William B. Helmreich can rattle off facts about New York City neighborhoods like a human Wikipedia.
In 2013, the CUNY sociology professor published his seminal guidebook, “The New York Nobody Knows,” for which he walked more than 6,000 miles throughout the city’s five boroughs.
Now the 73-year-old lifelong New Yorker has revisited most of Manhattan’s 721 miles for an all-new, stand-alone volume, “The Manhattan Nobody Knows” (out Dec. 4).
Helmreich spoke with amNewYork about the city he calls “the world’s greatest outdoor museum.”
What makes this guidebook different?
Two things. The emphasis is on things that are unknown about the borough, like the cave man — he’s 86 years old, he lives in a cave in Inwood Hill Park — or like the smallest . . . shoe repair store [in the city] on Grand Avenue on the Lower East Side . . . or like the secret place where [Russian President Vladimir] Putin met with the Russian Orthodox Church. [And] it’s based on conversations with hundreds of people in these neighborhoods. There really aren’t guidebooks that are built that way.
Did you already know about the guy in the cave or did you just happen upon him?
I vaguely had heard about him . . . and one day when I was walking through the park I heard a radio or something, deep in the woods, being played, so I follow the radio and I went up a hill, and suddenly I see this old guy sitting in this cave and he’s listening to his transistor radio, like something from out of the ’80s. And I say to him, “Excuse me, I didn’t want to interrupt your lunch, but are you the guy who lives in the cave?” And he says, “Yes I am, my name is Sabas, S-A-B-A-S.” I say, “Who are you?” He says, “I’m the creature from the creation.” And we started a whole discussion, and he was so articulate.
Do you have a favorite neighborhood?
Not really. I like ’em all. . . . You know, the fact is you’ve got some people that they tell you their stories, how they fought in the Vietnam War or World War II, and they can put you to sleep with their stories. Then you got other people they can talk to you about the weather and they can make it interesting. So every neighborhood has the potential to be interesting, you just have to find out what’s in it.
Is the city on the right track?
Listen, the more you think positively during the day, the better your day is going to be. There’s lots of negatives, there’s lots of problems in New York City, but there’s a lot of good stories. And you have a choice. You can’t control everything. You can’t control everything that’s going on in the city, so don’t bother. Just take it as it is. Look, see the glass as half full rather than half empty. That’s my motto.