The Lights Are On in Detroit
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DETROIT — Just before the holidays, on a dark street a few blocks from downtown, a group of public officials crowded onto a makeshift stage before a shivering crowd, flipped a big switch — and the last of this city’s 65,000 new streetlights blazed on.
For years, urban decline here was encapsulated in headlines about Detroit’s lights going out. Nowadays, tales of the city’s slow recovery tend to focus on plucky hipsters from Los Angeles or Brooklyn colonizing abandoned spaces, opening pickle companies or tilling little urban agriculture plots. Glossy magazines acclaim Detroit as the next Berlin; never mind that Germany’s reunified capital has always floated on a bed of cushy federal subsidies.
Let’s hope that if anyone writes a history of Detroit’s rejuvenation, a chapter is devoted to the lights returning. Like picking up the trash, fixing potholes and responding to emergencies, these efforts signal that no matter where you live in Detroit, you are no longer forgotten — that government here can finally keep its basic promises.
The city, postbankruptcy, is led by Mike Duggan, a strong mayor. Its most solid indicator of progress may come this year, with the release of census figures, Mr. Duggan told me. After generations of white and black flight, there’s hope the numbers will reveal, for the first time in decades, the population holding steady or even rising.
So far, much news about growth has focused on downtown, where Dan Gilbert, the billionaire owner of Quicken Loans, is a vocal booster, and on Midtown, home to businesses like the luxury brand Shinola. A light rail under construction will soon link the two neighborhoods, doubling down on their redevelopment.
All that said, Detroit is a large city with limited resources. It sprawls across 139 square miles (about twice the size of Brooklyn), a preponderance of which remain blighted and empty, with few near-term prospects for prosperity. I made a pilgrimage to Sister Pie, a cozy corner bakery opened a few years ago by a gifted Brooklyn transplant in the troubled West Village area, where more new shops and restaurants have lately settled. West Village is being advertised as another pocket of resurgence. You sometimes even hear the G word — gentrification — bandied around. But drive a block or so from Sister Pie and you’ll still find street after street of boarded-up houses.
This is where the new lights come in. They’re spread all across town. The project cost $185 million, paid by the city and the state. The Public Lighting Authority of Detroit, backed by the mayor, received a critical assist from the Obama administration: Experts from the Department of Energy advised local officials to swap out the old, costly, broken-down sodium lamps, which vandals had been stripping bare for copper wire.
They recommended LED technology. Investments by the Obama administration in advanced, energy-efficient lighting have driven down costs, making LEDs feasible for a city like Detroit. Three years ago, nearly half the 88,000 streetlights in the city were out of commission. The more potent LED lights allow the authority to replace those 88,000 old fixtures with 65,000 new ones, strong enough for you to read one of those glossy magazines after dark.
The whole thing came in under budget and on time. When was the last time anyone could say that about a major infrastructure project in Detroit? “An example of how good government should work,” as Lorna L. Thomas, chairwoman of the lighting authority, put it at the switch-flipping ceremony.
It’s also an example of how one smart urban-design decision can have ripple effects. Some residents here grumbled about fewer lights. That said, the stronger new ones turn out to save Detroit nearly $3 million in electric bills. They use aluminum wiring, which nobody wants to strip, discouraging crime. The technology even cuts carbon emissions by more than 40,000 tons a year — equivalent to “taking 11,000 cars off of your streets,” Shaun Donovan, Mr. Obama’s director of the Office of Management and Budget, pointed out at the lighting event, as well as “putting more money in the city’s pockets to do more good things.”
Good things like investing in development beyond the downtown-Midtown core. I met with the city’s new planning and housing chiefs, who outlined a bold agenda to target dense areas, like the one around Livernois Avenue, between Seven Mile Road and Eight Mile Road, the city’s former luxury fashion district. Homegrown entrepreneurs like Rufus Bartell, catering to a young, more urban-minded population, are reviving the avenue. Mr. Bartell and his family have opened nearly a dozen businesses along Livernois, including Kuzzo’s Chicken & Waffles, where he and I convened one recent morning over breakfast. The place was mobbed, as usual.
Businesses like Kuzzo’s pretty much had to shut down by dinnertime during the winter when the lights were out, Mr. Bartell told me. “People didn’t want to go out to eat or shop after the sun went down,” he said. He gestured out the window toward a shop across the street. “I own a store that sells furs and leather goods, with a customer base that skews older. Foot traffic almost fell to zero after dark. Since the lights came on, it’s up 15 percent across this neighborhood.”
Back at Sister Pie, I talked with Shannon Smith, 26, another Detroit native, who said he had grown up in Cody Rouge, an area on the northwest side of the city where getting to and from the bus stop as a teenager was a twice-daily nightmare when streetlights failed. He and other schoolchildren all across town waited in the dark for broken-down buses that often didn’t arrive on schedule.
“I was especially vulnerable whenever it snowed, because the city didn’t clear the sidewalks,” Mr. Smith recalled.
City officials told me that since 2014, using federal Department of Transportation funding, Detroit has added 80 buses, hired dozens of drivers and increased ridership by approximately 100,000 trips a week. Buses are critical to bringing together the far-flung areas of newly targeted development. It’s one of the cruel (many here say racist) burdens of life in Detroit that automobile insurance rates for city residents are through the roof; many can’t afford a car. Like the streetlights, buses restore the fabric of the streets and re-establish a base line of normalcy.
I made one last stop, at Louisiana Creole Gumbo, a much-recommended hole-in-the-wall restaurant near downtown. Joe Spencer has owned Louisiana Creole since the early 1980s. It catered to neighborhood workers before drug dealers moved in and the lights went out.
Now the lights are on, Mr. Spencer said, and diners are returning at night. But more important, he said, the lights demonstrate that City Hall followed through on a promise: “Residents stopped trusting government, and without trust people won’t want to settle here or start a business. The mayor said he’d turn the lights back on. He did.”
Among ripple effects, trust may be the most invaluable.
As I said, one smart design move.