You could say that William Helmreich knows New York City in ways that few others do. A sociologist who mines the city’s streetscapes for his research, he has walked almost every block of the city, from the Grand Concourse to the Rockaways. His award-wining book about the city, “The New York Nobody Knows,” has inspired a series of urban walking guides; the first is “The Brooklyn Nobody Knows” (Princeton University Press). Helmreich, a distinguished professor of sociology at the City University of New York and author of 15 books, walked 816 miles through all of Brooklyn’s 44 neighborhoods.
Q.: Why did you begin the series with Brooklyn?
A.: Because Brooklyn at the moment is the hottest borough. And people know less about Brooklyn than Manhattan. It’s a kaleidoscopic borough with neighborhoods that are very different — you can’t compare Cobble Hill with Gravesend, or Bay Ridge with East New York.
As a sociologist, what do you bring to the conversation that, say, a tour guide would not?
What I bring is the story of urbanization, housing structure, gentrification. I pursue things that others don’t: In Bergen Beach, a man put 1,140 stuffed animals in a tree. I talk to him, find out what motivated him, how the neighbors responded. If I go to a church in the Bronx that does exorcisms, I want to know how local people react. I’m interested in how people in neighborhoods interact, not just about how tall a building is or what happened 100 years ago. When I look at the chasidic community in Williamsburg, I’m interested in knowing how the community is going to develop in the future.
I’m interested in a very Solomonic compromise in Manhattan Beach. Corbin Street is named after Austin Corbin, a developer and outspoken anti-Semite. About five years ago, Jewish residents went to a community board meeting to petition to have the street name removed. But it’s hard to change the name of the street, so the local community board kept the name, but named it after a different Corbin: Margaret Corbin, the first woman injured in the Revolutionary War. So, nothing changed and everything changed, and the people felt recognized.
What is your process like?
I walk through neighborhoods. I pick up conversations. I never plan my outings in advance. I like to see how people walk on the streets, who is in the shops and whether people mix, what posters are on the walls, who’s performing.
You speak of change as a defining characteristic of the borough. Is that true in Jewish neighborhoods?
The Orthodox neighborhoods are not changing that much. What’s happening, for one, is that the children of Orthodox Jews who grew up in Flatbush are moving further into Marine Park and Flatlands — you can see more synagogues and kosher restaurants springing up. I saw a sign in an aquarium shop, “Take home a gefilte fish.”
What’s next in terms of up-and-coming neighborhoods?
Crown Heights is in process. Greenpoint continues to be gentrified. Same with Vinegar Hill, Gowanus, Dumbo. Windsor Terrace, where Pete Hamill grew up and wrote about, is starting to become gentrified. Bedford Stuyvesant and Bushwick, too.
Do you see conflicts in Williamsburg, say between chasidim and gentrifiers?
The conflicts have mostly calmed down. People have come to accommodate, to respect each other’s religion. People might come in shorts to a chasidic bakery, and the people look the other way, literally and figuratively.
How is Brooklyn today most different from the Brooklyn of several decades ago?
Today, nobody runs anymore. They’re not leaving neighborhoods. There are areas where gentrifiers live cheek to jowl with housing projects. … This is such a fluid city. When I come across Muslim and Jewish kids playing together, say in Owls Head Park in Bay Ridge, there are opportunities for contact that they didn’t have before.
How many pairs of walking shoes did you go through in writing this book?
Two pairs of Rockports.