The sound of incessant traffic has been replaced with the chirping of birds. Conversations among strangers in the streets have ground to a halt. And restaurants and museums now stand as hollow reminders of a city that once never slept.
The coronavirus pandemic stripped the city of its soulful clamor, but there’s one sound that it could never silence: the good old New York accent.
For filmmaker Nicolas Heller, it’s what he missed most — which is why he decided to launch a contest to see who has the best accent.
“When the whole quarantine thing happened, I was so depressed,” Heller told CNN. “What the hell was I going to do? I can’t go outside. I can’t interact with people. How am I going to be creative?”
The contest took off three days in, when Hollywood actor and native New Yorker Alec Baldwin submitted a video. Since then, the contest has received more than 1,000 submissions.
Other celebrities including Kathrine Narducci, Wayne Diamond and Debi Mazar also took part in the challenge.
After narrowing the pool to 24 people with help from fellow judges Michael Rapaport and Princess Nokia, Heller used a bracket system to allow his followers to decide on first, second and third-place winners.
“When it came to judging, there was no such thing as the best New York accent,” Heller said. “It’s all very subjective. We voted based on our gut. It was about the accent but also the video.”
Heller, along with Rapaport and Princess Nokia, also chose five of their favorite submissions from each of the New York boroughs.
While Heller said the goal was to spread happiness in a time of sadness and uncertainty, his challenge turned into something much more special.
“It was so much bigger than a competition,” Heller said. “It was a way to connect New Yorkers in such a crappy time. It brought the community together. People felt proud to be a New Yorker.”
Before the pandemic, the filmmaker was known for going out and meeting unique New Yorkers, such as performers and comedians, and documenting their talents. But in a post-pandemic world, Heller still found a way to connect with people.
“So many people have reached out to tell me how these videos are lifting their spirits and how hearing other New York voices during isolation helped them so much,” Heller said. “It’s more than a fun contest. It’s bringing back New York pride.”
Heller said he plans to launch another contest soon. Until then, we’re enjoying watching New Yawkers tawk the tawk.