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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The gloom and doom expressed here buys into the fallacy that darkness equals more crime. This has never been proven, and its possible the opposite is actually true. Please show us or cite the study that even comes close to proving that darkness causes more crime. Streetlights have traditionally been pushed by the utilities to use the "spinning reserve" (electricity made at night is seldom used, but production must be maintained throughout the night). The cities have bought into the fear of the dark, and required developers to install streetlights, even when they don't make sense. The cities are then required to maintain the fixtures and pay for the electricity. Its a huge win for the utility and a big lose for the city. Streetlights are in most cases just plain not needed. They also contribute to light pollution, visual clutter pollution, and a whole infrastructure (wires and ducts and meters) that serves very little purpose. Millions, perhaps billions of people get along just fine with out streetlights each and every night.

Impressed at the way Marketplace handled corrected this mistake(listing Detroit's population as 12 million as opposed to two million, as noted in the previous comment). I called Mitchell Hartman, the correspondent, to alert him to Kai's error about 10 minutes into the show, and sent an email to the show's contact form. Long story short, apparently Kai caught the error, did a do-over for the next broadcast and the staff updated the web audio and added a text correction. And Marketplace's Gina Delvac responded to my email thanking me for the heads up and explaining their fix. All things considered, a great little case study in smart corrections on the fly.

Yikes...going from 12 million to 713 thousand would be disaster. But alas...only two million to 713 thous like the web story says but Kye inflated it to 12 million when he read the story. We still live, learn, and work here and sometimes its good and sometimes is bad. Like everywhere else.

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