City College sociology professor William Helmreich walked every block in Brooklyn — many twice — to write “The Brooklyn Nobody Knows,” an urban walking guide that compiles hundreds of maps, photographs, and conversations with locals to provide a colorful portrait of the borough. Helmreich is giving upcoming talks about the book at the Brooklyn Historical Society and at Park Slope’s Community Bookstore, so we chatted with the author about his research — that is, covering enough ground to go from Kings County, NY, to King County, Texas, as the pigeon flies — and what makes Brooklyn tick.
Caroline Spivack: How is this book different from other Brooklyn guides out there?
William Helmreich: You will not use this book to find out the marvels of Grand Army Plaza or all the joys of Prospect Park. You may find some hidden aspects of Prospect Park, but the purpose is not to tell you all the landmarks in Brooklyn … it’s to tell you about a man in Bergen Beach who has a collection of 1,140 stuffed toys in a tree in front of his house. It’s a book about the unusual — about the borough. It involves conversations with local people who live in the neighborhood. A neighborhood is nothing without its people.
CS: There are a number of ways you could have done this book. Why walk Brooklyn?
WH: Because walking slows you down. It forces you to look at everything. If you ride, you can’t see it — you’re busy driving or riding and you go too fast and you miss a lot of stuff. And there was a certain satisfaction to taking the world’s greatest city apart piece by piece and finding out what it’s really all about.
CS: Do you have a favorite experience walking a block?
WH: Well, I don’t know if they’re favorites — because they’re not always pleasant — but let’s put it this way: They’re revealing. When I meet an old Italian man in Williamsburg who is complaining about the gentrifiers who are coming in and how they show no respect for the church, for history, and tradition, it’s one of my favorite encounters, because it’s one of the most revealing about how people who have been living here a long time see the newcomers.
CS: What’s a neighborhood you found particularly interesting?
WH: I enjoyed East New York — believe it or not — because it’s so unusual. It just has certain things I personally found very interesting. Mrs. Maxwell’s Bakery has been around since 1927 on Atlantic Avenue. They claim they have the original recipe for Junior’s Cheesecake and that it was stolen by a disgruntled employee that left them and went to work for Junior’s. There’s a church called St. Michael’s Church, and when you walk in, it’s like you went into one of these churches in Italy — everything is polished. On a grimmer note, there are the mafia burial grounds on Amber and Emerald and Sapphire streets, right off of Linden Boulevard.
CS: What was your strategy for walking Brooklyn?
WH: I walked Brooklyn morning, day, and night — summer, winter, spring, fall. I don’t have time for bad weather. The Scandinavians say, “There’s no such thing as bad weather — there’s just bad clothing.” To do the 816 miles was 11 months, and that includes writing the book. Some weeks I would walk 35 miles, and other weeks I would walk 5 miles — it depends how much time I had.
CS: When readers put the book down, what do you hope they walk away with?
WH: What I hope is that they take away what a fascinating borough this is from beginning to end and not just from the famous neighborhoods. I hope they understand what makes Brooklyn tick — and to me, it’s the diversity of it, it’s that fact that it’s always changing, it’s the fact that if you live in a city, you gotta meet with people and engage with people of all different backgrounds. The last page of my book on Brooklyn is a poem that I’ll say is anonymous, but it really reflects what Brooklyn was and what Brooklyn is now. It really sums it up. It’s two lines: “Brooklyn’s a place I couldn’t wait to get out of, and now can’t afford to move back to.” That’s pretty much it.
“The Brooklyn Nobody Knows: A Walking Tour and Discussion with Bill Helmreich” at Community Bookstore [143 Seventh Ave. between W. 18th and W. 19th streets in Park Slope, (718) 783–3075, www.commu
“Block by Block: Exploring Brooklyn with Pat Kieran and Bill Helmreich” at the Brooklyn Historical Society (128 Pierrepont St. between Henry and Clinton streets in Brooklyn Heights, (718) 222–4111, www.brook