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.

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) 
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.

This article first appeared in the 07 October 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The last days of Nelson Mandela

Photo: Channel 4
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Who will win Great British Bake Off 2017 based on the contestants’ Twitters

An extremely serious and damning investigation. 

It was morning but the sky was as dark as the night – and the night was as dark as a quite dark rat. He walked in. A real smooth gent with legs for seconds. His pins were draped in the finest boot-cut jeans money could buy, and bad news was written all over his face. “I’m Paul,” he said. “I know”. My hooch ran dry that night – but the conversation never did. By nightfall, it was clear as a see-through rat.   

Some might say that going amateur detective to figure out which contestants win and lose in this year’s Great British Bake Off is spoiling the fun faster than a Baked Alaska left out of the freezer. To those people I’d say: yes. The following article is not fun. It is a serious and intense week-by-week breakdown of who will leave GBBO in 2017. How? Using the contestants’ Twitter and Instagram accounts, of course.

The clues are simple but manifold, like a rat with cousins. They include:

  • The date a contestant signed up for social media (was it during, or after, the competition?)
  • Whether a contestant follows any of the others (indicating they had a chance to bond)
  • A contestant’s personal blog and headshots (has the contestant already snaffled a PR?)
  • Pictures of the contestant's baking.
  • Whether a baker refers to themselves as a “baker” or “contestant” (I still haven’t figured this one out but FOR GOD’S SAKE WATSON, THERE’S SOMETHING IN IT)

Using these and other damning, damning, damning clues, I have broken down the contestants into early leavers, mid-season departures, and finalists. I apologise for what I have done.

Early leavers

Kate

Kate appears not to have a Twitter – or at least not one that the other contestants fancy following. This means she likely doesn’t have a book deal on the way, as she’d need to start building her social media presence now. Plus, look at how she’s holding that fork. That’s not how you hold a fork, Kate.

Estimated departure: Week 1

Julia

This year’s Bake Off began filming on 30 April and each series has ten episodes, meaning filming ran until at least 9 July. Julia first tweeted on 8 May – a Monday, presumably after a Sunday of filming. Her Instagram shows she baked throughout June and then – aha! – went on holiday. What does this mean? What does anything mean?

Estimated departure: Week 2

James

James has a swish blog that could indicate a PR pal (and a marketing agency recently followed him on Twitter). That said, after an April and May hiatus, James began tweeting regularly in June – DID HE PERHAPS HAVE A SUDDEN INFLUX OF FREE TIME? No one can say. Except me. I can and I am.

Estimated departure: Week 3

Tom

Token-hottie Tom is a real trickster, as a social media-savvy youngster. That said, he tweeted about being distracted at work today, indicating he is still in his old job as opposed to working on his latest range of wooden spoons. His Instagram is suspiciously private and his Twitter sparked into activity in June. What secrets lurk behind that mysteriously hot face? What is he trying to tell me, and only me, at this time?

Estimated departure: Week 4

Peter

Peter’s blog is EXCEPTIONALLY swish, but he does work in IT, meaning this isn’t a huge clue about any potential managers. Although Peter’s bakes look as beautiful as the moon itself, he joined Twitter in May and started blogging then too, suggesting he had a wee bit of spare time on his hands. What’s more, his blog says he likes to incorporate coconut as an ingredient in “everything” he bakes, and there is absolutely no bread-baking way Paul Hollywood will stand for that.

Estimated departure: Week 5

Mid-season departures

Stacey

Stacey’s buns ain’t got it going on. The mum of three only started tweeting today – and this was simply to retweet GBBO’s official announcements. That said, Stacey appears to have cooked a courgette cake on 9 June, indicating she stays in the competition until at least free-from week (or she’s just a massive sadist).

Estimated departure: Week 6

Chris

Chris is a tricky one, as he’s already verified on Twitter and was already solidly social media famous before GBBO. The one stinker of a clue he did leave, however, was tweeting about baking a cake without sugar on 5 June. As he was in London on 18 June (a Sunday, and therefore a GBBO filming day) and between the free-from week and this date he tweeted about bread and biscuits (which are traditionally filmed before free-from week in Bake Off history) I suspect he left just before, or slap bang on, Week 7. ARE YOU PROUD NOW, MOTHER?

Estimated departure: Week 7

Flo

Flo’s personal motto is “Flo leaves no clues”, or at least I assume it is because truly, the lady doesn’t. She’s the oldest Bake Off contestant ever, meaning we can forgive her for not logging onto the WWWs. I am certain she’ll join Twitter once she realises how many people love her, a bit like Val of seasons past. See you soon, Flo. See you soon.

Estimated departure: Week 8

Liam

Liam either left in Week 1 or Week 9 – with 0 percent chance it was any of the weeks in between. The boy is an enigma – a cupcake conundrum, a macaron mystery. His bagel-eyed Twitter profile picture could realistically either be a professional shot OR taken by an A-Level mate with his dad’s camera. He tweeted calling his other contestants “family”, but he also only follows ONE of them on the site. Oh, oh, oh, mysterious boy, I want to get close to you. Move your baking next to mine.

Estimated departure: Week 9

Finalists

Steven

Twitter bios are laden with hidden meanings and Steven Carter-Bailey’s doesn’t disappoint. His bio tells people to tune in “every” (every!) Tuesday and he has started his own hashtag, #StevenGBBO. As he only started tweeting 4 August (indicating he was a busy lil baker before this point) AND his cakes look exceptionally lovely, this boy stinks of finalist.  

(That said, he has never tweeted about bread, meaning he potentially got chucked out on week three, Paul Hollywood’s reckoning.)

Sophie

Sophie’s Twitter trail is the most revealing of the lot, as the bike-loving baker recently followed a talent agency on the site. This agency represents one of last year’s GBBO bakers who left just before the finale. It’s clear Sophie’s rising faster than some saffron-infused sourdough left overnight in Mary’s proving drawer. Either that or she's bolder than Candice's lipstick. 

Chuen-Yan

Since joining Twitter in April 2017, Yan has been remarkably silent. Does this indicate an early departure? Yes, probably. Despite this, I’m going to put her as a finalist. She looks really nice. 

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.