New York is the city that never sleeps. But this renowned insomnia would not be possible without the more than 200,000 men and women who work the nightshift – the fry cooks and coffee jockeys, train conductors and cab hacks, cops, docs, and fishmongers selling cod by the crate. Inverting the natural rhythm of life, they keep the city running as it slows but never stops.

In our book, NIGHTSHIFT NYC, we tell the stories of New York City nightshift workers. This ethnography of the night investigates familiar sites, such as diners, delis and taxis, as well as some unexpected corners of the night, such as a walking tour of homelessness in Manhattan and a fishing boat out of Brooklyn. We show how the nightshift is more than simply out of phase, it is another social space altogether, highly structured, inherently subversive, and shot through with inequalities of power. NIGHTSHIFT NYC presents the narratives of those who sleep too little and work too much, revealing the soul of a city hidden in the graveyard shift of 24-hour commerce when the sun goes down and the lights come up.

But there is more to the story than found its way into the pages of the book. Here you'll find more stories of the night in New York City and around the country. And we hope you will add your own stories and comments in the months to come. Stay tuned and check back often...

Friday, October 17, 2008

Night Watch

In the 1960s, the journalist and activist Jane Jacobs described the importance of eyes on the street for city safety, especially after dark. Neighbors and public characters can create a network of vigilance to keep the perception of danger, if not danger itself, at bay. Even today, all-night delis in New York receive packages for neighbors, offer a familiar face at any hour, and help foster an organic, mutually constituting urban community.

But for many quiet stretches on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, there are no all-night delis. After dark, doormen are the last live eyes on the street, paid substitutes for public characters.

It is a responsibility that Upper West Side doormen James and Ricardo take seriously.

“You have to be very, very careful,” says James. He describes a fight a few doors down. “I heard a guy say, ‘Gun!’ And you don’t know what they’re gonna do ‘cause we’re right there. But thank God, nothing happened. You have to be alert. And I usually lock the doors after a certain hour.”

“We’re playing with our life!” says Ricardo. Slipping into Spanish, he says again, “We’re playing with our life! You are risking your life. The nighttime is very hard. The doorman doesn’t have good security, only the telephone. You have a problem, you call the police. If someone comes with a gun or something like that, it’s dangerous.”

But James and Ricardo are not the only ones doing the watching. The surveillance cameras that dot the city are also in the lobbies of their buildings, a fact that gives Ricardo pause during his shift. Of the many techniques he uses to keep awake, one includes prayer. “I like to pray in the morning, at 3 o’clock in the morning, or 2:30,” he says. “But up in the corner, you know, the camera is watching me.” He grins, then laughs with his whole body. “I worry about the camera, I do.”

According to a 2006 survey by the New York Civil Liberties Union, there are more than 4,000 surveillance cameras in Manhattan, up from 769 only seven years earlier. Last month, the NYCLU filed suit against the city to get access to full details on the Lower Manhattan Security Initiative, which includes adding an unknown number (rumored to be in the thousands) of new surveillance cameras in Lower Manhattan alone.

Cameras now record even the most mundane activities of millions of New Yorkers every day. They are in every diner, deli, airport, hospital, and train station; they are on street corners and inside building lobbies and stairwells; they are even on the dashboards of most taxis. And though the cameras silently record twenty-four hours a day, they are somehow more noticeable at night. With fewer people distracting attention, and less pressure to conduct your business and hurry on, the unblinking eye of a surveillance camera, or two, or ten, mounted on a cramped deli ceiling makes buying even a soda somehow feel suspect.

And they’re not just in New York City. “Look,” a film by Adam Rifkin, portrays life from the perspective of surveillance cameras, of which there are an estimated 30 million in the US.

Like public lighting at the turn of the last century, it’s assumed that security cameras deter crime by exposing, and now recording, activity. But lighting had a dual purpose, both to light the way for law-abiding citizens and to serve as eyes for state authorities. Surveillance cameras, however, serve only the latter purpose, recording equally the activities of everyone from would-be criminals to doormen saying their nightly prayers.

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