William Helmreich, native New Yorker, writer and professor of sociology at the City College of New York, has walked almost every street in New York City. He’s the author of award winning “The New York Nobody Knows: Walking 6,000 Miles in the City” and “The Brooklyn Nobody Knows” – the first of five planned walking guides, one for each borough of New York City. We got the chance to catch up with him on the highs and lows of his journey and why Rockport is his shoe of choice.
You walked more than 6,000 miles for your first book about exploring the city, The New York Nobody Knows. What inspired you to do this? When I was nine years old, my father and I played a game called “Last Stop.” We took a subway from the 103rd Street station on Manhattan’s Upper West Side to the last stop, switching to other subways as needed. When we ran out of last stops, we’d go to the second to last, third, fourth, etc. Exiting, we’d walk around the neighborhoods. In this way I learned about and developed an appreciation for this wonderful city. One discovery I made was when I saw people pulling fish out of the water in Throgs Neck, the Bronx. I had always thought they came from the fish store on 104th Street. Who knew! I was a city boy.
How long did the entire 6,000 mile journey take you? I covered 6,048 miles or 121,000 blocks in about four years. Thirty miles a week, 120 a month, 1,500 a year. Four times 1,500 and you’re there! That’s about how big the city is, according to the Sanitation Department. It’s equivalent to walking from New York City to Los Angeles and back as the crow flies and then another 971 miles to St. Louis.
We’re honored that your Rockports have been with you every step of the way. Why are they your favorite shoes? I love these shoes for several reasons. First, they’re the most comfortable shoes I’ve ever worn. I’ve never even gotten a blister and that’s largely because they’re wide in the front and cushioned all around inside and out. Second, many of your styles are lightweight and make me feel as though I’m walking on air. The shoes attach to my feet as snugly as a glove on my hand. Third, the styles are very attractive and I’ve gotten many compliments about how cool they look. Fourth, they’re very durable shoes. I walked 816 miles on the hard concrete sidewalks of Brooklyn, using up just two pairs.
What is your favorite Rockport style to wear on your travels and why? My favorite is the Get Your Kicks Walking Shoe. It’s very light, very comfortable, and has great style.
Tell us about one of your favorite experiences while on the road… I can’t pick just one… The first is meeting Savas, a man who lives in a cave in Inwood Hill Park, Upper Manhattan. He’s not homeless. He’s not a panhandler. He just loves living in the outdoors and being in touch with nature. He’s 84 years old, in seemingly very good health, and this is his home.
Second is the Gingerbread House: This gorgeous, one of a kind home is a “Hansel & Gretel style gingerbread house” built in 1916. It’s located at 8200 Narrows Avenue, Bay Ridge, Brooklyn. It has a thatch-like roof, stained-glass windows, solid stone and can be purchased for 11 million dollars. Former Mafia chieftain, Carlo Gambino lived across the street at one time. You can read more about this and Brooklyn’s 43 other neighborhoods in my recently published, The Brooklyn Nobody Knows: An Urban Walking Guide.
Third, in front of 1430 E. 70th Street in Bergen Beach, Brooklyn is a most amazing sight. It’s a cherry tree filled with 1,140 stuffed animals and other toys. Some neighbors like it, others are apathetic about it, and still others hate it. But all of them agree it must be seen to be believed.
Also in Brooklyn, there’s a real gem of a mural on Coney Island Avenue near Avenue R. It depicts the stages of human communication through all of history, as told by Verizon.
You’re writing books about each of the five boroughs. Do you have a favorite? I like them all. Every borough is fascinating. But sometimes you have to work harder at it. Manhattan has probably the greatest number of interesting aspects, but Queens also has many. How about a museum in the Bellerose section dedicated totally to the artworks of the mentally ill whose work is often tremendously creative? How about standing in front of NYC’s tallest tree in Douglaston, Queens? It’s a tulip poplar, 133.8 feet high and estimated to be about 450 years old.
What changes have you witnessed in the city over the years? People are much more likely to talk to strangers than they were in the past. In part, it’s because there is far less crime today. Also, kids don’t play in the street much anymore and I think technology–video games, cell phones, and the like– plays an important role in that. The city’s population has become much more diverse due to immigration, Also, the economic revival of the city and the service sector expansion has made it into a magnet, attracting hundreds of thousands of young Americans from all over the country.
What do you hope readers walk away with after reading your books? An understanding of how fascinating this city is and an appreciation of how important walking is for capturing its inner soul. Walking forces one to slow down and take it all in. Driving and bicycling is too fast. I can’t tell you how much I would have missed if I hadn’t walked it. And, as any physician will tell you, walking is also terrific exercise and doing so in a city is far more interesting than walking on a treadmill.
Aside from writing, what are some of your other passions? Playing tennis and basketball, walking and hiking, traveling, reading and being with my family.
We have to ask: You love your Get Your Kicks sneakers, but do you have your eye on any other Rockport styles for your next borough walk? The Power Pace is reportedly very comfortable, and I like the streamlined look. The Catalyst 3 has enough room for your toes, is high quality, and has a great appearance. The Redemption Road is also intriguing because it has good shock absorption and looks really neat. Many people judge others by what they wear and all of these shoes I would want to be seen.
We can’t wait to see where Bill’s Rockports take him next. We’re hoping it’s Boston.