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.

But it’s the failure to keep the lights on — a basic service in any city, large or small — that has had the darkest effect on residents trying to survive here.

But that could soon change. Two years ago, Gov. Rick Snyder and the state Legislature created the Detroit Public Lighting Authority to get the lights back on. Backed with an initial $12.5 million in revenue from a city utility tax, the authority was charged with issuing about $210 million in bonds to pay for a new lighting system — a plan that was opposed by many of Detroit’s creditors in the bankruptcy who argued the city should not be borrowing more money when it can’t even pay its bills now. But the federal judge overseeing Detroit’s bankruptcy signed off on issuing an initial $60 million in bonds, agreeing the city had no chance of recovery if it continued to stay in the dark.

Last year, the authority hired Jones — a Detroit native who had previously overseen economic development for Cincinnati and, before that, the state of New Jersey — to oversee efforts to rebuild the lighting system. Though he had worked with troubled cities before — including Camden and Newark, N.J. — Jones wasn’t sure he wanted the job, given Detroit’s history and what was sure to be a massive undertaking.

But during one of his visits, Jones drove back to his old neighborhood on the east side of Detroit, where he found his old street in the dark.

“It was shameful,” Jones said. “Getting back into the old neighborhood and seeing the effect of the economy and the disinvestment and the lights not working, it was overwhelming to me. ... I sat there wondering if I really wanted to do this or not, but it struck me if you are truly a public servant, this is the kind of job you are called to do.”

Street lights, he said, are more than just a fundamental part of living in a city; they have an effect on the “psyche.” “Detroit is a little different from other cities in that we spend a lot of time on our front porch here, and you can tell real quick as a resident how you feel the city is moving,” Jones said. “You can see the trash being picked up. You can see the police responding. You can see children walking to school. But one problem is that people just haven’t been able to see, and that’s had a negative subliminal impact on how people feel about the city.”

In recent months, city workers had been trudging forward, trying to repair an obsolete lighting system for which many parts simply aren’t manufactured anymore. But last month, Jones persuaded the lighting authority to approve a complete overhaul of the system by using funds to install LED light fixtures, which are brighter and cheaper and last longer than regular light bulbs. Many cities, including Los Angeles and New York, are making the switch to LED lights. Under Jones’ plan, Detroit would “relamp” all of its neighborhoods within 18 months — faster than the initial three-year goal set last year.

But the city won’t be turning on all of its lights. Under the current plan, streetlights in the city would be reduced by about 40 percent, in part by removing lights in neighborhoods that are largely empty. On those streets, there would be a light at an intersection, but not the normal two or three down the block.

Two neighborhoods that were designated pilot projects for the new LED lights last fall will be completed this spring — though for some in the city, it won’t be soon enough.

“You eat an elephant one bite at a time,” Jones said, asking for patience. “We want things to work, and we want things to work the right way and that takes time.”

But one unknown is whether the agency will be able to borrow the rest of the estimated $150 million in funds needed to complete the overhaul. While the authority’s funding is technically separate from the city and its bonds are being issued through the state-run Michigan Finance Authority, the funds are set to be paid back with revenue from Detroit’s utility tax. And because the city has filed for bankruptcy, Moody’s Investors Service gave the bond issue a “credit negative” — warning creditors to stay away because they are unlikely to be repaid.

But Jones is hopeful it will work out, though he is quick to acknowledge there are likely to be “learning moments” along the way, particularly as Detroit tries to rebuild against the backdrop of a bankruptcy.

“This is challenging, but it’s an opportunity for greatness,” Jones said. “This city is going to come out of this shining.”

Literally, he hopes.