Image: A streetlight that survived a mass removal of lights in Highland Park, Mich.
Fabrizio Costantini  /  The New York Times
A lone streetlight, one that survived the mass removal of streetlights this year to save the city money, in Highland Park, Mich., Dec. 7, 2011.
By
updated 12/30/2011 5:37:06 AM ET 2011-12-30T10:37:06

In a deal to save money, two-thirds of the streetlights were yanked from the ground and hauled away this year, and the resulting darkness is a look that is familiar in the wide open cornfields of Iowa but not here, in a struggling community surrounded on nearly all sides by Detroit.

Parents say they now worry more about allowing their children to walk to school early in the morning. Motorists complain that they often cannot see pedestrians until headlights — and cars — are right upon them. Some residents say they are reshaping their lives to fit the hours of daylight, as the members of the Rev. D. Alexander Bullock’s church did recently when they urged him to move up Saturday Bible study to 4 p.m. from the usual 7 p.m.

“It’s just too dark,” said Mr. Bullock, of Greater St. Matthew Baptist Church. “I come out of the church, and I can’t see what’s in front of me. What happened to our streetlights is what happens when politicians lose hope. All kinds of crazy decisions get made, and citizens lose faith in the process.”

Cities around the nation, grappling with what is expected to be a fifth consecutive year of declining revenues and having exhausted the predictable budget trims, are increasingly considering something that would once have been untouchable: the lights.

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Highland Park’s circumstances are extreme; with financial woes so deep and long term, it has extinguished all but 500 streetlights in a city accustomed to 1,600, utility company officials say. But similar efforts have played out in dozens of towns and cities, like Myrtle Creek, Ore., Clintonville, Wis., Brainerd, Minn., Santa Rosa, Calif., and Rockford, Ill.

What distinguishes these latest austerity measures is how noticeable they are to ordinary residents. If health care cuts, pay cuts, layoffs and furloughs — and even limits on enforcing building codes or maintaining parks — are most apparent to the people inside city halls, everyone notices when his streetlights go dark (and some cities, like Colorado Springs, where the issue boiled over, have already resumed some lighting when revenues allowed).

Turning off the lights has drawn grumpy crowds to city council meetings, stirred jealousy among neighborhoods and neighbors, and set off conversations about crime.

“I go around town, and even I think some areas seem a little darker than they should be,” said Tim Hanson, the public works director in Rockford, where officials turned off 2,300 of the city’s 14,000 lights. “It was not anything that I wanted to do, and it was nothing that the mayor or aldermen wanted to do, but it’s like your own budget at home — we can’t afford this anymore.”

Here in Highland Park, that had been true for a while. Over a matter of years, the city accumulated a debt of about $4 million to DTE Energy, the utility company. The city was paying less than half of its $60,000 monthly bill for an antiquated lighting system that was costly to maintain. So the company and city struck a deal. The company could turn off and take away 1,300 of the city’s lights, add 200 lights in strategic locations, and the debt would be forgiven, said Scott Simons, a spokesman for DTE.

The result in this 2.9-square-mile city feels like this: Lights are still abundant along Woodward Avenue, the crowded commercial strip. But a block away, along the quieter, residential streets, lights now remain mostly at intersections. Long stretches of blocks are dark, silhouettes of people are barely visible and potholes appear suddenly beneath tires.

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Some people here say they learned of the plans this fall only when a truck pulled up outside their homes and workers began pulling the poles from the ground. (Though the added step of removing the lights — not just turning them off — seemed an affront to residents, company officials said it had to be done for liability reasons and to avoid continuing reports of power failure and the risk of metal theft.)

“The people were basically left in the dark,” said DeAndre Windom, who was elected mayor in November. He said the disappearing streetlights were the top concern of residents as he campaigned door to door.

“When you come through at night, it’s scary; you have to wonder if anyone is lurking around waiting to catch you off your guard,” said Juanita Kennedy, 65, who said she had installed a home security system and undergone training to carry a handgun in the weeks since workmen carried away the streetlight in front of her house. “I don’t go out to get gas at night. I don’t run to any stores. I try to do everything in the daytime and to be back before night falls.”

Hope but no money
Highland Park, home of Henry Ford’s first moving assembly line, was once a well-off enclave of 50,000 residents. Ford left long ago, and Chrysler’s corporate headquarters moved away in the 1990s. Now it has fewer than 12,000 residents — half the size it was just 20 years ago.

So for this city, a shrunken tax base and financial crisis have been long in the making, and the recent national downturn has only made matters worse. More than 42 percent of Highland Park’s residents live in poverty, unemployment is high and the median income here is nearly $30,000 below that of the state.

“To understand our street lighting situation is to understand the wealth that Highland Park once had; it was a situation where we had the best of almost everything and an abundance of lights,” said Rodney Patrick, whose father insisted on moving his family to Highland Park in the early 1950s because of its advantages — its status, in his words, as the shining city on the hill. “But we don’t have the residents to have the luxuries we had when we were a city of 50,000.”

If the outcome seems imperfect to many residents, not everyone views it as dire. “The lights are not out in Highland Park,” said Mr. Patrick, who serves on the City Council. “We’ve had a reduction, a responsible reduction.”

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It is too soon to judge whether the lights have affected safety here. Officials from other communities and studies on the question of streetlights and crime draw mixed conclusions.

In Highland Park, yard lights and even strings of Christmas lights are helping to illuminate some streets, and some leaders have urged residents to add their own lighting if they are worried about security — leading to complaints that the city is trying to shift items it cannot afford to residents who cannot afford them either.

In cities around the nation, similar ideas have emerged: streetlight user fees, private security lights, even optional “adopt-a-light” programs comparable to road sponsorships.

In Oregon, officials in Myrtle Creek turned off 78 of the city’s 297 streetlights in 2010, to save $11,000. A streetlight sponsorship program suggests that nerves have calmed. Last year, people paid to keep six of the lights on. Now, only two of the lights remain adopted and lighted. “Nobody’s talking about it anymore,” said Aaron K. Cubic, city administrator in the rural community, 90 minutes south of Eugene.

Not so in Highland Park, where the measure is newer and the darkness more pronounced. There is hope for new lights, though no money for them. The mayor-elect, Mr. Windom, said that he was in conversations with groups that might consider Highland Park as a pilot project for some more energy-efficient, environmentally conscious, experimental lighting system.

“We can’t go back,” said Mr. Windom, who has, for now, urged residents to turn on their porch lights.

This story, "Darker Nights as Some Cities Turn Off the Lights," originally appeared in The New York Times.

Copyright © 2013 The New York Times

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