This month a new streetlight was installed in Indianapolis, Indiana to surprising fanfare. Indianapolis Mayor Joe Hogsett presided over a ceremony on Nowland Avenue, celebrating the city’s first new streetlight since 1981 and proclaiming that it and another 100 new lights would bring “light to neighborhoods that have been dark for far too long.” Thirty-five years ago Mayor William Hudnut announced a moratorium on new streetlights that was continued by the three subsequent Mayors. Hudnut’s policy was fundamentally a cost-cutting move to decrease the city’s electricity expenses and direct the city’s public works spending toward roads, sidewalks, and concrete infrastructure.
Streetlights were once prosaic objects we never contemplated, but now they have secured the status of things; that is, they have entered our consciousness because they are part of an urban fabric perceived to be malfunctioning. Most of the civic material landscape is utterly outside our consciousness until it fails in literal terms: for instance, a street is not part of our reflection until a pothole mars our motion, or only the absence of a maintained sidewalk compels us to articulate our pedestrian experience. Yet street lights and luminosity itself address a host of breakdowns in cities like Indianapolis that reach well beyond the functional purpose of lighting streets for foot and auto traffic. Light and visibility are viewed and experienced in distinctive social ways across the city: street lights are cast by various observers as symbols of government’s public service obligations, ideological mechanisms of urban surveillance, instruments of persistent racism and class prejudice, nocturnal pollution, and confirmation of apparently rampant criminality.
The contemporary discussion over street lighting and luminosity frames how we see and imagine places, things, and people (compare Mikkel Bille and Tim Flohr SØrenson’s 2007 study of luminosity [PDF]). Streetlights emerge as rhetorical mechanisms that shape how we perceive urban places and darkness, especially their connections to criminality, often along class and color lines. Luminosity aspires to counter a distinctive contemporary anxiety of cities’ criminal darkness that Mayor Hogsett invoked when he proclaimed “No longer will we allow criminals to lurk in the shadows of our great neighborhoods. No longer will we be afraid to walk down the streets at night.” Regardless of whether that fear of public space is accurate or somewhat overstated Mayoral rhetoric, officials like Indianapolis’ Mayor worry that apprehension of urban crime will thwart their ambitions to attract consumers and residents to transformed 21st-century cities.
Public safety advocates routinely presume that light reduces crime, and that perception of urban light has a long heritage. In August, 1900, for example, the Indianapolis Journal lamented that the city was cutting off lights as a cost-cutting move, arguing that “thieves and marauders will hail this cutting off of street lights as a reform for their special benefit.” In 1945 the Indianapolis Recorder lobbied for new streetlights to combat crime near the city’s segregated African-American housing community Lockefield Gardens. The paper argued that the Lockefield neighborhood, “scene of numerous attacks and sluggings, is darker than hades at night, and we marvel at the fact that more women are not attacked in this district.”
The argument that lights inevitably curtail crime is not especially well-supported by research. For example, a 1991 study of London streetlights [PDF] argued that “better street lighting has had little or no effect on crime”; a 2015 study reached similar conclusions that there was no correlation between crime and lighting; and a 2002 study comparing Britain and the US [PDF] reached a more measured conclusion that increased lighting benefitted some neighborhoods. Nevertheless, street lights may have a genuine effect on our imagined sense of security, especially where people are apprehensive of particular public spaces and communities. In an ethnographic study in Utrecht, Jelle Brands, Tim Schwanen and Irina van Aalst found that interview subjects believed light “`normalised’ a site by deterring potential wrongdoers and produced safety in numbers as it meant more intensive use of streets after dark.” It is perhaps irrelevant if that fear of unknown threats concealed in the dark is unfounded; light in some peoples’ imaginations provides a way to anticipate the unknown. Yet what the Utrecht study underscored was that the sense of light’s security was directly linked to a strong notion of “undesired others”; that is, darkness tends to mobilize stereotypes that may lurk in the unlit city. Indianapolis’ Mayor invoked such anxieties of the unseen (yet strategically undefined) Other when he argued that the city’s new streetlights will “let us illuminate that which causes fear and trepidation in our neighborhoods.”
For some neighborhoods, simply successfully securing street lights from city hall may be as consequential as the luminosity they will provide. In 1983 Indianapolis Recorder columnist Donald Carpenter complained that an especially busy stretch of North West Street in the predominately African-American community had no street lights, but “get through one of the historic districts and you’ll find more lights in the alleys than in many black residential communities.” In 1959 a community group had complained about street lighting on that very same stretch of North West Street, when “concern over the increase in robberies, purse grabbings, muggings and other crimes of violence” prompted 22 householders to petition the city to install four street lights. The residents’ request indicated that “it is very dark in this block … and also dangerous because of thieves, drunkards, and robbers. We have little children and teenagers whose lives are in danger whenever they go outside or on the streets after dark.”
The perception that street lights deter crime probably hyperbolizes the power of visibility, but it also simplifies the complex ways that light is experienced in a host of neighborhoods and by a wide range of people. For some neighborhoods in Indianapolis, light has been simply one of many persistently denied civil privileges, and advocacy for streetlights is part of a broader demand for a full range of fundamental city services (e.g., sewer, trash pickup, schools, etc). Streetlights provide a sense of genuine security to many people, and it is not unlikely that streetlights and similar infrastructural maintenance can have a positive galvanizing effect on neighborhood cohesion and pride. Nevertheless, at the same time they risk masking the ways that darkness evokes deep-seated anxieties of the city and our neighbors. That apprehension has some basis in the sober realities of urban criminality; however, it is fueled by xenophobic media and popular cultural caricatures of criminality, the city, and urbanites that Indianapolis’ streetlight campaign risks reproducing.
Stephen Atkins, Sohail Husain and Angele Storey
1991 The Influence of Street Lighting on Crime and Fear of Crime. Crime Prevention Unit Papers, No. 28. Home Office, London.
Mikkel Bille and Tim Flohr SØrenson
2007 An Anthropology of Luminosity: The Agency of Light. Journal of Material Culture 12(3): 263–284.
Jelle Brands, Tim Schwanen and Irina van Aalst
2015 Fear of crime and affective ambiguities in the night-time economy. Urban Studies 52(3) 439–455. (subscription access)
2015 The gloomy city: Rethinking the relationship between light and dark. Urban Studies 52(3): 422-438. (subscription access)
David P. Farrington and Brandon C. Welsh
2002 Effects of improved street lighting on crime: a systematic review. Home Office Research Study No. 251. Home Office, London.
Rebecca Steinbach, Chloe Perkins, Lisa Tompson, Shane Johnson, Ben Armstrong, Judith Green, Chris Grundy, Paul Wilkinson, and Phil Edwards
2015 The effect of reduced street lighting on road casualties and crime in England and Wales: controlled interrupted time series analysis. Journal of epidemiology and community health 69(11): 1118-1124. (open access)
A host of observers repeatedly prophesy the death of the traditional shopping mall, disparaging the regional mall as an archaic spatial, material, and social experience. Somewhat paradoxically, many artists, scholars, and explorers pick over the literal ruins of dead malls in an exercise that in various hands reflectively dissects materiality, transparently bemoans lost youth, or launches another attack on mass consumption. Americans seem quite fascinated by the ruination of the enclosed regional shopping mall, fixated on its hulking material remnants, anxiously monitoring its demise in surviving malls, and acknowledging our boredom with much of the remaining shopping mall landscape.
Those people forecasting the mall’s demise may have felt their pessimism confirmed by last week’s news that the ubiquitous mall chain Claire’s is fighting off bankruptcy (a decline marketers have been watching for over a year). Claire’s decline may indeed confirm malls’ fundamental design liabilities and reflect broad economic and demographic shifts, but our fascination with the declining mall almost certainly risks pronouncing their death sentence too soon. While shifts in consumption and settlement patterns have transformed the contemporary shopping landscape for malls, our sheer boredom with the homogeneity and predictability of malls may be more dangerous to their survival than factors such as our attraction to online shopping or the decline of department stores. Read the rest of this entry
The Wal-Hamdu-Lillah Cemetery hails itself as California’s first Islamic cemetery, a 20-acre mortuary and burial ground established in 1998. The cemetery adheres to Sharia burial rites, which include the ritual washing of the corpse, shrouding of the body, and burial without a casket, usually with little or no burial markers. In January it was confirmed that the more than 1000 people buried in Wal-Hamdu-Lillah include Syed Rizwan Farook and Tashfeen Malik, fundamentalist extremists who killed 14 people in a December 2015 attack in San Bernadino. The two were themselves killed hours after their attack, and it apparently took a week to find an Islamic cemetery that would accept their remains. Local observers soon suspected that the killers were interred in the cemetery in Rosamond, and the Mayor of neighboring Lancaster theatrically directed his City Attorney to prepare legislation that would outlaw the local burial of participants in terrorist acts. The anxiety sparked by the couple’s burial reflects their status among the most repugnant of the dead, people so evil that their physical remains threaten our common values after their death. Such figures’ literal corporeal remains hold a persistent grip on our collective anxiety, their memories firmly planted in heritage discourses even as we attempt to efface their human remains from the landscape. Read the rest of this entry
In the wake of World War II planners, developers, and elected officials spearheaded urban renewal projects that transformed Indianapolis, Indiana’s material landscape and depopulated its central core. Yet over the last 20 years the descendants of those ideologues have been gradually repopulating the Indiana capital city’s core and constructing a historicized landscape on the ruins of the post-renewal city. A relatively similar story could be told in nearly all of postwar America, where urban renewal, the “war on poverty,” and a host of local schemes displaced legions of poor and working-class people. Some creatively re-purposed structures have survived urban renewal in Indianapolis, but much of the near-Westside’s historical landscape has been erased, remains under fire, or only survives in radically new forms. It may be pragmatic (or unavoidable) to accept such a transformation of the historical landscape, but urban renewal’s material effacement of the African-American near-Westside—and the way it is now reconstructed or evoked on the contemporary landscape–inevitably will transform how that heritage is experienced.
The most recent target in Indianapolis is Bethel African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church, which has sat on West Vermont Street since the congregation purchased the lot in 1869. The congregation’s origins in Indianapolis reach to 1836, and the church members were vocal abolition supporters and orchestrated movement through Indianapolis on the Underground Railroad. Bethel was among the African-American city’s most prominent institutions, hosting myriad people for worship, leisure, education, and activism alike: in 1870, residents gathered in the church to celebrate the passing of the 15th Amendment (securing African-American voting rights); in 1904 the first meeting of Indiana’s Federation of Colored Women’s Clubs was held at Bethel; in 1926 African Americans gathered at Bethel to protest a wave of segregation laws reaching from racist neighborhood covenants to high school segregation; and neighborhood residents gathered at Bethel throughout the civil rights movement. Read the rest of this entry
Last week Indianapolis’ tourism agency Visit Indy proposed building a beach along the White River, the waterway that meanders through the heart of Indiana’s capital city. The idea modeled on temporary beaches in Paris (where swimming is not allowed in the Seine) was greeted with some skepticism: today, much of the river has a well-deserved reputation for pollution reaching back over the last century. The river and its urban tributaries have long been fouled by combined sewer overflows, industrial discharges, and upriver farm wastes, and many stretches of the river are inaccessible and unappealing. The Indianapolis press seem unable to imagine the White River as a tourist spot with something akin to a beach, but the river has a rich history of waterfront leisure that has included beaches from Ravenswood and Broad Ripple south to the edges of present-day downtown. Some of the most polluted stretches of the White River also wind through predominately African-American neighborhoods and attest to how segregation shaped African Americans’ experience of the river.
In 1916 the Indianapolis News delivered an alarming report that the White River from Washington Street south “is devoid of natural fish life and birds.” Below the West Washington Street bridge the State Board of Health’s John C. Diggs pronounced the river “a malodorous, septic stream, bearing on its surface floating matter of sewage origin,” concluding that the river “was of the same character as ordinary household sewage.” Two years before he told the American Chemical Society conference that “White River is a comparatively small stream, yet it is used as a source of public water supply and sewage disposal for over 300,000 people.” The 1916 study had already recognized that certain stretches of the river were more polluted than others. At Broad Ripple “the river is free from floating matter or objectionable odor”; at Crow’s Nest just south of Broad Ripple “water is clear, free from floating matter”; and at Emrichsville Bridge (just south of the present-day 16th Street Bridge) the “water is clean but has a slightly weedy odor.” However, the African-American near Westside lay directly north of the industrial pollution wreaked by companies like the Kingan and Company meat packing plant, near which “the surface is a black scum” and “bubbles of gas rise to the surface.” Their neighbors Van Camps were responsible for “pieces of tomatoes…on the surface of the water.” Read the rest of this entry
In 2014 a panel of 25 senior scholars developed an ambitious array of “grand challenges” for archaeology (PDF), the “most important scientific challenges” that the discipline could or should address. Their report published in American Antiquity includes a host of fascinating if astoundingly broad subjects that confidently aspire to structure how archaeologists frame a grand narrative for the archaeological past.
This month archaeology bloggers are examining the “grand challenges” in their own corners of the discipline, many of which are not addressed by the American Antiquity paper (see the hashtag #blogarch). Inevitably such an ambitious project cannot hope to address all the questions that matter to various scholars and public constituencies, so bloggers are suggesting some questions that remain outside the panel’s grand challenges.
Much of the NSF project was greeted by a chorus complaining that the respondents to the paper’s “crowd-sourced” online surveys was demographically problematic: 79% of the respondents were from the United States; two-thirds were age 50 or older; and 62% of the respondents were male. Observers dissatisfied with the grand challenges in the American Antiquity paper argued that the questions reflected the survey respondents and scholars who authored the final “big picture” research questions (compare Diggin’ It and SEAC Underground). Read the rest of this entry
This week artist Bernard Williams’ Talking Wall was installed on Indianapolis’ Cultural Trail. Williams’ work sits along Blackford Street on the IUPUI campus, sandwiched between two parking decks in the midst of what was once an African-American neighborhood. Talking Wall collects a series of symbols representing that African-American heritage, emerging after a long discussion over African-American public art stewarded by the Central Indiana Community Foundation (CICF), Arts Council of Indianapolis (ACI), and the Greater Indianapolis Progress Committee (GIPC). On an otherwise non-descript stretch of the trail the work aspires to illuminate African-American heritage and evoke a historical landscape lost to most people’s memory. For a piece that ambitiously celebrates its aspiration to promote conversation, though, it remains somewhat unclear exactly what sort of discussions a phalanx of planners hope to secure from Talking Wall. Talking Wall emerged from a tortured ethnographic failure of planners to fathom African Americans’ investment in public artistic representations of African America. That failure and the subsequent effort to cast the subsequent Talking Wall community art project as reconciliation and civil discussion may frame a more interesting insight into privilege and the color line than any artwork. Read the rest of this entry
Last week a stirring Civil War memorial in Sterling, Virginia was ridiculed for its commemoration of a Potomac River engagement known as “the river of blood.” The gorgeous riverside site on the Trump National Golf Club was dramatically remodeled after Donald Trump purchased the former Lowes Island Club in 2009. Part of that remodeling included the placement of a war memorial between the 14th and 15th holes commemorating a slaughter of “many great Americans, both of the North and South” whose blood reputedly turned the Potomac crimson. The plaque at the bottom of a flagpole exclaims “It is my great honor to have preserved this important section of the Potomac River!–Donald John Trump.”
Northern Virginia has a rich landscape of Civil War sites, and the memorial to Civil War dead is perhaps earnest, but there is no evidence that such a battle occurred along the shores of the present-day Trump course. When Trump was challenged this month over the details of this otherwise undocumented battle, he replied with characteristic arrogance that the location “was a prime site for river crossings. So, if people are crossing the river, and you happen to be in a civil war, I would say that people were shot—a lot of them.” When pressed that he had manufactured a historical event, Trump dismissed demands for scholarly verification: “Write your story the way you want to write it. You don’t have to talk to anybody. It doesn’t make any difference. But many people were shot. It makes sense.” Faced with scholars’ challenges, Trump protested ““How would they know that? Were they there?” Read the rest of this entry
Our memories and experiences of the holidays are profoundly accented by scent: the fragrance of baking cookies, the pungent scent of pine trees, and the distinctive whiff of our family members’ homes are among many peoples’ strongest sensory memories. Marcel Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past described a rush of “involuntary memory” incited by the scent and taste of a madeleine, painting a picture of sensations that provoke emotionally rich recollections. Countless web pages provide directions for simmering water jars, stove top concoctions, and homemade potpourri that will make your home smell like a Yuletide wonderland. For those of us too impatient to boil star anise, orange slices, and cinnamon sticks, an enormous industry caters to consumers’ sensory imagination, selling us smells that fortify our own clouds of pumpkin pie and turkey: numerous marketers hawk familiar scents like evergreen or vanilla, but many like American mall behemoth Yankee Candle sell fantasy scents, with Angel’s Wings, Cozy by the Fire, Winter Glow, and Cat’s Whiskers among its 2015 holiday fragrances.
Christmas is an especially lucrative time of year to sell scents. In 2012 Yankee Candle’s European Managing Director championed holiday scents when he said “imagine Christmas without all the wonderful scents it comes with, and you’ll understand why home fragrance is so important at this time of year.” Perhaps the most distinctive entrant in the holiday consumer scentscape is the Poo-Pourri toilet spray. Poo-Pourri has sold over 10 million bottles of its’ “before you go” toilet spray, which promises that its natural oils will eliminate your foul bathroom cloud before it becomes part of your Yuletide sensory memories. Poo-Pourri concedes that the fragrances of the holidays inevitably include the unavoidable intestinal impact of Grandma’s butter-laden sweet potatoes. The toilet spray’s elevated holiday sales suggest that at least some of us are self-conscious that our young relatives’ memories of Christmas fragrances will involve pine trees, Yankee Candle vanilla, and the unmistakable post-digestive cloud that will forever be associated with you. Rather than have your friends and family remember you as a malodorous Chewbacca, Poo-Pourri promises you’ll instead be associated with the English garden scent you always left in the holiday potty. Read the rest of this entry