More Than Like is a series about social media personalities trying to do positive things for their communities.
Before He Was New York Nico (Handle: @newyorknico), popular social-media documentaries of New York quirks and characters, Nicholas Heller was the “Mayor of 16th Street”—at age 3.
On his way home from nursery school, Mr. Heller would check in with all the friendly faces on the block: the manager of Steak Frites who held a tub of ice cream with the boy’s name on it; the security guard at the tile shop who took off his hat and made a funny face at it; The seller of antique clothes who used to turn his standing mirror around so that he could see his reflection.
In a way, it set the template for what was to come decades later.
“Everybody would say ‘Hey, Nick. How’s it going, Nick?'” Mr. Heller recalled.
Mr. Heller’s mother, Louise Filley, a graphic designer and writer, coined the nickname “Mayor” because of her son’s ability to connect with the ordinary people who made the city buzz. “It’s kind of what he does now,” Ms. Filley said.
‘quintessentially new york’
For the past decade, Mr. Heller, the self-described “New York City’s Unofficial Talent Scouts,” wandered the city in search of moments that are “quintessentially New York”. Their New York Nico accounts — they now have more than 1.3 million followers on TikTok and 1.1 million on Instagram — invite people to celebrate the colorful side of the city: the people, the community staples, and the wacky, random moments just those people. are understood by those who regularly walk its streets.
An approach that sets Mr. Heller, 34, apart from most social media personalities: He’s more than happy to remain in the background.
“The older I get, the less I want to attract people’s attention,” Mr. Heller said. “It’s my lens. I don’t think people really care about me as much as what they see through my eyes.
Ms. Filley said it was only after she left New York that she really came to appreciate the city. After graduating from Emerson College, Mr. Heller moved to Los Angeles to try to make it as a producer of hip-hop music videos. “It didn’t go well,” he said. Six months later, he was back in New York, living in his parents’ house, unsure of what direction to take his life.
One day he was sitting in Union Square Park when he saw a busker he had liked for a long time holding a sign: “6-foot-7 Jew Will Freestyle Rap for You.” Mr. Heller had always been too shy to talk to him, but he worked up the courage to approach the man and ask if he could make a short documentary about him. The man agreed, and Mr. Heller turned the project into a YouTube series about local street characters called “Know Your City.”
Mr. Heller’s approach is informed by the knowledge that life can quickly change for the worse, he said, whether by a terrorist attack – he was 12 on Sept. 11, 2001, and said he still felt threatened by buildings. Nightmares of escape ensue – or a pandemic.
Mr. Heller created his Instagram account in 2013 and began taking it more seriously in 2015 when traffic to “Know Your City” was declining. He started shooting on his phone, and instead of presenting full narratives, he focused on small, lived-in moments that captured the strange and charming corners of the city.
“It is important to me to keep New York New York in all its character, in all its glory,” Mr. Heller said.
In early May, Mr. Heller moved out Village Revival RecordsA record store on a crowded Greenwich Village sidewalk is what he famously faded into social media oblivion.
However, passers-by notice the man next to him. Here was “Bobby,” who walks around New York on comically tall stilts that Mr. Heller first showed off on social media exactly a year ago.
“Hi, Bobby!” said a fan.
Bobby is part of an ensemble of recurring characters in Mr. Heller’s videos that also includes “The Green Lady”, “Bigtime Tommy” and “Cuggin'”. A man going by “Tiger Hood” organizes “Street Golf”, training pedestrians to hit milk cartons filled with newspapers.
“As I will always tell them, they are the kind of people I run into on the street, or ignore and stalk my New York City blinders,” said Mr. Heller’s father, Steven, a writer and former reporter for The said the senior art director. new York Times. “There are a lot of Instagram voyeurs. And I don’t think Nick is a voyeur. I think he is involved with these people.
During the pandemic, Mr. Heller helped struggling local small businesses, such as Esther Place Hair Stylist and record store Village Revival, owned by Jamal Alnasser. “My business took an amazing turn,” said Mr. Alnasser. Equally important, there was a personal connection with Mr. Heller: “We became true friends.”
In December 2022, a film directed by Mr. Heller, “Out of Order,” featuring about two dozen people he regularly features on his social media accounts, was released. It’s important, he said, to help people in his videos “have their own careers.”
After saying goodbye to Bobby, Mr. Heller walked to Union Square Park, where he wandered among the people at the cannabis rally, taking photos and videos that he could view on his Instagram story later that night. His lens was drawn to a man dressed from head to toe in a hemp leaf outfit.
the art of observation
Mr. Heller is a master at observing people without paying attention. Another genre is the candid, slice-of-life shot of his surroundings: a man walking around Times Square wearing a blonde wig, high heels and a Santa Claus skirt; A woman crossing herself as she crosses the New York City Marathon finish line; Two Hasidic Jewish men chatting on the sidewalk, pointing their peyote form in the air. (He often collects these in what he calls his “Sunday Dump”.)
After the cannabis festival, Mr. Heller returned to 16th Street to play golf with Tiger Hood, a longtime photographer whom Mr. Heller had profiled. in a 2019 documentary, ,
As Mr. Heller walked toward the makeshift tee (a row of milk cartons strewn on a mat resembling $100 bills on the floor) and raised his club, a small crowd began recording. Perhaps they recognized Mr. Heller. Or maybe they didn’t, only pulling out their phones to capture a moment on the street of New York.
Mr. Heller approached, the carton of milk flew into the air, and, for a brief moment, all eyes — and cameras — were on New York Nico.