Atlantic Cities

A City Forced to Turn Out the Lights

A City Forced to Turn Out the Lights
Flickr user Orin Zebest, under a Creative Commons license

The lights are going out in Highland Park, Michigan. About 1,400 streetlights in the small city will be removed by the end of the month, leaving its streets in the dark.

Highland Park, a community of about 11,000 that’s almost completely surrounded by the city of Detroit, has been unable to come up with the money to keep its streetlights running. After years of unpaid bills totaling more than $4 million, the local utility, DTE Energy, decided to pluck the bulbs, The Detroit News reports

The move is the result of a settlement between the city and DTE, which will repossess the streetlights but also add 200 new lights to certain corners and intersections. It’s a compromise that will cut the city’s bill from $62,000 a month to about $15,000.

But some locals are worried that the removal of the lights will turn the city’s streets into a target for crime.

"After they took the street light from in front of my business, someone climbed onto my roof and stole an air conditioning unit," said Bobby Hargrove, owner of Hargrove Machinery Sales on Oakland Avenue, who also claims a police officer asked him for money to beef up his protection. "I feel like I'm being punished — I've always paid my bills on time, but they took the street light anyway."

Highland Park Mayor Hubert Yopp insists that crime has not increased since the lights were removed.

"I had the police chief work up the crime stats, and found that most of our burglaries are taking place during the daylight hours," Yopp said.

So there may be crime, but it’s not happening because the lights are out – or at least that’s the official line. But the local school district reports that three schools were broken into right after streetlights were removed. DTE added some new lights in those areas, but others still remain in the dark.

Other cities have already taken similar measures. The city of Rockford, Illinois, recently began the removal of 2,400 streetlights, a move that is expected to save the city $500,000 a year. In early 2010, Colorado Springs turned off between 8,000 and 10,000 streetlights around the city. The city also removed garbage cans from 128 of the city’s parks, though those annual cost savings were only about $60,000 compared to the $1.2 million from the streetlight plan.

As cities face continued fiscal troubles, this isn't the last we're likely to see of this sort of drastic cost-cutting: the dark financial straits cities face mirrored by their darkened streets.

Nate Berg is a freelance reporter and a former staff writer for The Atlantic Cities. He lives in Los Angeles. All posts »

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