Return to a Darker Age
Alex Majoli/Magnum A New York street aglow after a storm in 2003. Streetlights in many cities are falling victim to budget cuts.
IN the wake of widespread violence during the New York City blackout of 1977, a newspaper columnist quipped that just one flick of a light switch separated civilization from primordial chaos.
Leaving the hyperbole aside, artificial illumination has arguably been the greatest symbol of modern progress. By making nighttime infinitely more inviting, street lighting — gas lamps beginning in the early 1800s followed by electric lights toward the end of the century — drastically expanded the boundaries of everyday life to include hours once shrouded in darkness. Today, any number of metropolitan areas in the United States and abroad, bathed in the glare of neon and mercury vapor, bill themselves as 24-hour cities, open both for business and pleasure.
So it is all the more remarkable that, in what appears to be a spreading trend, dozens of cities and towns across America — from California and Oregon to Maine — are contemplating significantly reducing the number of street lamps to lower their hefty electric bills. In some communities, utility companies have already torn posts from the ground. Faced with several million dollars in unpaid bills, Highland Park, Mich., has lost two-thirds of its lamps, whereas officials in Rockford, Ill., have extinguished as many as 2,300, or 16 percent of all the city’s streetlights.
Municipal officials, mindful of the winter darkness enveloping residential neighborhoods, have vainly tried to relieve public anxiety. Denials that crime rates will rise are met with skepticism by the public, as are programs to encourage homeowners to install private security lamps or to “adopt a light” for a monthly fee. Street lighting is now at risk of being restricted, as it was in earlier ages, to residences and neighborhoods able to afford it.
To be sure, night, our oldest terror, no longer poses the perils, both real and imaginary, that it once did. Before the Industrial Revolution, darkness conjured the worst properties in man, nature and the cosmos — brigands, witches and rapacious beasts were thought to lurk everywhere. “The night is no man’s friend,” warned a French adage.
Our ancestors coped by relying upon locks, weapons and prayer. Dogs were also highly prized — ones, in the words of a 16th-century writer, that were “big, hairy, with a big head, big legs, big loins and a lot of courage.” When treading outdoors, ordinary folk displayed a rough-hewn resourcefulness — traveling by moonlight in small parties, wearing light-colored clothing and avoiding the dead of night (midnight to 3 a.m.), when demons freely prowled. Beginning at an early age, individuals committed to memory an intimate map of their environs, including every ditch, pond and graveyard (a favorite haunt of ghosts).
Darkness, however, was not inevitably a source of foreboding, affording instead unparalleled privacy and personal freedom. Opportunities for behavior forbidden by church and state expanded and intensified. As a consequence, early street lamps provoked sporadic complaints. Emerson observed, “As gas-light is found to be the best nocturnal police, so the universe protects itself by pitiless publicity.”
But there was never any question that 19th-century communities welcomed lamps, which in conjunction with police forces, posed a powerful deterrent to lawlessness. Another benefit lay in the numerous pedestrians drawn by their inviting glow, whose very presence helped to discourage crime.
“As safe and agreeable to walk out in the evening as by day-light,” pronounced a New Yorker in 1853.
Certainly, public anxiety over the recent removal of lamps should not be minimized. No longer are there witches and wolves to fear, but research strongly suggests, as one might expect, the critical value of street lighting as a hindrance to crime and serious accidents. (One reason for the full-scale removal of the metal posts in Highland Park was a fear that they might be stolen.)
Indeed, efforts to eliminate street lighting represent a rare instance in modern history in which a technology of longstanding benefit has been restricted, if not completely discarded.
Although some environmentalists with legitimate concerns about light pollution might welcome their removal, a preferable solution, as most recognize, lies in the utilization of lamps whose light, rather than being diffused into the atmosphere, is concentrated downward to the benefit of motorists and pedestrians. Lamps equipped with solar panels or photocell timers offer alternatives that a few communities are exploring to cut costs. After citizens of Concord, Mass., recently rebelled over the threatened loss of more than 500 lamp posts, the town retrofitted 8,200, rendering them more energy efficient and “dark-sky friendly” at a projected annual savings of nearly $300,000.
Financial costs and public safety, however, are not the only issues. Without the benefit of street lighting, towns and cities, after sunset, will be diminished as communities. Families will be more apt to “cocoon” at home, rather than visit friends or attend sporting and cultural events. And, too, our appreciation for night itself will suffer. Evenings can be best enjoyed if they remain inviting and safe, whether for neighborhood gatherings, walking Fido or gazing at the heavens — all with less chance of losing your wallet or stumbling into a ditch.
A. Roger Ekirch is a professor of history at Virginia Tech and the author of “At Day’s Close: Night in Times Past.”
A version of this op-ed appeared in print on January 8, 2012, on page SR5 of the New York edition with the headline: Return to a Darker Age.