Detroit in the dark: How the city's streetlights went out and the plan to get them back on
DETROIT — Grand Boulevard used to be one of the most stately streets in the Motor City — a sweeping thoroughfare that circled what was once a thriving part of the inner city.
The Boulevard, as it was sometimes known, was where General Motors opened its first headquarters and Berry Gordy founded Motown Records. It was also home to some of Detroit’s most beautiful neighborhoods, where the city’s early residents built massive art deco homes befitting what was once a prestigious address.
But decades later, a drive down Grand Boulevard is a different story — especially at night. While the homes are still there — some divided into apartments and others just empty — the towering streetlights that city planners installed to light what they viewed as a major gateway in central Detroit are mostly dark. And some have been for years.
The result is a somewhat eerie experience, where oftentimes the only illumination on the street comes from traffic lights or a glowing front porch. On some more desolate stretches, passing cars use their bright beams to light streets that are mostly empty. Residents who might otherwise be out and about have chosen to stay in, wary of what they might run into in the dark.
“I stopped going to church at night,” a woman named Adina, who declined to give her last name, said as she hurried home from a convenience store just before sundown on a recent Tuesday evening. People had been robbed, and burglaries were up. “You just don’t feel safe,” she explained.
It’s a problem all over Detroit, where officials estimate at least half of the city’s 88,000 streetlights are broken. Aside from the abandoned buildings that dot the cityscape, the dark lights are the most visible evidence of the financial problems that sent Detroit into bankruptcy last summer seeking relief from an estimated $18 billion in debt. As the lights went out, the city couldn’t afford to turn them back on and keep them on.
The Detroit Public Lighting Department, the underfunded and understaffed entity in charge of fixing the streetlamps, has been in “constant triage” for years, officials say, trying to mend a lighting system that, in some areas, is so old it has to be manually switched on at night.
And that’s only where the lights do still work. In many areas, it’s not just a problem of a bulb being burned out. Along Grand Boulevard and other major streets, many of the lights don’t work because thieves have stolen the copper wiring that connects the light to the electrical system. Furthermore, about 20 percent of the city’s streetlights run on circuits that are designed like old strings of Christmas lights — meaning that if one light goes out, a few blocks go out.
“Detroit is an old city, and we are running on a system that is so archaic it’s actually mind-blowing at times,” said Odis Jones, head of the Detroit Public Lighting Authority, a state-created group working with the city to get the lights back on.
To hear city workers tell it, it has been almost a war to keep the lights on in Detroit. As recently as December, repair workers would rewire a light — only to find it broken again the next day because thieves had again stolen the copper wiring. In some neighborhoods, they would return to find newly installed bulbs shot out — apparently in an effort by criminals who use the darkened streets to prey on victims or strip stolen cars.
Add to that staffing problems at the lighting department, which currently has just 85 workers, compared with the 500 it had about two decades ago. They are in charge of a system first built in the 1800s that hasn’t been updated in nearly 40 years. While other major cities monitor their streetlamps with computers, Detroit’s streetlights are tracked on a giant wall map marked with colored pushpins that dates to the 1950s.
Until recently, fewer than 10 repair workers had been on the streets full time, fixing lights across Detroit’s 140 square miles. And in November, those workers were sharing just one truck to get around the city, according to a report by the local Fox affiliate. The others were broken down.
The situation is a startling view into the many challenges that Detroit faces, but it’s not the only one. Police on average take nearly an hour to respond to serious calls. The fire department is saddled with old equipment and overwhelmed as it deals with arson blazes among the city’s estimated 78,000 abandoned buildings. And the city’s retirees are on edge, worried that their pensions might be cut as Detroit grapples with how to pay off its massive debts.