More Than Likes is a series about social media personalities trying to do positive things for their communities.
Before being New York Nico (handle: @newyorknico), the popular social media documentarian on New York quirks and characters, Nicolas Heller was the “Mayor of 16th Street,” at age 3.
On his way home from daycare, Mr. Heller would check in with all the friendly faces on the block: the Steak Frites manager who had a tub of ice cream with the boy’s name on it; the security guard at the tile store who touched his cap and made faces at her; the antique clothing vendors turning his standing mirror around so he could see his reflection.
In a way, it laid the foundation for what would come decades later.
“Everyone was like, ‘Hello, Nick. How’s it going, Nick?’” Heller recalled.
Mr. Heller’s mother, Louise Fili, a graphic designer and author, coined the nickname “Mayor” because of her son’s ability to connect with the everyday people who made the city buzz. “It’s like what he does now,” said Ms. Fili.
‘Quintessential New York’
For the past decade, Mr. Heller, the self-described “unofficial New York City head scout,” has scoured the city in search of “quintessentially New York” moments. His New York Nico accounts (he now has over 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 and random moments that only regular walkers understand. its streets.
An approach that sets Heller, 34, apart from most social media personalities: She’s more than happy to stay in the background.
“The bigger I’ve gotten, the less I want to be noticed,” Heller said. “It’s my lens. I don’t think people really care about me as much as what they see through my eyes.”
It wasn’t until he left New York that he really appreciated the city, Fili said. After graduating from Emerson College, Mr. Heller moved to Los Angeles to try to make it as a hip-hop music video producer. “That didn’t go well,” he said. Six months later, he was back in New York, living at his parents’ house, not knowing what direction his life was going to take.
One day he was sitting in Union Square Park when he saw a busker he had admired for a long time holding a sign: “6ft 7in 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 Heller turned the project into a YouTube series about local street characters, “No Your City.”
Mr. Heller’s approach is based on the knowledge that life could quickly change for the worse, he said, whether from a terrorist attack (he was 12 on September 11, 2001, and said he still had nightmares of running away from buildings) or a pandemic.
Mr. Heller created his Instagram account in 2013 and started taking it more seriously in 2015 when traffic for “No Your City” was declining. He switched to filming on his phone, and instead of presenting full narratives, he focused on smaller, real-life moments that captured the strange and charming corners of the city.
“It’s important to me to preserve what makes New York New York, in all its character, in all its splendor,” Mr. Heller said.
In early May, Mr. Heller left Village Revival Recordsa record store she made famous on social media, anonymous on a busy Greenwich Village sidewalk.
Passersby, however, noticed the man next to him. Here was “Bobby,” who plods around New York on comically tall stilts and was first introduced to him on social media by Mr. Heller exactly one year earlier.
“Hello, Bobby!” said one fan.
Bobby is part of a team of recurring characters in the Mr. Heller videos that also includes “the green lady”, “BigTime Tommie”, and “Cugine”. A man calling himself “Tiger Hood” organizes “street golf” outings, training pedestrians to hit milk cartons filled with newspapers.
“As I always told him, these are people I would run from on the street, or ignore and put on my New York City blinders,” said Heller’s father, Steven, an author and former senior art director for The New York. Times. “A lot of Instagram is voyeuristic. And I don’t think Nick is a voyeur. I think he is involved with these people.”
During the pandemic, Mr. Heller highlighted struggling local small businesses like Astor Place Barbers and the Village Revival record store, owned by Jamal Alnasr. “There was an amazing change in my business,” Mr. Alnasr said. Just as important, there was a personal connection to Mr. Heller: “We became real friends.”
In December 2022, the film Mr. Heller directed, “Out of Order,” was released, starring nearly two dozen of the people he regularly features on his social media accounts. It’s important, he said, to help the people in his videos “have a career of their own.”
After saying goodbye to Bobby, Mr. Heller walked to Union Square Park, where he squeezed through the crowd at a cannabis rally, taking photos and videos that could be seen on his Instagram story later that night. His lens gravitated to a person dressed head to toe in a cannabis leaf costume.
The art of observing
Mr. Heller has a lot of practice watching people without being noticed. Another genre of his medium is the candid shot of life: a man in a blonde wig, high heels, and a Santa skirt struts through Times Square; a woman crossing herself as she crosses the finish line of the New York City Marathon; Two Hasidic Jewish men chatting on the sidewalk, gesturing as their payot blows in the wind. (He often collects them in what he calls his “Sunday junk”).
After the cannabis festival, Heller returned to 16th Street to play golf with Tiger Hood, a veteran photographer whom Heller shot. in a 2019 documentary. .
As Heller walked up to the makeshift tee (a row of milk cartons strewn across a mat resembling a $100 bill) and lined up his club, a small crowd began recording. Maybe they recognized Mr. Heller. Or maybe they didn’t, just whipped out their phones to capture a moment on a New York street.
Mr. Heller made contact, the milk carton flew through the air, and for a brief moment, all eyes, and cameras, were on New York Nico.