It is a picture-perfect morning in Soulard. Amid the warm wash of conversation, a few early birds enjoy the bright spring sunshine as they sip lattes and read the newspaper outside the Soulard Coffee Garden Café. A woman walks her dog along a sidewalk where flowers are in bloom. Truck drivers deliver beer to bars and important packages to young urban professionals working in their home offices.
And down the street, at the corner of Geyer Avenue and Ninth Street, a high-tech surveillance camera records it all.
Inside the trendy coffee house, St. Louis City Excise Commisioner Bob Kraiberg, wearing glasses, a button-down dress shirt and shined shoes, peers over the shoulder of Jeff Weigand. The long-haired, Vans-wearing computer geek logs onto his Macintosh laptop and scratches his head.
"It's pinging. It's saying hi to the camera," Weigand announces. "I'm accessing the camera, but the Web page isn't working."
Ordinarily Weigand would be able to see the people outside on his laptop screen. Using his computer, he could even zoom the camera in and see the license-plate numbers on the delivery trucks or the cars parked on the street.
"We've had it up and working," Kraiberg says. "The visuals are very clear. It's not like the grainy video from a 7-Eleven robbery."
They're still smoothing out the bugs in the camera mounted on the second floor of the 1860's Hardshell Café & Bar building. But within 45 days, Kraiberg, a Soulard resident, and his volunteer technical team plan to launch a wireless video surveillance network that will be accessible to Soulard residents and business owners via the Internet. The idea is to make Soulard safer by letting anyone with a user account and password eyeball what's going on in the neighborhood at any of twelve high-traffic locations where cameras will soon be erected.
If it all works out, residents will be able to catch bad guys in the act, then zoom in on their faces, their vehicles, their license-plate numbers and the direction they are heading so that police can move in. Though video surveillance by government and private businesses is becoming commonplace, Kraiberg doesn't think an online, real-time electronic neighborhood-watch program has ever been tried.
"You can do neighborhood-watch with a cup of coffee in your bathroom," boasts Kraiberg.
That idea is freaking out more than a few people in Soulard, including leaders of the Soulard Restoration Group, the community's largest neighborhood association. Late last year, the group voted to divorce itself from Kraiberg and his online surveillance plan. Undaunted, Kraiberg proceeded to form his own nonprofit corporation, Soulard Security Association, Inc., and is using $30,000 in SRG funds to buy cameras, a digital recording system and software.
"There were a lot of residents who were concerned about it being Big Brother and an invasion of privacy," says Gary Siddens, president of the Soulard Restoration Group.
For the past fourteen years, Kraiberg has been the lone member of the group's safety committee, and he is the hands-down leader in raising funds for streetlights, security guards and extra police patrols. Events he's organized, such as last weekend's Soulard Mayor's Race, in which residents pick their "mayor" based on who raises the most money, have netted thousands of dollars.
About a year ago Kraiberg told the SRG he wanted to take a serious look at installing a neighborhood surveillance system with the aim toward further decreasing crime. Though crime is down citywide, Soulard residents still endure a rash of car thefts, muggings, burglaries and vandalism.
"He was Mr. Security in our neighborhood," says Dana LoBollo, vice president of the SRG. "Bob is a man of action. Instead of gathering information and coming back to us, he contracted for the purchase of the equipment."
While plenty of people, including bar owners, lauded the surveillance network as a great tool for crime-fighting, others in the neighborhood balked, saying the plan needed far more discussion.
"I tried to cajole and browbeat Mr. Kraiberg that it was a better idea to come up with some guidelines and have a neighborhood referendum," LoBollo says. "[But] he felt he had wasted enough time."
The video-surveillance network will be part of an online neighborhood conferencing system that also will offer chat rooms and instant messaging, says Weigand, who has operated the Web site (www.soulard.com) for the last seven years.
Some users would be able to actually manipulate the video cameras from their home or office computers via the Internet. Just who will be entitled to such peeping privileges has yet to be worked out, even though Kraiberg and company expect the system to be fully operational by the end of June.
"We can put lockouts so that different users have different access levels," says Jeff Ashmann, a Soulard resident who has volunteered his technical expertise. "There will be a super-user who can point the camera anywhere."
Soulard resident and businessman Bill Shelton has spoken out loudly against the plan, saying it is fraught with civil-liberties land mines.
"If my home is under surveillance, then I should have access to the video cameras, as should everyone in the neighborhood," he says. "But I wouldn't want a peeping Tom zooming into someone's windows."
Shelton wonders who's to stop an unscrupulous neighbor from zooming the camera in and finding someone engaged in an extramarital affair or gay sex -- a perfect recipe for blackmail.
But the surveillance architects insist that anyone who manipulates the online cameras will be logged in. That way, if anyone abuses the technology, there will be a record of it.
"The horse is out of the barn at that point," Shelton says. "This is the first brick. All of a sudden we will become a surveillance society. That's an individual freedom I'm not willing to give up."
Shelton told the SRG he had contacted the American Civil Liberties Union and vowed to file a lawsuit if the group pressed ahead with the plan.
"That rang a bell," says John Durnell, past president of the SRG. "We couldn't fight the ACLU. I didn't want to be the first neighborhood association to be a test case for this."
The SRG voted in November to break ties with Kraiberg and agreed to transfer about $30,000 of the $35,000 that was in the SRG's safety committee account to Kraiberg's Soulard Security Association, Inc.
"I raised all that money," Kraiberg says. "We had an agreement with the past board that the safety committee could spend the money any way we saw fit. When I did something they were surprised by, they divested themselves and transferred the money to the Soulard Security Association."
Neither Kraiberg nor his helpers plan to draw a salary from the nonprofit corporation or use the funds for anything other than the purchase and upkeep of equipment. "Being a city official, I have more constraints on me than a normal citizen," Kraiberg says of his involvement with the organization.
Kraiberg envisions similar systems being used in neighborhoods throughout the city and in other urban locales. Once all the kinks are worked out, he hopes to write a manual that would be free to neighborhood associations.
"I am disappointed that the [Soulard] neighborhood association would bow to the threat of a lawsuit," he says. "They should take a leadership role, and instead they've given up their oversight and control."
He adds: "This isn't Big Brother; this isn't the government. This is neighbors watching out for each other."