Eyes on the Street



These days, video cameras are everywhere. They no longer even depend on the whim of individuals fooling around with their toys, like the guy who accidentally taped Rodney King being beaten up.  Cameras are permanently set up all over the place.  ATMs, building entrances, lobbies, banks, intersections, virtually anyplace capable of supporting the negligible weight of today’s video cameras.


Some people, lamenting the loss of privacy, find this unsettling.  I yield to no one in my fervor for civil liberties. But I like the omnipresence of video cameras.  Whose privacy do they violate?  If you leave the four walls of your own home, place of worship, meeting room, or romantic tryst site, you have no expectation of privacy.  If you want privacy, stay home.  Or at least pay cash.  I think I might feel differently if the cameras also recorded audio. Fortunately, given the ambient noise level of the great urban outdoors, that would be wasted effort anyway.  So if, in the course of a conversation with a friend as we walk down the street, or sit in a restaurant, or ride a bus, I malign the president or the war, I don’t expect to be electronically overheard.


But if somebody zooms through a red light and gets caught on camera, three cheers!  If somebody robs me at an ATM, his face is preserved for posterity, and that’s just fine.  If I have to walk through a questionable neighborhood on the way to my car, I’m comforted by the knowledge that somebody somewhere is monitoring my progress and my safety.


Yes, I have been somewhat spooked by police taking pictures at anti-war demonstrations.  The proper response, which seems to have been picked up quickly, is to take pictures of the cops in return.  Both can be useful in court later, especially as proof of what didn’t happen.  I’ve already gotten one client acquitted on 6 felony charges, based on such a video.


The down side of the ever-present security cameras isn’t that they erode privacy. The real down side is that they are a symbol of the end of visual community, what Jane Jacobs used to call “eyes on the street.”  By which she meant, not electronic doohickeys, but real live people with the time to watch what went on around them and the inclination to respond appropriately to it or testify about it as necessary.  Jacobs located such people on front porches and similar semi-public places.  Front porches are mostly unoccupied these days.  The people who used to hang out there are much more likely to be at work, if they are able-bodied enough to be useful as witnesses.   Or, in really dangerous neighborhoods, they are inside, with the shades down, unwilling to be seen, and especially unwilling to be seen seeing any illegal act.  So, on one hand, it is sad that we need an electronic replacement for such human vigilance. On the other hand, it is good that we have one.


Jane Grey





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