Celebrating a city’s character
A look at the work of New York Nico
Our Leap 2 project requires us to analyze the work of a digital author. In a sea of bloggers, vloggers and influencers, it would be great to profile someone who has a unique voice, and has found a way to use that voice for good. It wasn’t hard to zero in on Nicholas Heller, aka New York Nico, who has made uniqueness itself his topic. As a former New York resident, I have been following his Instagram profile for a while. Through his subjects, he manages to perfectly capture what I miss most about the city — the energy and diversity of its streets and the texture of its daily life.
Happily, my partner Teresa was captivated by New York Nico’s charm immediately, and saw relevance in his work. Though we are in different countries and time zones, we fell into an easy collaboration in a shared document, first collecting references, then making separate notes, and finally assembling it all into a finished script. As befits a good creative partnership, we divided tasks according to our abilities and interests: Teresa contributed the more academic analysis, while I gave the script its narrative structure and journalistic style; I focused on design, and she took on the video editing. Perhaps the hardest part was editing what we could fit into the time allowed, since, in the case of such delightful characters, the more the merrier.
What makes a new yorker so unique? Maybe it’s the humor, the in-your-face sassiness. Perhaps it is the easy use of profanity, or the no-apologies flaunting of one’s colorful personality. Perhaps it’s the friendliness that they can barely hide under the tough attitude. Whatever it is, Heller has made it into a brand. With a keen eye for such characters, he has worked this special New York sauce into a beautiful New York Knicks film that celebrates the city’ resilience in the face of Covid-19, a series of MTA announcements, and the Apeel spot that has cameos from his Instagram regulars. New York Nico has become a transmedia sensation that blends entertainment, advertising and philanthropy, as his subjects gain notoriety, run fundraisers, get cast in commercials, start business of their own, and fuel Heller‘s own rise as a director.
It’s interesting to note that in a world where artifice, filters and heavily edited reality seem to be the norm, Heller chooses to work in street documentary style, using nothing but a cell phone and capturing spontaneous images and dialog. His Instagram videos are pointedly authentic, making no use of post-production, often incorporating shadows, blurriness, street sounds and unexpected walk-ins, not to mention drippy sauces. It’s a welcome break from all those unreal representations of life that are causing us all so much anxiety.
In a way, Heller demonstrates what we want our students to do with our “create to learn” practices: look at your surroundings with a curious eye. Ask the questions, take in the details, let your subjects do the talking. Document what you love and use your voice to try to fix what’s wrong.
Here is our resulting project: A city is only as interesting as the people who make it tick.
This piece was written as an assignment for the Digital Authorship seminar, part of the Graduate Certificate in Digital Literacy at the University of Rhode Island, in which we explore digital and media literacy through focusing on the critical and creative practices of self-expression, advocacy, and the advancement of learning communities.
The Fabulous Queen of Brooklyn’s Vintage Clothing: Meet Gizmo Vintage Honey. ABC7 New York, 2021.
Hobbs, Renee. Create to Learn: Introduction to Digital Literacy. Wiley, Blackwell, 2017.
Vespoli, Lauren. The Big-Hearted Influence of @NewYorkNico. GQ Magazine, 2021.
Yaptangco, Ariana. New York Nico Is Helping Save New York City, One Instagram Post at a Time. Elle Magazine, 2020