An archaeology of surveillance cameras at City Hall

We speak here of an archaeology, rather than a simple chronology, because the newest cameras haven’t taken the places of their predecessors, but have been installed alongside them. Thus, the cameras have piled up, newer cameras on top of old, functioning cameras on top of those that don’t.

Police-installed surveillance cameras were in operation around City Hall in the late 1960s/early 1970s. Shots of one such camera appear in Red Squad, a suppressed documentary made in 1971 by New York University film students Steve Fischlar and Joel Sucher. But the City of New York soon thereafter abandoned the use of surveillance cameras in public places (another location was Times Square) because they weren’t worth the money necessary to have the cameras watched 24 hours a day. Note well: the camera depicted in Red Squad (a nickname for the NYPD’s Bureau of Special Services) is still where it was 40 years ago (on the Municipal Building), though it’s obviously been decommissioned. It’s pointing straight down to the ground, at a spot where there's nothing to see. Another decommissioned “Red Squad” camera looks at the sky from the heights of 253 Broadway, which stands right across the street from City Hall.

In mid or late 1999, a closed-circuit television (CCTV) system was installed around and on top of City Hall by then-Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, who had already installed CCTV systems in public housing developments (one of which is in the Lower East Side) and public parks (including Washington Square Park). In both locations, the strategy was the same: have the cameras watched diligently at first; make as many arrests as possible as quickly as possible; declare with great fanfare that “crime” had been “reduced”; and then stop employing people to watch the cameras and have the images go “straight to tape” automatically.

In our first map of the City Hall area, which was made in October 2000, we located and depicted a total of 16 police cameras, most (10 of them) installed on the building itself. Of the remaining cameras, 5 were installed on light poles erected along the adjacent streets (Broadway to the west and Park Row/Centre Street to the east); and 1 was installed on a pole within the confines of City Hall Park (right near the tree upon which an anti-Giuliani protester had once climbed). None of these cameras were accompanied by a sign that A) warns potential criminals or terrorists, and thus B) reassures potential crime victims that the NYPD is watching. And so, these surveillance cameras had no value as “crime deterrent,” but great value as tools for secret spying and other abuses of power.

One of the light-pole cameras (the one on Broadway at Warren Street) warrants further mention, because someone has placed a small thermometer on the pole, just below the camera, so that he or she can sit in the NYPD’s air-conditioned watchers’ booth and use the surveillance device (supposedly a “crime-fighting tool”) to “look out the window” and see the temperature.

In July 2003, we created a second map of the area so as to document the cameras installed in the aftermath of September 11th. In particular, we located and depicted – in addition to the cameras already mentioned -- six brand-new, globe-shaped cameras on the Municipal Building. As before, no signs accompanied them.

Installed within the last year or two, the newest surveillance cameras around City Hall are part of the “Ring of Steel” that Mayor Bloomberg and the NYPD are in the process of constructing around the entire financial district of Manhattan (virtually everything below Canal Street). Modeled on the “Ring of Steel” in the financial district of London, Bloomberg’s version is a huge network of 3,000 wireless cameras, license-plate readers, and other devices. Unlike the previous systems in place, which are probably no longer used, the newest cameras have little labels upon them that identify them as the property of the NYPD. There are also a few huge and very visible signs that declare that NYPD security [sic] cameras are in operation “in the area.” We note that these signs, which are familiar to us from the 300 "Argus" wireless cameras the NYPD has installed in mid-town Manhattan and other parts of New York City, do not appear alongside or even near any camera that we could spot. Significantly, perhaps, the camera systems in mid-town (which are relatively recent) are completely different from the ones that are part of the “Ring of Steel,” and both systems are completely different from the brand-new ones marked “Department of Homeland Security” that are installed in Federal Plaza, just north of City Hall.

Our newest map, which was completed in July 2011, depicts all three generations of police cameras at City Hall, but without distinguishing the newest from the oldest. Why? Seen from the perspective of the near-future, that is to say, from the perspective of planned obsolescence, all of these cameras are old and broken, even the “newest” ones.

-- 30 July 2011

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