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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Ken Clarke: Theresa May has “no idea” what to do about Brexit

According to the former Chancellor, “nobody in the government has the first idea of what they’re going to do next”.

Has Ken Clarke lost the greatest political battle of his career? He doesn’t think so. With his shoes off, he pads around his Westminster office in a striped shirt, bottle-green cords and spotty socks. Parliament’s most persistent Europhile seems relaxed. He laughs at the pervasive phrase that has issued from Downing Street since Theresa May became Prime Minister: “Brexit means Brexit.”

“A very simple phrase, but it didn’t mean anything,” he says. His blue eyes, still boyish at 76, twinkle. “It’s a brilliant reply! I thought it was rather witty. It took a day or two before people realised it didn’t actually answer the question.”

A former chancellor of the Exchequer, Clarke has served in three Conservative cabinets. His support for the European Union is well known. He has represented the seat of Rushcliffe in Nottinghamshire for 46 years, and his commitment to the European project has never wavered over the decades. It has survived every Tory civil war and even his three failed attempts to be elected Tory leader, standing on a pro-Europe platform, in 1997, 2001 and 2005.

“My political career looks as though it will coincide with Britain’s membership of the EU,” Clarke says, lowering himself into an armchair that overlooks the Thames. There are model cars perched along the windowsill – a hint of his love of motor racing.

Clarke won’t be based here, in this poky rooftop room in Portcullis House, Westminster, much longer. He has decided to step down at the next election, when he will be nearly 80. “I began by campaigning [in the 1960s] in support of Harold Macmillan’s application to enter [the EU], and I shall retire at the next election, when Britain will be on the point of leaving,” he says grimly.

Clarke supports Theresa May, having worked with her in cabinet for four years. But his allegiance was somewhat undermined when he was recorded describing her as a “bloody difficult woman” during this year’s leadership contest. He is openly critical of her regime, dismissing it as a “government with no policies”.

For a senior politician with a big reputation, Clarke is light-hearted in person – his face is usually scrunched up in merriment beneath his floppy hair. A number of times during our discussion, he says that he is trying to avoid getting “into trouble”. A painting of a stern Churchill and multiple illustrations of Gladstone look down at him from his walls as he proceeds to do just that.

“Nobody in the government has the first idea of what they’re going to do next on the Brexit front,” he says. He has a warning for his former cabinet colleagues: “Serious uncertainty in your trading and political relationships with the rest of the world is dangerous if you allow it to persist.”

Clarke has seen some of the Tories’ bitterest feuds of the past at first hand, and he is concerned about party unity again. “Whatever is negotiated will be denounced by the ultra-Eurosceptics as a betrayal,” he says. “Theresa May has had the misfortune of taking over at the most impossible time. She faces an appalling problem of trying to get these ‘Three Brexiteers’ [Boris Johnson, David Davis and Liam Fox] to agree with each other, and putting together a coherent policy which a united cabinet can present to a waiting Parliament and public. Because nobody has the foggiest notion of what they want us to do.”

Clarke reserves his fiercest anger for these high-profile Brexiteers, lamenting: “People like Johnson and [Michael] Gove gave respectability to [Nigel] Farage’s arguments that immigration was somehow a great peril caused by the EU.”

During the referendum campaign, Clarke made headlines by describing Boris Johnson as “a nicer version of Donald Trump”, but today he seems more concerned about David Cameron. He has harsh words for his friend the former prime minister, calling the pledge to hold the referendum “a catastrophic decision”. “He will go down in history as the man who made the mistake of taking us out of the European Union, by mistake,” he says.

Clarke left the government in Cameron’s 2014 cabinet reshuffle – which came to be known as a “purge” of liberal Conservatives – and swapped his role as a minister without portfolio for life on the back benches. From there, he says, he will vote against the result of the referendum, which he dismisses as a “bizarre protest vote”.

“The idea that I’m suddenly going to change my lifelong opinions about the national interest and regard myself as instructed to vote in parliament on the basis of an opinion poll is laughable,” he growls. “My constituents voted Remain. I trust nobody will seriously suggest that I should vote in favour of leaving the European Union. I think it’s going to do serious damage.”

But No 10 has hinted that MPs won’t be given a say. “I do think parliament sooner or later is going to have to debate this,” Clarke insists. “In the normal way, holding the government to account for any policy the government produces . . . The idea that parliament’s going to have no say in this, and it’s all to be left to ministers, I would regard as appalling.”

Clarke has been characterised as a Tory “wet” since his days as one of the more liberal members of Margaret Thatcher’s government. It is thought that the former prime minister had a soft spot for his robust manner but viewed his left-wing leanings and pro-European passion with suspicion. He is one of parliament’s most enduring One-Nation Conservatives. Yet, with the Brexit vote, it feels as though his centrist strand of Tory politics is disappearing.

“I don’t think that’s extinct,” Clarke says. “The Conservative Party is certainly not doomed to go to the right.”

He does, however, see the rise of populism in the West as a warning. “I don’t want us to go lurching to the right,” he says. “There is a tendency for traditional parties to polarise, and for the right-wing one to go ever more to the right, and the left-wing one to go ever more to the left . . . It would be a catastrophe if that were to happen.”

Clarke’s dream of keeping the UK in Europe may be over, but he won’t be quiet while he feels that his party’s future is under threat. “Don’t get me into too much trouble,” he pleads, widening his eyes in a show of innocence, as he returns to his desk to finish his work. 

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 29 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, May’s new Tories