It took me forty years to find Vinegar Hill. As the crow flies, that Brooklyn neighborhood was around two miles from my apartment on Gold Street in Manhattan. I knew of Brooklyn; Crazy Eddie’s store was there, where he sold stereo components at prices that were insane, until he got bagged for fraud. The Brooklyn Bridge went there, over the spooky-dark waters of the East River. The river was what you call a psychogeographical barrier, intimately known only to people wearing cement shoes.
I learned of Vinegar Hill when my office moved from Manhattan to Brooklyn Heights in 2012. Not the Brooklyn Heights of Pineapple, Orange, and Cranberry streets, but over east, bordering the courts and the house of detention. That’s Brooklyn for you. That’s New York City for you. There are neighborhoods and, yes, they have histories and distinctivenesses. But they are always rubbing shoulders with the “other” – one street beyond the neighborhood boundary – and it mostly works out. “New York is a triumph of coexistence interrupted by people yelling at one another,” Rebecca Solnit neatly summarizes in Nonstop Metropolis: A New York City Atlas. Just so. There is still turf in New York, gang turf: shivs, zip guns, brass knuckles, and lawsuits.
"Nonstop Metropolis" – co-authored by Solnit and geographer-writer Jelly-Schapiro – is impressionistic, a gallimaufry of takes on neighborhoods and topics: hip-hop, doo-wop, jazz, nerdy Scottish bands; wildlife, greed, riots (we like our riots); races, ethnicities, creeds; Robert Moses and Jane Jacobs; Yiddish theater and the West Indian Parade; pickup basketball and Latin radio; stone aqueducts and homeless shelters; Kings, Queens, Breukelen, the Bronck, and Staaten Eylandt, too (with apologies to the Lenape).
Each of these essays is as dense and demanding as a prose poem. Some are as sudden as squibs. Don’t miss those; as in the paper newspapers, squibs are often the best parts. Many of the accompanying maps are highly colored, flushed with exuberance: so much to convey, so little space. Others are as quickening as the silk, escape-and-evasion maps given to pilots during World War Two. The writing and the maps are what “place” is about: desire, fear, landmark, memory, imagination, a state of mind, sometimes melting into thin air — but still right there under your feet. “Conventional maps are falling by the wayside as people just consult their phones about where to go. With that, the map as a work of art vanishes, and so does some key part of learning the lay of the land ... digital devices just teach obedience,” writes Solnit, intuitive geographer extraordinaire.
The Brooklyn Nobody Knows is less flamboyant than "Nonstop," and there is much the “walking guide” about it. Helmreich knocks around all 44 neighborhoods, all 71 square miles, and may well have wished a good day to each of the borough’s 2.6 million inhabitants.
Helmreich is smitten with Brooklyn; I’ll even take the liberty of saying he loves the place, loves the whole city. He’s the kind of guy who asks questions: "‘So you’re a hornsmith!’ I exclaim by way of beginning a conversation. ‘What’s that? I didn’t even know there was such a thing,’ ” he inquires of a man in the Prospect Lefferts Gardens neighborhood. He knows there are parts of Brooklyn that can only be disarmed by common decency – not that he isn’t commonly decent – and being an old man. “If I see some bad-ass dude walking up toward me, I don’t put on my gang face, I don’t try to look tough.” (From an interview in the New Yorker, September 17, 2013.) As if. “I do the opposite. I seek to make eye contact, and as soon as they look at me I say, ‘Hey, buddy, how ya doin’?’ ” Not too much eye contact. Thinking he might break the ice with a group of Bloods, “I asked them, ‘How can I get one of those red jackets?’ and they said, ‘Depends what side you’re on.’ ” (New Yorker interview, same date.) That takes a special, radiant aura of street credibility. He also knows the power of laughter, and when to laugh.
Solnit and Jelly-Shapiro write that "Nonstop Metropolis" will be the last atlas of its kind, which includes San Francisco and New Orleans. "'Nonstop Metropolis' is the last volume in a trilogy of atlases exploring what maps can do to describe the ingredients and systems that make up a city and what stories remain to be told after we think we think we know where we are.”
Sounds like Tennessee Williams: “America has only three cities; New York, San Francisco, and New Orleans. Everywhere else is Cleveland.” Cleveland would make it a tetralogy, which is not in the works. Helmreich does, however: Manhattan, Queens, the Bronx, and Staten Island, too. Sail in peace, William, may your legs be strong, your humor tireless, and your wish for a red jacket go unmet. Try camouflage.