The owner of a southwest Detroit convenience store knew he’d had enough: a customer had walked out into the night and was promptly robbed on the store’s front step.

The owner was upset with vacant buildings and an overstretched police force, but the darkness was most infuriating. The closest streetlight had been out for four years. The next closest had just gone out. Now thieves weren’t so much lurking in the shadows, as simply standing, waiting for victims to literally walk into them.

Social life changes dramatically when cities can’t provide the taken-for-granted basics of urban living—just a street lamp can make all the difference. With no anticipated help from the city, the shop owner adjusted the one thing he could control: he ringed his building with new lights and switched out old bulbs for brighter, more energy efficient models. Light spilled out from his store to the surrounding streets, illuminating the sidewalks, his gravel parking area, and the nearby vacant lots.

Jaye Dee’s Mart stands on the edge of several dark blocks. © David Schalliol.
Jaye Dee’s Mart stands on the edge of several dark blocks. © David Schalliol.

Nearly three years later, his lights are still the only ones illuminating his section of the street, but most nearby businesses have followed the shop owner’s lead and installed their own floodlights. The patchwork effort may not make up for the lack of streetlights, but this private provision of a public good is a start.

In some ways, this dismal situation is no surprise. Detroit has become the symbolic bellwether for the national economy, and its problems have been catalogued in nearly every major newspaper, magazine, and television program. From photography books labeled “ruin porn” to feature films scanning the veneer of the city, a growing body of material tries to make sense of the rise and fall of the Motor City. The coverage may actually be disproportionate. While Detroit’s financial problems are monumental, the coverage obscures what those in many “post-industrial” cities know: Detroit’s problems are shared by dozens of municipalities across the country, and many more around the world.

Going Bankrupt

Wracked by the common maladies of white flight, deindustrialization, and poverty, Detroit hasn’t had much good news in the last several decades. The formal culmination of these problems came when Michigan’s governor appointed attorney Kevyn Orr Detroit’s “emergency manager” in March 2013. While many residents protested the decision as stripping power from the elected city council and Mayor Dave Bing, the governor touted Orr’s experience working with troubled institutions, including with Detroit-connected companies like Chrysler. Among the new manager’s authorities would be the ability to recommend the initiation of bankruptcy proceedings, which he did swiftly.

Orr’s July 2013 Proposal for Creditors outlines many of Detroit’s problems: property tax revenues declined nearly 20% and income taxes 15% over the last five years. The utility users’ excise tax receipts were down 28% over the previous decade. Even the state’s contribution to the city, made through a revenue-sharing agreement, was down more than 30% since 2008. The one “bright” spot in the revenue picture was that wagering taxes were holding, but the emergency manager cautioned they, too, would decline once casinos open in nearby Toledo in 2015.

The fact is, Detroit has accumulated more than $18 billion in debt and unfunded liabilities from regular deficit spending, pension expansion, and debt restructuring deals that only exacerbate the problem. The city is expected to have a “negative cash flow” of nearly $200 million in the next fiscal year, and, if something isn’t done about the debt, the majority of the city’s general fund may be swallowed up by debt service payments within the next few years.

The results have been catastrophic for citizens: Detroit’s violent crime rate is the highest of any major U.S. city, emergency services response times are abysmal, and the city is plagued by 78,000 derelict buildings and another 66,000 derelict lots it doesn’t have the money to clean up or maintain. There have been more than 110,000 fires in the last ten years; approximately 60% were in unoccupied structures. In a tragic irony, even the internationally renowned Heidelberg Project, which reuses derelict houses as art installations by Tyree Guyton, has been the victim of arson this year. As of early December 2013, five of the building installations have been burned, despite efforts by the police; the United States’ Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives; private security; and the fire department. The Heidelberg Project just completed a fundraising initiative to support the installation of permanent security cameras, guards, and solar-powered lights.

Click thumbnails for a slideshow. All images © David Schalliol.

Streetlights and Fear

While policing, abandonment, and public service disruptions have been covered in the media, the story of darkness is relatively new. The emergency manager’s report concluded that approximately 40% of the 88,000 streetlights in Detroit are “not functioning due, in large part, to disrepair and neglect.” The rate is the worst in the nation.

An aging system and long-since burned-out bulbs cause some of the streetlight outages, but a variety of other factors are in play. Windstorms have been particularly problematic for the system, which still often relies on above ground lines. Trees haven’t been trimmed, so gusts of wind regularly break branches and cause localized power outages. Illegal scrap metal collectors run rampant, stripping valuable wiring from abandoned buildings and utilities. One recent, high-profile case even involved the state-controlled lights flanking Interstate 94. Thieves posing as utility workers parked their trucks near the newly updated lighting system and stole thousands of dollars of copper wiring in the middle of the day. Elsewhere, others simply break the streetlights for fun or to remain in the dark.

While the state will have to deal with its own losses, the city’s declining revenues mean that that Department of Public Lighting is astonishingly underfunded, unable to address even basic complaints. Reporter and media personality Charlie LeDuff famously visited the department’s facilities, describing one substation as “so old, it reminds one of Dr. Frankenstein’s laboratory” and the main office as looking “like a neutron bomb went off in 1959.” He was incredulous to learn that fewer than ten employees are responsible for maintaining Detroit’s lights.

With so few service personnel, a common refrain heard is that the city doesn’t respond. The city’s data support their concerns: there was a backlog of nearly 3,300 complaints regarding streetlight outages in April 2013. One southwest Detroit “party store” owner lamented, “There’s a system from the city to put in a request, but I hate dealing with anybody down there. They don’t do nothin’.” Lengthy delays feel like inaction, whether generated by resource scarcity, ambivalence, negligence, or incompetence. As a result, many residents look to their neighbors or other informal channels to address the problem.

These concerns might simply generate local community action and a vote of “no confidence” in city government if it weren’t for another factor: the relationship between fear of crime and the darkness.

Even when crime is at its worst, it is not omnipresent—but residents know darkness comes every night. A middle-aged north side resident lamented, “I know a lot of people who don’t come out once it gets dark because there aren’t enough lights outside. They try to get stuff done during the day. But that’s also related to all of the crime in the city. And the dark just makes it worse.” Seasonal differences and the shift to Standard Time produce greater problems: “We have more worries about light in the wintertime than in the summer, ‘cause in the summer it’s light out until 9, 9:30, but in the winter months it gets dark at 4:30 and is pitch black at 5:00. People start to worry.”

The darkness is particularly hard on those who don’t have cars or can’t afford the gas to drive. A store owner along an active stretch of Livernois Avenue relayed, “Their problem is getting to the store … they’re worried about people could stalk them. If they’re coming from a subdivision, there are absolutely no lights. Eventually they get to the main streets, there are a little more lights, but not enough.” A resident who works in the Woodbridge neighborhood near Wayne State University agreed: “I like it lit up at night time. I can see. I don’t like nobody coming up behind me, nobody I can’t see…. You can’t see nothing in the dark.”

For many Detroit residents, particularly dark places have become associated with criminal activity. Although detailed study of the night is surprisingly underdeveloped, a general fear of the night is assumed or supported in most urban research and even built into the General Social Survey. Criminologists Brandon Welsh and David Farrington demonstrate convincingly that street lighting does reduce crime – not just by deterring criminals at night, but by increasing community pride and informal control during the day. But there is reason to believe the experience of Detroit (and cities in its position) may be even more pronounced. In Detroit, not only does a general sense of concern rest over the night, but the assumption that emergency services will arrive “too late, if ever” undermines even the weakest elements of the social contract. The crux of the situation may be how individuals react to the urban night without confidence in local government.

It is established that fear of crime transforms communities, but how they are transformed is based on community characteristics. Since economist Albert Hirschman’s Exit, Voice and Loyalty, urban scholars have looked at the processes that influence whether residents will leave a neighborhood or remain when confronted with a problem. If they remain, will they attempt to influence the situation? Or will they simply be neglectful, identifying a problem but doing nothing? Characteristics that influence community members’ responses are varied. Some research locates the decision to stay and fight around semi-structural factors like access to financial and organizational resources. Here, the capacity to mobilize a broad range of institutional resources is instrumental to addressing community problems. Other research links the decision to an individual’s perception of the social situation. Residents are more willing to engage if they believe neighbors might share an interest in responding to the problem or if they think the neighborhood is improving.

Clearly, Detroit’s population decline (the city has lost more than 1.1 million residents since its peak in 1950) demonstrates that the dominant decision has been to leave. But will those who choose to remain fight to improve Detroit or just let the problems fester? What influences their decision? Store and homeowners who install lights express elements of a “voice,” although this is a relatively low cost action that may only reveal a limited engagement with their community.

We can learn more by looking to the select sections of the city that are experiencing the first population growth in years. While most of the city’s neighborhoods suffer from the darkness, the growing places tend to be those relatively protected from it.

The relatively affluent downtown has become the subject of countless news stories. Its lauded resurgence has been orchestrated by business executives like Quicken Loans’ Dan Gilbert, who has urged employees to move downtown and employed private security forces to circle downtown streets. Executives’ efforts have meant that lights have been upgraded, stabilized, and even augmented in the busiest areas. A somewhat more organic pattern is occurring in other growing areas like the near-southwest Corktown neighborhood and its active Michigan Avenue stretch, as well as in Midtown, a neighborhood associated cultural institutions like the now-threatened Detroit Institute of Arts. A southwest business district raised more than $6 million for streetlight improvements along a major thoroughfare. As even those far from downtown know, “The main reason we put in the lights was two things: one, is for safety … two, they attract attention. When everything else is dark, it calls attention to the store.”

The coupling of individual and group actions throughout the city, alongside the grand public-private redevelopment of downtown, is a stopgap measure. Even before the bankruptcy groundwork was devised, state and local officials were attempting to address the streetlight problem. The Public Lighting Authority of Detroit was created by the state legislature and city council to “develop and implement a plan to improve public lighting in the city of Detroit.” Currently in a pilot stage, the initiative plans to rebuild the entire lighting system over the course of three years, while strategically eliminating approximately half of the city’s current streetlights. Though the total number of active streetlights will remain near current levels, the authority promises its efforts will efficiently and reliably produce more light in the “right” places, including every intersection. In so doing, it is setting the stage for anticipated improvement in other public service provisions that can move forward with the city’s bankruptcy.

A downtown store decorated with holiday lights. © David Schalliol.
A downtown store decorated with holiday lights. © David Schalliol.

So, where is this new entity getting its funding? The Public Lighting Authority of Detroit will take on $210 million in new debt.

Detroit’s bankruptcy proceedings, lighting programs, and other initiatives provide unique opportunities to understand how communities change in response to wholesale structural and environmental changes. They also provide an opportunity to take lessons beyond the city, to ensure they are applied in neighborhoods of all conditions.

Recommended Reading

Robert J. Sampson. 2012. Great American City: Chicago and the Enduring Neighborhood Effect. Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press. A current evaluation of the relationship between neighborhoods and social organization.

Thomas J.  Sugrue. 2005. The Origins of the Urban Crisis: Race and Inequality in Postwar Detroit. [Revised edition.] Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press. A formative history of the causes and consequences of Detroit’s dramatic post-war decline.

Richard Taub, D. Garth Taylor, and Jan D. Dunham. 1984. Paths of Neighborhood Change. Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press. An early contemporary assessment of the factors that influence a neighborhood’s rise or fall.

Brandon P. Welsh and David C. Farrington. 2008. Effects of Improved Street Lighting on Crime.  The Campbell Collaboration: Campbell Systematic Reviews. Evidence about why and how street lighting reduces crime.

David Schalliol is in the sociology program at the University of Chicago. He is currently focusing—academically and artistically—on the processes that facilitate social organization and disorganization in urban context. His latest book is Isolated Building Studies.