Only the Deputy Commissioner for Traffic and the city’s Transportation Commissioner, Iris Weinshall, know for sure. Transportation Department spokesman Tom Cocola sort of knows. But you can bet the co-op that every cab driver worth his 50-cent night-time surcharge is pretty much clued in.
Nevertheless, the Transportation Department jealously continues to guard its rather public secret: the location of the 32 cameras installed throughout the five boroughs to capture red-light runners in flagrante delicto. The photographic proof of the infraction, usually a shot of the back of the car and license plate, is then mailed to the perpetrator, with a $55 ticket. It’s anybody’s guess who was actually driving, since the driver isn’t photographed. The ticket simply goes to the person to whom the car is registered; there are no points on the owner’s license, even though it’s a moving violation. But there is a nasty, unexpected bill.
Over the next few months, the Transportation Department plans to install 18 more cameras at key intersections in the five boroughs. It is also seeking authorization from the New York State Legislature to put up 50 more throughout the city. When Board 4 got wind of these plans, its transportation-planning committee, which has been fielding community complaints about red-light runners for years, drafted an enthusiastic letter of support. But when it came time for the full board to approve the letter at its June 6 meeting, inquiring minds wanted to know: Is this any way to run a free country?
“Big Brother is watching you,” board member Pat Rogers warned the board.
Board member Pamela Frederick wondered where the deterrence is if people don’t know the cameras are there. “It shouldn’t be a top-secret program, to make it more a deterrent than just a cash cow.”
And a cash cow it is, with the 32 existing cameras bringing $9 million in fines a year into the general fund (that translates into a lot of people running red lights-an average of 14 a day at each camera location).
Still, insists the Transportation Department’s Tom Cocola, it isn’t about revenues. It’s about raising “awareness about running red lights.” And the Transportation Department’s position on marking the locations is simple: “It’s not very effective if people know where they are. They’ll just blow through the next light,” said another spokesman.
But Ms. Frederick doesn’t buy that argument. “People don’t go around deliberately running red lights,” she told The Observer. “It’s not like you have a strategy to run a red light.”
Joseph Catrambone, another Board 4 member, agreed. “There’s something wrong with the state of America if that [sort of surveillance] is acceptable.”
To Mr. Catrambone, the cameras are another disturbing part of the big surveillance picture in this age of retinal scans and street-corner video cams. “Public safety is one thing,” he told The Observer. “But doesn’t it irk you when you go into City Hall and you feel like you have to pass Checkpoint Charlie?”
In 1999, volunteers for the New York Civil Liberties Union counted 2,397 cameras spying on Manhattan’s public spaces. But the red-light cameras the city is using are hardly likely to violate the privacy of an unsuspecting pedestrian doing something unseemly on the street. They only go off when sensors in the pavement are triggered by a car passing over them, after the light has turned.
Risking the ire of the Department of Transportation, and aided by one Board 4 member, The Observer set out to uncover one of these 32 top-secret camera locations in the name of an informed public. Not seeing anything that looked like a bird feeder (the description given by the Transportation Department) at the location suggested by the Board 4 member, The Observer appealed to the nearest cabby, who, while dining on the hood of his car at a Gaseteria, promptly pointed to the correct location a few blocks up. “Fifty-five dollars, no points,” he said, laughing.
Board 4, meanwhile, sent its letter supporting the additional red-light cameras back to committee so it can weigh the need for secrecy against the general benefit to public safety. One of the things the board may consider in drafting its position about the installation of more unmarked cameras is the effectiveness of marked cameras in other cities, such as Los Angeles, where significant success rates in lowering red-light accidents are being reported.
Great Minds to Gather At Roosevelt Park
When Alfred Nobel invented dynamite in 1866, few of his colleagues could have guessed that his earnings would amount to much more than a fat bank account and an extravagant Parisian estate. But the Swedish inventor’s now-famous bequest, the Nobel Prize, turns 100 this year, and Upper West Siders want to make sure that New York doesn’t forget.
After all, the prize is especially meaningful for New Yorkers: Out of the more than 200 American Nobel laureates, nine graduated from New York City public schools, including Bronx Science and Stuyvesant high schools.
To commemorate that, Board 7 voted on June 5 to approve the construction of a monument honoring American Nobel laureates in Theodore Roosevelt Park. The Alfred Nobel Monument is scheduled to be erected this year near the American Museum of Natural History’s back entrance, between West 79th and West 80th streets. The so-called “shrine to the mind” will be fully funded by a gift from the Merck Foundation, the charitable arm of the pharmaceutical giant.
According to Swedish Consulate official Kjersti Board, the idea for the monument came out of an annual dinner for American Nobel laureates two years ago, and has been making the rounds of city officials ever since. Although Board 7 approved a similar plan a year ago, which called for a slightly larger design and placement at West 81st Street and Central Park West, the Landmarks Commission sent the Parks Commission and Merck Foundation planners literally back to the drawing board.
The monument’s designer, Swedish artist Sivert Lindbloom-noted for his design of the Holocaust Memorial in Stockholm-was flown in a second time to make changes. The height of the massive pink-granite obelisk was scaled down from 20 to 18 feet. The width was narrowed by a foot to make more room for pedestrians passing through Roosevelt Park.
The changes, though, were not convincing enough for some on the board. Several Board 7 members were quick to their feet; they strongly suggested a more “appropriate” memorial to America’s big brains. Board member Elizabeth Starkey questioned the Merck Foundation’s motives. “When a private organization seeks to gift something to the city, the question should be why,” said Ms. Starkey. “Why would we want to encumber that square with a 17-foot monument?”
Manhattan Borough Parks Commissioner Adrian Benepe was on hand with a scale model, as well as diagrams and charts, to explain Merck’s role and make the case for the monument. “This will be the nation’s first monument to intellectual achievement,” Mr. Benepe said. “It’s a tremendous opportunity.”
Despite Mr. Benepe’s patient explanations, several board members were not entirely convinced. “This monument would essentially become a doggie urinal for people on their way to the dog run,” board member Sharon Parker-Frazier complained.
Nonetheless, the motion to approve the new design and location passed with a solid majority. Board members seemed to agree that the site could have tremendous cultural and educational value. And besides, said Mr. Benepe, the monument has plenty of space to accommodate dozens more of New York’s overachievers. “There’s enough room there for another six years’ worth of prize-winners,” Mr. Benepe explained. “So, yes, potentially we could see our children there.”
A New Name Raises Old Fears
Soho, Noho, DUMBO. Now add this to the list of bisyllabic neighborhood acronyms: Soha.
That’s Soha, as in “South Harlem.” And much to the dismay of long-term residents, it’s starting to catch on as a nickname, particularly among real-estate brokers who can lure in so-called “outsiders” and drive up existing rents.
Like residents of other parts of the city who feared (rightly) that a new name opened the gates to a residential invasion, many in Harlem are fuming, judging by a Board 10 meeting on June 6.
Soha is used by the Harlem Renaissance Economic Development Corporation, among other organizations, as a catchy coinage to help “deliver economic development” to the area stretching from 110th Street to 116th Street, between Fifth Avenue and Frederick Douglass Boulevard.
Board member Terry Lyon said the designation implicitly divides Harlem into two districts, and that’s not good. “It’s driving up the price of real estate and dividing the community into the haves and the have-nots,” he said.
But Harlem Renaissance Corporation’s executive director, Bonita Lloyd Nettles, argued that the two-district designation is a red herring. She said the rental rates her organization has been offering for its developments (single- and two-bedroom apartments from $1,200 to $1,600 a month) could be found “anywhere in Harlem.”
That drew grumbles from the crowd, who took no comfort in rents of $1,200 to $1,600 a month.
Rents have long been a neighborhood problem. From the panic of the 1830’s that drove New York’s most illustrious families out of the area, to the collapse of the real-estate market in 1905, to Harlem’s rising rents following World War I, the area has gone through its own boom-and-bust cycle. By the latter half of the 20th century, most affluent African-Americans had migrated out of Harlem to places like Riverside Drive and St. Albans, Queens. Mismanagement and rent gouging were rampant, and most doormen and elevator operators had disappeared completely. But the area remained affordable to the poor and working class.
Those long-timers-who stayed through crime, gangs, drugs, abandonment and overall neglect-have been watching warily for a while now as Harlem grew “hot” and New York’s young and single or first-time homeowners began “discovering” the bargains around 125th Street. The new name, Soha, seems to confirm all that they’ve feared.
Board member Jim Houghton, chair of Friends of Mart 125, an organization protesting the eviction of black merchants from an arcade for small vendors at 260 West 125th Street, said he thinks Soha’s increasing commercialization will drive away black businessmen and the neighborhood will lose its identity. “It’s economic racism,” said Mr. Houghton. “The Empowerment Zone is feeding the gentrification of Harlem, to the detriment of black working-class people.”
Ms. Lloyd Nettles denied that the term “Soha” changed the area’s status, saying it only reinforced its distinctive identity. “Every neighborhood in Harlem has a unique flavor to it. The term ‘South Harlem’ had been used by the South Harlem Reds, a local baseball team, to describe their new field near 116th Street.”
But “South Harlem” is one thing, the catchy “Soha” quite another. And for that, the residents can blame Matt Olds. Mr. Olds, an entrepreneur from the Upper East Side, was the first to use the term-as the name of a college bar he opened in October 1997 on Amsterdam Avenue near 108th Street.
June 13: Board 6, New York University, 550 First Avenue at 30th Street, Classroom A, 7 p.m., 319-3750.
June 14: Board 5, Fashion Institute of Technology, 227 West 27th Street, between Seventh and Eighth avenues, eighth floor, 6 p.m., 465-0907.
June 19: Board 1, Stuyvesant High School, 345 Chambers Street, auditorium, 442-5050; Board 11, Terrence Cardinal Cooke Health Care Center, 106th Street and Fifth Avenue, 6:30 p.m., 831-8929.
June 20: Board 8, New York Blood Center, 310 East 67th Street, between First and Second avenues, 7 p.m., 758-4340.
June 21: Board 9, City College North Academic Center, 138th Street and Convent Avenue, room 202, 6:30 p.m., 864-6200; Board 2, St. Vincent’s Hospital, 170 West 12th Street, between Sixth and Seventh avenues, 10th floor, 7 p.m., 979-2272