New York City is oversaturated with young content creators showing off their luxurious lifestyles on TikTok.
But creator Caleb Simpson prefers to show a more realistic look into the lives of “everyday New Yorkers” with his popular video series featuring apartment tours.
“I have always wanted to try to show New York in a way where people feel like they’re there,” said Simpson, who has about 8.4 million followers across TikTok (where he has 6 million followers), YouTube, Facebook and Instagram combined.
In the videos, Simpson, 30, highlights tiny studios, artists’ lofts, multimillion-dollar town houses and everything in between. Each short-form video features Simpson approaching a person on the street to chat about their rent, asking if he can see their apartment and then getting a tour from them.
“I’m showing all different walks of life in New York, and people actually get to see it in a different way,” said Simpson, who describes himself as this generation’s “MTV Cribs,” a reference to the popular early 2000s documentary-style TV show that featured tours of the private homes of celebrities.
Simpson said his goal is not just to entertain audiences — he also wants to create content that he finds fulfilling.
The creator, who first blew up on TikTok in 2019, had a number of successful videos prior to his apartment tour series, including pizza reviews, photography tutorials and comedic sketches. But he “got burnt out on the style of content” he was making.
So he took about a year off from creating content and worked at the media company NFT Now. In 2021, he returned to TikTok with a renewed sense of motivation.
“I realized what I really care about is human connection, being able to learn about other people’s stories,” he said. “And then what’s been really beautiful about this series as I’ve been able to, like, really uplift other humans and show their story or even show off their talent to the world.”
That’s why viewers will see a wide range of people, and spaces, highlighted in the video series.
Some videos feature celebrities like “Shark Tank” judge and business mogul Barbara Corcoran, showcasing their lavish residences. “You’re the guy, the apartment guy,” she says when greeting Simpson.
Other videos introduce viewers to more unfamiliar faces, like Tomo Delaney, who gave Simpson a tour of his soon-to-be former home. Delaney’s wife, Freya, has long Covid and lost her job. The family, he said, can’t afford to maintain their current housing situation. Freya “seems to be getting better, but it’s been crazy. I mean, I’ve effectively been a single parent for two years,” Delaney told Simpson in the video.
Simpson said he typically finds subjects for his apartment tours by using a person-on-the-street approach, sifting through suggestions in his DMs and connecting with fellow creators to collaborate.
“I don’t want to focus solely on celebrities or social media stars because then it is not as real or tangible,” Simpson said. “And I think the everyday human is just as interesting, if not more interesting, because it’s more relatable.”
On Monday, Simpson had two apartment tours scheduled on the opposite ends of Brooklyn: one in Midwood, a quiet neighborhood in the southern end of the borough, and one in East Williamsburg, a bustling neighborhood at the top of it.
Though he often gets nervous entering other people’s homes, Simpson said he tries to treat new people like old friends so that they can both open up. He never knows what to expect.
“I think one of my superpowers in this world is that people are actually really comfortable around me,” Simpson said. “And I’m able to bring out a good side of their personality. So for me, in order to do that, I need to be really present and in the moment, and you know, just like right there with them.”
While outside the Midwood home of Donyale Werle, a man stopped to ask Simpson, “Are you from TikTok?” Simpson responded yes. Moments like this have happened a lot recently, he said.
Werle, a landscape artist and Tony Award-winning set designer, isn’t on TikTok herself. But her friend from high school, who is based in Chicago, is — and suggested Simpson tour Werle’s home. The two then connected to coordinate the tour date.
Werle’s creaky single-family home was built in 1915 and is full of trinkets: mounted animal heads, porcelain figurines, vintage toys and a chandelier. The home is eclectic, maximalist and the exact kind of quirky house that could make it onto someone’s TikTok feed.
Upon arrival, Simpson gave Werle the rundown of how the process works. He told her that first he re-enters the home with his phone camera rolling. That’s when Werle is supposed to chat with Simpson about the home and herself.
“This is the most homey home I’ve been in in New York City,” Simpson said after Werle showed him her grandmother’s framed, old valentine cards.
Simpson’s next stop was the East Williamsburg home of Sandy De Jesus.
De Jesus, owner of social media marketing agency Go Anomalous, had already been featured on Simpson’s TikTok and Instagram. But the two decided to meet again to make another, longer-form video for YouTube. They were joined by Diego Oliverio, Simpson’s friend and occasional videographer.
De Jesus, who grew up in the Cooper Park houses and is a first-generation immigrant from the Dominican Republic, said he wanted to expand on his story in a longer interview with Simpson in an effort to reach more people.
The Cooper Park houses, a public housing development, are made up of 11 multi-family apartment buildings built in 1950. De Jesus’ three-bedroom unit has square rooms and mostly white walls, although some are still painted navy from when his mother lived there. There are monitors and recording equipment everywhere, a fitting setup for someone who works in social media.
A lot of people from neighborhoods like this may feel … that certain goals or certain possibilities are just out of their reach. I was like, you know, if they could see the apartment, they could hear my story.
Sandy De Jesus, one of caleb simpson’s apartment tour subjects
Since the first video featuring him was posted, De Jesus said he has received messages from people who come from similar backgrounds saying the video resonated with them.
“A lot of people from neighborhoods like this may feel … that certain goals or certain possibilities are just out of their reach,” De Jesus said. “I was like, you know, if they could see the apartment, they could hear my story. I’ve lived here most of my life. That got me really excited about letting [Simpson] in and seeing the story about the difference that we can make together.”
Simpson has big plans for the series’ future.
In the next few months, he said he is going to visit other major American cities. After that, he wants to take the series overseas to Japan, China and parts of Europe.
“It’s going to be a really fun few years,” he said. “I’m really, really excited about it.”