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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Notes from a small island: the fraught and colourful history of Sicily

Sicily: Culture and Conquest at the British Museum.

When a gun was fired a hundred metres or so from the Sicilian piazza where we were eating, my reaction was to freeze, fall to my knees, and then run for cover in a colonnade. As I peered back into the square from behind a column, I expected to see a tangle of overturned chairs and china but I watched instead as the freeze-frame melted into normality. I retrieved my shoe from the waiter.

I should not have been surprised by how coolly everyone else handled what I was inclined to call “the situation”. The Sicilians have had 4,000 years in which to perfect the art of coexistence, defusing conflict with what strikes outsiders as inexplicable ease, rendering Sicily one of the most culturally diverse but identifiable places on the planet. Still, having visited “Sicily: Culture and Conquest” at the British Museum, I feel vindicated. There may be no Cosa Nostra in this exhibition, which charts the island’s history from antiquity to the early 13th century, but that doesn’t mean there is no simmering conflict. Like Lawrence Durrell, who described Sicily as “thrown down almost in mid-channel like a concert grand” and as having “a sort of minatory, defensive air”, I felt the tension beneath the bliss that has characterised Sicily for many centuries.

The “barbarians”, wrote the Greek historian Thucydides, moved to Sicily from Iberia (Spain), Troy and Italy before the Phoenicians and Greeks settled there in the 8th century BC – the time of Homer, whose Odyssey provided a useful guide to some of the more threatening features of the landscape. The giant, sea-lying rocks off the east coast were the boulders that the one-eyed Polyphemus hurled at Odysseus’s ship; the phrase “between Scylla and Charybdis” referred to the Strait of Messina that divides Sicily from the mainland; Lake Pergusa, in the centre of the island, was the eerie spot whence Hades snatched Persephone and carried her down to the underworld.

It is a delight to behold the British Museum’s case full of terracotta figurines of Persephone, Demeter and their priestesses, some of thousands uncovered across Sicily, where the Greeks established the cult of these goddesses. The Phoenicians introduced their
own weather god, Baal Hammon, and the indigenous Sicilians seem to have accepted both, content that they honoured the same thing: the island’s remarkable fecundity.

The early Sicilians were nothing if not grateful for their agriculturally rich landscapes. As early as 2500 BC, they were finding ways to celebrate their vitality, the idea being that if the soil was fertile, so were they. On a stone from this period, intended as a doorway to a tomb, an artist has achieved the near impossible: the most consummate representation of the sexual act. Two spirals, two balls, a passage and something to fill it. The penis is barely worth mentioning. The ovaries are what dominate, swirling and just as huge as the testicles beneath them. We see the woman from both inside and out, poised on two nimble, straddling legs; the man barely figures at all.

Under the Greeks in the 5th century BC, it was a different story. Although many of Sicily’s tyrants were generous patrons of the arts and sciences, theirs was a discernibly more macho culture. The second room of the exhibition is like an ode to their sporting achievements: amid the terracotta busts of ecstatic horses and the vase paintings of wild ponies bolting over mounds (Sicily is exceptionally hilly) are more stately representations of horses drawing chariots. These Greek tyrants – or rather, their charioteers – achieved a remarkable number of victories in the Olympic and Pythian Games. Some of the most splendid and enigmatic poetry from the ancient world was written to celebrate their equestrian triumphs. “Water is best, but gold shines like gleaming fire at night, outstripping the wealth of a great man” – so begins a victory ode for Hiero I of Syracuse.

But what of the tensions? In 415BC, the Athenians responded to rivalries between Segesta and Syracuse by launching the Sic­ilian expedition. It was a disaster. The Athenians who survived were imprisoned and put to work in quarries; many died of disease contracted from the marshland near Syracuse. There is neither the space nor the inclination, in this relatively compact exhibition, to explore the incident in much depth. The clever thing about this show is that it leaves the historical conflicts largely between the lines by focusing on Sicily at its height, first under the Greeks, and then in the 11th century under the Normans – ostensibly “the collage years”, when one culture was interwoven so tightly with another that the seams as good as disappeared. It is up to us to decide how tightly those seams really were sewn.

Much is made of the multiculturalism and religious tolerance of the Normans but even before them we see precedents for fairly seamless relations between many different groups under the 9th-century Arab conquerors. Having shifted Sicily’s capital from Syracuse to Palermo, where it remains to this day, the Arabs lived cheek by jowl with Berbers, Lombards, Jews and Greek-Byzantine Sicilians. Some Christians converted to Islam so that they would be ­exempt from the jizya (a tax imposed on non-Muslims). But the discovery of part of an altar from a 9th-century church, displayed here, suggests that other Christians were able to continue practising their faith. The marble is exquisitely adorned with beady-eyed lions, frolicsome deer and lotus flowers surrounding the tree of life, only this tree is a date palm, introduced to Sicily – together with oranges, spinach and rice – by the Arabs.

Under Roger II, the first Norman king of Sicily, whose father took power from the Arabs, the situation was turned on its head. With the exception of the Palermo mosque (formerly a Byzantine church, and before that a Roman basilica), which had again become a church, mosques remained open, while conversion to Christianity was encouraged. Roger, who was proudly Catholic, looked to Constantinople and Fatimid Egypt, as well as Normandy, for his artistic ideas, adorning his new palace at Palermo and the splendidly named “Room of Roger” with exotic hunting mosaics, Byzantine-style motifs and inscriptions in Arabic script, including a red-and-green porphyry plaque that has travelled to London.

To which one’s immediate reaction is: Roger, what a man. Why aren’t we all doing this? But an appreciation for the arts of the Middle East isn’t the same thing as an understanding of the compatibilities and incompatibilities of religious faith. Nor is necessity the same as desire. Roger’s people – and, in particular, his army – were so religiously and culturally diverse that he had little choice but to make it work. The start of the Norman invasion under his father had incensed a number of Sicily’s Muslims. One poet had even likened Norman Sicily to Adam’s fall. And while Roger impressed many Muslims with his use of Arabic on coins and inscriptions, tensions were brewing outside the court walls between the
island’s various religious quarters. Roger’s death in 1154 marked the beginning of a deterioration in relations that would precipitate under his son and successor, William I, and his grandson William II. Over the following century and a half, Sicily became more or less latinised.

The objects from Norman Sicily that survive – the superb stone carvings and multilingual inscriptions, the robes and richly dressed ceiling designs – tell the story less of an experiment that failed than of beauty that came from necessity. Viewing Sicily against a background of more recent tensions – including Cosa Nostra’s “war” on migrants on an island where net migration remains low – it is perhaps no surprise that the island never lost its “defensive air”. Knowing the fractures out of which Sicily’s defensiveness grew makes this the most interesting thing about it. 

Daisy Dunn’s latest books are Catullus’ Bedspread and The Poems of Catullus (both published by William Collins)

“Sicily” at the British Museum runs until 14 August

This article first appeared in the 28 April 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The new fascism