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It’s not often documentarians take the spotlight. Almost always behind the camera, their voices and appearances are often a mystery. Instead, filmmakers become known for the people they profile.
Nicolas Heller, a.k.a New York Nico, a 33-year-old filmmaker and documentarian, has become inextricably linked with the New York City personalities he captures for his Instagram account, @newyorknico: Tiger Hood, Big Time Tommie, the Green Lady of Brooklyn and many, many others. His own likeness and personality are not often revealed in these often chaotic scenes. Instead, the voices of these NYC individuals are loud and clear—and that’s kind of the point.
That being said, as New York Nico has come to represent New York City’s eccentric, weird and wonderful residents, he is an NYC character in his own right. He is the “unofficial talent scout” of NYC, with over 1 million followers on Instagram, but he’s also a promoter of local mom-and-pop businesses, giving a spotlight to smaller shops that need the publicity. In that, he has become a caricature of the quintessential New Yorker. That’s why we chose him to be on our November digital cover. He is both of and for New York City.
We met up with Heller at 12 Chairs in Williamsburg just before Thanksgiving to ask the soft-spoken icon for a New York City local gift guide (below) and to find out more about his journey to becoming New York Nico.
It’s New York City or nowhere
NYC has always called to Heller, whether he wanted it to or not.
He was born and raised in NYC, so when it came time to head to college, he was ready to get out of town. He’d had enough of this city like any young local would so he headed to film school at Emerson College in Boston. He found himself back in NYC after a brief stint in L.A. after graduation.
“I moved back and was living with my parents and contemplating my next move,” he tells us.
Feeling defeated, he didn’t know what his next move should be, until one day in Union Square, he noticed a man with a sign that read “The 6’7” Jew Will Freestyle Rap for You.”
“I considered this guy a celebrity,” he tells us. “I was intimidated to talk to him, but I was so down in the dumps that I figured I had nothing to lose. Talking to him, I found he was really receptive, so we ended up walking around the area together. After about two hours, I asked him if I could make a documentary about him. He was down, so I ended up shooting this day-in-the-life, five-minute documentary on him. I realized I could do this formula for other NYC street characters.”
From this, Heller decided to make a documentary series called “No Your City,” in which NYC celebrities, including Wendell the Homeless Fashion Designer, Larry the Bird Man, Matthew Silver and even Curtis Sliwa (well before he ran for mayor) were featured.
He ended up making a total of 16 and they took off on Instagram. “My page became my lens on New York, and as time went on, more people were following it. I started realizing that I had the power to help other people by shining a spotlight on a street performer or sharing somebody’s story.”
“It gave me this newfound appreciation for New York and made me realize this is where I need to be,” he says. “If I hadn’t gone to L.A., I wouldn’t have this newfound appreciation for New York.”
NYC is the people
Heller doesn’t exactly know how he can tell when he comes across a distinctly NYC character. He just knows.
“It’s like a sixth sense that I can’t really explain,” he says. “There’s one type of person that sticks out more than others, but in general, there’s no type. A Green Lady, a BigTime Tommy or a Tiger Hood—all three of those people are clearly different types of people but they have overlap—they’re all quintessential New York characters.”
And for Heller, it’s not about portraying them a certain way or dressing them up. He lets the camera roll and allows them to express themselves freely. That’s his style of direction under Heller Films when he’s not directing commercials.
“I love improv and letting these real people be themselves or exaggerated versions of themselves,” he explains. “I love chaos. You can kind of tell it’s a Nick Heller film by who is in it. If you follow me on Instagram, you would recognize these people.”
The subject of his film Big Mike Takes Lunch, “Big Mike” Saviello of Astor Place Hairstylists, is one such personality Heller enjoyed capturing. He has been getting his haircut there since he was just a boy and one day in 2018, he caught Big Mike painting the storage area of the shop.
At age 60, Big Mike was beginning a new hobby—it was something he said he always wanted to do—and decided he would paint every day on his break. In one year’s time, he had amassed a gallery in the storage area.
Heller has produced and directed other short films like Out of Order, Neighborhood Golf Association, If You Know Me Is to Love Me and Treasures in the Trash.
It’s clear from his work that he has a soft spot for the city’s characters, with all their quirks and kinks. “If I had to choose one thing [that keeps me in NYC], it’s the people,” he says.
A love for mom-and-pops
Although Heller had already been featuring some local business owners on his Instagram, it wasn’t until the pandemic that he realized he could use his platform to support struggling businesses.
He started highlighting his favorite spots and their owners, starting with the Army Navy Bags store on Houston owned by Henry Yao.
“A friend told me about two or three months into the pandemic that Henry was really struggling, so I did a profile on his business and shared his Gofundme,” he explains. “It spread like wildfire. That’s when I realized I could do this for a lot of other businesses I grew up going to.”
Since then, he’s profiled countless businesses, from sweets shops to electronics stores and everything in between—all across the boroughs.
In fact, Heller just got a book deal with Harper Collins for New York Nico & Friends’ Guide to NYC to do even more of this kind of work. In the book, which is geared toward locals, he’ll show off his favorite places and enlist his friends and NYC personalities to show off theirs, too.
“There will be spots that even if you’re living here you might not know about,” he said. “I had so much fun discovering a lot of businesses that are so up my alley.” One of these includes Casa Amadeo in the Bronx—a “super old-school,” Latin music store.
“This is such an iconic spot that has been around for nearly 100 years,” he adds. “The owner is in his late 80s and still comes to work every day.”
Heller tells us that some of the best people in NYC are business owners. It’s not just about their big personalities, either.
“Beyond them having amazing stuff that you can only find there, it’s important to keep these businesses open for future generations,” Heller says. “A lot of the businesses I profile have been around for 20, 30, 40 or 50 years, so once they’re gone, they’re gone.”
For your local holiday shopping, we’ve put together a list of 10 of New York Nico’s favorite stores. If you click through the Instagram posts, he’ll tell you why you should shop there this holiday season in his own words.