Photo: Michael Discenza/Unsplash

Casey Neistat’s Escape from New York Robs the City of its Best Brand Ambassador

The YouTube auteur was New York’s best documentarian — he even lured me back to the Big Apple

Elizabeth de Luna
Jul 23, 2019 · 5 min read

The first video Casey Neistat ever uploaded to YouTube sought to answer a question that every New Yorker has likely puzzled over: when is it okay to pull the emergency brake on a New York City subway train?

It’s 2010, and Neistat appears on screen in black sunglasses, which he wears so that the viewer is not distracted by the movement of his eyes as they scan the train car in which he is filming. “I’m gonna touch it” he teases and the camera pans up to capture his fingers reaching towards the break, grasping it lightly. When his face reappears he is sporting a mischievous, toothy grin, delighted by his small act of disobedience.

This is Neistat at his essence — tempter of fate, seeker of truth, and deeply devoted student of the city of New York. Over the past nine years, Neistat has posted more than 1,000 videos about living, working, and breaking rules in New York City to his YouTube channel, which now counts more than 11 million subscribers.

Last week, the city lost him to another metropolis, Los Angeles, where his wife and two daughters will be closer to their extended family.

The cross-country move closes an 18-year chapter of Neistat’s life in New York, laying to rest an era of creativity that has made him one of the world’s most prolific digital creators. It has shocked his fanbase, many of whom have fallen in love with the city by experiencing it vicariously through his regular uploads.

Viewers left more than 12,000 comments under the May 10th video in which he announced his departure, many lamenting the loss of one of the city’s fiercest advocates and greatest admirers. “New York is essentially the co-star of your videos,” says one. “Sad to see you leaving it.” Another reads, “Your vlogs were my introduction to NYC! Thank you, Casey, for showing the best of New York City.”

Neistat moved to Manhattan on June 4th, 2001. He was 20, already a father of a three-year-old boy, and had been living in poverty in a trailer park in Connecticut. He dreamed of becoming a filmmaker and had his first taste of success in 2003 with a video about Apple’s dead battery policy. In 2008 he and his brother Van sold their autobiographical docuseries “The Neistat Brothers” to HBO.

Then came YouTube, a platform that Neistat embraced in earnest. In 2015, he began posting daily video blogs, known as vlogs, with a fresh filmmaking style that elevated the genre to new heights of storytelling. His videos, usually less than 10 minutes long, were set against the backdrop of Manhattan and cleverly edited to reflect Neistat’s curious eye. They were imbued with his irrepressible, irresistible energy, and paid homage to the city with a palpable reverence. Sweeping, cinematic drone shots of the East River and time-lapses of the skyline at dawn honored its beauty.

He traveled via an electric skateboard, surfing the streets with a camera in his fist, and the omnipresence of his lens enabled him to capture the city that only New Yorkers see: a woman singing opera in an alleyway, dresses being transferred from a Chinatown window to a parked delivery van via zipline, the kindness of his UPS delivery man, Marlon. And what the camera saw, a growing fanbase of millions of viewers around the world saw, too.

For these fans, the New York they knew from the movies and television became the New York of Casey Neistat’s vlogs. A recent reply to one of Neistat’s tweets read, “I’m from Argentina. You and your vlogs made me fall in love with NYC to the point that I have never been there… and think that it’s without a doubt the best city in the world.” Neistat’s studio in lower Manhattan — which has since become an unofficial creator space for up-and-coming YouTubers to shoot and perform — became a tourist attraction and he would often film the half a dozen or so young fans waiting for him on his way in to work every morning.

Part of Neistat’s appeal was the daredevil streak he teased in that very first video. He reveled in skating close to the edge of what was acceptable and sometimes plunged straight over it to see what the city might reward him with. One of the top-viewed videos on his channel is a compilation of Neistat, dressed in head-to-toe red and sporting his iconic black sunglasses, snowboarding through the city during winter storm Jonas. As Neistat rounds a corner into Times Square, pulled along by a black Jeep and waving an American flag, Sinatra’s New York, New York plays in the background as onlookers cheer. Later in the video, when his crew is stopped by the NYPD, an officer yells through the open window of a cop car, “Someone was complaining about you, so we’re gonna act like we’re talkin’ to you, alright?” “You guys are awesome!” Neistat shouts back.

The city offered itself as a willing stage on which Neistat could perform, and he strived to give back to it. He licensed his first-party footage of Hurricane Sandy and donated the proceeds to victims. He launched a Warhol-esque creative hub at 368 Broadway, just next to his studio, to bring together and foster local creators. He created a number of Op-Ed Documentaries for The New York Times about issues affecting New Yorkers, like 2013’s proposed Soda Ban and how to find personal belongings accidentally left behind in a yellow cab.

Photo: Noam Galai/Getty Images

But Neistat’s greatest contribution to the city was the portrait of it he painted in the imagination of millions of people around the world, including my own. When I moved away from New York five years ago, I vowed I would never come back. And yet, in January, I returned. Neistat’s vlogs had kept the city alive in my mind. Watching them was like reading a love letter to the city, and they made me fall in love, too. It feels hard to imagine that Los Angeles will etch itself as deeply into his heart.

One viewer comment under the video in which Neistat announced his departure reads, “In the back of my mind, I’d always hoped that when I’d fly halfway across the world and visit New York, I’d see Casey on his skateboard whizzing by.” To that person I’d say, don’t give up hope. Something tells me he’ll be back.


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