Theories and demographics are all very well, but to know New York City’s inner life you need to walk and talk
June 21, 2013
When I was nine, my father found a new form of entertainment for me. Whenever our schedules were free, we took the subway from Manhattan’s Upper West Side to the end of the line and walked around, exploring the neighbourhood. We saw swampy marshes in Canarsie, Brooklyn, public housing projects in Astoria, Queens, and beautiful, forested Van Cortlandt Park in the Bronx. One time, my father poked his head into a pub and everyone scattered. We never found out why.
In this way, I learned to love New York City. I still do. And over the past four years, partly in homage to New York, but largely to furnish material for a book-length study, I’ve walked some 6,000 miles across the city’s built-up terrain — that’s 120,000 blocks. The question, for a professional sociologist such as me, is: was this the best way to study a city?
Approached correctly, walking forces you to slow down and really look at what you’re seeing. Like the flâneurs of times past, one needs to stroll leisurely and engage people in conversations about how they feel about where they live, what they do, and how they perceive the place is changing. Had I driven through the city, along its highways and thoroughfares, I would have missed 90 per cent of what I found: the teeming life of the city’s backstreets, its parks and playgrounds, its outdoor and indoor eateries — all this would have remained invisible to me. Besides, driving (and for that matter, cycling) tend to mark you as an outsider, even if you live there. When you cover ground quickly, people assume you’re just passing through. But when you walk through a neighbourhood, people assume you’ve got reason to be there.
With walking, it’s the journey that’s the destination. The minute you begin observing, you’re there.
Six thousands miles might seem a ludicrous challenge but, like the proverbial mountain, you walk it one step at a time. A marathon runner could cover the ground I walked in 12 or 14 months, but my leisurely pace was both less strenuous, and much more systematic. I used street maps and marked off each street, correcting for haphazardness and habit, since people tend to stick to their routes and repeat patterns. I myself had lived in Washington Heights, in upper Manhattan, for eight years, and thought I knew its every part. I didn’t. I’d often walked 164th Street, but rarely 163rd. Ditto for 159th, as opposed to 158th Street. Returning to the area as a participant-observer, of the kind valued by urban ethnographers from the Chicago School of the 1920s, onwards, I discovered places I’d never seen before.
I often entered interior courtyards of buildings where I watched children playing games bounded by arcane rules that only they knew because they’d created them. I saw unique architectural details, not visible from the sidewalk. I entered apartment buildings and experienced the smells and sounds of urban life as it is experienced indoors. One time, a man allowed me to see his apartment on the 21st floor of a housing project. Inside, I discovered that the entire living space was done in bright red — the walls, tables, chairs, even the microwave oven and the clothes-hangers in his closet, not to mention the silverware, or, should I say, redware. Why? ‘I’ve always loved red,’ he said simply. The takeaway for me was that we can’t always fully explain human behaviour. My studied trespass brought home the fact that our tools are bounded by the limits of human understanding — ours and that of others.
Walking slowly through NYC, I saw things that a cyclist, threading through crowds, or trying to negotiate spaces filled with automobiles, couldn’t see. Could a cyclist look for more than a second at the fifth floor of a building on a narrow one-way street and notice the large letter ‘M’ carved into its façade, and then explore its meanings for the residents? Or look down at the sidewalk and discover the intricate designs of trellises, flowers, and leaves etched into its surface, without risking life or limb?
One of my aims with this project was to try to comprehend the actual physical process by which a neighbourhood gentrifies. I asked an Asian student emerging from an apartment building in what was once a sketchy part of Manhattan’s Washington Heights area if the neighbourhood’s ethnic population, once poor and mainly Hispanic, was changing. He told me it was becoming much more mixed. ‘But,’ I demurred, ‘the names next to the buzzers in your own building are almost all Hispanic.’ ‘That’s only because we haven’t had a chance to remove them and put our own names in yet,’ he said, with a twinkle in his eyes. And so I learned that reality isn’t always what you see. More important, I realised, you must ask questions, not simply observe.
The Hasidic neighbourhood of Williamsburg abuts the black community of Bedford-Stuyvesant at Flushing Avenue. On one side of the avenue are privately developed apartment buildings occupied solely by Hasidic families. On the other side, the Marcy Houses, a red-brick public housing project built in 1949, loom over the street. I saw three Hasidic children with velvet skullcaps and curly side-locks standing on a balcony, staring intently at a basketball game going on in the playground outside the Marcy Houses. Perhaps they were keeping score. Or perhaps they wanted to join in. This was the childhood home of rapper Jay-Z — so named, according to internet legend, because the J and Z subway lines run nearby. It looks and feels like a ‘don’t cross’ border.
New York City policy is to not tear down housing projects, but to rehabilitate them. Where will the Hasidim, with their explosive birth rate, go once their area has filled up? Walking through the project, I find out soon enough. They’ve built more apartment buildings deep in the black area beyond the project. It’s sort of like a river that, when blocked, simply flows around the barrier and continues.
‘We’re proud of what we’ve built here, and no one messes with this stuff. They wouldn’t dare.’
Walking through the project buildings, I learned something else. In stark contrast to the grim outward appearance from the main thoroughfare, there are beautiful gardens, created and maintained by the residents. Brilliantly coloured flowers grow here, as well as manicured shrubbery, which surrounds statues and drawings done by local residents. No one has vandalised them. ‘We’re proud of what we’ve built here, and no one messes with this stuff,’ an elderly woman sitting on a bench told me. ‘They wouldn’t dare.’
Walking along the newer structures beyond Flushing Avenue, where the Hasidim are still a minority, black, Hispanic and Hasidic children play ball together in the street. It’s the kind of contact that will probably soften their views about otherness as they grow into adults, working in this multi-racial city. The Hasidim are seen as insular, but are they as insular as children raised in the all-white Bronx community in Edgewater Park? In gentrifying areas, you see who talks to whom, and how comfortable they are by their body language. In taverns or restaurants, you see races intermingle, belying the stark categorisations of town planners, statisticians and theorists.
The delight is in the details. Had I not walked, I would never have met the man standing on his porch in Jamaica, Queens, watering a small, neatly kept garden filled with lovely, unusual flowers. ‘These flowers are beautiful,’ I remarked. ‘Where did you get them?’ ‘I’m so glad you asked,’ he replied softly. ‘They are flowers from my country, Guyana, which I love. I planted them to remind me of home.’
Here was an expression of the pain, even heartbreak, of leaving one’s native land, that no amount of probing dry statistics about remittances to the homeland, residential patterns, or ethnic credit associations could yield. And it opened a window for me on to the deeper struggles and hopes of immigrants.
To really understand the immigrant experience in New York City, you need to encounter immigrants on their own turf. The American approach of respecting, even celebrating, ethnicity can lead to the formation of communities isolated from larger society in ways that make their socioeconomic progress so much harder.
For example, there are neighbourhoods, parts of Bushwick and Washington Heights, where hardly anyone speaks English. You can’t get directions or buy something in a store unless you speak fairly good Spanish. I interviewed a Dominican building superintendent who has been living in the city for 27 years. He spoke no English. Why is that, I asked through his nine-year-old daughter, who was our translator. ‘Because I don’t have to in this neighbourhood.’ His daughter will have an easier time.
The hot-dog vendor from India explained that his life isn’t important. He’s doing it for his children
It’s not just about the language, but the importance of success and how it is measured by immigrants. I speak with a hot-dog vendor from India and ask him if this is what he dreamed of when he came here. It isn’t, he admitted, but then he explained that his life isn’t important. He’s doing it for his children. I found that immigrants are acutely conscious that they’re changing the trajectories of generations to come when they decide to emigrate from their often-impoverished homelands.
In Brooklyn, I came across a gentrifying block lined with brownstone dwellings. One of them featured a simple sign that read ‘P De Rosa — 180 — Grocery’. Underneath were neon signs for two old-time beers — Schaefer and Rheingold Extra Dry. It was clearly not a functioning establishment; so why was the sign there? After chatting with a woman sitting in front of a nearby house, I learned that it had been a grocery store many years ago. I tracked down Mr De Rosa’s grandson who explained that his family had kept the sign out of respect for his grandfather’s saga of immigration and hard work, eking out a living, his native village in southern Italy far behind him.
‘It’s a matter of respect,’ Mr De Rosa’s grandson said quietly. ‘For me it was an important lesson about filial love. Every Christmas and Easter, the neon lights are turned on for the beers that were advertised in the old days.’
And then there’s the ‘Halem Bike Doctor’ (the misspelling is deliberate), a man who fixes bicycles, sells them at unbelievably cheap prices, and then sponsors an annual Father’s Day bike race around adjacent Marcus Garvey Park, open only to ‘children with good grades’. Or the man whose small yard, and much larger garage, featured thousands of memorabilia items from the Brooklyn of the 1950s and ’60s. Memory and lived experience are everywhere layered together, then brought into relief by community characters such as these.
Without walking New York City block by block, I would never have known about these jewels, or had the opportunity to converse with the hundreds of people I encountered on my jaunts. Without walking the entire city, I would never have learned which of the things I found were representative of the city as a whole and which, on the other hand, were uniquely interesting and so worthy of inclusion in my book. Seeing and understanding these patterns and repetitions enables the researcher to see connections from one area to another, and to realise how it’s all part of an interconnected whole.
So often it was the chance encounter, followed by a spontaneous exchange, that led me to important insights. Walking one day through a somewhat hazardous part of Bushwick, Brooklyn, I came across a tall, burly black man walking four pit-bull terriers. What made the sight really unusual were the two boa constrictors curled around his neck. When a woman with a girl of about seven approached, he proclaimed: ‘Here, your child can pet these dogs!’ And when she drew back, he complained in a mocking tone: ‘Now you’re not being a nice New Yorker.’
I fell into step with him, and was surprised to find a man on the next block, also with a young child in tow, take him up on his offer. The man allowed his daughter to pet the dogs and then stood by admiringly as one of the boas encircled the fearless child. No one paid much attention to the black man, the snakes, or what he was saying. In a posher area, a crowd would have gathered, gaped at this menagerie, and most likely have called the police. After all, owning wild creatures in the city is illegal without a special permit. What the incident brought home to me was that the norms of behaviour in New York vary greatly, depending on where you are. ‘Big deal. This is Brooklyn,’ said one man when I asked what he thought of the scene.
I learned a similar lesson outside the Jackson Houses project in the South Bronx, when I asked a black woman if the area was dangerous. She told me that it most definitely was. When I informed her that the murder rate in the area had declined dramatically from about 2,000 deaths a year in the 1980s and ’90s to about 500 today, she retorted: ‘Oh yeah? Well, if the murder rate went down to 500 a year, then 400 of them is happening right outside my building.’ Perceptions of crime are relative. It might be down in overall numbers, but the distribution is what counts to those living in high-crime areas.
In a crowded metropolis, where people are busy, you find that the niceties of communication are frequently ignored. People don’t listen to you because they’re on the clock. That’s what happens in a large city, where, as the German sociologist Georg Simmel said a century ago, time rules the day. Yet when I asked if I could use a photocopier machine, because my daughter was getting married, the answer was ‘Sure.’ Or when I requested permission to use a bathroom, saying: ‘I’m going on vacation next week,’ I’d be told ‘Go ahead.’ As long as you at least say something, it’s fine. Perhaps Simmel overstated his case — since there are times when time doesn’t matter.
Some of my most intense and revealing conversations with strangers took place on the busiest of streets. Waiting for a bus on Brooklyn’s bustling Atlantic Avenue, a woman poured out her heart to me about her ‘mean and crazy sister’ who was stealing money from their joint bank account. Another person railed about how he’d been driven out of the community in which he grew up; while a third explained why his dream was to be a filmmaker.
There’s no question that walking a city, be it London, Paris, or New York is challenging, arduous and, at times, dangerous. Most cities do not have ideal climates. You can’t walk only when the weather is clement, or doing a project of this sort will take 20 years to complete. I walked in all four seasons, in light rain and in snow flurries. Sometimes I’d travel two hours to my starting point, just to walk for a single hour. You grab time when you can. I’d walk early in the morning, late at night, weekdays and weekends. I often had to walk four hours in a day to find, in the last minutes, the ‘gem of the day’. It’s highly intensive labour.
But the rewards make it immensely worthwhile, sociologically, and in human terms. Stride for stride, I believe there’s no better way to really know a city.
The New York Nobody Knows: Walking 6,000 Miles in the City (2013) by William Helmreich is published via Princeton University Press.