Are Chicago police cameras announcing Blue Light Specials for real estate?

Chicago Police call it “Operation Disruption,” an apt label for the network of roughly 2,250 public surveilance cameras keeping watch over city streets and buildings. It’s unclear how much crime the cameras have disrupted (the first batch of “pods,” an appropriately creepy name, was installed in 2003 and didn’t result in a drug arrest until February of 2005), but the flashing blue lights blinking high above street corners like the CPD’s own cyclopses can be very disruptive for passersby, nearby residents and businesses.

The debate over these cameras has focused mostly on privacy and safety, and those are certainly the biggest issues, but the visibility of these painfully bright, panic-inducing lights is more than a question of aesthetics. We encountered two of these cameras yesterday – one on 59th Street and one on Wilson Avenue – and each time felt an immediate sense of amazement and alarm.

We were not, at the time, selling drugs or engaging in criminal activity, at least not that we can recall. Still, these lights are so bright, so big, so unnaturally blue and so high above the street that we couldn’t decide if we’d entered a novel by George Orwell or Ray Bradbury.

Our instinct viewing the camera on Wilson, a little west of the lake and about six blocks from home, was to lock the car doors and speed up, even though this is a stretch we walk on a regular basis. It’s edgy, sure, but we wouldn’t go so far as to call it extremely dangerous. Staring up at the bright light, we had to reconsider.

The first of these cameras that ever we saw, on North Glenwood in Rogers Park, was highly visible but subtle by comparison. Unless our recollection is wrong, the box had a single blue point of light. The one on Wilson was edged all the way around in flashing blue neon, the public safety equivalent of a Blue Light Special.

We’re as gung-ho about deterring crime as the next guy, but is this sort of alarmism going to help neighborhoods or sink them, especially if, like this run of Wilson, they’ve been steadily improving sans surveillance? There are a number of small businesses and restaurants within view of the giant blue eye. Though we live nearby, we’re less likely, not more, to patronize those businesses or go for a stroll down these blocks with a camera screaming “high-crime area” on each blue pulse.

CPD has stats that make the cameras seem highly effective – serious drops in reported crime in the “immediate” vicinity of the lights. We’d love to see stats on the less immediate blocks. Are the cameras really eliminating crime or shifting it to new corners nearby? And what’s the effect for property owners within sight of these lights?

Maybe in seriously crime-ridden spots, the cameras are seen as amenities and boost home values the way a proximate park or el stop can. In other neighborhoods, though, we can’t help but wonder if the eye in the sky isn’t the real estate equivalent of a Blue Light Special.

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