Focus less on how all of Manhattan’s 120,000 blocks can be walked and spend more time with the sociological findings

A sociologist who has walked every block of Manhattan shares what he learned in a new book:

The result is his new book, The New York Nobody Knows: Walking 6,000 Miles in the City. The expansive sociological study relies on Helmreich’s on-the-ground research, culled from thousands of hours of observation and casual conversations with local residents, to help parse hot-button issues like immigration, assimilation, and gentrification. But more than that, the miles and miles clocked – he wore out nine pairs of shoes in his trek across the city – come through as a sort of extensive love letter to the frenetic energy and diversity of New York…

For non-New Yorkers, the time the book spends on the outer boroughs is a fairly obvious corrective for what Helmreich sees as the tourism-generated, Manhattan-centric view of New York. And for all its diversity – the book spends hundreds of pages on the immigrant communities of the city – New York comes off as an inextricably linked web of groups that constantly must interact, change, and adjust. “It’s almost as if you dropped a hundred towns in Nebraska into the middle of the city,” Helmreich says. But what sets New York apart, he adds, is that “there’s this duality to New York that you can be in these places, but you can also be in the city.” Even those who live in more isolated pockets, such as the waterfront community of Edgewater Park in the Bronx, have a sense of connectedness…

By necessity, given the size of the city, Helmreich calls his book no more than a much-needed “introductory work” to the diversity of New York City. His method is, in some ways, a throw back to a much earlier form of social criticism, when walking was curiously in vogue for the self-styled intellectuals and elites of 19th century Europe. Think of Charles Dickens’s night walks through London or the well-dressed flâneurs of Paris. And it’s one that anyone can learn from. “If I accomplish anything besides sociology,” Helmreich says, “it’s to encourage people to walk through what I call the greatest museum in the world.”

Interesting findings that could suggest how disparate communities within a larger community understand their place in the whole. Additionally, there is a lot of potential here to detail the New York that most of its residents know, not the big money Wall Street/hedge fund world or the celebrity/glamorous crowd.

However, this article goes more for the human interest angle than the actual findings of the book. While it may be interesting to detail how a single person was able to walk the whole city, it may not mean much if they weren’t very observant or didn’t find much of interest. Rather then calling this an “epic quest,” how about thinking through what this methodology leads to compared to traditional ethnographic work that calls for spending extended time with a more limited group of people? How does this compare with other studies of American streets, such as the work of Jane Jacobs looking at places like Greenwich Village and Rittenhouse Square (Philadelphia), Elijah Anderson examining street life in poor Philadelphia neighborhoods, or Mitchell Duneier analyzing how black street vendors utilize public sidewalk space in New York City? Even as New York City gets a lot of attention, this seems like a lost opportunity to highlight how a sociologist (versus a journalist or a reality TV show or an academic from another discipline) views the street-level operation of the world’s #1 global city.

0 thoughts on “Focus less on how all of Manhattan’s 120,000 blocks can be walked and spend more time with the sociological findings

  1. Pingback: Sociologists walking every block not just in New York City | Legally Sociable

  2. Pingback: Another person walks all 6,000 miles of New York City | Legally Sociable

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