Nicolas Heller is the creator of "No Your City," an episodic documentary film project that captures the special characters that keep New York City's street life, well, alive.
In this post-Bloombergian age of sterilized sidewalks and fussily manicured parks, the street character is a vitally important citizen--and a vanishing breed. We used to see them everywhere. Today, less and less. But a few remain. From Larry the Birdman to colorful Ms. Colombia, they're getting their close-up in Heller's lens.
I asked Nic a few questions:
Q: First off, why the NO in "No Your City"?
A: Ah, the first question everyone asks… There is no deep meaning behind it, I just wanted to keep the NYC acronym so I could use the subway token as a logo.
Q: You grew up in New York. What characters do you remember from way back?
A: I grew up on 16th and 5th in Manhattan. Union Square was my backyard, so most of the people I remember were from there. Te’Devan the 6’ 7” Freestyling Jew (who at the time was a spiritual healer), Wendell the homeless Fashion designer, the asshole with the cat on his head, the little man who sold hot dogs, Roman the pervert. The list goes on.
Q: What made you want to capture the characters of New York on film?
A: At first it was an excuse for me to get to know these people I have seen around the neighborhood for years but too afraid to approach. In the second season, it turned into a form of preservation. You know as well as I do that NYC is losing a lot of its charm. And with it, the city is losing a lot of its characters. I wanted to tell the stories of New Yorkers who might not be around much longer. So that kids can see these videos 40 years from now and be exposed to what NYC was.
Q: What do you think of that word, "character"? Is that the right word?
A: I consider the word “character” a positive way to describe someone. I remember my parents describing friends, clients, etc., to me when I was a kid. They would describe them as “a real character.” It was because they had something very unique about them. A vibrant personality. All my subjects are these things and more, therefore they deserve the honor of being called a “character.” I don’t just throw that term around. It takes a special person.
Q: What do you think is valuable about these people, and others like them, to the urban fabric of the city?
A: Street culture is what makes a city unique. You can go anywhere in the United States and there will be similar restaurants, stores, parks, etc. But there is only one of every character. There is no one else like Wendell, Larry the Birdman, Mrs. Colombia, Clayton Patterson, etc. You have to come to NYC to experience them.
Q: How do you approach your subjects? Is everyone open to being filmed -- or have you had some misses?
A: It usually starts with a photograph. Then I will talk to them and tell them about my series. Most of these characters love the attention so they are eager to be filmed. I’ve had a few misses, mostly because there was no way of getting in touch with them. But for the most part everyone is appreciative of the message and wants to be involved.
Q: Looking just at your films, one might think New York is still a weird, vibrant place. Do you think it is?
A: Totally. I am only 26, so I can’t quite remember what NYC was like over 10 years ago, but luckily I have Clayton Patterson’s archive available to me. In a sense, I am doing what he was doing 30 years ago. Documenting a moment in time that will inevitably change in the coming years. I still think the city has tons of personality. More so than anywhere else I have been to. I think my films do a good job of providing evidence of that.
Q: Will there be more films? What characters are you still hoping to get on film?
A: I will always be filming. The city plays a huge role in everything I do. I just finished a series on Brooklyn Drag Queens called Queens of Kings which will be coming out shortly after No Your City season 2 ends, and I am in the process of making an animated short film which will be a part of No Your City. Making these docs costs next to nothing, so as long as I am physically able, I will continue to tell people’s stories.
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