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Alicia Robinson likes to keep an eye on her kids. When the youngsters romp in the grassy courtyard of the Faircliff Plaza West apartments in Columbia Heights, she prefers that they stay close enough to Robinson’s ground-level unit to chat through the window.
On a recent afternoon, somebody else was keeping an eye on them, too. As Robinson’s 7-year-old son, Justin, was hanging outside near the window and talking with his mother, an unidentified voice boomed over Faircliff’s new intercom system.
“‘Hey, you in the red shirt at 1432—step away from the window. This is private property. You’re under surveillance,’” a woman’s voice said, according to Robinson.
Justin, clad in red, obeyed the order and stepped back onto the sidewalk. Robinson had heard similar commands broadcast at Faircliff in previous weeks, but she didn’t think the voice had been addressing Justin. Then her 11-year-old niece and 8-year-old nephew stepped outside.
“Then it was, ‘You in the yellow shirt, you in the white shirt—step away from the window. This is private property,’” recalls Robinson. “It was unbelievable.”
The tenants of Faircliff, a 112-unit low-income housing complex, are now enjoying the fruits of a recently completed $16 million city-financed rehabilitation project. Along with the fresh carpeting, modish playground equipment, and new community center came a state-of-the-art security system, aimed at helping Faircliff shed its reputation as an open-air drug market and better meld with the $400,000 condos sprouting up elsewhere on Clifton Street NW. The system includes not only cameras on all of the residential buildings but also what surveillance-industry types refer to as “one-way voice” intercoms, meaning tenants can be addressed by their watchers but cannot respond to them.
In recent months, residents and guests alike who have violated the stringent apartment rules have been singled out over the intercoms and given orders such as “get off the steps,” “no chairs allowed in the playground area,” or, perhaps most common, “no loitering.”
Wanda Griffin, who has seen children ordered to not eat ice cream on their steps, says the hardiest residents respond to their unseen watchers with a flurry of f-bombs, which the intended targets can’t hear, and a pair of middle fingers pointed in arbitrary directions. The intercom directives have also kicked off a semantic debate at the complex: Is it possible to loiter in front of your own home, where you pay rent?
“I like the security, and I like the upgrades,” Griffin says, “but it’s like you’re in a concentration camp.”
The surveillance has altered the way residents live and play at Faircliff, a 27-year-old housing project. On a recent Thursday afternoon, a group of about six young men have tucked themselves away in one of the complex’s few outdoor alcoves, drinking sodas and chewing sunflower seeds just beyond the bulbous black eye of the camera. They say they’re too old to hang out on the playground, and they would violate the rules of their lease if they were to sit on the apartment steps.
“We live up in this motherfucker, and we can’t even chill,” says an exasperated 17-year-old named John Joseph (previously called out as “guy in front of 1428” and “guy with the white shirt and blue jeans on”). “That’s what this motherfucker is—a jail.”
“Exactly. This place is Oak Hill,” says 18-year-old Rich Porter, referring to the District’s juvenile detention center.
The folks at Edgewood Management Corp. in Silver Spring, the company that manages Faircliff, hope that in time disgruntled residents like Joseph and Porter will grow more comfortable with the surveillance. George Caruso, executive vice president at Edgewood, says the company installed its first one-way voice system into an apartment complex about three years ago. “They’re effective, but that’s about as much as we can say publicly,” says Caruso, who acknowledges that some residents might find the surveillance intrusive. “I think there’s a net positive….We are extraordinarily cautious we’re not looking into people’s windows and that we’re focused on the public areas.”
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Another Edgewood employee estimates that 10 or 15 percent of the roughly 130 properties they manage include the camera-and-intercom systems—most of them in the District, Prince George’s County, and Baltimore—and only in cases where management feels they’re necessary. Despite high initial costs, over time the technology proves cheaper than stationing a corps of security guards on the ground. Two other Edgewood properties that now use the systems are Edgewood Terrace and Brookland Manor in Northeast, both of which accept federal housing vouchers.
“As the cost comes down, we’re using them at more and more places,” says Caruso. “Monitoring cameras, particularly in public places, are becoming a fact of life.”
No one at Faircliff knows for sure when they’re being watched or even where they’re being watched from. While some believe the monitors are on-site, the more likely scenario is that residents of different Edgewood properties are observed from the company’s Maryland offices. The company prefers to keep such things a mystery; Caruso would not disclose publicly when or where his employees are watching.
“This is an awful arrangement,” says Lillie Coney, associate director of the D.C.-based Electronic Privacy Information Center. “It will be almost impossible for there not to be charges of misuse of authority….You create that kind of power dynamic when [the speaker] is unidentified. You can hide behind the curtain and act out your aggression, whatever’s hidden in the darker part of whoever’s been given this power.”
Coney’s concerns are hardly hysterical. At Brookland Manor, along Saratoga Avenue NE, where a one-way voice system has been in place for at least two years, residents say they don’t mind the presence of the intercom so much as the rudeness of its operators. A favorite loudspeaker tale among residents of the ’Toga, as the complex is known, involves a recalcitrant, plump teenage girl who ignored several commands to stop loitering and get home. According to resident Deatra Brown and three other witnesses, a woman’s exasperated voice finally blurted over the speakers, “Get your fat ass off the corner!”
Residents of Faircliff and Brookland Manor say the intercom put-downs aren’t always verbal; sometimes they’re musical. When a group of milling residents disregards an order to beat it, they are liable to hear reggae band Inner Circle’s 1987 track “Bad Boys,” better known as the theme song to the TV show COPS. “When we don’t move, they play the police song and say the cops are coming,” explains Brookland resident Chris Brown, 14. “But the cops never come. Nobody moves, and then the people on the intercom just start cursing.”
Griffin, the Faircliff tenant, recently heard residents getting the “Bad Boys” treatment as she escorted some guests to their car after a get-together at her apartment. “That just pissed me off,” says Griffin. “That just tells me what you think of this property. My guests were like, ‘My God. Y’all are living like that up here?’ It wasn’t called for.”
That’s just one of the everyday activities that have led to public scoldings. Teenagers at Faircliff have started hanging out on the sidewalks and in the street, beyond the purview of the cameras, because they say there are few permissible places left to hang out. The stoops, for instance, are off-limits. Residents who drag lawn chairs outside, including the elderly, are told they’re violating their lease. And the new-and-improved complex came with merely two outdoor benches to accommodate more than 100 units. And while elementary-school-age children are free to roam the playground, they can’t stray far from the wood chips.
Seven-year-old Melvin Roberson (“boy with the red shirt”) says he and his friends rouse “the lady” when they play football and dodgeball and get too close to the apartment buildings. “They come on for nothing. They be describing your clothes and telling you not to be loitering,” says Roberson, who admits that he doesn’t know what the word “loitering” means. A few weeks ago, when the pint-size Roberson was trying to gain entry to a friend’s apartment, he was called out for hoisting himself onto a brick ledge to reach the call box; he says he’s too short to reach it otherwise.
Yvette Stephens (“You, in front of 1428”) was called out for sitting on her stoop as her laundry dried. Edna Avery (“Person standing in the doorway of 1430”) was called out for holding the door to her building open to allow two movers to bring a couch up to her unit. “I just block the speakers out,” says Avery, an 11-year resident of Faircliff. In the past two months, Stephens has heard the loudspeaker voices threaten to take photos of disobedient residents and hand them 30-day eviction notices. “And it’s so loud that everybody in the complex knows who they’re talking to,” says Avery.
And people beyond the complex, too; neighbors can hear the speakers a block away. “When you hear them going off on a Saturday or Sunday, they’re going off all the time,” says Mike Rosinbum, who lives in a nearby row house on Clifton Street. “It’s not crystal clear; it’s more like a loud blaring of words….For a period of time, it came out all static, so the whole neighborhood was hit with this awful chrrrrr sound.”
Rosinbum’s neighbor, Charlene Collins, says her co-op’s board has resolved to draft a letter to the complex’s management company denouncing the speakers, which wake her and other residents up at night. More troubling, says Collins, is the demoralizing spectacle she witnesses from her porch. “You see these prison movies, where they give people orders out in the yard—‘Get off the steps,’ ‘Pick up that piece of paper’—and it’s exactly like that,” she says. “There’s never a ‘please’; it’s always a demand. How are these children being affected by this?”
Faircliff residents themselves, apparently not yet as organized as their neighbors, are considering starting a petition against the speakers. In the meantime, longtime tenants like Avery find themselves doing what they never thought possible: pining for the old days.
“We know what we want and what we don’t want,” she says. “We want to live in peace, but we don’t want to live like this.”CP