The Manhattan Nobody Knows captures the unique magic and excitement of the island and highlights hundreds of facts, places, and points of interest that you won’t find in any other guide.
 
 
What is this book about?

It’s a detailed guide book to exploring Manhattan, block-by-block.

There are many guide books on Manhattan. How is this one different?

This book is unique two ways. First it focuses on the unknown places in Manhattan. NYC attracts over 65 million tourists a year, many of who have been there several times. But if you’re looking for something really new, then this is the book for you. Second, this book is based on hundreds of conversation I had with people who actually live in these neighborhoods. Their stories are fascinating. Of course, the book has lots of intriguing photos and a map for each of Manhattan’s 27 neighborhoods, each of which I’ve walked through.

Four years ago, you came out with The New York Nobody Knows: Walking 6,000 Miles In the City. That book covered every borough, including Manhattan. Is this all new material?

I’d say about 98% of it is brand new. If I had simply taken material from the first book, then why should people read it? And reviewers would have written it off as just a rehash of that book. I re-walked Manhattan, covering 775 miles.

And how were you able to find new material?

Because the city is always changing and because I now had the chance to cover it in much greater detail. This is the second in a five book series on each borough and all of them are based on fresh material. The Brooklyn Nobody Knows came out last year and the Manhattan book well be followed by volumes on Queens, the Bronx, and Staten Island.

What are some of the most interesting things you discovered?

In Inwood Hill Park I met an 84 year old man who has lived in a cave for about twenty years. Very articulate and committed to being at one with nature, he’s a modern-day Thoreau. In Washington Heights, I came across a block of old wooden frame house hidden away, east of St. Nicholas Avenue. On the Upper East Side, I spoke with a woman who had made a secret visit to her church in 2003. On the Lower East Side, I discovered the city’s smallest shoe repair shop, 5 feet high and 5 feet wide, run by a Chinese immigrant. In Midtown Manhattan I stumbled across the only bookstore in the world devoted to the life and works of Winston Churchill; some of these books go for more than $100,000.

William B. Helmreich is the author of many books, including The Brooklyn Nobody Knows: An Urban Walking Guide and The New York Nobody Knows, which won the Guides Association of New York Award for Outstanding Achievement in Book Writing. He is Distinguished Professor of Sociology at the City College of New York’s Colin Powell School for Civic and Global Leadership and at CUNY Graduate Center.

Sara Blair on How the Other Half Looks

BlairNew York City’s Lower East Side, long viewed as the space of what Jacob Riis notoriously called the “other half,” was also a crucible for experimentation in photography, film, literature, and visual technologies. Sara Blair takes an unprecedented look at the practices of observation that emerged from this critical site of encounter, showing how they have informed literary and everyday narratives of America, its citizens, and its possible futures. How the Other Half Looks reveals how the Lower East Side has inspired new ways of looking—and looking back—that have shaped literary and popular expression as well as American modernity.

How have representations of the Lower East Side changed since the mid-nineteenth century?

In surprising and powerful ways, they haven’t. A set of complex associations—with vice, poverty, raw energy, the threat of the alien and the unassimilated—have continued to swirl around New York’s historical ghetto through its many lives and afterlives, well into our own moment. Over time, these associations have drawn image-makers and writers there to experiment with new visual technologies, new perspectives, and new media. In a real way, the Lower East Side and its received image have helped shape modern practices of seeing and imaging—not just the other way around.

What do recent representations of the Lower East Side tell us about our cultural moment?

They remind us how much cultural work we do to continue imagining the project of America, what it means to be or become an American and to have a collective future. In the 2016 Harry Potter franchise film Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, for example, the unfolding of Magic as a contest between nativism and progressive aspirations (one that’s all too familiar to us IRL) depends on the Lower East Side as a space defined both by its threat to a “pure” citizenry and its promise of a more robust and dynamic nation. In a very different mode, the award-winning 2014 documentary Chasing Ice draws on images of the Lower East Side both to make real the unprecedented effects of climate change—and to hold out hope for its reversal. However unexpectedly, images of the Lower East Side continue to be a resource for apprehending the way we live now, bringing America’s histories and possible futures into view.

How did you approach the research for this book?  What surprised you?

I began this project by trying to answer a broader question: how did the Lower East Side become both a key subject of representation and a powerful force in shaping practices of representation? The problem of seeing that space—of making sense of its staggering density, heterogeneity, and energies—challenged image-makers, writers, journalists, guardians of public order, and everyday citizens alike to test new visual technologies, whose cultural uses came to reflect on-the-ground encounters with the world of the tenements and the streets. As I worked my way through a host of archives—of everyday photographs, print media, literary projects and more—what surprised me most was the range of practices that turn out to have been shaped by encounter with the Lower East Side, from the emergence of photography as an art form and the rise of the U.S. film industry to efforts to revive print culture in digital contexts. On all these and more, the Lower East Side has left its own indelible mark.

Are there instances of images that represent the Lower East Side shaping the site itself?

By all means. Early photographs of New York’s ghetto and tenements, made by Jacob Riis in the 1880s, not only codified uses of the camera as an agency of social seeing. They drove projects of slum clearance and social reform that shaped the built environment of New York’s downtown as well as hugely influential ideas about the city, its modernity, and its citizens. By the mid-1930s, in the grip of the Depression, photographers who had themselves been children of the ghetto were experimenting with new ways to represent its complex histories, using them as a vantage point to look critically at the American success narrative. Their work helped photography reinvent itself as a postwar art form—alongside the attention of urban planners who would undertake to redesign the tenement landscape in service of twentieth-century urbanism as a master plan. From lurid accounts of Bowery poverty and as-if “documentary” images of nuclear strike on the U.S., the iconography of the Lower East Side has remained vitally available, and it has continued to enter into the material life and lived experience of that generative place.

What do you hope readers will take away from reading this book?

I hope they’ll think differently about the Lower East Side, as a place of entry not just for historical newcomers to the United States but for understanding how we’ve come to view and imagine this rich, ongoing, incomplete experiment we call America. As my mother said (to my delight) when she browsed the book, this isn’t just about Jews. It’s about the way history lives and continues to shape our lives in images, and how we might learn to look back more acutely at that history, at a time when we urgently need to learn from it.

Sara Blair is the Patricia S. Yaeger Collegiate Professor of English and a faculty associate in the Department of American Culture and the Frankel Center for Judaic Studies at the University of Michigan. Her books include Harlem Crossroads: Black Writers and the Photograph in the Twentieth Century and Trauma and Documentary Photography of the FSA.

Unusual Destinations for a New York Stay-cation (#NYNobodyKnows)

New Yorkers might think they have to leave the city for a great vacation, but here are some suggestions for new and delightful places to visit on a New York City stay-cation from Bill Helmreich, the author of The New York Nobody Knows. For visitors from out of town, these destinations offer a side of the city separate from the usual tourist fare. Because of the distances between these places travel by auto is advisable, except for Manhattan, where travel by cab and public transportation is another option.

Photo 4

Where in Manhattan is this delightful spot?

Manhattan:

Besides the popular destinations, there’s much else to see. Starting from the North, Fort Tryon Park is a must at this time of the year. Nearby, walk down Pinehurst and Cabrini Avenues in Washington Heights, and don’t miss Chittenden Avenue at 187th St., with a fabulous view of the Hudson, the Jersey cliffs, and the George Washington Bridge, and the famous (look it up) Halloween House. On E. 162nd Street, you’ll find Jumel Terrace, one of a kind wooden homes built in the nineteenth Century on a cobbled street, now selling for up to one million dollars. For authentic (not tourist) gospel, stop in at a small church on 114th Street, just east of 1st Avenue. and for arguably the most beautiful brownstone street in Manhattan, go down 78th Street between Amsterdam and Columbus Avenue. And, of course, there’s the gentrified Lower East Side, the East Village area (especially 9th Street east all the way to Tompkins Square Park) and much more.

Bronx:

Photo 18

This spot offers a “taste of Puerto Rico in the Bronx,” according to Helmreich

The quite safe Harding Park section in the Bronx feels like you’ve stepped back into history. It’s basically a Puerto Rican village, with small, neatly tended cottages fronted by charming gardens. Chickens scampering across the narrow roads and the beating rhythms of Spanish music give it an air of authenticity. And the drop-dead views of the Manhattan skyline across the East River make it the quintessentially paradoxical Gotham experience — one of the many communities with a small-town feel, under the umbrella of the most sophisticated twenty-first-century city in the world.

And while you’re there, visit Arthur Avenue and its many first-rate Italian restaurants and cafés. For sheer natural beauty, visit Pelham Bay Park. Over three times the size of Central Park, its sweeping views of rolling hills and the nearby bay are worth the effort. You’ll need a cart for this excursion, but you won’t be sorry.

Photo 26

Steve’s Place in Brooklyn

Queens:

Go to Linden Boulevard near 180th Street in St. Albans and see the mural of all the jazz greats who once lived in the area — Fats Waller, James Brown, Ella Fitzgerald, Lena Horne, and more. Visit nearby Addisleigh Park. For Afghani, Tibetan, Filipino, Hispanic, Thai, and Indian eateries of all types, walk between 82nd and 72nd Streets along Roosevelt Avenue. For beautiful homes and mansions with spectacular views of the water and bridges, stroll through Douglaston or Forest Hills Gardens. For an old-fashioned candy store and ice cream parlor, visit Eddie’s Sweet Shop at 105-29 Metropolitan Ave, near 72nd Road.

Brooklyn:

If you’re looking for nostalgia, take a trip to 2056 85th Street in Bensonhurst. Outside, you’ll see a most remarkable collection of Brooklyn’s history and that of the country — Betty Boop, Superman’s phone booth, the Fonz, Ebbets Field, Godfather types, Wildroot hair cream, vintage autos behind garage door, and much more. Look at the incredible gingerbread house at 8200 Narrows Ave, built in 1917. There’s the incredible graffiti at Troutman and St. Nicholas or Waterbury and Meserole, both in Bushwick. And check out beautiful Marine Park, with a nearby fishing village area called Gerritsen Beach.

Photo 31

Serenity now… at the Chinese Scholars Garden in Snug Harbor

Staten Island:

Enjoy a boardwalk stroll on South Beach where people sunbathe, play volleyball, and just relax. It’s 150 years old and was the locale for at least 100 films shot in the 1890s. Many silent films stars, like actress Lillian Gish and director W. D. Griffith, got their start there. Next to Snug Harbor is beautiful Von Briesen Park, adjacent to the bridge. Don’t miss the $5 million Chinese Scholar’s Garden with its stunning flowers, tiny waterfalls, and bridges, nestled within the Staten Island Botanical Gardens, a great outdoor wedding venue.

 

#WhereInNYC Photo Quiz 4 — solution

We challenged you to identify this building (well really a corner of a building!), hinting that it was near a NYC landmark. There was a very subtle clue in the categories for which the post was tagged. Did you catch it?

quiz

How many of you figured out it was The Sutton?

solution

Gentrification comes to Harlem, writes Bill Helmreich in the caption for this photograph from The New York Nobody Knows. The building is the Sutton, hard by the Polo Grounds projects (hence the “Sports” category in the quiz post). Bradhurst Avenue, 145th to 155th Streets.

 

As featured in:

bookjacket The New York Nobody Knows
Walking 6,000 Miles in the City
William B. Helmreich
Read chapter 1: http://press.princeton.edu/chapters/s10060.pdf

 

#WhereInNYC Photo Quiz 4

Who can pinpoint this building near a New York landmark?

quiz

 

As featured in:

bookjacket

The New York Nobody Knows
Walking 6,000 Miles in the City
William B. Helmreich

Read chapter 1: http://press.princeton.edu/chapters/s10060.pdf

 

R.I.P. Librairie de France

Incroyable, n’est pas? C’est dommage…mais je suppose que c’est la vie. September 30 is the day of reckoning for the beloved seventy-four year old bookshop, Librairie de France in Rockefeller Center.  According to this New York Times blurb the rent is too much for the current owner and he will be forced to close.  This saddens me greatly.  I spent many a yuletide visit to New York with widened, childlike eyes, browsing the stacks and imagining myself in Paris instead of packed in, shoulder to shoulder, with the holiday matinee crowds.  The shuttering of the Librairie means that yet another little relic of Old Manhattan will disappear into the history books.

What are your memories of the Librairie de France and other long-gone vestiges of book culture?