By Mark Orwoll
New York’s five boroughs often inspire instantaneous (though not always correct) reactions from the city’s residents and out-of-towners alike. Manhattan is a cultural capital. Brooklyn is rife with hipsters and craft cocktails. The Bronx is dangerous and dirty. Staten Island–wait, is that part of New York City?
And then there’s Queens.
Boring. Archie Bunker-land. The blue-collar bedroom community where cops, firefighters, and Con Ed linemen cover their front yards with concrete or AstroTurf and curse the refs at their kids’ Saturday-morning soccer games. You’ve watched TV’s The King of Queens? Yeah, that place.
Such knee-jerk opinions are dispiriting: Besides being facile, they can dissuade someone from exploring a destination like Queens, whose history, architecture, crazy quilt of cultures, and fascinating locals would entice a more thoughtful visitor. As proof, consider The Queens Nobody Knows, an “urban walking guide” by William B. Helmreich. The author, a former sociology professor at the City College of New York, is best known for The New York Nobody Knows: Walking 6,000 Miles in the City, in which he recounts his having traversed every street in New York City by foot. Following up on the award-winning success of that book, Helmreich crafted more focused walking tours in The Manhattan Nobody Knows and The Brooklyn Nobody Knows. Helmreich was building a well-earned franchise in the walking-tour category at the time of his death, from Covid-19, in March 2020. His final book, published in October, is a fitting testament to his legacy as the bunioned and blistered Tocqueville of the boroughs’ boulevards.
I was intrigued by the subject of Helmreich’s book from the start, not just because I’m a long-time travel writer with an amateur interest in urban sociology, but because of my ties to Queens. I have lived at times in Astoria, Richmond Hill, and Forest Hills. (Queens is made up of neighborhoods with distinct personalities, almost like independent hamlets. Mail is never addressed to “Queens, NY” but always to the individual neighborhood names.) My wife and I were married at Our Lady of Mercy in Forest Hills and our three children were baptized there. My father-in-law still lives in the house in Queens that my wife’s grandparents bought in 1925, and which, through the decades, has sheltered five generations of the family. I have bodysurfed countless times at Rockaway Beach, spent hundreds of hours stuck on the Van Wyck Expressway (a misnomer if ever there was one) en route to JFK, and marveled at the architectural glories still extant from the 1964 World’s Fair in Flushing Meadows. Yes, there is a neighborhood called Flushing, and yes, the name is unfortunate. With that background, I considered Helmreich’s title once again. The Queens nobody knows? Fat chance. Fuhgeddaboutit.
New Yorkers are famous know-it-alls, and I’m no exception. When someone tells me there are things of which I’m unaware in the borough I long called home, I view it as a challenge. So I decided to take this book about Queens’ streets for a road test (if one can do so from the comfort of his living-room fireside).
Astoria, described in one of the book’s earliest chapters, has been home to immigrants and refugees almost since its modern history began in the 19th century. When I moved there in the mid-1980s, I too was a refugee, albeit one from Manhattan’s Upper West Side. I was enthralled by Astoria’s buoyant Greek culture. Spirited bouzouki music resounded from speakers in front of record stores. Berobed and bearded priests from the Greek Orthodox churches walked purposefully along the sidewalks. The rich smell of souvlaki, gyros, and kebabs perfumed the air. The carcasses of slaughtered but yet-to-be-skinned baby goats and rabbits hung in the butcher shops’ windows. My Greek landlords made their own wine from grapes grown in the backyard and invited my wife and me to their Greek parties.
But the Greeks were simply one in a long line of cultural groups to settle there. Germans and Irish flourished in Astoria 150 years ago, followed by Czechs, Slovaks, Italians, and Jews (the Greeks arrived in the 1960s), each successive wave of immigrants joining or supplanting the previous ones. The cycle continues even now, as the Greeks have decamped for Long Island and New Jersey, replaced by Hispanics, African-Americans, Middle Eastern immigrants, and Asians, among other groups, all of whom “have contributed to making Astoria one of the most ethnically varied places in the country,” says the author.
Helmreich chronicles this societal shift largely through the simple measure of talking to people. “I’ve learned over time that it’s important to ask questions when in doubt,” he writes. “I often find myself thinking if I might have mistakenly described something incorrectly by not asking when I could have.” And so on his rambles through Astoria, he questions a guard at Rikers Island prison about the meaning of 42 candles near the jail’s entrance; a cranky Greek restaurant owner about his declining customer base; the owner of the stately though neglected Steinway Mansion (of Steinway piano fame) about plans for the mansion’s rehabilitation; and a long-time resident about her circa-1655 house, which turns out to be the oldest privately owned and inhabited house in the country! (How could I have lived in Astoria for several years and never even heard of this house?) The personalities and social insights that emanate from these and other one-on-one encounters enrich Helmreich’s neighborhood narratives in a way rarely found in the average guidebook.
This sort of motile research, or sociological walking, as it has been termed by some, is not new. For a sociologist, “…walking in urban neighborhoods can also be a form of ‘working the street,’ that is, forming social connections with residents as a means for gathering ethnographic data,” writes Timothy Shortell in the introduction to Walking in Cities: Quotidian Mobility as Urban Theory, Method, and Practice (Temple University Press, 2016). Sociology conferences and peer-reviewed articles treat walking as a serious investigative technique. The German philosopher and cultural critic Walter Benjamin (1892-1940) made a case that the flâneur, or boulevardier, epitomized by poet Charles Baudelaire, was, in fact, the original urban sociologist. If any connection is to be made between sociological walking and literary lights, though, I would be inclined instead to think of Charles Dickens (and The Uncommercial Traveller in particular), who knew the streets of London so intimately that they became a major character in many of his novels. Had he not become a social critic through his writings, he very well might have been a proto-sociologist.
As a modern sociologist, Helmreich subtly colors his walking tours with academic expertise. There are plenty of curiosities to be seen, historic buildings to step inside, and unexpected nature to marvel at, but Helmreich is at his most enthusiastic when describing the overlap and even outright clash of cultures. Richmond Hill, a useful illustration, was settled by wealthy Manhattanites who built large Victorian homes for their growing families in the mid-19th century. When the subway arrived in 1915, more (and more modest) houses went up, attracting middle-class Irish, Germans, and Italians. Seventy years later it attracted my wife and me to buy our first home. In a process similar to that in Astoria, new cultural groups since have found sanctuary there—Mexicans, Peruvians, Dominicans, Pakistanis, Trinidadians, and, especially, Indo-Guyanese (mainly Hindu and Sikh).
The Guyanese predominate in the nightclubs, boutiques, gaudy jewelry shops, and aromatic restaurants along the thronged sidewalks of Liberty Avenue, a major retail and social center. Helmreich’s obvious enjoyment of the scene is palpable as he describes what could easily be a colorful street market in some distant land. Though he dwells on the Guyanese experience, he also visits a Bukharian barbershop to learn how the Bukharian Jews (from Uzbekistan) have taken over the local barbering business from the Italians. As he continues his walk, he sings the praises of the Classic Diner, where the waitresses used to make a fuss over my newborn daughter. He chats with the seniors at a cavernous bingo hall in the former RKO Keith’s movie palace, where my father-in-law took his wife-to-be on their first date in 1948. By the time Helmreich wraps up his tour, a reader feels confident that the author has presented a well-rounded snapshot-in-time of Richmond Hill.
A few of Helmreich’s choices are questionable. True, in a book covering 47 distinct communities, a writer must be succinct and selective. But why he chooses to discuss a sad but uninteresting murder near an ordinary park in Forest Hills is odd indeed, considering that two of the infamous Son of Sam murders occurred in Forest Hills Gardens, one on a quiet Tudor-lined street and the other, just a block away, in a brick-paved square so picturesque it could stand in for a marketplace in some too-charming Cotswold village.
Helmreich redeems himself, though, when he focuses on the recent spate of McMansions that have popped up in the northern half of Forest Hills. These architectural monstrosities are so large (they take up nearly their entire plots of land) that they leave virtually no space for grass or flowers. With their shiny porch chandeliers and double-story columns, they scream new money. They are, it turns out, the homes of a growing population of Bukharian Jews. (Apparently, the barber business is more lucrative than I realized.) But as a thoughtful sociologist, Helmreich doesn’t leave it at that. He asks a non-Bukharian neighbor why the now-wealthy immigrants build such flashy, out-of-all-proportion manses. “They have told me,” the neighbor says, “that for them the house is a way of saying: ‘I may not be educated, I may not speak English well, but money-wise I made it.’”
In the main, the reporting throughout the book is first-rate. That makes the few minor errors I encountered all the more painful. In the introduction, for instance, the author writes that Queens comprises 57 distinct communities, while the adjacent table of contents and map list 47. At one point in the Astoria section, Helmreich describes walking east on Ditmars Boulevard toward the East River, when even a cursory peek at a map will show he’s heading northwest. For such a high-quality book, with excellent paper stock and numerous easy-to-use street maps, the reproduction of the many photographs is disappointingly poor; the images are uniformly dark and muddy.
Guidebooks, as a rule, are generally impersonal, often academic in tone, echoing the spirit and barely opinionated observations of the Baedeker archetype. The Queens Nobody Knows, on the other hand, is anything but a hackneyed, turn-left-at-the-fountain vade mecum telling readers where to go so they can check off a bullet list of must-sees. The author’s tone and viewpoint are far more genial and engaging, as if to say, “Come walk with me for a while. I know some fascinating people and places that might intrigue you.”
Helmreich’s passion for the streets didn’t begin with his sociology degree. Rather, his impetus for searching out the hidden corners of New York City started with his father, who created a pastime he called Last Stop. On weekends, father and son would leave their Upper West Side apartment to take one of New York’s multifarious subway lines to its terminus, disembark, and explore that neighborhood on foot. When they had exhausted all the “last stops” on the Gorgon-like subway map, they changed the game to second-to-last stop and third-to-last. Helmreich’s knowledge of and passion for New York City began early, and his authority on the subject is justified by long experience.
The Queens Nobody Knows, as a physical book, is of a size that can readily be carried in a purse or small backpack, so its utility as a practical travel guide is solid. Helmreich also provides expert advice on personal safety based on his history of walking in some of the city’s dodgier neighborhoods. The book is a superlative gift idea (perhaps as part of a set, along with the author’s earlier walking books) for anyone, walker or not, with an ardor for New York, including armchair adventurers who simply enjoy learning about complex urban societies.
When I finished reading The Queens Nobody Knows, I was overcome with sadness, knowing that Helmreich died shortly before this book was published. I was further saddened by the thought that he would never round out this series of guidebooks with volumes dedicated to the Bronx and Staten Island. The Last Stop, in the case of this inquisitive and insightful author, came too soon.
Mark Orwoll, former International Editor of Travel + Leisure and an award-winning freelance travel writer, lives in New York’s Lower Hudson Valley, but still visits Queens regularly.