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STREET SEEN: A surveillance walking tour of Pittsburgh

We provide both a PDF and a text-only version. For the PDF version, see the bottom of this page. Below is the text-only version.

Street Seen: A Surveillance Walking Tour of Pittsburgh

Image: A map of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, USA that shows the neighborhoods around the intersection of the Allegheny and Monongahela rivers. Neighborhoods like the downtown business district, Mount Washington, East Allegheny, Troy Hill, and Elliott are included. A marker highlights Nova Place, a building in Allegheny Center. 

What is This?

STREET SEEN is an exploration of surveillance and smart city gentrification, organized by critical technology collective coveillance and artists Wesleigh Gates and Maggie Oates.

Last summer, we invited community members, artists, and activists to join us for a walking tour of Northside’s tech hub, Nova Place. Through communal knowledge sharing and group activities, the tour aimed to build collective power and reclaim the legibility of urban infrastructures.

This zine documents our journey and some of the questions and activities we engaged with. We hope it will prompt folks to learn more, or even serve as inspiration for your own actions.

Why is This?

Why did we make this project?

Pittsburgh’s urban laboratory agenda has caused rapid, disruptive change to the fabric of the city, giving private players space to reshape the city while often leaving residents out of the conversation.

Resistance to gentrifying technologies in Pittsburgh has been enacted through strategies such as a community campaign against the autonomous Mon-Oakland shuttle corridor, calls by Black activists to curb law enforcement’s use of surveillance tech, and demands for accountability on university complicity in creating these infrastructures.

This project is meant to highlight these forms of resistance, make visible the ways tech alters space and infrastructure, and foster dialogue around everyday urban spaces as sites of solidarity.

1. Place

Nova Place is a self-described “innovation space” on Pittsburgh’s North Side. Home to offices, restaurants, a co-working space, and a gym, it also hosts a large number of tech companies and data centers.

This site has a long and complex history. A bustling civic center in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the area later “declined” (thanks to discriminatory zoning practices) and was razed in the 1960s to make space for a new mall, displacing hundreds of residents. The mall was briefly successful before most of its stores closed by the ‘90s. NYC-based Faros Properties bought the space in 2013 to develop Nova Place.

Nova is just one part of a century-long lineage of spatial discrimination against this community’s Black and low-income residents.

Image: A photo of the front of Sealy’s, a store that was inside the mall that is now Nova Place. The aesthetics of the store (faded pastel colors, patterned wallpaper, color block rectangles, and retro signs) suggest the photo might have been taken in the 1970-80s. 

Exercise

Look around the plaza. How do you feel here? Comfortable, uncomfortable? Safe? Anxious? Make a pose that expresses that feeling.

Now imagine your idea of the perfect use of this space. Imagine who else is here, and what’s happening. Shift your pose to show how you feel inside this ideal space.

Big or small, let the pose start to move through your whole body. Let the movement start to travel through the plaza.

As you move, look around at the others in the group. Keep moving as we witness each other and all the ways we could inhabit this space.

2. Infrastructure

There are lots of places like Nova — anonymous-looking complexes incorporating residential and commercial space. It seems pretty boring, but look closely. Some communication infrastructure wants to be seen, and some doesn’t. Some surveillance cameras are obvious, as a warning to those passing by. Other infrastructure is stashed away because it’s considered ugly. And some is hidden for protection, from the weather or from “bad actors” or from curious/concerned citizens like us.

Image: A simple, almost silly hand-drawing of a person saying, “HELLO DATA ARE YOU THERE?” while looking down at a “manhole” cover labeled “BELL.” The curious person leans down with their hands on each hip. 

Exercise

What parts of the communication network can you see from where you’re standing? Do you notice any sensors? Any mysterious boxes? Can you guess where anything is hidden underground or in a wall?

With a partner or a small group, chat about what you see (or don’t see). What purposes are these infrastructures serving? What else might they be collecting, and who is that data useful to?

Some things we saw…

Shotspotter

This is a device designed to detect gunfire and give a heads up to the police. Pittsburgh introduced them in 2014 in “crime-ridden East End neighborhoods,” and they have since expanded across the city, including the North Side. We don’t know exactly what they look like because the company and the city are both cagey about it, but they might look like the mysterious object on the streetlight above…

Image: A hand-drawn street light pole stretches high on the page. On top of the light is a white box with rounded corners and a small black arm, presumably a Shotspotter. 

Sensus FlexNet utility box

This is a smart meter that attaches to your gas, water, or electric lines. It collects data about usage and can also help turn your water service off. These are nice because a person no longer has to come to your house to read the meter. But it also means utility companies have a lot of information about you. Nationally, many utility companies sell usage & payment information to data companies, who package it up with other personal information and in turn sell that to law and immigration enforcement agencies. 

Image: A hand-drawn sensor box is bolted to a brick wall. The sensor is tan, around the size of 2 fists. It has rounded corners, textured waves on the front, and is embossed on the front face with the word “SENSUS.” The front face has a circle inset around the size of a quarter. You might be able to identify this sensor by touch. 

Bell manhole cover

In the 80s, AT&T was an absurdly large monopoly, so it was ordered to split into 7 “Baby Bell” companies, including Bell Atlantic, which in present day is owned by Verizon. Under our feet is a thick bunch of cables, likely owned mostly by Verizon. If you have Verizon Fios in your home or work, most websites you visit run into this building under a manhole like this one. 30+ fiber optic companies operate in and out of this building.

Doodle Time

Doodle 1

Find the nearest utility markings near you. Here’s a guide of what the markings mean:

Red: Electric, Cables, Conduit, Lighting Cables

Orange: Communication, Phone, Cable, Fiber Optic

Yellow: Natural Gas, Oil, Steam, Petroleum

Green: Sewer

Blue: Drinking water

Purple: Reclaimed water, Irrigation

Pink: Temporary markings, Unknown

White: Proposed digging

Image: An empty box intended for drawing. 

Non-visual alternative activity: Utilities are sometimes marked in soft ground with small vinyl flags instead of paint. The flags are usually 4-5 inches (10-13cm) on a 1ft (31cm) wire pole. Can you find any?

Doodle 2

Draw a diagram of your neighborhood as you understand it now. Draw a diagram of it as it used to be at any point in time. What’s changed? What buildings are new? Is there new infrastructure, new housing? How is that affecting the ways you interact with your communities? 

Image: An empty box intended for drawing. 

Non-visual alternative activity: Visualize or make a recording of this prompt.

Open up these pages for a diagram of our walking tour!

Interlude: Map Centerfold

Image: An overhead map of Nova Place with 4 markers of stops for the walking tour. Nova Place is a building complex and pedestrian area enclosed on all 4 sides by South, West, East, and North Commons streets. The main Nova Place building is a large multi-story rectangle spanning the entire block. It has two towers. Just north of Nova Place is Buhl Park, a small green space with a sidewalk running diagonally through the center. To the west of the park is a Park View Residential building, a multi-story housing complex. North of Park View is a children’s museum, with a dome roof and a playspace out front. Walking due east from the children’s museum is New Hazlett Theater and then Four Allegheny Center. If you turned north, you’d walk between two more tall Park View apartment buildings. 

Marker #1: PLACE. This marker is represented by an upside down thumbtack at the southwest corner of Buhl Park. A hand-drawn cartoon head with dark cropped hair and a beard says, “As a kid, I remember walking here and there was a little apple tree.” The interviewer asks, “Did you eat them?” And he replies, “No! You threw them!” A cartoon crabapple flies by.

Path from #1 to #2: Walk south on the sidewalk that follows the west side of Nova Place, along Children’s Way. Pass the large metal mist sculpture. Stop at the curve in the sidewalk where it turns to the west. 

Marker #2: INFRASTRUCTURE. This marker is represented by a tin can with a string coming out of one end. Image: A photo from one of the walking tours. A group of 7 people gather at the curve of a sidewalk, with their backs to a brick wall. 6 are adults, 1 is a teenager looking down seriously at a paper guide. The group is a mix of race and gender. On the street in front of them is a manhole cover. One White person with fluffy white hair and overalls smiles as they hand binoculars to a smiling Black man in basketball attire. 

Path from #2 to #3: Continue west on the sidewalk along Children’s Way. Follow the exterior of Nova Place, taking the first left to walk south along West Commons. Around halfway down the block there will be a bank storefront in Nova Place, on the left, and shortly after the bank, there will be a few metal benches also on your left. Just past the benches, step into the small grassy area between the building and the sidewalk. Stop when you reach a cluster of several manholes nestled in the grass.

Marker #3: INFORMATION. This marker is represented by a faucet with a single drop of water about to drip out of it. Image: A photo from one of the walking tours, featuring the same 7 people from the previous photo. Four people are standing on manhole covers in the grass, and three are standing on the sidewalk nearby. A tall White person on the sidewalk is reaching across and shaking the hand of a shorter White person who is standing on the nearest manhole cover, while the others look on.

Path from #3 to #4: Continue south in the same direction you were walking, then turn left with the sidewalk to keep Nova Place on your left side. Go straight along South Commons for half a block, crossing the entrance to the Nova Place garage on your left. When you reach the intersection with Federal Street on your right, there will be an entrance to the Nova Place complex on your left. Turn left into the building and go up two sets of stairs. (We are very sorry to report that the last stop on the tour is not wheelchair accessible.) Stop when you’ve reached the interior courtyard at the top of the second set of stairs.

Marker #4: SECURITY. This marker is represented by a standard directional security camera. Image: a goofy hand-drawn cartoon of a person with dark cropped hair and a beard. They are smiling a carefree smile and holding a joint with a trail of smoke emerging from it. In a speech bubble, the person says: “They’re just such a part of life. They don’t bother me none!” An asterisk clarifies that “they” are security cameras.

Final path: To make your way to the central plaza of Nova Place, retrace your steps down only the first set of stairs you previously climbed. On this landing, there will be an alcove to your left: turn and enter the alcove, then pass through the door on your left that leads into the Nova Place parking garage. Walk straight through this large and likely fairly empty space until you reach an elevator. Take the elevator to the Lobby level. Exit the elevator into a small glass vestibule, then exit the vestibule into the main plaza of Nova Place. You’ve reached the end of the tour!

3. Information

We’re always giving off information: through our actions and behavior, our choices and decisions, the places we go and the people we spend time with. Not to mention the purchases we make, the websites we visit, the pictures we post…

Many groups are interested in gathering all of this information. Advertisers, corporations, political campaigns, law enforcement, and more. Often the data collected by one of these entities are shared with or sold to others, as we saw with the smart utility boxes. So even when we think we know who we’re sharing something with, chances are it’s going somewhere else too.

All these aspects of our lives and our selves are constantly flowing through the fiber optic cables beneath our feet, off to destinations and purposes unknown.

Image: A simple hand-drawing of a manhole cover. The center of the cover is embossed with the outline of a bell and labeled with “BELL.” The manhole has a non-specific embossed pattern. You might be able to identify this object by touch. 

Exercise

Notice the five manhole covers on the ground in this area. Each is labeled with the name of the company that owns the fiber optic cable running beneath it. Let’s get five volunteers to represent these companies — each of you stand on top of the manhole cover that belongs to your company.

Now for the rest of us, think of a piece of information about yourself. It can be as simple as what you had for breakfast, or maybe it’s the last thing you looked up on your phone, or something you bought with your credit card.

One by one, each of us will introduce ourselves to one of the fiber companies and share this information with them. Fiber companies, as you shake hands with each individual, swing them down the line to the next company. Repeat until each person and piece of information has “passed through” all five networks.

Image: A hand drawing of three communications companies are drawn as boxes with silly heads and bare feet. These companies, Level 3 Comms, Verizon, and Nextlink, look at each other in a circle. Instead of arms, they “hold hands” by connecting to each other with looping wires. 

4. Security

Image: A hand-drawn directional security camera points down from the upper corner of the page. 

If you look in the quiet corners of complexes like Nova, chances are you’ll find a data center. These are big rooms full of servers that are just there to store and share data. Your personal digital files are stored on your home computer on hard drives, or inside your phone in tiny memory cards. But most everything we access online is stored in a data center. When you upload a photo to iCloud or Google Photos or Flickr, that jpg file zings through cables and gets stored in a room like this.

There are at least four commercial data centers at Nova Place. One is run by Expedient, and on their webpage they list “Video Camera Surveillance” as a selling point. Sure enough, the area around Expedient’s unmarked door at Nova is practically crawling with security cameras. Data centers are often pretty low-profile or even secretive, due to security concerns.

Image: A hand-drawn person peeks out from behind a pillar at the bottom of the page. The person’s long straight hair, cautious surprised face, and one black boot are visible.

Exercise

Look around and identify every camera you can find in this space. If you feel comfortable, walk and stand directly underneath one so that we can all see clearly where it is.

Take a moment and feel yourself being seen by the camera(s). How does it feel in your body — tight, tense? Vulnerable, exposed? Or maybe it feels so ordinary it doesn’t even register?

Image: a fisheye security camera leans out from one side of the page.

Now find a spot where you are visible to the fewest possible cameras… or even none. Take a few deep breaths, loosen your muscles, relax your body. Do you feel any different?

Image: A hand-drawn person with a medium afro hides behind a trash can, out of sight of cameras. They are seated on the ground, one leg curled up and one leg poking out from beneath the can. Their face seems cautious or surprised, but not scared. 

Let’s have a moment of celebrating our bodily autonomy together, with a communal dance party! You can perform for the cameras or return to your hidden space, whichever feels better. Our bodies are our own, no matter how many cameras are pointed at us or how many data centers have bits of our selves cached away in their vaults. Move in whatever way feels good to you, to celebrate your body and to feel the joy of reclaiming this space together.

Let’s take this outside.

Though our tour takes place at Nova Place, there’s much we learned about the transformation of space and infrastructure brought by tech development. We see multiple parallels with many sites around PIttsburgh being prepared for tech development.

Here are a few places worth continuing the work that other community organizers and residents have been doing and continuing the investigating of tech infrastructure in the city:

Image: A map of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, USA that shows the neighborhoods around the intersection of the Allegheny and Monongahela rivers. The following sites are highlighted in the map:

  • Almono site in Hazelwood (Mon-Oakland Connector campaign)
  • Bakery Square and East Liberty (Penn Plaza and Stop the Station campaign)
  • Lexington Technology Park in Point Breeze
  • Pittsburgh Innovation District in Oakland (Ongoing CMU and Pitt conflicts)
For more information, visit coveillance.org.
  • Screen version: download here
  • Print version: download here

Embedded PDF (screen reading)