To be asked to "Walk This Way" is no idle challenge when it involves walking down every last street in New York City. Anthony Mason can tell us all about THAT:
When Bill Helmreich set off to see New York City, not just the landmarks we know but the hidden gems, he knew it would be a long journey
"It's amazing how quickly it all adds up," he laughed, considering his journey has taken him, to date, 6,048 miles. "That is like walking to Los Angeles and back as the crow flies, and then another 971 miles to St. Louis. It was really a long walk!"
It had to be, if his mission was to write a book called "The New York Nobody Knows." He took his first steps in a leafy enclave near the city's outer border in Queens.
He says he's worn out nine pairs of shoes during his jaunts: "It's 30 miles a week, 120 a month, 1,500 a year, and in four years, you're at 6,000."
A professor of sociology at City College, the 69-year-old Helmreich walked almost every street -- nearly 125,000 blocks -- from the best-known, like Times Square in Manhattan, to the most remote.
The idea for Helmreich's book came from a game he played as a boy. His father called it "Last Stop." They'd hop the subway near their Manhattan apartment and ride it 'til the end of the line, then wander the city from there.
In Greenpoint, Brooklyn, Helmreich recalled, "After we ran out of the last stop, we'd go to the second-to-last stop. And then we'd go to the third-last stop. And, each time, it was totally, totally different."
For four years, through all four seasons, in all kinds of weather, Helmreich systematically walked the city, taking notes as he went about the places he saw and the people he met.
"If I could say anything about this city that sums it up, it's that it's the greatest outdoor museum in the world, " he said.
In an industrial neighborhood in Bushwick, Brooklyn, he stumbled upon an "art alley" ... an open-air explosion of expression.
"When you walk every block in New York you stumble upon things you would have never stumbled upon before," he said. "I couldn't believe that there was this fantastic place here filled with all sorts of murals."
More than 100 of them! He met local restaurant owner James Lauritz who explained how it started.
"We just wanted to do something to start improving the look of the area," Lauritz said. "And as soon as we put up a few murals along this one wall, it just kind of took off. We started getting permissions from more and more landlords, and artists started showing up wanting to do murals.
"It's really just kind of grown out of control!"
It all happened over the course of 3 ½ years. "Yeah, it's pretty crazy!" he said.
Further into Brooklyn, in Bensonhurst, on an otherwise quiet street, Helmreich found an inviting yard filled with superheroes and villains ... pop icons and starlets ... an homage to nostalgia known as "Steve's Playland." Steve Campanella has had the place for 14 years now.
Mason asked, "What's the idea behind all this?"
"Well, originally, it started out just for me personally to bring back a lot of my childhood memories," Campanella said. "I tried to bring it back to me, physically, into this garage. So when I go in there, it sets me back in time.
Campanella's personal playland is open to anyone who happens to stop by.
"You must have sunk a small fortune into this," said Mason.
"I did, but I don't think of it monetarily. This is strictly for my personal pleasure. I get a lot of joy out of doing it, and I get a lot of joy out of coming in here and just gazing now and then."
In the middle of the Bronx, Helmreich learned about a church where exorcisms were once performed -- and in Harlem, a special bike shop, run by a man who's sort of a doctor of bicycles. Donald Childs diagnoses a bicycle's problems with his fingers or a stethoscope:
"You know, I always wanted to be a doctor, but I never thought I was gonna be a doctor of bikes!" Childs said. "And everywhere I go, people say, 'Hey Doctor!'"
And out in the St. Albans neighborhood of Queens, Helmreich wandered through a lost center of black culture, whose residents (as depicted in a mural) have included Ella Fitzgerald, Lena Horne, John Coltrane, Fats Waller and James Brown.
In large part, Helmreich said, it was because of the railroad line: "This took them right into New York City and then it was an easy hop to the Savoy, to Roseland where they performed."
"It is an incredible concentration of talent in one area," said Mason.
"It really is."
When Helmreich had finally exhausted every corner of New York City, he came to the end of the road in Greenpoint, Brooklyn.
"This was mile 6,048," he said. "And I approached it feeling -- I wouldn't say relief, I felt exuberance. And, when I looked to the left, and I saw the Empire State Building and the Chrysler Building and all the iconic structures of New York City, of Manhattan, I felt this was a very, very fitting place to end the journey."
But "The New York Nobody Knows" has proved so popular, Bill Helmreich has been commissioned to write separate guides for each of the city's five boroughs. So he's off again on another journey that he expects will keep him walking for another decade.
For more info:
- "The New York Nobody Knows: Walking 6,000 Miles in the City" by William B. Helmreich (Princeton University Press); Also available in Trade Paperback and eBook formats
- Read a sample chapter (pdf)
- Coming soon: "The Brooklyn Nobody Knows: An Urban Walking Guide" by William B. Helmreich (Princeton University Press)
- William Helmreich, sociology professor at Colin Powell School and CUNY Graduate Center
- Follow Bill on Twitter at @nynobodyknows