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In Detroit, half the street lights could go dark

Street lamp in downtown Detroit. The mayor's plan would stop illuminating blighted neighborhoods, and spend more to light the rest.

Kai Ryssdal: Fans of gallows humor and veterans of failing companies will recognize this. The sign, often handwritten, that says: Will the last person out of -- whatever failing company it is -- please turn off the lights?

That could wind up being literally true for Detroit. The city is deep in debt; it's got a state-appointed board managing its finances, so it's gotta cut services it can't afford. Services that it can't afford in part because it's a city built for two million people that's now home to just over 713,000.

So street lights could be a luxury Detroit can't completely afford. Marketplace's Mitchell Hartman reports.


Mitchell Hartman: The city’s Democratic mayor has floated a proposal to turn off half the city’s street lights. The idea is to do it in neighborhoods that are already blighted and mostly vacant.

State legislation is about to be introduced to pay for upgrading and operating the lights that would be left on. And that’s important, because nearly half the city’s street lights are already busted.

Jeff Horner teaches urban planning at Wayne State University. He was just talking to a student who bikes to school.

Jeff Horner: And she said, ‘Some nights I go home after dark, and I know I shouldn’t be doing it.’ And I said, ‘No, you shouldn’t be doing that.’ Because the city can be a dangerous place, especially when there are no lights.

And the city’s plan means there will likely be more of those areas in the future.

Bill Mitchell is co-founder of a neighborhood news website called Detroit143.org.

Bill Mitchell: You’re looking at approaching people who may be living in the only occupied house on their block, and persuading them that their neighborhood really is dying and that they need to move.

Now, you might expect businesses to bridle at the city cutting back on something as basic as street lights. It could mean having to close early, and a higher risk of break-ins.

Kathy Wendler is president of the Southwest Detroit Business Association.

Kathy Wendler: My sense is that highly populated areas that do have concentrations of business to serve, are not likely to lose lighting.

Wendler, a Detroit native, admits it’s hard to recruit businesses and professionals to move into Detroit right now. Crime, poverty and impending darkness don’t help. But she still insists Detroit is worth a second look. She says housing is incredibly affordable, and some neighborhoods are still very vibrant.

I’m Mitchell Hartman for Marketplace.


CORRECTION: The audio and text of this story have been updated to correctly identify the city as being originally built for two million people.

About the author

Mitchell Hartman is the senior reporter for Marketplace’s Entrepreneurship Desk and also covers employment.

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