surveillance cameras in Chinatown

saturation point almost reached

In New York City, Chinatown is a legendary, small, and very densely populated neighborhood in the Lower East Side of Manhattan. Originally centered around Mott Street below Canal Street, the neighborhood has expanded a great deal since the 19th century, and now reaches as far west as Centre Street and as far east as Essex Street. "Chinatown" in fact is home to many Asian people: Japanese and Korean as well as Chinese.

In 1998, when the New York Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU) mapped Chinatown, there were very few surveillance cameras installed in or watching over public places (streets, sidewalks, doorsteps, alleys, and parks). There were only 13 cameras in total! When we, the Surveillance Camera Players, scouted the area in August 2001, we only found 30 publicly installed cameras, which we judged to be too few to warrant making a map.

In the summer of 2002, a man named Rob Chin made a map [no longer available on-line] that displayed how many surveillance cameras he found in Chinatown. According to our count (Chin himself didn't provide a total), he found 82 cameras: 58 "CCTV" cameras (presumably these were privately owned); 23 installed on or near ATM machines (also privately owned); and one installed on a city-owned pole by the NYC Department of Transportation (DOT).

In June 2004, we linked up with a volunteer from the NYCLU, which was once again taking up the issue of the video surveillance of public places; together, we started a brand-new map of Chinatown. According to our research, which required 10 hours of work, there were now 605 surveillance cameras in Chinatown: 565 installed on or pointing out of privately owned buildings; 38 installed on city, state or federal government buildings; and 2 installed by the DOT on city-owned poles.

Taking Chin's 2002 map as a baseline, the number of surveillance cameras in Chinatown had increased seven times over. And if the NYCLU's map was used as a comparison, the number had increased forty-five times over! There were more cameras in Chinatown than any other neighborhood that we had mapped out to that point.

What accounted for the utterly spectacular increase of video surveillance in Chinatown between 2001 and 2004? Well, the attacks of September 11th were certainly the justification for the installation of brand-new, high-powered police cameras, not only in Chinatown, but all over Manhattan. But the vast majority of new cameras installed between 2001 and 2004 were private cameras, not cameras operated by the NYPD. Our educated guess is that September 11th caused insurance rates to rise (in Chinatown and all over the city), and that the best way to get "cheap" insurance was to install surveillance cameras. Lots of them.

The September 11th attacks were also used as a justification for the New York Police Department (NYPD) to create a permanently temporary "secure zone" all the way around its headquarters at One Police Plaza, which lies on the outskirts of Chinatown (as do several federal courthouses). No doubt heeding warnings from its then-new counter-terrorism chief, former CIA agent David Cohen, the NYPD forced the closure of a couple of small near-by streets, including Park Row. Unfortunately, in addition to going right by (through an underpass next to) One Police Plaza, Park Row also provided a critical north-south route for automobile traffic between Chinatown and the rest of Lower Manhattan (Broadway, Wall Street, the WTC). As a result, traffic has become even more congested than it was before. The NYPD also stopped bus and garbage-removal service on Park Row, and, as far north as Kimlau Square, have filled it with reinforced-concrete barriers, military-style checkpoints, and -- you guessed it -- surveillance cameras.

Trapped within this very menacing insecurity zone are two major apartment blocks, the Chatham Green and Chatham Towers, the residents of which are almost entirely Chinese. Every day they are watched by globe-shaped, high-powered video cameras and armed, non-Chinese-speaking officers at "security check-points" where everyone must show ID if they are asked.

A good indication of the NYPD's attitude towards the residents of Chatham/Chinatown can be found in the recent history of James Madison Plaza, which used to exist on a 0.361-acre triangle of land just south of Chatham Towers. Named after the fourth President of the USA, the Plaza had been under the jurisdiction of the New York City Parks Department since 1964, though it wasn't until the late 1970s that the Parks Department planted more than 30 trees and furnished tables and benches. Sometime after September 11th, so that their officers could have adequate parking for their private cars, the NYPD seized possession of, "cleared" (destroyed) everything and paved over James Madison Plaza. In a lawsuit ruled upon in August 2003, the NYPD were ordered to remove their vehicles, which they finally did -- without re-planting the trees or providing new tables and benches -- in April 2004.

A similar lawsuit has been filed over the NYPD's occupation of Park Row. Back in August 2003, the Mayor of New York, Michael Bloomberg, was quoted as saying, "I'm a big believer that if you keep people from moving around reasonably freely, if you take away people's personal rights in the interest of security, the terrorists win without firing a shot." We'll see if he means what he said, because the terrorists appear to be winning on Park Row. Never before -- not even in the darkest days of the anti-Communist paranoia of the 1950s or the anti-opium hysteria of the early 1900s -- has Chinatown been confronted with such a open display of insensitivity, suspicion and armed force.

-- June 2004

In August 2011, we returned to Chinatown and mapped it for the second time. Though seven years had elapsed since our first map of the area, we did not find a huge growth in the number of cameras installed there (as one might have expected). Their numbers had grown, but modestly so: 682 private cameras, up from 565; 32 cameras on official buildings (down from 38); and 12 Department of Transportation cameras, up from two.

What accounts for the slowing down in the rate of increase in the installation of cameras in Chinatown? Is the place reaching a saturation point? The answer would seem to be that the “economic downturn” that began in 2008 has really hit Chinatown hard. A fair number of stores have closed down; some storefronts have been boarded up; a few buildings have been demolished but new ones have not been built in their places; etc. If you’re not in business, you don’t need insurance; and, if you don’t need insurance, you certainly don’t need surveillance cameras to keep your rates low.

But even “in a bad economy,” Chinatown has a lot of cameras. Indeed, this is the first map we have made that documents more than 700 cameras in a single neighborhood. Given the irregularity of Chinatown’s streets, it’s impossible to come up with an accurate average of cameras-per-block. (Elsewhere in Manhattan the average is between 10 and 15 cameras per block.) But suffice to say that when there’s a single block with 31 cameras on it, and there are almost a dozen of these super-surveilled blocks in a single neighborhood, then the density is certainly reaching its saturation point.

Other details that merit outrage: James Madison Plaza remains a paved-over ruin, completely closed off from the public; Park Row remains a militarized checkpoint run by the NYPD, which has also sealed off the western end of Madison Street.

-- August 2011

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