“It’s hard to know who’s being genuine,” says Nicolas Heller, or as he’s better known to his 600,000-plus Instagram followers, @newyorknico. He’s nursing a bowl of the famous pea soup at Cozy Soup ’n’ Burger, off of Astor Place in Downtown Manhattan, and discussing the city’s upcoming mayoral race and his unexpected influence within it. “There’s a lot of phoniness in politics. I will say that a bunch of the mayoral campaigns have reached out to me. I didn’t realize how important my endorsement was.”
With four days left before voting closes, Heller isn’t actually planning to make any endorsements (though he recently partnered with New York magazine to interview every candidate), after he posted a photo from a chance encounter with Andrew Yang—“kind of as an April Fool’s joke”—and received an influx of hate mail. “I’m leaning towards someone right now,” he says, “but I’m still undecided.”
Heller, 32, calls himself “the unofficial talent scout of New York City.” Others might call him an Instagram influencer, though the term doesn’t sit quite right. Rather than coming from a place of self-promotion, Heller’s account is focused on the locals and small businesses that give the city its texture in an era when much of it has been buffed to a glossy, tourist- and gentrifier-friendly sheen.
It’s no surprise nearly every campaign wants Heller’s stamp of approval. New York City desperately needs a cheerleader, particularly someone who came up outside the city’s political system. It helps that he’s a soft-spoken native who hangs a framed Cellino & Barnes poster in his apartment and almost exclusively dresses in New York City merch. Today, he’s wearing a sweatshirt depicting a subway scene drawn by the late artist Jason Polan, a gold chain with subway token and MetroCard charms, a New York Yankees logo earring, and a blue baseball cap from Uncle Paulie’s Deli, which is L.A.-based but started by a Queens expat. “I will wear the most New York stuff I possibly can,” he says. “It’s like when I was a kid and I would only wear Looney Tunes stuff, now I only wear New York stuff.”
Heller started the account about seven years ago, having returned to New York and moved back in with his parents after trying to make it as a music video director in L.A. “I was feeling super defeated,” he says, “I didn’t know what I was gonna do for a career.” One day, sitting in Union Square Park, he gathered up the courage to talk with a street character he’d been seeing for almost a decade, a busker with a sign that read “The 6’7” Jew Will Freestyle Rap for You.” “I considered him to be a celebrity, even though he was just some guy on the street, and to my surprise, he was really down to talk to me,” Heller says. They ended up walking around the city, and eventually, Heller asked if he could make a documentary about him. “I’d never made a documentary before, but I figured I had nothing left to lose,” he says. That film turned into the series No Your City, a collection of five-minute interviews with street characters like Larry the Birdman and Wendell the Homeless Fashion Designer. Hoping to get more eyeballs on the videos, Heller started posting unedited footage he shot with his iPhone directly to Instagram, and @newyorknico was born.
Last spring, during the first peak of the coronavirus, Heller provided a way for locked-down New Yorkers to experience a city that had become inaccessible overnight. His account became a place not just for quirky characters and only-in-New York street scenes, but also virtual pep rallies, classified ads, charity fundraisers, and small business administration. Partnering with the MTA, he recruited a cast of celebrity New Yorkers, including Jerry Seinfeld and Awkwafina, to record new subway and bus announcements to help draw wary straphangers back to the system. Through a series of competitions, including the Best New York T-Shirt and Best New York Photo contests, he’s raised more than $300,000 for hunger and racial justice groups. He even turned his Instagram page into a matchmaking service, soliciting hundreds of videos from New Yorkers looking for love and encouraging them to slide into each other’s DMs.
Perhaps most notably, his posts about local businesses have the power to send GoFundMe donations surging and drive major foot traffic. Last summer, as virus cases dropped and the city began reopening, Heller began using the hashtag #momnpopdrop to call out suffering neighborhood shops. He started with Henry Yao, the owner of Army & Navy Bags, a military surplus store on the Lower East Side. After Heller posted about how Yao was backed up on his $6,000-plus rent and directed followers to a customer-launched GoFundMe, the fundraiser quickly met its $50,000 goal. “After seeing how successful that was, I just kept going,” Heller says. Earlier this month, a partnership with Humans of New York netted more than $100,000 for Yao’s store.
Heller has plenty of work ahead of him. The city is in the midst of a mass extinction event: The Partnership for New York City, a business development nonprofit, estimates that nearly one third of the city’s small businesses won’t make it through the pandemic, and the ones who’ve been able to last are usually lucky enough to have forgiving landlords. In recent months he’s helped other downtown establishments like Punjabi Deli, on East 1st Street, and specialty shops like Casey Rubber Stamps, in the East Village, though his DMs are flooded with suggestions. “I feel bad that I can’t do it for every business,” he says. “That’s why whenever I post, I make it a point to say, this might be my favorite spot, but you probably have your favorite spot that you should be checking in on and supporting if you have the means.”
One of Heller’s most cherished places in the city happens to be across the street from Cozy’s. As we walk into Astor Place Hairstylists, the East Village barbershop whose patrons have included Andy Warhol, Robert De Niro, Mayor Bill de Blasio, and, since he was 10, Heller himself, a chorus of “Hey Nicks!” ring out as we walk past the stylists’ stations.
In the back, we find “Big Mike” Saviello, the longtime manager whose budding career as a painter Heller has helped publicize. “I just knew Mike as the grumpy guy up front who would tell you where to get your haircut, and [one day] I see him back here painting with his shirt off,” Heller says, stepping into Saviello’s storeroom-turned-studio, where the walls are covered with his Van Gogh–style portraits of Tony Soprano and a naked Girl with a Pearl Earring. “I used it as an opportunity to bond with him.” Heller’s 2018 documentary short about Saviello, Big Mike Takes Lunch, helped launch Saviello’s art career.
“I didn’t know what to expect,” Saviello says. “I said, ‘Let’s do a premiere here,’ and we had hundreds of people outside. The mayor came, it was crazy.”
So last fall, when the doors of Astor Place were on the cusp of closing, Heller took to his Instagram to rally support. About a month after news about the closing broke, a group of wealthy investors stepped in to buy the shop and save it. “When the whole thing went down, the first guy to call was Nick,” Saviello says. “He was like, ‘What can I do? I’ll raise money.’ I’m like, ‘You can’t raise enough money to save it.’ ” Saviello says people would often joke with him about buying Astor Place, but he’d never taken the comments seriously. After Heller posted about the barbershop’s impending closure, “There were close to 800 comments,” he says, “and just reading those comments I was thinking, ‘Ok, I gotta start calling people, I can’t let this place go down.’ ” The new investors made Saviello a part owner.
Earlier, at the diner, Heller had shrugged off any role in helping save Astor Place. “I definitely am not taking credit for that,” he told me. “I don’t take credit for anything.” Just after he said this, Cozy’s manager, John Stratidis, who was interviewed by Heller on Instagram last fall, stopped by our table to say that “because of him, so many people have gotten a second opportunity in life.” Heller laughed.
“I hate it when people say New York is dead, New York is dying,” he said, his voice rising. “We’ve lost a lot of what makes New York City great. But we still have so, so much. And I just hate when people complain about the decline of the city rather than doing something to preserve it.”