William B Heimreich and Sudhir Venkatesh: Failing to make sense of New York City

There’s something entertaining about the reader’s gradual realisation that Helmreich is not just some walking data recorder but rather, quite possibly, the Whitest Man in the World.

New York City.
I am a camera: Anne Collier’s Developing Tray #2 (2012) explored identity on New York’s High Line. Image courtesy of the artist and Antonkern Gallery, New York and Friends of the High Line.
The New York Nobody Knows: Walking 6,000 Miles in the City
William B Helmreich
Princeton University Press, 480pp, £19.95
 
Floating City: Hustlers, Strivers, Dealers, Call Girls and Other Lives in Illicit New York
Sudhir Venkatesh
Allen Lane, 304pp, £20
 
Those who know New York City primarily through tourism or mass culture may think of us natives as possessing certain shared characteristics, not all of them flattering. But the true, volatile charisma of New York lies in how balkanised it is.
 
There are numerous New Yorks, many of which, having lived here for a total of 34 years, I have never set foot in – not because they are “dangerous” but because I would be culturally more disoriented in Tottenville or Bay Ridge than I would be in Kensington or Tokyo. The better you understand the city, the harder it resists any effort to synthesise its many social and cultural features into one face.
 
Unfortunately, abjuring synthesis is not how most academics make their living. To be fair, The New York Nobody Knows has a wonderfully simple, low-tech conceit: its author, the City College sociology professor William B Helmreich, spent four years and wore out nine pairs of shoes walking every block in all five boroughs of New York City. He did this partly in homage to his late father, who used to take him on weekend outings on which they would pick a random subway line, ride it all the way to the end and explore whatever strange area they found themselves in.
 
Fifty-odd years later, Helmreich averaged 32 miles a week on foot, stopping strangers along the way and asking them to talk into a tape recorder about their lives and their neighbourhoods, all the while wearing black socks and white shoes, because he had determined this look to be the least alarming to strangers. If there is such a thing as the soul of a true New Yorker, cheerfully obsessive madness such as this comes close to it.
 
The shame of it is that Helmreich, obeying some combination of essential modesty and academic dictate, never lets himself give in to the magnificent personal quirkiness of his project. Instead, he has the mistaken idea that he’s engaged in a purely objective scientific study of New York and its denizens, using the “ethnographic method” (that is, meeting people and talking to them). Having walked the entire city, he has a great, idiosyncratic story to tell, one presumably full of rich and unforeseeable anecdotes; but he is determined to pass it off as a work of scholarship, which it decidedly is not.
 
Much of The New York Nobody Knows – its in-your-face title notwithstanding – has the tone of a very basic textbook, which may well be exactly what Helmreich was going for. The banality of it is sometimes breathtaking: “An important question is how to decide when a building is worth preserving. How do we determine what’s beautiful? . . . Usually it’s experts who make these decisions.” Surely he didn’t need to stroll the length and breadth of Elmhurst to figure that one out?
 
Even when Helmreich does try to cite his hikes as research, the results are bland. That he happens to walk through an affluent neighbourhood of Staten Island at the moment five police cars show up in pursuit of a suspect leads him to conclude, “No area, no matter how crime-free it seems to be, is completely safe.”
 
Such anecdotal observations have the banality of academic science but none of the rigour – to say nothing of one’s dispiriting sense that the author knew what “conclusions” he was looking for before he went out to find them.
 
Helmreich’s method throughout this book is to put forth stale, sunny generalities – immigrants will be OK, he suggests, because they work hard and have an “entrepreneurial spirit”; the city’s graffiti and street murals are sometimes “creative” and even “interesting”; in neighbourhoods such as SoHo and Bushwick, “Artists have often preceded wealthy gentrifiers”; some of the panhandlers in wheelchairs in fact are not paralysed but others probably are; “Contrary to the stereotype . . . most New Yorkers are friendly, outgoing, gregarious and eager to help”; “The trauma of 9/11 has become a permanent part of New Yorkers’ consciousness” and so on – and then to cherry-pick anecdotes from his four-year march to support them.
 
In the end, he falls short of his desire for objectivity anyway – a failure that, paradoxically, produces the book’s chief pleasures. For one thing, he is clearly in love with his native city and cheerleads for it relentlessly. His central conclusion is that New York is “enjoying a tremendous renaissance” (his italics) and has never been in better shape than it is right now.
 
He pays lip-service to crime and racial tensions but never once mentions other sorts of social unrest. A particularly glaring omission is any mention of the Occupy Wall Street movement or the shocking – and still growing – income disparity that gave rise to it. Nothing can dim the rose tint of his glasses; I cannot bring myself to quote his look-on-the-bright-side description of the Aids crisis.
 
There’s something entertaining about the reader’s gradual realisation that Helmreich is not just some walking data recorder but rather, quite possibly, the Whitest Man in the World. It’s not just his age, or his ethnicity, or his sensible walking shoes, or that he has appeared as a guest on Fox News, or even that he still uses the term “ghetto” to describe African-American neighbourhoods such as Brownsville. It’s that he seems so astonishingly deaf to the tone of passages such as this one:
 
Those who came here illegally in recent years are most likely to be Mexicans or Chinese. Walk into almost any restaurant in New York City and yell “Immigration!” and you will discover they are there as they race out the back door.
 
Or this one, describing neighbourhoods such as Harlem:
 
What makes these communities attractive to [middle-class black people] is that they don’t have to feel self-conscious about being black, that they can express – even celebrate – their black identity and transmit that to their own children.
 
I feel embarrassed just reading that; yet I also wish there were more of it. Helmreich seems like an appealingly strange guy, who walked out of his door one morning in search of unexpectedly kindred spirits and didn’t return, figuratively speaking, for years. What makes him sympathetic is his unabashed enthusiasm; however, that enthusiasm to contain the whole city in one volume has caused him to overlook the best, most eccentric New York story at his disposal, which surely was his own.
 
Sudhir Venkatesh, of Columbia University, is what’s known as a rock-star academic. The crossover success of his previous book, Gang Leader for a Day, made him a big enough name that university sociology departments battled each other to hire him. He is brash and iconoclastic, dismissive of the kind of starchy, rule-bound, ivory-tower tradition that Helmreich embodies.
 
Venkatesh’s new book, Floating City, which recounts his decade-long exploration of economic relations in New York’s various underworlds – chiefly prostitution, with a little cocaine-selling mixed in – has two things in common with The New York Nobody Knows: it, too, aspires to a grand synthesis, comparing lower-class “criminal economies” to the movements and relationships of the city’s elite. And it is almost comically tone-deaf to itself. It is one of the most remarkable books I have ever read, though not in any good ways.
 
“If you went too deep into storytelling, you were labelled a journalist,” is how Venkatesh explains his career dilemma as a selfdescribed “rogue sociologist”. “If you went too far into hard-nosed, number-crunching science, you were doomed to the bookshelves of specialists.” Fair enough. Yet his solution is to choose a third path, which is that of pathological narcissism.
 
Where one longs for Helmreich to drop the pretence of scientific inquiry and just write a memoir, one wearies even more quickly of Venkatesh’s inability to focus on anything other than himself for more than a few paragraphs at a time. His new book is little more than a vanity project, a tedious series of selfies with various dealers and madams and whores, and there is never any question that is more interesting to the author – neither his subjects nor the drama of his heroic efforts to understand them.
 
At one point, Venkatesh finds himself beside the young son of an Indian immigrant who works as a clerk in an adult video store. “Sitting with him felt comfortable,” he writes of this encounter. “With his brown skin and quiet, introspective skill at amusing himself while the adults were busy, he seemed like a younger version of myself.”
 
This is by no means an isolated slip; all of Venkatesh’s subjects are mirrors. “We sat back,” he writes at another moment of himself and a black drug dealer he calls Shine, “absorbing the similarity of our problems.” One doubts that this was what Shine was thinking in that moment, but no matter; he and his cohorts are thin pretexts for writing about what interests Venkatesh, which is his career. “The clock was ticking at Columbia. I had to research and publish enough material to make a case for tenure before too much more time passed.” His marriage is in trouble, too. It all causes him to wonder whether his work is even worthwhile. The existence of this entirely unnecessary book eliminates any suspense as to how he resolved that crisis of confidence.
 
Only in an author’s note at the end of Floating City are we privileged to learn that all the hard data Venkatesh has written so angstily about gathering will appear in some other book entirely, a book of a more academic stripe, a book that he has not yet got around to writing. This volume is supposed to be more popular, more accessible. Which is a laudable goal, though it is hard to believe that Venkatesh’s interest was in finding a broader audience for the discipline of sociology in general, or even for his findings in particular.
 
For he is engaged in brand-building here and the brand is himself. I suppose that he achieved his goal by one measure: after finishing his book, I googled him and it didn’t take long to learn that he is indeed well known in the academic world, though surely not for the reasons he would like to be.
 
A few of the characters in Floating City – the upwardly mobile Shine and Margot, the former Wall Street wife-turned-entrepreneurial hooker – are compelling, or they would be if Venkatesh could stand to cede the spotlight to them.
 
The classic New York personages in both books under review are ultimately their authors: smart, hard-working men, in generational conflict, foiled by different sorts of overambition. New York is ultimately not the synthesis but merely the sum of its unfathomable subjectivities, its personal histories, its uncategorisable figures. To be allowed to throw the little log of one’s testimony on to that eternal blaze should be aspiration enough for any New York writer.
 
Jonathan Dee is a novelist and critic. His latest book, “A Thousand Pardons”, is out now (Corsair, £7.99)