The latest episode of Crazy/Genius, produced by Jesse Brenneman and Patricia Yacob, tells the tale of two surveillance states. The first is Xinjiang, China. The second is Brooklyn, New York. (Subscribe here.)
This spring, I spoke with residents of Atlantic Plaza Towers, a rent-stabilized apartment complex in East Brooklyn. They have dealt with the omnipresence of security cameras in and around their home. “Once I walk out of my house, on the elevator, in the lobby, in between the buildings, in the supermarket, in the parking lot. I can go nowhere and not be watched,” said Tranae Moran, a young mother. “It’s almost like a panopticon complex, where they have every nook and cranny covered,” said Fabian Rogers, a 23-year-old resident.
Last fall the landlord, Nelson Management, mailed residents a letter announcing plans to install a facial-recognition-technology system at the entrance of the buildings. The letter asked tenants for their permission, but that request seemed less than genuine, for several reasons. Many tenants never received the letter—one of the mailrooms was under reconstruction, disrupting delivery services. Worse, after some residents met in the lobby to discuss the landlord’s plan, they received a threatening letter from management warning them not to gather in public spaces again. (A lawyer told me the landlord’s request violated the law.) Attached to the letter was a photo taken from a corner camera in the lobby. In black-pen ink, each resident in the photograph had been identified by his or her apartment number. Residents said the message was clear: Get with the program, or get out.
Most of the residents of Atlantic Plaza Towers are black. The tenants I met said the threat of installing facial-recognition technology felt designed to scare them away to clear out space for richer, white tenants. “I think [management] wants a new look for the building, and that look does not look brown or any color like us,” Moran said. “In China, they have facial-recognition technology that they’re using to target communities of Muslim people. Sounds very similar to Brooklyn and gentrification.”
“You wouldn’t do this to anyone in SoHo, in the Upper East Side, or in other gentrified communities,” Rogers said. “So why do this to me? I’m not on parole. I’m not on house arrest. I don’t have a collar on my neck or my ankles. Don’t treat me like I’m an inmate.”
Nelson Management did not respond to requests for comment before publication. In an email on Thursday, a spokesperson for the landlord sent a statement. “Nelson Management Group prioritizes identifying and implementing cutting edge technology at all properties to create a safer environment for tenants and to provide the highest-quality housing in the rent-stabilized market,” the statement said. “Since Nelson Management Group acquired Atlantic Plaza Towers in 2007, the resident turnover rate has been trending down to an average of 2.56% per annum.” Nelson Management denied “claims that management are pursuing these safety upgrades at buildings for data harvesting.”