The new year will literally be starting in the dark for the residents of Highland Park in Michigan. With revenues declining for a fifth year in a row, the city’s authorities decided to remove two-thirds of the street lamps. Workers showed up in the fall and took down the poles; the mayor-elect, DeAndre Windom, is advising people to keep their porch lights at night, leading residents to suspect the city is seeking to have them pick up costs it can no longer cover.
Those costs are for something — streetlights — that have been considered as much a part of civic life as sidewalks, crosswalks and traffic lights. That more than a few communities in the US are having to turn out the lights to make ends meet is a sobering reminder of how the economic downturn has altered people’s daily lives. The sight of the familiar streets of your community gone pitch-dark is simply unnerving as we discovered when much of our New Jersey town was dark for a good week after Hurricane Irene. Police cars drove slowly past the eerily quiet storefronts of businesses and streets suddenly unrecognizable in the dark.
Highland Park only has 500 of the 1,600 streetlights it once had. The loss of 600 lights was part of a deal it made with DTE energy, the utility company, to forgive $4 million worth of debt. As the New York Times explains,
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.
Residents report that they are simply no longer going out at night rather than try to make their way in streets so dark that cars stop just short of pedestrians. Parents fear having children walk to school when it’s still dark in the early morning.
Towns in other states — Oregon, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Illinois, California — have resorted to similar measures, after finding that layoffs, salary cuts and furloughs have not been enough to maintain municipal budgets.
The implicit story in the New York Times‘s account of towns where the lights have been turned off is about the fraying of civic life in a time of economic slowdown and especially in communities that have lost residents, and tax revenues, as factories have closed and employment opportunities have changed. More than 42 percent of Highland Park’s population live in poverty; median income in the town is nearly $30,000 below that of the state. But once it was not so, says the New York Times, pointing out that Highland Park, site of Henry Ford’s first moving assembly line, was once a well-heeled community with 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…
“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.”
Can things have gotten so bad that streetlights have become luxuries in the US?
Mayor-elect Windom says that he has spoken to groups who might consider Highland Park as the site of a “pilot project for some more energy-efficient, environmentally conscious, experimental lighting system.” It’s regrettable that, in order for the town to progress to a more-up-to date system, it has had to leave so many of its residents in the dark.
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