When he was a child, City College sociologist William Helmreich says he and his father played a game called “Last Stop”: they would leave the Upper West Side, where they lived, and go to the last stop of a subway line to explore the area on foot.
As an adult, Helmreich has expanded the idea for his academic work, most recently in Brooklyn, where he walked nearly 1,000 miles around the borough during 2014 and 2015. Eighty miles a week, two pairs of Rockports and hundreds of conversations later, he came up with “The Brooklyn Nobody Knows: An Urban Walking Guide.”
In that book, released this fall, Helmreich extols the diverse and varied world of Brooklyn from botanicos in Bushwick to gaudy mansions in distant Mill Basin. He displays an understanding deeper than Dekalb Avenue or Havemeyer Street, laying out the richness of Kings County. But beneath the one-love, nostalgic packaging, the book captures the real divisions running through the borough into the present, particularly concerning race and ethnicity.
Packed tightly, but still divided
He can’t escape it no matter where he goes in the borough.
In Fort Greene he meets a mail carrier who says that twenty years ago “even me, a black man, was worried about walking here.”
In Canarsie, Helmreich writes that an elderly woman with “a heavy Yiddish accent” tells him “Sometimes, they lookin’ on me, the blacks. . . But I don’t care. Dey don’t bodder me.”
Divisions are stark between gentrifiers who often have more money and locals of different ethnicities. “They avoid each other,” says a Palestinian diner owner about the two groups. The owner himself keeps a sign reading “Bathrooms for customers only” because “some people come in here, they homeless and they’re really gonna mess up the bathroom and then it’s a big job cleaning it.” He let Helmreich use it, though.
Most everywhere he goes, Helmreich finds noteable ethnic clusters: Asians living with Asians, Orthodox Jews with Orthodox Jews, Italians with Italians. When groups make incursions into new neigborhoods, they are often followed by others with similar backgrounds. When they are left behind, they note the discomfort.
On the optimistic side, Helmreich points to places like Kensington, for example, where immigrants from places as far-flung as Uzbekistan, Israel, China, Senegal and Egypt tolerantly coexist. Even where neighborhoods are mostly homogenous, he notes that bordering neighborhoods can be wildly different, and when people work or go to school or visit friends they often cross those ethnic boundaries. He is hopeful about “ethnic succession,” the changing face of neighborhoods like Dyker Heights, which was once largely Italian and has had growing numbers of Asian-American newcomers.
But that turnover hasn’t necessarily resulted in anything more than wholesale shifts of populations from one place to another. He visited a playground in Prospect Heights, for example, which five years earlier had been filled with African-American children and white children in equal numbers. On his last visit, it was largely white — the gentrifying neighborhood didn’t result in lasting integration.
Racial and ethnic divisions are perhaps the realist prism, frank if uncomfortable, through which to view New York City, and Brooklyn in particular. Tuesday was the 30th anniversary of the death of Michael Griffith, the Trinidadian-American construction worker who was fatally struck by a car while running from a white mob in Howard Beach, just over the border in Queens. He and two friends had been chased for the crime of having their car broken down in a largely white area. Those in the chase group reportedly used ethnic slurs and asked “What are you doing in this neighborhood”?
Can we bridge the divide?
Some New Yorkers still feel unwelcome in neighborhoods where they look different. Helmreich was walking Brooklyn in the wake of Eric Garner’s death at the hands of police in Staten Island. Schmaltzy, dese-dose-dem Brooklyn has evolved at the same time as race relations have gotten better, but the divisions and tensions are still there, just below the surface and in our neighborhood maps.
“The Brooklyn Nobody Knows” underscores the fact that the borough is basically composed of various racial and ethnic silos that aren’t frequently escaped.
Combined with the always looming threat of gentrification, the silos mean that fear of displacement is very real. Recent history shows that newcomers tend to change neighborhoods and their ethnic makeup, a deep problem for politicians and planners looking to guide Brooklyn into the future.
Helmreich’s method provides a little solace: with the confidence of a man who is rarely turned away, he just walks through neighborhoods of all types and talks to people.
Through that, he gets a pretty accurate snapshot of the borough, and no portion of it is strange or off-putting to him. Likewise, the people he meets are happy to talk with this stranger and fellow New Yorker, though he might hail from many neighborhoods distant.
The conversations don’t change the reality, but at least they’re an attempt to probe the gap.