Mark Byrnes is a senior associate editor at CityLab who writes about design and architecture.
One artist considers the impact of imagery on policing.
Marked by rising property values and lower crime rates, New York City’s 21st-century resurgence has been swift and relentless. Perhaps out of a need to process the changes, photos of the city’s graffiti-covered subways, abandoned buildings, and intimidating strangers of the past are shared online regularly today. In a time when “Make New York Unsafe Again” hats exist, the scenes often trigger feelings of awe and nostalgia.
A new art project, however, uses some of the most mundane photos of that same, mythologized era between the ‘70s and the ‘90s to reframe the embrace of “broken windows”-inspired policing in the name of crime reduction and neighborhood revitalization.
Christian Hendricks’ “Locations Absent of Crime” projects 144 photo slides from the NYC Department of Records, shot between 1974 and 1992. Originally taken for the city's Department of Finance tax appraisals, the images weren’t initially intended to carry artistic meaning—but to the CUNY Hunter MFA candidate, they represent something that’s been on his mind lately.
“This all started because I was thinking a lot about how images have dubious results in holding structural power accountable,” says Hendricks, mentioning the 2014 video footage of two NYPD officers confronting Eric Garner on suspicion of selling loose cigarettes. Garner could be heard repeatedly saying, “I can’t breathe,” as one of the officers put him in a chokehold. Garner died one hour later. A grand jury eventually failed to indict the officer who killed him.
The incident led to public demonstrations around the country and intense scrutiny over stop-and-frisks and zero-tolerance policing in general. The approach is influenced by James Q. Wilson and George L. Kelling’s “broken windows” theory, published in The Atlantic in 1982. Wilson and Kelling theorized that neighborhoods could prevent or reduce serious crimes by actively maintaining their surroundings. A community that looks orderly, they concluded, would be less likely to cultivate violent, anti-social behavior.
In his project, part of his pre-thesis review work earlier this year, Hendricks uses the property photos to demonstrate “the precariousness of judging a street or building's likelihood for facilitating criminal activity simply by how it looks to someone—like, say, a police officer.”
In New York City, crime began to fall rapidly at the start of the ‘90s—where Hendricks’ slides end—under mayor David Dinkins and his police commissioner Ray Kelly. But then-mayor Rudy Giuliani’s embrace of zero-tolerance policing immediately following Dinkins’s term is often seen as the city’s turning point, especially by Giuliani himself. His first police commissioner, Bill Bratton, holds the same position again under Bill de Blasio. The current mayor has previously stated he believes “in the core notions of the broken windows theory.”
The artist notes that he looked for images in the NYC Department of Records collection that either “felt like they were from a ‘true crime’ documentary” or “from a higher vantage point, like surveillance footage of nothingness.” A viewer’s own understanding of New York will determine just how unsettling or boring each slide is.
Hendricks knows that his reinterpretation of these images may not reach everyone who sees his project. But, he says, “by plucking them from one archive and into my own weirdo-artist archive, they get scrutinized by an audience that otherwise may have never seen them, and hopefully [will] contribute to a dialogue about photography, justice, and power.”