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Security cameras take away creativity, free will

Credit: Jessica Thurston/Art Editor Credit: Jessica Thurston/Art Editor
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It’s time to color inside the lines.

Following several tragic episodes of violence at the Homestead Waterfront in the past several months, a new surveillance system is set to be installed, possibly within 90 days. Such a system will help the local police stay alert of any suspicious activity that could upset the delicate balance of the sprawling big-box development — or, better yet, deter such activity from ever even happening. A watchful eye in the form of megapixel cameras mounted on the corners of buildings and over the entrances of retail hot spots will let criminals know that their malicious actions will be recorded and traced back to them.

Such an omnipresent security eye, however, could do more than deter criminals: It could impede the creativity and freedom of the intended users of the site.

I recognize that creativity may not have been on the agenda originally. In 2007, I interviewed a source who worked for Allegheny County at the time of the Waterfront’s development, serving as a facilitator of discussion between the people of Homestead and the site developer, Continental Retail Development. Wishing to remain anonymous, she divulged some information about the creation of the site that makes any student of urban design cringe: The Waterfront was not developed to better the community and economy of Homestead. It was designed as a business opportunity, a “money maker,” and Homestead served merely as an empty backdrop. Designed like other large retail projects, the Waterfront’s layout is, more or less, formulaic. Its parking lots are sprawling, its sidewalks are in the proper places, its Starbucks is centrally located. Creativity of usage wasn’t in the books.

But just because creativity wasn’t part of the original plan of the site doesn’t mean the Waterfront should stay as it is — or become even more stifling, which could happen with the imposition of a system of security cameras.

Another important piece of information that the former county employee divulged is that the people of Homestead were not only underrepresented in the discussion of the site’s plan, but were altogether avoided in its final representation. The railroad tracks that are crossed as cars leave the development was used as a barrier between the people of Homestead and the intended population of shoppers, movie watchers, and restaurant patrons of the Waterfront.

The criminals who robbed and murdered innocent employees and patrons of the Waterfront last summer are segregated from the users of the site. The two groups are at odds; their separation is physically represented through the railroad tracks bordering the development. But they will be united in the surveillance system of the new cameras — and not necessarily in a healthy way.

Who will the cameras protect? It’s easy to simply say everyone. But there are several distinct parties invested in the site. There is the realty company, Developers Diversified Realty, which is interested in protecting its assets. There is the Continental Retail Development, which likely would like to keep the Waterfront as a successful wealth center in its development portfolio. There are parents visiting their first-year students at Pitt and Carnegie Mellon, eager to stock their children’s dorm rooms with sufficient amounts of paper towels, Gatorade, and Hot Pockets.

In this vein, the realty company released the following statement through WTAE and www.ThePittsburghChannel.com: “The Waterfront is an integral part of the community and the mayors, police chiefs, the Waterfront Owners Association and Developers Diversified are all committed to keeping it that way.” But the community in question involves even those who don’t shop at Abercrombie & Fitch or Victoria’s Secret — it involves everyone in close proximity to the site, including the residents of Homestead. All of these “community” members will be watched by the cameras — and will never be able to do the watching.

According to a July 14 article from the same news source, Developers Diversified Realty also released a statement insisting that the safety of the Waterfront’s customers, tenants, and staff is the top priority. This is noble, for sure. But any move that could serve to track the activity of those populating the Waterfront — even the innocent visitors stopping in to pick up some jeans at American Eagle — will impede their sense of free will, their ability to act at random, such as to park across two spaces instead of one or toss an empty water bottle into a trash can instead of the recycling bin 10 feet farther away.

Increased security doesn’t just keep out predators. It keeps out free will, random activity, and free motion. Even subconsciously, intended users of the site could find themselves more obligated to walk the 15 extra feet to the crosswalk rather than crossing the road closer to where they parked. If you’re being watched, and you don’t know when, or why, or by whom — even if it’s not you that they’re after — you’ll behave. You’ll play within the lines. You won’t hop or skip. You’ll walk.