An interview with William B. Helmreich, author of The Brooklyn Nobody Knows: An Urban Walking Guide
You’ve walked so many miles, 6,000 for the first book and now another 800 for the Brooklyn volume. How did this idea come about?
When I was a kid growing up in New York, my father invented a game called “Last Stop.” to keep me occupied. Every weekend we’d take a subway to the last stop. And then we’d walk around whatever neighborhood it was in. When we went to Canarsie, I looked at what was then just marshland and remember how my teacher told me he’d send me to Canarsie if I didn’t behave. And when I saw how desolate the area was in those days I became a more obedient student. In Throgs Neck I saw people pulling fish out of the water. So that’s where they came from. I said to myself. I had assumed they just came from the tank in the fish store. I was a city kid. I went on these trips from the age of 7 until 12. And that’s how I came to love NYC.
Brooklyn has so many varied neighborhoods. DUMBO and Boerum Hill are gentrified and they’re nothing like Gravesend or Flatlands. What unites them?
One thing that unites them is change. Boerum Hill is gentrifying, with many young people moving in. Flatlands is becoming home to larger numbers of Orthodox Jews and Gravesend has a growing Russian populations. DUMBO has more professionals moving in as opposed to the earlier generation of artists.
Were you afraid when you walked in unsafe areas like East New York or Brownsville?
Not really. First of all, even areas thought of as dangerous are relatively safe by day. We have 300 murders a year as opposed to the 90s when over 2,000 people were being killed. Also, 80 percent of these murders are at the hands of people who knew each other. Another important reason was my approach. Most people think they have to put on a tough-guy face when they’re in these areas. That’s wrong. You’re not going to scare people. They can see through you. When ever I saw bad-looking types and in general, with anybody, as soon as I made eye contact, I smiled and greeted them with a big hello. “How ya doin?” I’d say. And this was such a counter-intuitive approach that they melted.
How has Brooklyn changed demographically over time?
In the old days Italians, Jews, and Irish were the major groups. Today, the main groups taking over Brooklyn are Asians, mostly Chinese; Blacks, especially West Indians and Africans; Orthodox Jews, especially Hasidim; Hispanics, most notably Puerto Ricans and Mexicans; and, finally, gentrifiers.
What were some of the most interesting things you saw in Brooklyn?
There were so many things. The man in Bergen Beach who put 1,140 stuffed animals on his tree; the Greenpoint park devoted to plants and trees that produced materials used in industry; the man in Gowanus who kept the grocery store sign in large gold letters in the first floor window of his brownstone out of respect for his Italian grandfather’s struggle to earn a living in America.
Is gentrification good for Brooklyn?
That depends how you look at it and who you are. Let’s say, you’re a black homeowner and you want to make a killing. A white gentrifier offers you 15 times what you paid for it. Suddenly you’re rich and you can buy that farm in North Carolina and retire. But what if you’re a black homeowner living in Bed-Stuy and you want the neighborhood to preserve its history as a center for black history and culture? Then you might feel uncomfortable selling to a white buyer. Gentrification often prices working class-people and the poor out of a neighborhood. But it also results in improved services with respect to sanitation, police patrols, etc. because the gentrifiers have clout. What if new developments have affordable housing units? Is that bad or good and for who? One thing we know nothing about is where those displaced by gentrification went? Did they go to other parts of the same neighborhood? Did they go South or West? Are they in Long Island? We need to know these outcomes if we’re to understand what’s happening here.