For want of a streetlight, a city was lost.
Detroit, whose 139 square miles contain 60 percent fewer residents than in 1950, will try to nudge them into a smaller living space by eliminating almost half its streetlights.
As it is, 40 percent of the 88,000 streetlights are broken and the city, whose finances are to be overseen by an appointed board, can't afford to fix them. Mayor Dave Bing's plan would create an authority to borrow $160 million to upgrade and reduce the number of streetlights to 46,000. Maintenance would be contracted out, saving the city $10 million a year.
Other U.S. cities have gone partially dark to save money, among them Colorado Springs; Santa Rosa, California; and Rockford, Illinois. Detroit's plan goes further: It would leave sparsely populated swaths unlit in a community of 713,000 that covers more area than Boston, Buffalo and San Francisco combined. Vacant property and parks account for 37 square miles (96 square kilometers), according to city planners.
"You have to identify those neighborhoods where you want to concentrate your population," said Chris Brown, Detroit's chief operating officer. "We're not going to light distressed areas like we light other areas."
Detroit's dwindling income and property-tax revenue have required residents to endure unreliable buses and strained police services throughout the city. Because streetlights are basic to urban life, deciding what areas to illuminate will reshape the city, said Kirk Cheyfitz, co-founder of a project called Detroit143 -- named for the 139 square miles of land, plus water -- that publicizes neighborhood issues.
It would be convenient and even emotionally satisfying to blame Detroit's destruction on unions, or Democratic administrations, or liberals. Resist that temptation. If all of those were the problem, most of the major cities in the US would look just like Detroit -- battered, empty, and without much hope.
Other cities like Chicago and LA are bad, but nowhere near the basket case that is Detroit. Detroit's biggest problem has been leadership at all levels of society - government, business, education, even religion. There has been corruption, shortsightedness, small mindedness, pettiness, and a kind of moral blindness to decay that was responsible for kicking the can of reform down the road year after year, decade after decade, until there was no more can to kick.
Detroit will not disappear. There will always be people living there. What kind of life they will have is a question without an answer at the moment.