Omar Aguirre has wanted to live in New York City ever since he visited when he was 13.
“Coming from Mexico, there's nothing really similar,“ he said. “Now I realize that there's nothing really similar anywhere else in the world, to be honest. But it got stuck in my head, like I had to go to New York at some point.”
Aguirre, 34, now lives on the Lower East Side and designs eyewear for Nike and Converse. But this year he launched a personal side project on Instagram called Manhatoon, for which he draws iconic local businesses and landmarks — like Ray’s Candy Store, Chinatown Fair and Balloon Saloon — then animates the illustrations and adds sound.
He’s one of a growing number of New Yorkers who have set out to document and preserve an ever-changing city through DIY projects spread via social media, particularly Instagram. Their creations are love letters to a city that is still only beginning to emerge from the trauma of the pandemic. And in some cases, their efforts bolster an urban landscape where rising rents endanger longtime businesses beloved by locals.
Aguirre says his project – an offshoot of an app he’s still working on, meant to encourage people to share their favorite bars and restaurants with friends and acquaintances – is a celebration of life in his adopted city, and an attempt at supporting places struggling with pandemic-era losses.
“I wanted to share my favorite places in a fun and engaging way,” he said, “and sprinkle it with a little bit of notes or anecdotes about life in the city, in hopes that it would probably boost, even just a little bit, their business.”
Aguirre has posted about 30 illustrations on Manhatoon in just over a month, and has begun to earn a following on Reddit and Instagram. He’s also gained the admiration of store owners who frequently repost his work.
“I lived on top of Ivan Ramen for three years of my life,” he said, “and it was really nice when Ivan himself sent me a DM thanking me for the animation.”
Aguirre joins a crowded field of photographers, cartoonists, tinkerers and artists engaged in similarly inspired visual projects. He’s the new kid on the block compared to someone like John Donohue, who since 2017 has served up a never-ending exploration of the city’s culinary offerings with “All The Restaurants In New York.” He chose to focus on restaurants because he knew he’d never run out of subjects.
Donohue thinks people feel compelled to chronicle the city because it connects them with a living history.
“To me the city is like the embodiment of the human imagination,” he said. “And it’s a collective imagination, so it's like generations of builders, dreamers, architects, engineers, aspirants.”
Like Aguirre with Manhatoon, Joel Holland was sparked to start drawing NYC storefronts at the start of the pandemic.
The 46-year-old Holland, who works professionally as an illustrator and hand letterer, moved to the Gramercy area with his family in the fateful month of March 2020. He would take his daughters on trips downtown during that spring as part of their pandemic routine. They couldn’t actually enter a lot of stores, so he instead started drawing some of their favorite places, starting with Economy Candy.
“I drew that and I'm like, ‘Hey kids, we can't go in here, but isn't this cool?'” Holland said. “I posted that on Instagram, and I got kind of addicted to it.”
Since then, he has made more than 700 drawings, about 225 of which were featured in his book “NYC Storefronts: Illustrations of the Big Apple's Best-Loved Spots,” which was released last fall. That book focused on Manhattan stores, and he’s currently working on a follow-up looking at Brooklyn shops.
Holland grew up in Pennsylvania, but has lived in the city since 1998. He thinks the fact that he’s not a native New Yorker is one reason why he’s so driven to document this place.
“I'm so psyched that I still live here, that I can live here, and I'm trying to hug all of it as much as possible,” he said. “I feel like in New York, you're always hustling, you're crawling on the sidewalks to stay alive. And in a way, it's seeing other businesses and people do the same thing that keeps me active.”
Jack Giambanco, 47, is a lifelong New Yorker with a similar outlook. The Gravesend resident worked for a chemical manufacturing company until the start of the pandemic, when he started spending more time working on 3-D printing. Now, his full-time job is Major Minis, where he designs and manufactures miniature storefront models of New York spaces.
Giambanco’s father owned pizzerias, so he saw the difficulties of running small businesses up close. He naturally empathized with struggling mom-and-pop shops during this period of contraction.
“I know what it's like, the heartache that the owners go through,” Giambanco said. “To see places closed down during a pandemic, or people struggling, it touched me. I came up with an idea one day of using my talents to capture these places and create miniatures of them, and kind of memorialize them forever, and give them to the owners of the places.”
Although he had operated 3-D printers since 2014, it took Giambanco months to perfect his own methodology. Now it takes about a week to create each model – and he takes requests from fans.
“To know that all the time I've put into learning my craft, to know that this storefront that I'm creating for somebody is going to touch them deeply, it makes me want to go on,” he said. “And what better place than the city that we live in? There's so many stories in these storefronts and these businesses, these little subcultures that we can all learn about and that you don't wanna lose. These places actually define us as people.”
Someone who keenly understands how our urban environment defines us is Nicolas Heller, better known as New York Nico. He’s become the patron saint of the city’s most eccentric characters and an encyclopedia of New York personalities. He uses his wildly popular Instagram account to highlight unsung locals and promote endangered small businesses.
“Preservation is the main thing,” he said. “I think it's important to keep it going in everyday conversation. And that was my mission from the very jump.”
Heller posits that New York’s urban aesthetics and abundance of classic signage suits these kinds of projects. “A lot of these storefronts have a ton of character and are fun to look at,” he said, “so that lends itself well to photographs or illustrations or models.”
Among his own inspirations was the work of James and Karla Murray, a husband-and-wife team of photographers who have been documenting the eradication of local stores for decades. Their landmark 2008 book, “Store Front: The Disappearing Face of New York,” is in many ways a precursor to all these archival projects, including Heller’s unique, gritty vision.
"I loved how they were documenting all these storefronts and not only was it visually appealing, it also told a story," Heller said. “I used it myself as a guide of places that I wanted to check out."
Aguirre, the Manhatoon creator, says what he thinks ultimately unites all these disparate artists is how deeply they identify with their surroundings.
“New York City gives you a sense of belonging,” he says. “There are so many people from all over the world here, but New York is their city. Whenever I go back to Mexico, I call New York City home. I plan to probably die here, you know what I mean?”