More Than Likes is a series about social media personalities who are trying to do positive things for their communities.
Before he was New York Nico (handle: @newyorknico), the popular social-media documentarian of New York’s quirks and characters, Nicolas Heller was the “mayor of 16th Street” — at age 3.
On his walk home from nursery school, Mr. Heller would check in with all the friendly faces on the block: the manager at Steak Frites who kept a tub of ice cream with the boy’s name on it; the security guard at the tile store who tipped his cap and made funny faces at him; the antique-clothing salespeople who would turn their standing mirror around so he could see his reflection.
In a way, it set the template for what was to come decades later.
“Everyone would say ‘Hey, Nick. How’s it going, Nick?’” Mr. Heller recalled.
Mr. Heller’s mother, Louise Fili, a graphic designer and author, coined the “mayor” nickname because of her son’s ability to connect with the ordinary people who made the city hum. “It’s kind of like what he does now,” Ms. Fili said.
“It’s important to me to preserve what makes New York New York, in all its character, in all its glory,” Mr. Heller, left, said.Credit…Sinna Nasseri for The New York Times
‘Quintessentially New York’
For the past decade, Mr. Heller, the self-described “unofficial talent scout of New York City,” has roamed the city in search of moments that are “quintessentially New York.” His New York Nico accounts — he now has more than 1.3 million followers on TikTok and 1.1 million on Instagram — invite people to celebrate the city’s colorful side: the people, the community staples and the wacky, random moments only understood by those who regularly walk its streets.
One approach that sets Mr. Heller, 34, apart from most social media personalities: He is more than happy to remain in the background.
“The bigger I’ve gotten, the less I want to be noticed,” Mr. Heller said. “It’s my lens. I don’t think people really care as much about me as they do what they see through my eyes.”
It wasn’t until after he left New York that he came to really appreciate the city, Ms. Fili said. After graduating from Emerson College, Mr. Heller moved to Los Angeles to try to make it as producer of hip-hop music videos. “That did not go well,” he said. Six months later, he was back in New York, living at his parents’ house, unsure of what direction to take his life in.
One day he was sitting in Union Square Park when he spotted a busker he had long admired who carried a sign: “6-foot-7 Jew Will Freestyle Rap for You.” Mr. Heller had always been too shy to talk to him, but he mustered the courage to approach the man and ask if he could make a short documentary about him. The man agreed, and Mr. Heller parlayed the project into a YouTube series about local street characters, “No Your City.”
Mr. Heller’s approach is informed by the knowledge that life could quickly change for the worse, he said, whether from a terrorist attack — he was 12 on Sept. 11, 2001, and said he still had nightmares of running from the buildings — or a pandemic.
Mr. Heller created his Instagram account in 2013 and started to take it more seriously in 2015 when traffic was waning for “No Your City.” He switched to shooting on his phone, and instead of presenting full narratives, he focused on smaller, slice-of-life of moments that captured the odd 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 glory,” Mr. Heller said.
In early May, Mr. Heller walked out of Village Revival Records, a record store he made famous on social media, into anonymity on a crowded Greenwich Village sidewalk.
Passers-by, though, took notice of the man by his side. Here was “Bobby,” who lumbers around New York on comically tall stilts and whom Mr. Heller first featured on social media exactly one year earlier.
“Hi, Bobby!” a fan said.
Bobby is part of a crew of recurring characters in Mr. Heller’s videos that also includes “the Green Lady,” “BigTime Tommie” and “Cugine.” A man who goes by “Tiger Hood” organizes “street golf” outings, coaching pedestrians on hitting milk cartons stuffed with newspapers.
“As I would always say to him, they are people I would run away from in the street, or ignore and put up my New York City blinders,” said Mr. 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’s involved with these people.”
During the pandemic, Mr. Heller shined a spotlight on struggling local small businesses, like Astor Place Hairstylists and the record store Village Revival, which is owned by Jamal Alnasr. “There was an amazing change in my business,” Mr. Alnasr said. Just as important, there was a personal connection with Mr. Heller: “We became real friends.”
In December 2022, the film Mr. Heller directed, “Out of Order,” starring nearly two dozen of the people he regularly features on his social media accounts, was released. It is 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 around people at a cannabis rally, snapping photos and videos they might watch on his Instagram story later that night. His lens gravitated toward a person dressed in a head-to-toe cannabis-leaf costume.
The art of observing
Mr. Heller is well practiced in observing people without being noticed. Another genre of his milieu is the candid, slice-of-life shot: a man wearing a blond wig, high heels and a Santa Claus skirt strutting around Times Square; a woman crossing herself as she walks across the New York City Marathon finish line; two Hasidic Jewish men conversing on the sidewalk, gesticulating as their payot blow in the wind. (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 profiled in a 2019 documentary. .
As Mr. Heller stepped to the makeshift tee (a row of milk cartons strewn across a floor mat resembling a $100 bill) and lined up his club, a small crowd started recording. Perhaps they recognized Mr. Heller. Or perhaps they did not, merely pulling out their phones to capture a moment on a New York street.
Mr. Heller made contact, the milk carton flew in the air, and, for a brief moment, all eyes — and cameras — were on New York Nico.