Surveillance cameras in

Manhattan's Lower East Side

Formerly a poor neighborhood in which immigrants, first Jews from Europe and later Latinos and Puerto Ricans, lived and worked, the Lower East Side of Manhattan (the LES, also known as Alphabet City) is the area east of First Avenue and west of the FDR Drive, south of 14th Street and north of Houston. In the mid-1990s, after decades of “benign neglect,” the LES fell prey to speculation and gentrification. Real-estate developers attempted to popularize the name “The East Village.” (Note: even now there is no “West Village”; there is only Greenwich Village, of which the LES has never been a part.) Rents in the LES increased dramatically; squatters were illegally evicted and their buildings demolished; community gardens were auctioned off and then bull-dozed; gleaming “low-density” houses, gigantic “Manhattan-style” towers, expensive restaurants and “hip” boutiques were constructed in their places. And yet, fortunately, the LES – at least the area east of Avenue B – remains a gritty, authentic place, relatively undesirable for rich students, yuppies and tourists to congregate and breed. No subway line services the interior of the LES, and the immense Consolidated Edison power plant at 14th Street and Avenue D is both an eye-sore and a source of air pollution.

In our first map of the LES, which was made in March 2001, we depicted the locations of a total of 96 publicly installed surveillance cameras. In our second map, created in November 2002, we revealed a total of 118 cameras. In our third map, created in May 2005, we marked out a total of 298 of them. And, in our newest map, created in July 2011, we display the locations of 569 cameras. In sum: over the course of the last 10 years, there has been a 600% increase in the number of surveillance cameras installed in public places in the LES.

In keeping with trends in other residential neighborhoods in Manhattan, the dramatic increase of cameras in the LES is directly and uniquely attributable to the growth of cameras installed on private property. The number of cameras installed on city-owned property – that is, the number of cameras operated by the NYPD, the DOT, the NYCHA and other “official” authorities – has not increased. It appears that, absent huge grants from the federal government, the local authorities don’t have the money to buy and operate video-surveillance systems, or they simply don’t think video-surveillance systems are worth the money, even if you have it to spend. (Take for example the cameras installed on the police station on Eight Street and Avenue C: they obviously don’t work, and remain there or were originally installed there “just for show,” instances of “security theatre.”)

Why are private-property owners investing so heavily in video-surveillance? Why are they putting up so many cameras? The answer is simple: insurance. People with money and property have moved into the LES. Despite or because precisely because of the “edgy” atmosphere of the neighborhood, they have opened expensive restaurants and moved into expensive apartments (around $3,000 per month). All these people want to insure their investments, their properties and their belongings. But to get insurance, to get affordable insurance, they have found it “necessary” to install surveillance cameras. The insurance companies, in partnership with their security firms, have made cameras “necessary.” Note well: what’s important here is the mere fact of the cameras, their physical presence at the insured premises, not their operations (live monitoring, recording, rapid reporting of events recorded, etc). The criminal(s) need not be caught, the cameras need not have any role in catching him or her or them, for the insurance claim to made and accepted and for the payment to the victim to be made.

These facts explain why there are so many signs in the LES that say “surveillance cameras in operation” (or words to that effect) and include a small picture of a surveillance camera upon them. By putting up a camera, you are making a definitive statement, sure; but it is a theatrical statement, a rhetorical flourish, and nothing more, a mere bluff waiting to be called.

-- July 20 2011

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