Originally published on Park Slope Stoop, February 4, 2014.
“The only way to get better at something is to go out and do it,” says Keith Williams, the Park Slope local behind The Weekly Nabe, a website where, among other things, he chronicles his research of and visits to each of Brooklyn’s neighborhoods. In fact, that theory is part of the reason he started the site in the first place.
“In a sense, it’s pretty naked,” he says. “It’s me going out there, and if I don’t like it, just ditching it and moving on to something else.”
And though since starting the project in 2012, he’s been able to move on from one neighborhood to the next, he’s also devoted more space on his site to writing about livable streets (though he plans to bring the neighborhood project back this year, and has already started with a trip to Midwood). It’s clear that for Keith, the “go out and do it” mindset translates across just about every area of his life, and his activism is no exception. As the issue has gained momentum in our neighborhood and beyond, Keith has been right there with it, adding his voice to those others in the city, like Streetsblog and Brooklyn Spoke, who are trying to raise awareness and make changes that will keep everyone on our streets safe.
“You need people who are able to explain to a general audience why it’s important that we care about these things,” he says about his choice to cover the topic. “The more that people see headlines like ‘Vison Zero Is Working,’ things like that, it’s entering the public consciousness in some way. And it’s something I care deeply about. It’s something that’s not just important for Brooklyn, but for the city as a whole.”
Though he’s covered some sad and difficult events, like a vigil for victims of traffic violence, he’s still a bit optimistic about the future, at least because of the people who stand alongside him at such times.
“In a way it’s seeing New York at its best,” he says. “It’s people who really care, who are willing to put time into something that may not really benefit them. There are so many people in this city who care very little beyond themselves. But these people are invested in the future of the city, not just for themselves, but for everyone.”
Keith is definitely one of those who’s invested, even if he hasn’t called the city home for very long. After growing up and attending college in Vermont, he moved to Park Slope in 2007 to join a friend from high school who had also moved — and his first apartment was in a pretty famous building, though he didn’t live there long.
“I should write a memoir,” he says. “‘My Five Months In The Pink House.’”
After sharing the apartment with the friend and that friend’s girlfriend, he left to enjoy more of a young NYC bachelor life in an apartment on the Upper West Side, but had his fill after three years.
“I was over the fast-paced lifestyle, so I thought I’d take a look at Park Slope again,” he says. “It has that community feel, and coming from Vermont, it’s something that I really like, where you know and talk to your neighbors.”
However, Keith found himself in a somewhat new neighborhood going from a raucous apartment with three guys to living by himself.
“It was a big switch,” he says. “I was trying to figure out ways to deal with that, and running seemed like the best one, so I started running.”
Much like writing and advocacy, he got out, he did it, and he’s only gotten better at it. He started running in December 2010, and ran his first race the following February in Prospect Park — at a slower pace than he does his training runs now.
“I ran it, I came home, and spent the rest of the weekend in bed!” he says, though it’s a much different scene after races these days. Following his first big race, the 2012 Brooklyn Marathon, he flew to Brazil for a wedding and did some hiking; after the most recent New York City Marathon, he was able to go out and party with friends.
“It’s weird to see how your body gets used to that sort of thing over time.”
Keith is currently getting ready for this year’s Boston Marathon, and in addition to documenting some of his training runs on his site, he also finds support — and some of the community he was looking for — in the Prospect Park Track Club, where he serves on the board. He says that since it’s been around for 43 years, this oldest track club in Brooklyn certainly knows a thing or two about building strong ties.
“There aren’t too many track clubs where you will have someone who is 60 with 40 years of running experience who will tell you about how it was in the old days, give you tips about things that worked in the ’80s that people have forgotten about,” he says. “You have these built-in elders, you have people your own age who you can run with at your pace. It doesn’t matter it you’re running 6-minute miles or 11-minute miles, you’re still part of the same club, and we have something for you.”
As his running has become intertwined in a lot of ways with his writing — in addition to writing on the subject, he can scout neighborhoods during a run, for instance — so has his writing about neighborhoods helped influence other projects. Keith now works on stories of all kinds for places like Curbed and the New York Times, most with an eye for history and the people who help, in some small way, shape it.
His passion for discovering the “why” of stories like those may be rooted in his love of trivia, which has landed him in the public eye this week. Keith is the 2003 Jeopardy! College Champion, and in addition to all the other things he works on, he writes The Final Wager, a blog about game theory and the show. Recent Jeopardy! contestant Arthur Chu has already won a few games using a controversial strategy — some of which is purely a mind game — which got him named a “Jeopardy villain,” and he’s said he follows Keith’s blog.
“There’s a lot of psychology happening in the background, which is why it’s all very fascinating,” Keith recently told Philly.com. Along with Arthur, he’s been fielding questions about the strategies for all kinds of media outlets, from Here & Now on WBUR to ABC News.
Helping create Jeopardy villains while making game theory accessible to a wider range of people is one way he’s followed up on his Championship title, but Keith understands that the knowledge of minutiae that led to his success on the show isn’t quite the niche it once was — which is another reason for all the writing that he’s doing.
“Being a trivia maven doesn’t really do me any good, because we have Google now,” he says. “The real difference is being able to communicate and be personable, and to be able to convey and have people understand what you have to say. That’s why I took to writing. Because it’s something that a computer can’t do — being able to craft an interesting narrative and tell what you want to tell in a way that will resonate with someone.”
His own story, at least in Park Slope, has become a full and interesting one since he settled into his current apartment just over three years ago. He’s gone out and gotten better at things by doing them, and he’s found a community in all of it. You may recognize him, having seen him working on a project at Gorilla, where he’s a regular, or picking up “the best whole wheat everything” at The Bagel Market, or getting gelato at Bklyn Larder. If not, you may spot him now, and it could be worth stopping to say hello, to get in on his version of the best city possible.
“New York doesn’t have to be this place where you just make money,” Keith says. “It can be a place where people care about each other and are invested in what goes on around them. I think that’s my ideal Park Slope.”