Nicolas Heller’s @NewYorkNico Street Smarts | In episode 40 of Light Culture Podcast, Paper Magazine founder David Hershkovits sits down with viral New York social media personality and documentarian NewYorkNico.
NewYorkNico’s #newyorkaccentchallenge went viral on Instagram for providing much-needed comic relief for beleaguered New Yorkers living in the Covid virus epicenter. Through Nico’s love for New York street “characters” like Larry the Birdman, Tiger Hood, Vinny Peanuts, Mo the Butcher, Charlie Da Wolf, and others, he’s become one himself. We “tawk” to Nicolas Heller about how he arrived at his persona, his favorite New York movies, and why he thinks New York City will endure and thrive post-Corona.Read Transcript
Q: what made you fall in love with New York?
Union Square was my neighborhood growing up. Born and raised. I went to college in Boston. I just wanted to get out of the city. 2007 is when I graduated high school. Came back to New York after school for a year, and lived in Brooklyn. I was making music videos. I had exhausted all of my connections in New York.
So I moved out to LA, but because I’m a born and raised New Yorker, I never got around to getting my driver’s license. So when I got to LA, I was not booking work, sharing a room with a kid I found on Craigslist; I failed my driving test three times. I’ve never been more miserable in my life. So, after six months, I moved back to New York. And I was just so depressed. I was living back with my parents. I didn’t know what I was going to do for a living, because I hadn’t made it as a music video director.
And then one day, I’m just sitting in Union Square. I noticed a New York character who I have seen since I was a kid. This six-foot-seven Jewish dude with dreadlocks who carries around a huge sign that says, “the six-foot-seven Jew will freestyle rap for you.” And he just walks around the city, rapping for people. We ended up walking around the city for like a couple hours. And by the end of us hanging out, I was just like, “hey, man, I’ve never done a documentary before, but I would love to try making a documentary on you. Would you be down?” He said, yes. So I made a documentary on him. Ended up being really good. And then I realized that I could take this concept of like, the day in the life of a New York character, and create a series out of it.
So I created a series called, “No Your City.” N-O your city. Where I profiled famous New York street characters, and that changed my life. It gave me a new sense of purpose, it gave me a brand new love for New York. I created my Instagram because the videos that I was doing for No Your City, they were like six minutes long. I didn’t have a following. And this was around the time that Instagram had introduced video, 60-second video. You know, the things started off kind of slow. But once people saw that I was consistent, I started gaining followers and growing my platform.
Q: What was the first one that really took off do you think?
Matthew Silver is a legendary street performer. Who, if you’ve seen, if you saw a photo of him, you’d recognize him. And I had done a No Your City episode on him. So he and I were friends. And every time I would post him on my Instagram, it would go crazy. And there was one video, This was around the time that Fidget Spinners came out, So I gave him a Fidget Spinner in the video, and because he’s just like such an absurd person, he kind of took it and ran with it.
That video ended up going crazy viral. And that was the first time that I saw a huge boost in followers. And then from there things have just been kind of consistent. And I have like a cast of regulars and I call them characters, but I mean that in the best way possible, like they’re my friends. I think character is a great thing. I think that’s the best thing that you can be is a character.
Q: But, now, we’re in this kind of crazy time where you can’t walk on the street or you can’t stop and talk to people. So do you think it’ll ever be the same for you?
I’m an optimist. I think that things will be back to normal, as normal as it can be, eventually. When this whole Covid bullshit started, I was so anxious. You know, all my creativity comes from being outside and meeting people, like what am I going to do? And then I had the idea to do a New York’s Got Talent Show from home. Where I had people just submit videos of them showing off their talents.
And a lot of the people who submitted are performers who I film regularly on the street. So I did that, and I felt great about that because it was essentially doing what I do, pre Covid. But while in isolation. Like I was doing it from the confines of my own bedroom, and that made me realize that I can adapt.
Q: you’re also doing other things, with regard to New York, right? You wanted to rank every New York movie ever made? Seems like a big task.
Yeah, I kind of gave up on that, but I do have another thing going on right now with Stimulus TV. They basically wanted to create a public access channel with content going twenty-four-seven. They have me doing New York Nico’s Film Camp, where I show a New York movie every night that my followers or whoever can tune into. And there’s a chat room and we talk during the movie.
Q: So what have you gathered by all these New York movies? What makes a good New York movie?
Nico: I gravitate towards the Scorsese movies, the De Palma movies, and the Safde Brothers movies. So the gritty, kind of violent New York movies. My favorites are Taxi Driver, Midnight Cowboy, Good Time, After Hours, King of Comedy. I’m trying not to name all Scorsese movies, but that’s kind of what I’m ending up doing – Bronx Tale. Serpico, Carlito’s Way and I mean, you know, the list goes on and on.
Q: We asked some of your followers what questions they would like to ask you. So Elisa GC asks, craziest run-in with a celebrity?
Craziest run-in with a celebrity? That’s a hard question… I’ll tell you the most recent run-in with a celebrity. This was right before Corona. I ran into Tony Danza on the street.
He’s on my top 100 New York accent list. So I just wanted to get a quick photo selfie with him. And I hardly ever ask for selfies. But I went up to him and I was like – “Hey man, do you mind if I get a selfie?” And it would have been totally fine if he just said, “no, sorry, I’m busy,” or something like that. He said something along the lines of, “you’re not allowed to do that.” You know, like I can’t come up to him and ask him that. He gave me an attitude just for asking him to take a selfie, and made me feel like a piece of shit. And yeah, so that’s it. Not a good story.
Okay. Richie Evangelista asks, can I smoke a joint with you and Tiger Hood?
I don’t smoke. I don’t know. I don’t even know if the Tiger smokes, but hey, if you see us playing golf, once this is all over, you’re welcome to play golf with us.Tiger is one of my favorite people in New York. He’s just so unique.
That’s the thing about all these characters. They’re all one-of-a-kind. There will never be another Vinny Peanuts (who passed away from COVID-19). There will never be another Moe the Butcher. Moe the Butcher recently died too. I also wanted to shout out Jimmy Webb, who also passed away. He was the owner of I Need More. He was a downtown legend, punk icon, one of the nicest people I’ve ever met.
And so it’s not enough for you to just take the people’s photo, but you go ten steps further. You’re also becoming their friends, and does that become a meaningful relationship for you?
Yeah, they’re my buddies. Tiger Hood, I speak to him on the phone like three times a day.
Adam Lippmann, another one from your Instagram followers. Despite all the changes that have happened in New York, can it still be a cultural Mecca?
Of course, and I’m not saying this to sound corny. I really do think that New York is going to bounce back stronger than ever. It reminds me, I was only in seventh grade when 9/11 happened, but I remember after 9/11 the city came together and we were stronger than we ever had been. The sense of community was just incredible. People who ordinarily wouldn’t get along, were getting along, because we all had sympathy for one another. We’re already starting to see that now, with all the people who are helping each other. So yeah, I think that we’re going to bounce back and I still think that we’re going to be the cultural Mecca of the world.
Yeah. Here’s a nice one, who would you want to play you in a movie?
Good question. Um. Wow. Well, I definitely don’t want a movie to be made about me right now, because I feel like I haven’t earned it. But maybe, you know, 20 years from now, there’ll be some bearded white kid who will be right to play me. I don’t really have an answer for that. Let’s just go with Joe Pesci. Joe Pesci with the Irishman face mod.
Q: So what is it about Washington Square Park? Did you ever go to Tompkins Square, or do you go all over?
I go all over, but Washington Square is my main go-to. It’s the characters that it pulls in. A lot of my friends are there as regulars, like Larry the Birdman and Ricky Sires, and the chess players, and Alyssa and Doris Dether. And the street performers. It’s also very central. So it’s easy to get to other spots that I like. Like the West Fourth Street cage and Union Square and Astor Place Hairstylists, St. Mark’s. It’s just like right in the middle.
Q: So does it get harder and harder to find people?
Nico: It gets way easier. Especially online – like with the New York Accent Contest – I just found a handful of potential characters, you know, people that my followers instantly fell in love with just from one video. There’s no shortage of incredible people in the city.
I also wanted to just plug one thing. I’m getting behind this initiative called iPads To Hospitals. It is a way for people to donate their iPads that they don’t use to hospitals. As you know, because of the contagious nature of the virus, hospitals don’t allow visitors. And a lot of people don’t have access to tablets or smartphones. So this is a way to kind of let patients connect with their families. If you don’t have an iPad, you can donate money and we’re buying new iPads. Go to ipadstohospitals.org for more info.