Austerity in the suburbs: turning off and ripping out the lights in Highland Park, Michigan

As many suburbs face budget shortfalls, some have instituted new measures. While California communities drew attention last year for contracting out services previously provided by the city, the Detroit suburb of Highland Park is trying another option: turning off and ripping out the street lights.

But when the debt-ridden community could no longer afford its monthly electric bill, elected officials not only turned off 1,000 streetlights. They had them ripped out — bulbs, poles and all. Now nightfall cloaks most neighborhoods in inky darkness…

Highland Park’s decision is one of the nation’s most extreme austerity measures, even among the scores of communities that can no longer afford to provide basic services.

Other towns have postponed roadwork, cut back on trash collection and closed libraries, for example. But to people left in the dark night after night, removing streetlights seems more drastic. And unlike many other cutbacks that can easily be reversed, this one appears to be permanent…

The city’s monthly electric bill has been cut by 80 percent. The amount owed DTE Energy goes back about a decade, but utility executives hesitated to turn off the juice…

Most of the 500 streetlights still shining in Highland Park are along major streets and on corners in residential areas. DTE Energy has listed the city’s overdue bill as an uncollectable expense.

It would be interesting to hear what else the community has had to do or has considered in order to lessen the $58 million budget deficit.

While it is certainly a shock to have street lights torn out, I wonder how much of an effect this will actually have. It sounds like lights have been retained at certain places for traffic safety. I vaguely recall reading a piece at The Infrastructurist that suggested street lights on residential streets are there more for nervous residents than actually for reducing crime or improving traffic safety.

The description of Highland Park, losing more than half of its population between 1980 and 2010 plus a 42% poverty rate, suggests that this is an inner-ring suburb. While Detroit is notorious for struggling, many inner-ring suburbs are facing similar issues: once prosperous, the issues facing big cities have moved beyond their boundaries. These suburbs often have limited tax revenues and increasingly poor residents. How can they compete with the big city (if it happens to be at least somewhat thriving) or suburbs further out that have more modern amenities and wealthier populations? This is why people like Myron Orfield suggest that we need more metropolitan revenue sharing in order to help these communities survive and have hope for turning their fortunes around.

Of the suburbs that have had to turn to more drastic measures to close budget shortfalls, how many of them are inner-ring suburbs? Do these places share other characteristics? I would assume many wealthier suburban communities haven’t had to consider such options yet.

0 thoughts on “Austerity in the suburbs: turning off and ripping out the lights in Highland Park, Michigan

  1. Pingback: Turning half the streetlights out in Detroit | Legally Sociable

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