In the early lives of cities, having “eyes on the street” was the prime way neighborhood crime was policed and thwarted. The classic, semiotic, image of that early neighborhood watch was the old woman leaning out the window, delicately balancing her elbows in a feather pillow on the windowsill as she watched the activity on the street below.

As the urban core began to expand and grow, buildings became taller because the horizontal space to expand was choked by the city limits.

Instead of maintaining “eyes on the street” surveillance — the apartments and houses became monolithic as they shot into the sky or were removed to make room for commercial buildings. Many new dwellings didn’t even have windows you could open.

So, instead of watching your neighborhood for troublemakers you could shout down to — and tell them to “knock it off” while threatening to tell their mothers — the streets lost their eyes, and their spirit of social correction. As cobblestone turned to asphalt, the sidewalks became dangerous places where criminality began to lurk because no one was watching.

Human eyes watching the street were replaced by electronic Panopticonic surveillance — and the downfall of the modern neighborhood, and its active eyed citizens, began.

Cities now believe it is better to fight crime from a video camera in the sky instead of using grandma’s eyes peering down from above and scolding you, without reproach, to behave and to belong to those around you. We’re worse for the loss and there’s no recovery of that neighborhood innocence in sight.

6 Comments

  1. There seems to be an ‘obvious’ – yet not so obvious way around this and it’s in the way of moving to a small town. I have a friend who moved to a small city in Missouri and I’m pretty sure there are no buildings big enough to necessitate the evil eye, so to speak. 🙂

  2. That’s exactly right, Gordon. Small towns still have their window nannies.
    Another option is to preserve the old urban neighborhoods and buildings from becoming skyscrapers.
    There are still pockets of neighborhood window watchers in Manhattan and the outer boroughs and it’s always a creepy feeling to have them watch you all the way down the sidewalk. You’re a stranger in their area — and they’re going to memorize your face and if you act out, they’ll spit on you!