surveillance cameras in Harlem

[In the 1930s and '40s] After-hours clubs thrived on white celebrities and society folks and those slummers weren't mistreated -- the ex-slaves stood off to the side in awe, watching the wealthy visitors like they was gods arriving for inspection. Crimes were ten to one in Brooklyn and the Bronx compared to Harlem -- man, we policed the district ourself for muggers 'cause we knew it would kill business. But the white press ran night-life business out of Harlem with propaganda that still lasts today -- that in every shadow there's a big black nigger with a knife or gun ready to rape or stick up white folks. -- Charles Mingus, Beneath the Underdog, 1971.

In June 2001, members of the New York Surveillance Camera Players (SCP-New York) scouted and mapped out the locations of public surveillance cameras in a portion of Harlem, a large and very famous neighborhood in Manhattan. Once called Spanish Harlem, this Upper East Side neighborhood in New York City is defined to the south and north by 125th and 135th Streets, and to the east and west by Lexington Avenue and Frederick Douglass Boulevard. The SCP-New York chose this area for mapping because, as recently as 1998, it was still pocked by large numbers of abandoned buildings and empty lots where burnt-out buildings used to stand, and so could be used as a starting point for documenting the connections between public surveillance and capitalist reclamation ("gentrification").

The SCP-New York wasn't the first group to scout and map this area. In 1998, the New York Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU) commissioned an unprecedented project in which the locations of public surveillance cameras were scouted and mapped out in all of Manhattan, not just Harlem. Reproduced (with a few additions) on-line, this map locates a total of 2,397 surveillance cameras, 36 of which are in Spanish Harlem.

As NYCLU Director Norm Siegel pointed out at the time, 36 was a surprisingly small number, small by comparison with the numbers found in other neighborhoods. One would have thought -- following the crime-fighting "logic" of surveillance -- that Harlem would have been filled with cameras. Straight-up racist schitt Charles Mingus would have been all-too-familiar with: Harlem has lots of poor people; poor people need money and so resort to committing crimes to get it; surveillance cameras are installed to prevent and/or get evidence of precisely that kind of criminal activity. But, as Siegel noted, the high concentrations of surveillance cameras were actually to be found in rich neighborhoods, not poor ones. This clearly suggested that surveillance cameras are only installed where highly valuable property is present. No highly valuable property? No (need for) cameras. Crime prevention plays little or no role; high concentrations of cameras are even present in rich neighborhoods that have low crime-rates. The only thing surveillance cameras do is create a safe place to do business.

In June 2001, the SCP-New York mapped Spanish Harlem and found that, three years after the NYCLU had been through the area, it was watched by almost twice as many cameras: there were now 67 in all, 61 installed on private buildings and 6 on city-owned traffic poles or state-owned office buildings. And yet, despite this steep increase, Harlem was relatively unsurveilled when compared to such rich neighborhoods as Greenwich Village, Midtown Manhattan and the Fashion District, where hundreds of cameras are in operation.

In the SCP-New York's first map, a couple of details stand out. Most notably, there are several dense concentrations of cameras, which is unusual for a relatively unsurveilled neighborhood. The densest place is the small block between 131th and 132rd Streets, and between Fifth and Madison Avenues, at which there are a total of 8 cameras. Exactly six blocks south, there is another dense concentration (7 cameras in total). In both instances, all of the cameras are installed on private property (in particular, on private residences, over the entrances, by landlords driven to paranoia by too much Harlem-is-dangerous propaganda).

In June 2003, the SCP-New York returned to the area and mapped it again. The group found that, two years after its first visit, the number of cameras had doubled (there were now 120 in total). And so, since 1998, the number of cameras in Spanish Harlem has tripled. Alarming as this rate of increase is -- it matches the break-neck speed in ultra-security-conscious Times Square -- it still placed Harlem among one the least surveilled neighborhoods in Manhattan. Not coincidentally, another relatively unsurveilled neighborhood in Manhattan -- the Lower East Side -- is poor, not rich.

Of the 120 cameras mapped out in 2003, 109 were installed on privately owned buildings; 7 on installed on New York State office buildings; and 4 on installed on city-owned traffic poles. The two-fold increase could clearly be attributed to the "private sector," which used to operate "only" 42 cameras in the area. The dense block of cameras referred to above had gained 3 new ones, to make 11 in total. There were two more large dense spots, the most notabe of which was the block on the north side of 125th between Adam Clayton Powell and Frederick Douglass, where there were so many cameras that it was impossible to put all of them down on a map.

In June 2005, the SCP mapped Harlem for a third time. As if "overnight," the area has become highly surveilled. There are now a total of 316 cameras installed in public places in Harlem. Only 13 of them are installed on city-owned poles or buildings in which New York State offices are housed. As elsewhere in Manhattan, the incredible growth -- 300 percent since June 2003, 500 percent since June 2001, 1,000 percent since November 1998 -- can be attributed to the owners of private property, who now operated 299 surveillance cameras in Manhattan. The dense spot on 125th Street between Adam Clayton Powell and Frederick Douglas now contains 28 cameras, so many, in fact, that a special "detail" had to created on the SCP's map.

And yet Harlem is still filled with hundreds of rubble-strewn lots and abandonned buildings. When the cynical "gentrification" has finally been completely, Harlem will be just like any other wealthy neighborhood in New York City: filled to bursting with surveillance cameras, security guards and vicious crack-downs against the homeless. And that will be a very sad day, indeed.

-- 7 June 2003. Updated 13 June 2005.

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