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A brightly lit street means different things to different neighborhoods.
Illustration by Wesley Bedrosian
After you’ve gone to enough community meetings in the District, it doesn’t take you long to figure out what people want more and less of. From Northwest to Southeast, people want more police patrols, more health care, and more snowplows. They want less garbage, less noise, and less traffic.
But, depending on where you are, one item can show up on either list: light.
At neighborhood meetings, Linda Perkins, the mayor’s community-outreach coordinator for Ward 5, hears about crimes committed under cover of night. In the early ’90s, while living in Pittsburgh, Perkins started a campaign to combat the darkness there. To create a stronger feeling of community and to make the streets a little safer, she encouraged people to turn on their porch lights in the evenings.
Now she lives in Ward 5, where the lighting can be hit-or-miss. As she drove around her new neighborhood, she says, “My eyes were immediately drawn to where there were porch lights on.” So earlier this year, building on her Pittsburgh work, she launched the Light Up the Night program. Making the rounds at neighborhood-group meetings, she now urges residents to turn on their lights at night—and to pair off with “porch-light partners,” who will call over to check in if their partners’ lights aren’t on.
Porch by porch, block by block, the plan is to spread the glow through the District, adding private light to public space. The sight of well-lit streets, Perkins says, “raises a question in the minds of anyone who may have any unsavory ideas.”
The lighting of Ward 5, Perkins says, “can be a model for the whole city. . . .If we can get it across the city, it would be fantastic.”
In practice, though, it can be hard to get citizens to brighten up the streets themselves. On a quiet Saturday night along Decatur Place NE, a blocklong street in Ward 5’s North Michigan Park, most of the illumination comes from municipal streetlights. Their yellow glow is strong enough to show the cars parked along the curb and to light the lawns in front of the brick duplexes and triplexes in the neighborhood.
Juanita Cooke, acting chair of the North Michigan Park community group Operation WHEN (We Help Every Neighbor), has been canvassing the area with fliers to promote Perkins’ idea. “Alert!” the handouts say in dark letters in a gold-colored box. Warning of ills such as drug use and loitering, the fliers implore neighbors: “Light up the night. Please turn on your outside/porchlights and call 311 to report any suspicious activity.”
“The more light, the better,” Cooke told me on the phone a few days before. But tonight, more than three-quarters of the buildings on the street have their porch lights off. This includes Cooke’s own duplex, where both front lamps are dark. As I walk up to ring the doorbell, her neighbor’s light pops on.
Many people on the block, Cooke explains, have motion-sensing lights, which come on only when a car goes by or someone walks near the house. Not everyone knows how to set the lights so they stay turned on; Cooke says she threw out the instructions for her own lamp after she bought it.
Still, with the streetlights, “we’re pretty well-lit,” she says, and four or five units do have front lights on. And she maintains her faith in the Light Up the Night initiative.
“I still think it’s a good idea, because at least it makes anyone from the outside know that we are watchful,” Cooke says. “And I hope it sends the message that we’re not just going to stand by and tolerate their invasion.”
Not everyone in the city wants to send a message, though. A brightly lit public street may convey safety and security, but it also conveys that the street is public. A surplus of light means a shortage of privacy.
That tradeoff concerns the folks across town from Decatur Place, on Ashley Terrace in Cleveland Park. Like Decatur Place, Ashley Terrace is a short street, and the buildings are spaced at similar intervals. But these are single-family homes, and the trees around them are thick and full, growing around the power lines. The effect is distinctly suburban.
And so Ashley Terrace dwellers were alarmed earlier this year when the city installed new streetlights, replacing relatively dim white incandescent fixtures with high-pressure sodium ones, which burned bright yellow. It was part of the District’s ongoing effort to switch to more cost-efficient lighting. Economics, though, ran afoul of aesthetics.
In the words of Ashley Terrace resident Bill Adler, the new lights made the street look like “an all-night gas station.” After a flurry of calls and letters from Ashley Terrace, the city darkened the lamps from 100 watts to 70, their lowest possible setting. Now, Adler says, it merely looks like a well-lit crime scene. “Or,” he adds, “if you want to give it a pleasant spin, a shopping-mall parking lot.”
On a Friday night, he points out the differences between the cobra-headed sodium lights on his street and the incandescent semi-globe lights still in use on the adjacent Highland Place. It’s hard to notice any difference at first, but as my eyes adjust, I begin to see things from Adler’s perspective. He points to a white light on Highland, surrounded by tree branches. In its glow, the leaves are a natural green. On Ashley, the foliage takes on a strange brownish color.
And when we stand under one of the new lights and then one of the old, I understand what he meant earlier when he said the new models cast “terrifically crisp shadows.” The shadows of my fingers are softer and blurrier under the old lights. I may be imagining it, but when I compare my white sneakers under the two different types of lights, they seem mellower under the old lamps, harsh and yellow under the new ones.
Cleveland Park has the luxury of worrying about such things. Different neighborhoods, residents say, need different amounts of light. One size, they say repeatedly, does not fit all.
“We don’t need high-crime lights on a half-block-long street,” says Leslie Oberdorfer, another Ashley Terrace resident.
Not that they want to live in total darkness. On this night, in fact, the people of Ashley Terrace have left their porch lights on. They do it every night, Adler says. But the light doesn’t flood the street, the way the city’s lights do. The porch lights are, as Adler said when I first spoke to him, “comfortable, neighborly lights.”
But not all neighborhoods are comfortable, let alone neighborly. A few months after moving to M Street in Shaw in late 1997, Ed Horvath took an aggressive approach to lighting his new surroundings. Concerned about drug crime in the neighborhood, he stationed himself atop the front steps of his Victorian row house, armed with a camera and a pair of 500-watt halogen spotlights. “When it was bright, the drug dealers tended to move to the next block,” he recalls. “It’s kind of like cockroaches—you shine a light on them and [they] scurry to shadows.”
The drug activity tapered off, he says, after the police stepped up their presence in the neighborhood. But shadows remain. On a nighttime tour of his neighborhood’s streets and of Blagden Alley, a branching set of back lanes behind his house, Horvath points out dim patches, which he says will grow dimmer once the trees are in full leaf.
“You don’t have as [many] dark shadows as you will in a couple of weeks,” he says as we walk down N Street. In the summertime, when the growth is the thickest, Horvath says he’s seen people in wheelchairs or pushing strollers move from the darkened sidewalk to the middle of the street, where it’s better lighted.
Just off N Street, we stand in a shadow where a tree’s branches nearly conceal a streetlight. A resident was mugged there last year while returning from an advisory neighborhood commission meeting, Horvath says. Farther down is another streetlight, but much of the illumination on the street comes from lights on private property.
As we make the rounds, however, Horvath comments that several areas are better lighted than he’s seen them in the past. He and his partner, Richard Neidich, often log on to the city’s Web site to report malfunctioning streetlights.
“We say we live in a high-maintenance neighborhood,” Neidich says. “People who live in the suburbs don’t have any idea the amount of responsibility somebody who lives in the city has to take for the area.”
Horvath and Neidich are looking forward to the day the city takes a greater share of lighting responsibilities for the area. From their front stoop, they can see the new Washington
Convention Center rising on its construction site at 900 9th St. NW. Once thousands of conventiongoers start coming through the neighborhood, they figure, the streets will need to be brightly lighted.
And they say they’ll welcome the change, even if it means sacrificing some of the neighborhood’s character. Their 1870s house, they say, doesn’t have to have 1870s lighting.
“You could make this more authentic,” Neidich says, “but we think the street’s safer with the light.” He’s out on their front stoop, with the nearest streetlight shining brightly on the brick facade of their home and their front-lawn garden. The light looks harsh on the architectural detail, and Horvath says he has to be careful what he plants in the garden, avoiding plants that need daily stretches of darkness. Some homeowners in D.C. spray-paint over parts of streetlight globes facing their property, they say, but they’re willing to put up with a brighter facade and less horticultural flexibility.
And as he put it during our first conversation, “The good news is: It’s a well-lighted house. The bad news is: It’s a well-lighted house.” CP
Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Illustration by Wesley Bedrosian.