What is the real New York? The iconic sights and shopping? The brownstones of a Woody Allen film? The projects and gangs? Or was Walt Whitman closer to it over a century ago when the real city forced him to contain 'multitudes'?
Native New Yorker and CityCollege sociology professor William B. Helmreich took on a Sisyphean task: to walk nearly every block of all five boroughs as the only way to contain today's 'multitudes'.
The New York Nobody Knows: Walking 6,000 miles in the City is the result - a fascinating and reflective guide to the heart, mind and soul of New York.
Accompanied by his dog (New Yorkers like strangers with animals) and his sociological perspectives, Helmreich spent four hours on each of his walks over a period of four years.
Joseph Mitchell may have given us finer, more descriptive writing but he was in many ways a miniaturist. Helmreich is one too - the book teems with wonderful New York characters and conversations - but he also makes connections and gives us the bigger picture.
Helmreich's book is no anodyne guide: New York, as he shows us, might today be one of the safest cities in the US but there is still gangland activity and surprising behaviour.
On Broadway, near Jefferson Street, between Bushwick and Bedford- Stuyvesant he sees a man walking four large put bulls on leashes.
'As I took a closer look at him (I was walking sort of alongside him), I saw that he had two large boa constrictors around his neck. A minute later he stopped and encouraged a man to let his daughter pet the snakes. The man obliged and allowed one of the boas to wrap itself around his daughter, who showed only the slightest bit of apprehension - more like curiosity, it seemed. Only in an area like this could one see such a sight.'
And in case you want to avoid it, 188th Street, between Audubon and Amsterdam Avenues is, according to the police, the street in Manhattan where you're most likely to be shot, although mainly if you happen to be a drug dealer.
While recent Mayors have arrested them and put the homeless in shelters away from the centre, many still refuse to be removed.
James, a black panhandler and unemployed litho printer on Cliff and Fulton Streets, wears a white straw hat, black shirt and a multicoloured tie and works his pitch seven days a week.
'The police they know me and they see I'm causin' no trouble'. What's the biggest amount he ever got? 'A hundred dollars from some older woman. I was just askin' for some change. I was shocked. I went and paid my rent.'
Most people in New York don't of course live in brownstones or expensive apartments but humbler homes where they can bring up their families. and live among people who are like themselves.
Helmreich discovers EdgewaterPark, off ThrogsNeckBridge, in the Bronx.
'Most of the homes are enlarged bungalows. There are no sidewalks, so the homes face narrow, mostly no-name streets with sections named with letters of the alphabet. Everybody knows everybody, and most of the people are either of Irish, Italian or German descent, overwhelmingly Catholic, and generally they work for the city as policemen, sanitation workers, or firemen. Some of the homes along the shoreline have beautiful views of Long Island, and many of the residents own boats.'
If a place is not quite suitable for your ethnic community you might prefer as Hasidim Jews have done to settle around a South Flushing project that's completely black and Hispanic. If you live on Staten Island you might either be like Dan and Louise who have lived there for thirty years and love its sense of community or else feel deep shame as a couple move into their mother-in-law's apartment there. 'A place so forsaken that not even Starbucks would set up a store there, nor even the most enterprising Thai restaurant owner.'
On the other hand, an older woman living on East Ninth Street in Manhattan's EastVillage admits that a village-like community can have its problems. 'Sometimes you just get tired of saying hallo to someone you passed by for the seventeenth time in a week.'
When it comes to New York's housing projects it's worth mentioning that these are among the best constructed and managed in the country and are rarely taken down; instead they're renovated. They currently have a seven-year waiting list.
Recent newcomers to the city make of it something rich and strange. As he's walking up East 167th Street around Grant Avenue in the South Bronx the writer comes across a Hasidic-looking man with skullcap, beard and tzitzis leaving a school building. He asks him what a religious Jew like him is doing there, only to be told he's the highly popular school dean and most of his pupils are Muslim. 'I actually it in pretty well. I'm just another weird dresser. Up here anything goes. In fact, very often they don't even realize I'm Jewish.'
He asks a waiter in a Harlem restaurant about his national origins. 'I'm everything' he responds. 'My mother is Gabonese and French, and my father is Polish and Chinese. I guess I'm just an American.'
Of course New York is endlessly surprising. A Ukrainian waitress is the only person in Edgar's Cafe on the Upper West Side who seems to know who Edgar Allan Poe is. Pete's Tavern on Eighteenth Street and Irving Place was where O. Henry wrote The Gift of the Magi and is the oldest tavern in the city. It seems like the idea place to take his literary wife until they arrive one evening to find it has been transformed into a raucous singles bar.
'What I do get out of the experience is a sharp reminder that one must try as much as possible to see New York City in the same locations at different times, because when is often as important as where. Day or night? Weekend or weekday? Winter or summer? It can be, and often is, very different.'
Of vintage New York conversations there are too many to quote. But how can we forget the deli owner who observes wryly that some customers walk through his door five or six times a day, acting as if it's their home. 'wearing pyjamas or stroking an iguana.' The attitude seems to be 'This is New York. Get over it. And of course, they're right. What would New York be without bad behaviour?'
Then there's the Harlem maintenance man criticizing Harlem's gentrified tenements. 'These apartments are worth $100,000. But if I gotta pay $100,000 to live somewhere, I wanna be where there's grass around me. These are just glorified tenements. You still gotta fix the leaks in the bathroom and the stove when it breaks. Any apartment where I can hear somebody burpin' next door is not an apartment that I want.'
Not forgetting the woman walking her dog next to the writer who confirmed actor Christopher North's resident status and pointed to the building where he lived. 'He was kind of snooty,' she said. 'I met him in the building - my son lived there too - and I said. 'Oh, you're from that cop show.' And I had the wrong one. And he said to me in a really cold tone, 'No, it's Law and Order.' And I said to myself, 'That's the last time ....'
One must, Helmreich reminds us, see old manufacturing New York while we still can in places like East Williamsburg. 'In general, these parts of the city come closest to what New York City used to be as a manufacturing centre. Here you'll still find granite factories, electrical parts centres, makers of heavy machinery, dried-foods producers, building materials suppliers, brick inventories, bus garages, shoe factories, pipe supplies, and the like. When manufacturing occupied more of a centre stage fifty years ago, artists didn't exist in the area. ' Street art and other artistic products are now common here as manufacturing has declined.
Which brings us, inevitably, to gentrification as the Big Apple has shifted from an industrial to a service economy. Gentrification comes in different forms, with something for everyone who can afford it. He sees North and Central Brooklyn as a case in point with a top tier including BrooklynHeights, Cobble Hill and Dumbo and the next tier featuring East Williamsburg, FortGreene, Clinton Hill and others.
As for these gentrifiers who express surprise when they become a crime statistic a Brooklyn cop Helmreich meets has little sympathy. 'Well, what do you expect if you gonna live across the street from a project? And they be lookin' at their laptops in their cars, handling their portable GPS. They gonna have problems because they don't know what they hell they're doing. They shouldn't be moving here. They complain, but we can't be everywhere at once. You're a New Yorker. You wouldn't do that.'
And how do you know when gentrification is travelling south of 181st Street and west of Broadway? 'When you see a young Chinese American woman with two kids walking her dogs, accompanied by a Hispanic-looking man who might be her husband or boyfriend. Then another white guy comes along with his dog and is joined by a black woman and her dog, and they all have a fifteen-minute conversation on 163rd Street and Riverside Drive.'
Helmreich sees the pros and cons of gentrification and understands the problems in the outer boroughs but, like his Harlem maintenance man, his glass is usually half-full:
'You got white people, yuppies moving in here. All the prejudiced people, they died out. The yuppies don't give a shit. They just wanna get to their jobs. So that's how the neighbourhood completely changed. This is now a very interestin' neighbourhood. And it's a lot safer than it was before. Actually, in the early seventies Bradhurst was a very nice area. Then came the crack epidemic and it all changed. Now it's back to where it was before.'
Despite gentrification Helmreich feels the city has stayed authentic. 'It has historical cachet. If you want nostalgia, you only have to look for it in the right places. There are large stretches of Gotham that still retain the flavour of old New York. Traverse Bensonhurst or Bay Ridge, and you'll find the Brooklyn of Saturday Night Fever. Go on foot through Northeast Bronx streets and you'll find one-hundred-year-old homes and apartment buildings the norm, relatively untouched by gentrification.'
At the end of his 6,000 mile walk what emerges with great clarity 'is that New York today is a city that is enjoying a tremendous renaissance.' He sees this in the way New Yorkers are acutely aware that they live in one of the greatest cities in the world. 'It's a connection to an idea, embodied in a space and a state of mind that is far larger than themselves. It's there, they know it to be true, and so does everyone else who lives there.'
If Walt Whitman contained 'multitudes' within himself 'multitudes' this fine book contains multitudes more - the beating, dynamic heart of New York is here.
The New York Nobody Knows: Walking 6000 Miles in the City, William B Helmreich, £19.95, Princeton University Press