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. Read the rest of this entry