By Anna Daniels
“Emerald said there are $26 million in unfunded streetlights [in City Heights]. She called for a survey of existing lights to identify dark spots. She wants to then cross reference that information with police reports to see where new lights could deter crime.” SpeakCityHeights 1/13
There isn’t any mystery as to why residents expect to have streetlights in their respective communities. It’s important to be able to see where you are walking at night; streetlights are an essential element of crime deterrence; and they contribute to our perceptions of personal safety.
City Heights is a transit dependent community and residents don’t tend to work bankers hours. Many of my neighbors go to work while it is still dark or return home when it is dark. Many of these commuting workers are women working in the hospitality and food service industries or providing in home personal care.
This is also a community that sustains elevated incidents of assault, robbery and break-ins. City Heights should be one of the best lit neighborhoods in the City of San Diego simply on the basis of need and yet it is unfunded $26 million for streetlights.
The City of San Diego does not get a free pass on this issue because of the economy. City Heights was starved of streetlights twenty five years ago when I moved here and it is still starved of that critical infrastructure investment. The real story here has little to do with the economy.
Good economic times have come and gone and too many parts of City Heights are still in the dark. Residents of City Heights deserve an accounting for why that is. It isn’t as though residents here don’t care. We have never ceased advocating for streetlights. City Height’s Capital Improvement List for FY-14 includes streetlights.
The Battle of the Bug Lights
In the early 1990’s a small group of residents in my Teralta neighborhood banded together to contest the use of low sodium lights in the area and also to advocate for mid-block streetlights. Low sodium lights are no longer used and it is worth noting that these lights reduced any color normally discernible at night to the same muddy grey.
That meant that when you called the police to report a break-in of a car in front of your house, you described a car that was grey and a grey perp who was wearing grey clothes. We were told by the City that these bug lights were the only option.
Except they weren’t the only option. The Gas Lamp district downtown was being developed and that area had high pressure sodium lighting that did not reduce everything to a monotone grey. Sweet. We wanted that.
Neighbor Mary Laiuppa, music teacher by day and Teralta troubadour by night, composed a series of songs for us. We sang under the streetlights in the neighborhood. We weren’t permitted to sing at the City Council hearing on the issue, but we passed out the lyrics before we provided our testimony.
“There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy…”
There was unanticipated resistance. San Diego State’s astronomy department was against the use of high pressure sodium because of the impact of light pollution on the Mt Palomar Observatory. We sure didn’t see that one coming.
The astronomy department’s position would have had credibility with us if they were just as strongly pushing back against the light pollution created by the business community and governmental entities. Take a look at the billboards you pass at night. Are the lights mounted on the top of the billboard facing down, or at the bottom of the billboard shining up?
I called the two billboard companies that advertise in City Heights–Gannet and Outdoor Advertising. They defended the use of the upward shining lights because they provided the clear illumination that their customers expected.
Pearson Ford had a car lot that took up a city block on El Cajon Blvd. The lot was lit up like a circus after the business closed and the lights shot straight up into the night sky all night long as a crime deterrent.
San Diego State itself did not follow their own requirement for the use of low sodium, opting for high sodium instead on the campus parking lots, as did the City of San Diego in its own maintenance yards.
I contacted the City of Tucson, which had the most comprehensive municipal ordinances regarding light pollution in the country at the time– they too have an observatory. Businesses and governmental entities did not receive an automatic variance. They didn’t receive any variance. All lights were shielded and pointed down instead of up. This seemed like a reasonable approach to light pollution and it got no traction here.
It was too easy to pick the dark skies fight in poor communities with crime issues and cast the debate as the Astronomers v the Mud People. The City was not about to take on the business community and public entities were not about to re-think their own hypocrisy and some areas like the Gas Lamp ended up being more equal in the lighting debate. This is how poor communities get screwed– the essential discussion about social justice and equity is never considered.
A compromise was eventually hammered out. Communities south of 8 would have high sodium streetlights. It was the end of low sodium bug lights in City Heights, but there remained the problem of the lack of mid block streetlights. Our group asked the City what was necessary to get these lights. We were provided petitions and covered a four block area to get the sign off for mid block lights and authorization by property owners to permit a pass through on their property of electrical lines to the streetlight.
The majority of City Heights property owners don’t live in City Heights. This is a rental community. Property owners, if you can find them, live all over the country. We passed around our petitions and tried to identify an actual home owner about mid-block who would authorize the pass through.
The City lost our petitions, and no, we didn’t make copies of the originals. Naivete comes at a high cost in this community. So we passed around the petitions all over again. And waited. That was around 1992.
I can’t remember exactly when a mid-block streetlight appeared on 45th street. I would say around 2002.
That was a ten year wait. In the interim, we approached the City Heights CDC for assistance and to expand the advocacy to other areas that also needed streetlights. Board member John Stump presented the idea that we should pursue an additional approach. “Light the Heights” was born.
The CHCDC applied for CDBG funds during that same time period (1993) and bought dusk to dawn lights that could be installed directly on resident’s homes and roof lines of apartments. The installation was free and residents were asked to maintain the lights in return and pay for the electricity. Over four hundred of these lights were installed, and Frank Gormlie who worked for the CHCDC at the time oversaw the project.
It was a remarkable effort which did more than provide partial illumination into the public right of way in high crime areas. Property owners were also asked to paint out graffiti, repair broken windows and remove trash and debris as part of the agreement. And the project also used local electricians for the installation.
Twenty years later, the City Heights Town Council is currently initiating an “adopt-a-light” program to put solar powered flood lights wherever there are dark spaces in the community.
At a recent City Heights Area Planning Committee, Matthew Hervey of Price Charities discussed and described a proposal to fund and install eight street lights in areas that are dark and that are noted for nuisances and crimes. The total cost is expected to be $80,000, and the City has agreed to pay for electricity and maintenance.
Philanthropic and citizen efforts are laudatory, but it begs the question why City Heights is still underfunded $26 million in streetlights. Since that time in the early 90’s when residents and businesses organized around the streetlight issue, our representation on the City Council changed from John Hartley to Christine Kehoe to Toni Atkins to Todd Gloria to Marti Emerald today.
In that same period of time, Susan Golding was mayor, then Jerry Sanders and now it’s Bob Filner. The lack of streetlights in City Heights is rooted in the inability or unwillingness of elected representatives throughout the city and over a period of many years to articulate an argument for fairness and equity in how and where public infrastructure investments are made.
It is time to have that discussion now. The economy can not be used as an argument for shared sacrifice when there are such disproportionate impacts on low income communities. It should be cast into the heap with all the other past arguments which have been so successful in keeping us in the dark.
Anna Daniels was a past president and board member of the City Heights Community Development Corporation