Neighbourhood Watch

Welcome to the community-based phenomena known as the Neighbourhood Watch. The following is a brief history of the program and my childhood interpretations of the iconic Canadian Neighbourhood Watch street sign which influenced my thesis project. Using the Neighbourhood Watch icon and re-encoding it through paintings, the symbol is imbued with my childhood fears, current fears, and fears for the future. By appropriating the icon with paintings, screen printing and installation, I create a visual language combining graphic qualities of street signs to illustrate potential social and psychological effects of “Neighbourhood Watching.”

“Neighbourhood Watch Yourself!” Mixed Media Installation for silkscreen book, 2007.

The Birth of Neighbourhood Watch:
In the 1960s a tense social climate was the result of the Cold War, the Vietnam War, the rise of urban crime, and the revolutionary civil rights movements. In 1964, Catherine “Kitty” Genovese was raped and murdered in her own neighbourhood of Queens, New York. The public was ashamed to discover that there were over 30 witnesses to the crime, many of whom were her own neighbours, who stood by and did nothing to help her. This murder led psychologists to do an investigation into what is now known today as the “bystander effect” (Latané and Darley, 1970). The discovery of bystander apathy led America to give birth to the Neighbourhood Watch (NHW) program during the early 1970s. This program was created to “help reduce neighbourhood crimes such as break and enter, auto-theft and property damage” (Pinnock, 2004) and to promote the Good Samaritan attitude that could have saved Genovese’s life. Since then, the Neighbourhood Watch program has been adopted in Canada, the United Kingdom and Australia and is now starting to form in various countries around the world. Today, North America has entered another troubled time. Since 9/11, fear and paranoia has once again escalated, but the question to ask is: Are programs such as Neighbourhood Watch helping to create safer and secure communities or only instigating more paranoia and perpetuating fear?

Various NHW signs from America, Canada, United Kingdom, Austrailia and New Zealand.

Growing up in my Neighbourhood being Watched:
The NHW program was introduced to Canada in the 1980’s. Born in 1984, I was a child when I first saw the NHW sign erected in my neighbourhood in Toronto. The street sign has the Canadian NHW icon on it: 3 red houses with cyclops eyes arranged in a triangle formation. This icon scared me as a child because I read the image quite literally. I really thought that the houses had eyes and were watching me at all times. This made me feel uncomfortable playing on my own street! During the time the NHW program was being introduced to Canadians, a commercial was broadcasted on television that was targeted to children. I remember it vividly. It instructed lost or troubled children to look for the NHW icon on a door or window because it marked “safe” houses. The commercial showed a young child entering a stranger’s home just because it had the NHW sticker on the screen door. This confused me as a child for multiple reasons. Firstly, who would trust such a sinister looking icon? How could anyone expect red houses with all seeing eyes to represent “safety”, especially to a young child? Secondly, I was taught by my mother never to enter a stranger’s home, however the television was telling me otherwise. Today I realize that these conflicting feelings I experienced as a child were not as naive as I originally thought.

“Updated Property Protected Sticker” Silk screen on vinyl sticker, 2008.

Upon research I discovered that in Canada during the 1980s, anyone could join NHW with little to no screening process. Unless they already had a criminal record, a potential sex offender could easily obtain a NHW sign and place it on their door. This is a terrifying discovery since the vast majority of sexually abused children (80-90%) are molested by family members and close friends or acquaintances. (ATSA, 2005) Only recently has this issue been addressed.

“Block Parent” 24″x24″Acrylic on wood panel, 2008.

“Block Parent” is a community program that predates NHW and was started in Canada during the 60s. It has recently revamped its program because of plummeting numbers of volunteers and security issues. “Police say there aren’t enough security measures in place to keep child predators from exploiting the program” (Haley, 2007). Since 2007, there is a 10-step screening procedure in place that includes house visits and reference checks upon application to Block Parent. In Toronto, NHW is currently losing popularity and all funding from the city has been cut without explanation. Today the NHW street signs stand throughout the city as fading relics to a deserted program and I can’t help but question why? Was there an incident where the NHW program was exploited or misused? Is that why the program was cut and all funding transferred over to Block Parent? If so, is it possible that the Police and City of Toronto are covering something up by remaining silent about it?

“All these Neighbourhood Watch signs that you see, there’s literally thousands of them across Canada and all over North America. For the most part there’s not a lot of activity really behind those signs. So people are feeling that there’s some kind of safety program but in fact there’s not really a lot going on.”

“Fading Signs” Photo documentation project, 2008.

Fear of Eye-cons:
Based on Foucault’s theory of “power/knowledge” (Foucault, 1995.), I believe the NHW icon had instilled an early sense of self-surveillance in me as a child. I found myself becoming more self-aware of my actions whenever I would see the NHW sign. Perhaps the surrounding street signs produced an inverted panopticon effect, changing my “physical regulation [from] others to governance of the self by the self.” (Harper, 1999) The NHW icon was designed as a warning sign to threaten criminals but promoted to children as a sign of safety and trust. The confusion I experienced as a child between the two encoded meanings can be compared to a phenomenon called Iconophobia. Iconophobia is the “general fear of religious images, and usually occurs in proportion to the powers attributed to them by their believers” (Caviness, 2006).

“Neighbourhood Assimilation” 20″x24″ Ink on watercolour paper, 2008.

I believe there is a new form of iconophobia developing in modern day society: fear of corporate logos, authority icons, pop icons, and perhaps in my case, street sign icons. Extensive research and review has shown that until the age of 8 years old children are unable to understand the persuasive intent of advertisements (Kunkle, 2004). Being the target demographic for the NHW ad campaign during the 80s, it is no wonder why the icon has remained unsettling to me over all these years. The conflicting meanings and confused emotions I had associated with the image as a child have remained.

“Past Curfew” 40″x40″ Acrylic/oil paint on wood panel and printed wall paper, 2008.

States of Paranoia:
The Toronto police claim on their website that the NHW program promotes public safety, however:

“Surveillance, while conceptually distinct from suspicion, is materially and discursively connected to it… that the increased surveillance of the population has been one of the conditions of possibility for paranoia.” (Harper, 1999.)

“Watching Me Watching You” 12″x60″ Acrylic/oil paint on wood panel, 2008.

In other words, because the NHW program relies on people to be on guard for suspicious behaviour in their community, it is promoting the development of paranoid tendencies within the public. Everyone has his or her own definitions of “safety” and “security”. It can differ from neighbourhood to neighbourhood and ultimately relies on the society in which the community is based. Since 9/11, acts of racial profiling exploded over North America. Much like the effects of anti-communist propaganda during the Cold War, mass media outlets such as CNN started depicting Muslims in a negative light. Wide spread paranoia and panic can make people forget that violent acts motivated by religion or politics can be committed by any man or any woman of any nation.

“Neighbourhood Watcher (self portrait)” 30″x36″ Acrylic/Oil paint on wood panel, 2008.

The Future of Neighbourhood Watch:
The NHW concept has informally been around for hundred of years. Neighbours watched out for neighbours because they were friends, relatives, or part of the tribe. With the development of condensed urban city neighbourhoods, this concept has been formalized and integrated with local law enforcement to compensate for the fact that most neighbours today do not know each other. Now, in the age of the internet, the NHW program is expanding globally faster than ever before. Cities around the world are now forming NHW schemes. Websites have been created where Neighbourhood Watches can communicate with each other online and post photos of suspected criminals or community self-portraits.

Last year, America’s Homeland Security developed Neighbourhood Network Watch, which uses key word applications to scan public internet domains for “terror words”. Using the National Threat Advisory colour coded system; neighbourhoods in NYC are highlighted according to “threat of terrorist activity”.

“I NHW NYC” Map, hand made book with drawings and video installation, 2009.

Join Neighbourhood Watch TODAY!

Communities need to create a network of trust in order to look out for our fellow neighbours and combat bystander apathy, but to promote suspicion only further supports paranoia. As caring citizens, we need to stay critical of programs such as the NHW so that it remains a useful and reliable program and does not infringe on our rights to privacy and our ways of life.

Pinnock, Richard. “Our History.” Neighbourhood Watch Registry 2004

“Richard Pinnock interview with Jane Brown on CFRB 1010 AM.” Campus Crime Watch. 2006.

Foucault, Michel. Discipline & Punish: The Birth of the Prison. New York, NY. Vintage Books, 1995.

Harper, David J., Deconstructing Paranoia: An Analysis of the Discourses Associated with the Concept of Paranoid Delusion. Department of Psychology, University of East London. June 1999.

Latané, B. and Darley, J. M. “The unresponsive bystander: Why doesn’t he help?” Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1970

Caviness, Madeline H.. “Iconoclasm and Iconophobia: Four Historical Case Studies..” Sage Journals Online 2003

“Crime Prevention.” Neighbourhood Watch. 2004. Metro Toronto Police. 18,03,2007

Mick, Hayley. “Block Parents toughen up.” Toronto Globe and Mail, Section L. 01/05/07

Kunkle D. “Psychological Issues in Increasing Commercialization of Childhood: Report of the APA Task Force on Advertising and Children.” Washington, USA. American Psychologist Association. 2004.

ATSA, The Association for the Treatment of Sexual Abusers. “The Registration and Community Notification of Adult Sexual Offenders.” 5/10/2005

All images, artworks and essay by and copyrighted © Vanessa Rieger, 2011.

1 thought on “Neighbourhood Watch

  1. Hey I came across this while browsing thesis projects on google. Great job! *Applause* I agree that those signs are quite strange.

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