Opinion
Dec 12. 2011

Detroit lights, an essay by Cécile & Antonio (guest bloggers)

by Hélène

Cécile Combelle and Antonio Di Bacco, two young French architects based in Montreal and Paris, are our first guest bloggers. We met them in Detroit this summer as they were finishing a study on The US suburban light panorama, from the fringes of LA to Detroit (funded by EDF and CLU foundations). We loved listening to their stories, so here is some on Detroit! You could also be our next guest blogger! Email us at info@detroitjetaime.com.

Detroit nights are half myth and reality. Our own wanderings after sunset in the D took us to explore its limits, both physical and felt. « Everything we imagine on a city before going there is usually far from reality ». Joseph has been living in Corktown for 4 years. He often walks, day and night, to meet his friends or go to a bar without any fear. « There is a lot of imagination and fantasies when it comes to Detroit, especially after dark. Of course, stats are there but it’s a vicious circle, people don’t go out because they are afraid, so there is no one on the streets, which in turn reinforces the feeling of insecurity». The lack of street light is one of Detroiters’ biggest issues. The city department in charge of public lighting can no longer take care of the 88 000 plus lights Detroit has. Ageing equipment, vandalism, the lack of resources switched 15 to 20 % of the lights off, up to 50 % on some blocks. A short walk around any neighborhood is enough to realize figures are not lying. Elisabeth and Sam, two urban planners working on community programs in Detroit told us that dysfunctional lights are the most frequent complaints among residents. Lights are there but they don’t work, sometimes for kilometers (dozens of feet), they have been out of order for months. As a result, pedestrians and drivers alike experience a visual discontinuity and physical discomfort. After dusk, no one wants to remain in the darkness. Detroit is passed by quickly. Those who rely on public transportation have to wait long minutes (and sometimes hours), standing in a semi-darkness at the bus stop. Their only source of light: cars’ light. The passer-by’s eye is outraged at first but get used to it. Detroiters too. Do they have a choice? If we dare cruising residential districts at night, random dots happen to light up the darkness. These are porch lights switched on by some residents to fill the gap and indicate a presence. As we reach one of Detroit’s main avenues such as Woodward, our eye is drawn to some other dots: Detroit counts more than 800 liquor stores. Scattered throughout in the city with a surprising regularity, they make up for public light, along with the neons of non-stop gas stations. These are strange guides in the dark of Detroit’s nights, where people meet and tensions are consequently unavoidable. A phenomenon well reflected in the feature short movie (and soon to come, longer movie): Detroit Unleaded by Rola Nashef. The contrast with the suburbs is obvious too at night. Woodward continuing after 8 mile is glittering past Detroit city limit while it is shockingly lackluster within 8 mile. Light shapes territories. Half light erases some of them. But not everyone sees this shortage as a handicap, so tells one the characters of the documentary film Detroit, wild city (film de repérage, 23’43): «it would have been July 14th 2003, (…) the power went out. And at first we thought: ok, in a couple of hours it will be back on. But the power went out in New York City, in a lot of Ohio, all of the West Coast, and we were like, this is a bigger picture. And it really didn’t seem to disrupt life here much (…). The factories were darker and quieter (…). I think Detroit was probably better equipped to handle that sort of situations because of that mentality. Let’s say in New York City, where everybody lives in big tall highrises (…) that’s more a bit of a problem than if you live in a big old house in the middle of a green field in Detroit! I guess it’s good to keep that in mind to be prepared for that because it’s gonna happen sooner or later: less technology in our lives, we’ll transition away from it».In the meantime, the people of Detroit will keep their porchlight on, till late in the night…

Cécile (text in French) and Antonio (pictures). Translation : Detroit je t’aime.

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