surveillance cameras in the neighborhood of

the United Nations

On the east side of Midtown Manhattan, there used to be a small neighborhood called Turtle Bay. As its name suggested, the neighborhood was focused upon life (in all its forms) living on or in the nearby East River. But the construction of the United Nations complex in the 1940s meant the destruction of large parts of Turtle Bay, and the separation of the remaining areas from the once-close river. Today, the whole neighborhood -- the box defined by Lexington and First Avenues to the west and east, and by 42d and 49th Streets to the south and north -- is known as and dominated by the presence of "the United Nations."

Given the paranoia of foreign governments concerning espionage and terrorist attacks, one would expect that this area of New York City would be filled with surveillance cameras watching public places. And it is. In the summer of 1998, the New York Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU) commissioned a count of such cameras, and found 2,397 in Manhattan as a whole and 79 in the UN area. That's a lot of cameras, especially for the UN area, which is relatively small (79 cameras averaged out to 3 cameras per square block). By contrast, there were at the time only 2 surveillance cameras per city block in nearby Times Square.

In August 2000, the New York Surveillance Camera Players (SCP-New York) mapped this area for themselves. They found a total of 110 cameras: 91 of them installed on privately owned buildings; 17 installed on either foreign embassies or the UN itself; and 2 installed on city-owned light or traffic poles. This increase (from 79 to 110 cameras) was fairly steep, but not as nearly as steep as the growth in Times Square, where the cameras grew from 75 to 131. (It's possible that some UN-related cameras weren't spotted because of their placement or small size, and thus weren't included in the overall tally.)

In June 2003, the SCP-New York returned to the UN area and mapped it a second time. Once again, there was a sizable but relatively modest increase in the number of cameras. According to the second SCP-New York map, there were a total of 179 cameras in the area: 119 installed on private buildings, 57 on UN-related buildings, and 3 on city-owned poles. This total was smaller than anticipated; one expected it to be (even) higher. Why? Note the relatively slow rate of increase among private surveillance cameras, which usually grow much faster. As for the dramatic increase in the number of UN-related cameras (from 17 to 57), the SCP-New York wasn't sure if it derived from a real growth in numbers or simply better spotting-and-mapping techniques on the part of the SCP-New York. Perhaps a combination of the two.

In mid-May 2005 -- just a few days after the British Consulate was attacked -- the SCP-New York once again returned to the UN area and mapped it a third time. Here, at last, were the results that one expected: a large increase in privately owned surveillance cameras (from 119 to 250); a moderate increase in the number of cameras on city-owned poles (from 3 to 10); and a small increase in the number of UN-related cameras (from 57 to 62). In other words, over the last five years, cameras in the area have increased 300 percent.

Note that there may be a mistake in the number of city-owned cameras: the poles located at the southwest intersection of 3rd Avenue and 48th Street might very well be the "private" property of an embassy; and, if so, the 5 cameras atop them should be listed as "F" (foreign embassy) and not "C" (city-owned).

Contact the New York Surveillance Camera Players

By e-mail

By snail mail: SCP c/o NOT BORED! POB 1115, Stuyvesant Station, New York City 10009-9998