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William Helmreich Loved New York, Down To The Well-Worn Soles Of His Feet

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

William Helmreich, a sociologist, author and scholar of Judaism died a week ago from COVID-19. He was best known for studying New York City by walking every one of its blocks, covering over 6,000 miles. Kathleen Horan has this remembrance.

KATHLEEN HORAN, BYLINE: William Helmreich's love of urban life began as a kid. He was born in Switzerland in 1945 to parents who were fleeing the Nazis. When the family moved to New York's Upper West Side, Helmreich and his father's favorite pastime was a game called last stop, where they'd ride a subway to its endpoint, then hop off and explore that neighborhood. Helmreich's son Jeff says the adventures continued when he was growing up.

JEFF HELMREICH: It was almost like a religious tradition passed down through the family. Other kids would go to the top of skyscrapers, and our dad would take us through slums and through hidden enclaves and neighborhoods. And that was just who he was.

HORAN: They might be walking to Shea Stadium or the pier, but the destination wasn't as important as the people they met along the way. Jeff says he learned not to fear strangers because of his father's passion for talking and engaging with just about anyone who crossed his path. Jeff remembers one time in Queens.

J HELMREICH: A cab driver that he knew had told him that, like, a certain house was run by the Mafia. And somebody was sitting on the porch. He walked up, and he said, even if I'm not part of the family, if I'm not part of the Mafia, can I just get a look around? He laughed. He said, sure, no problem. Nothing really shook him.

HORAN: Helmreich planned to write a book about New York's most iconic streets. He decided not to play favorites and chose all 120,000 of them. Four years and nine pairs of shoes later, his mission was complete. "The New York Nobody Knows 6,000 Miles In The City" was both a sociological study of the whole city and an intimate portrait of distinct communities.

Helmreich's wife, Helaine, says his curiosity knew no bounds, like the time he went in search of the old man he heard was living in a cave in Manhattan's Inwood Park and found him.

HELAINE HELMREICH: He suddenly heard this staticky noise coming from an old transistor radio. And he followed the sound. And he came upon this cave, and in the cave was a little old man. He was dressed like a gnome. He had a tall peaked hat, greenish-colored pants and boots. And he told him that his name was Sabas and that he was a creature of the creation.

HORAN: They became friends, and Sabas was included in the book "The Manhattan Nobody Knows." Helmreich lived what he taught and wrote about. Even though he and his family moved to Long Island years ago, his love for the city never dimmed. He summed it up at a reading at the Strand Book Store in 2014.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

WILLIAM HELMREICH: People say New York's a great place to visit, but I wouldn't want to live here. No, I say New York's a great place to live in, but I wouldn't want to visit here 'cause, then, I wouldn't know what's going on.

HORAN: Helmreich's son Jeff says his dad adored the place because it helped him fulfill his desire to bond with as many different kinds of people as possible.

J HELMREICH: You could be authentic and raw and still lovingly cross every boundary and, in his case, every street.

HORAN: Helmreich was finishing up his 19th book and was still teaching when he caught the virus. He never went to the hospital. He figured if he could walk thousands of miles, he could beat it, but he died last Saturday. In addition to his wife and son, he's survived by two other children and four grandchildren.

For NPR News, I'm Kathleen Horan in New York. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.


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