Detroit struggles to keep lights onPost a Comment
Copper thieves, aging equipment darken blocks in cash-starved city
Leonard N. Fleming/ The Detroit News
Detroit —Like many swaths of the city, Keith Wicks' historic Indian Village neighborhood has remained largely dark at night after vandals destroyed transformers in nearly every streetlight pole that powers them.
On a recent rainy day, Wicks, 64, a retired GM engineer who has lived in Detroit for decades, watched as city Public Lighting workers put new transformers at the top of the aging wooden poles. Just days later, those streetlights were out — again.
"We've still got a ways to go," Wicks said with a laugh.
The growing lack of public lighting has become a troubling problem for cash-starved Detroit, where entire stretches of neighborhoods and thoroughfares — such as portions of the Southfield Freeway — are feeling the effects.
"This city…it's dark without streetlights," said Wicks, who lives on Iroquois. "You look down Iroquois at night now, it's black. It's very dangerous."
The war to keep the lights on in Detroit is a serious one. Thieves, antiquated equipment and a lack of funding have made it impossible for city officials to catch up to the problem.
City officials estimate 15-20 percent of the 88,000 lights in the Motor City are not working, and they acknowledge that figure could be as high as 50 percent in some neighborhoods. Providing lighting to the city costs $10.7 million annually.
And often when they are fixed, they break down weeks and months later — or thieves steal the high-grade cable for its copper materials.
"It doesn't make me happy when I go into a neighborhood at night," said Chris Brown, the city's chief operation officer, who oversees the Public Lighting department. "We've got an obligation to get it done. In the next couple of years we will see a strong improvement of the lighting of those more dense areas, and that's where we're focused on, and that's what we've got to get done."
Mayor Dave Bing and his administration are considering privatizing the lighting department. DTE, which already provides electricity to the majority of the city's streetlights, has been weighing a possible takeover.
Plans are in the works for the city to prioritize fixing or replacing lights over the next two years in more densely populated areas as part of its Detroit Works program, which focuses on improving services to specific areas of the shrinking city.
"The question is, does the city have resources to really do it, and the answer to that is probably no," Brown said. "And so the issue is, what are your options?"
Although there might be some areas of the city that might not be lit "because nobody lives there," the goal is to fix the lights where Detroiters live, Brown said.
Fighting 'complex problem'
Some residents say they understand the city's lighting problem. Kim Schroeder of Midtown said she and others estimate at least 20 blocks are dark in her area, adding she knows it's a "complex problem."
"It's an incredibly more complex problem than people think, and that's one of the reasons that it hasn't been addressed, because it's huge," said Schroeder, 42. "There's absolutely no simple answer, and it's a huge amount of money to fix."
Schroeder said keeping up with "the theft alone is huge in every major city," and she has empathy for city officials who are struggling to light the city in economically tough and unsafe times.
"Lighting is core safety," Schroeder said. "If I was a police officer or a resident, I wouldn't want to go into a dark block. If I'm a thief or a criminal, I do want to hang out in a dark block."
Police Chief Ralph Godbee said to "lay some of the more systemic crime issues relative to Detroit at the feet of just lighting would be a severe simplification," but he agrees that keeping Detroit lit does help police combat crime.
"Lighting can enhance safety and security not only from a displacement standpoint, but from a perception standpoint," Godbee said. "You feel more comfortable in a well-lit area. It's more difficult for a potential perpetrator to go unnoticed."
Others aren't convinced the mayor and others can truly get a handle on the problem.
Darrell Stewart, 58, who lives in the Boston-Edison neighborhood, said a tour of Detroit found lights are out "long distance, short distance and in some areas where they have supposedly made upgrades, but they're still out."
"I don't understand some of the methods that they are using because they continue to say the same thing over and over," said Stewart, chairman of the Detroit Historical Neighborhood Coalition.
Crews trying to keep up
One of the city's premier neighborhoods, Indian Village boasts 350 mostly large, stately, eclectic homes that house diverse residents. The area is only three streets wide between Jefferson and Mack on the city's east side. But after thieves — in broad daylight and under the cover of darkness — stole every transformer on each pole, the area has...
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