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

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A hatchet job on the Daily Mail: Peter Wilby reviews Mail Men

Peter Wilby on Adrian Addison’s expletive-strewn history of the Daily Mail.

The Ukip leader Paul Nuttall recently claimed that he was among the crowd at the Hillsborough football stadium disaster in 1989 and that he lost close personal friends there, statements which suggest, at best, a flexible relationship with the truth. David English, the Daily Mail editor from 1971 to 1992, went one better. He claimed to have been in Dallas in November 1963 on the day John F Kennedy was assassinated. He was, he told Mail readers 25 years later, “part of the inner press circle which the Kennedys courted so assiduously” and: “We lived and travelled well, we President’s men . . . in brand new special planes.” In Dallas, he “witnessed the whole unbelievable scenario”. In fact, English, then based in New York for the Daily Express, was 1,600 miles away having a coffee break near his office. Adrian Addison’s riotously entertaining book is full of similar stories.

The present editor, Paul Dacre, has never been caught out in such flamboyant untruths. Yet, as Addison explains, the very appearance of the Daily Mail is based on a more subtle lie. Flick through its “human interest” features and you find “typical” Britons talking about their experience of relationships, crime, hospitals, schools, and so on. “Typical” in the Mail’s world means Mail readers as envisaged by its editor – white and middle class, not too fat or too thin, with smart but sensible clothes, hair and shoes, and free of tattoos and nose rings. A story does not, as editors say, “work” unless a picture shows the subjects conforming to this stereotype. If they don’t, make-up artists and hair stylists are despat­ched along with the correct clothing.

Addison, a BBC journalist for much of his career, has experience of tabloid journalism, though not at the Mail. Well over half his book is devoted to the editorships of English and his direct successor, Dacre, with the Mail’s first 75 years – including the familiar but still shocking story of its proprietor’s admiration for Hitler in the 1930s – dismissed in just 150 pages. The paper’s Sunday sister, launched in 1982, is mentioned only briefly.

In many respects, the book is a hatchet job. Dacre emerges, to quote Stephen Fry, as “just about as loathsome, self-regarding, morally putrid, vengeful and disgusting a man as it is possible to be”; English comes out very slightly better, thanks to personal charm and lavish parties; and the Mail Online’s publisher, Martin Clarke, who gets a chapter to himself, is portrayed as a cross between Vlad the Impaler and Fred West, redeemed, like Dacre, by demonic energy and undeniable success in attracting readers.

Like a good tabloid editor, Addison varies the tone, giving us occasional tear-jerking passages to show that even Mail editors have a human side. English befriends an ­office messenger boy, promises to find him a job in journalism if he gets an A-level in English, and proves as good as his word. Dacre, shy and socially clumsy, summons a features editor who had said the previous night, “You are mad, you know, Paul,” and asks, “I’m not really mad, am I?” Addison even deploys that old tabloid staple, the faithful, prescient dog. It belonged to Vere Harmsworth, the 3rd Viscount Rothermere and fourth Mail proprietor, who died in 1998 just 12 weeks after English, some said of a broken heart because the two had become so close. The day that Harmsworth, tax-exiled in France, was leaving home for London, where a heart attack killed him, his dog Ryu-ma refused to accompany the master to the airport in the chauffeur-driven car as it usually did.

The Harmsworths command a degree of admiration from many journalists. Of all the great newspaper dynasties – the Beaverbrooks, the Astors, the Berrys – they alone have stayed the course. The present proprietor, Jonathan Harmsworth, the 4th Viscount Rothermere, is the great-great-nephew of Alfred (“Sunny”) Harmsworth, who co-founded the paper in 1896. The Mail’s masthead hasn’t changed in 121 years, nor have several other things. Just as Sunny had only one Daily Mail editor until his death in 1922, Jonathan sticks by Dacre, allowing him to get on with his fanatical Brexiteering despite being a Remain sympathiser himself. So, too, did his father allow Dacre to denounce Tony Blair while he himself moved to the Labour benches in the House of Lords. Again like Sunny and Vere, Jonathan keeps accountants at arm’s length, giving the editor such generous budgets that the Mail scraps roughly two-thirds of the features it commissions yet still pays higher “kill” fees for them than other papers pay for the articles they print.

Other aspects of the Harmsworth legacy are less admirable. Most papers worried about the militarisation of Germany in the years before the First World War but, Addison writes, the Mail “raged”. Today, it is rage against immigrants, liberals, Greens, benefit claimants, human rights lawyers, the EU, overseas aid and a host of individuals from Polly Toynbee to Gary Lineker that oozes from almost every paragraph of the paper.

Many among what Dacre calls “the liberal elite” will find that Addison has written the exposé of the Mail that they always wanted to read. The inside story, with its unexpur­gated f***s and c***s, is as bad as you thought it was. But remember: the paper sells about 1.5 million copies a day, second only to the Sun. Its faults and virtues (there are some of the latter) owe nothing to marketing constructs, the proprietor’s business interests, party loyalties or anything other than the editor’s judgement as to what people will read. Denounce it by all means, but remember that millions of Britons love it.

Peter Wilby was the editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the NS from 1998 to 2005

Mail Men: The Story of the Daily Mail - the Paper that Divided and Conquered Britain by Adrian Addison is published by Oneworld (336pp, £20)

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article first appeared in the 16 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Brexit and the break-up of Britain