Prospect Heights is a gentle New York City neighborhood that boasts brownstones, tenements, many cafés, and spectacular subway access. The tiresome clichés of Brooklyn are on full display here, but they seem secondary to the area’s irrefutable lovelinessartisanal mayonnaise and $40 trucker hats can’t spoil the beauty of an afternoon walk to Prospect Park, mere blocks away. Here, the buildings seem to cozy up as you pass them by; here, people leave bins of free used books out on the sidewalks; here, the barista knows your name, even if you can’t remember hers.
But walking home from work one night last year, I noticed a change in the air. An ominous white light blazed through the bare sycamore branches, its furious glare altogether incongruous with the otherwise soft ethos of the street. What had happened to the old yellow glow? I looked up. Affixed to an arched lamppost were two piercing lights. They iced the night, making it as rude and unambiguous as an ER or a walk-in freezer. Lampposts all down the block had been similarly retrofitted. On each unit, a pair of lights flared like illuminated nostrils on a strange, dark beast. I couldn’t look at them longer than a moment before I had to glance away, an optical scar etched into my retina.
Well, I thought, ever the grump, there goes the neighborhood.
But it wasn’t just my area. In the days and weeks following I saw this same zombie ambiance on the Upper West Side, in downtown Manhattan, even in Central Park. A wholesale re-visualization of New York was quietly taking place, and now that I’d noticed a few of these lights, I saw them all over town. A translucent shield encased some of the new units, making them marginally less offensive, but the lamps still shone with all the warmth of a DMV. I seethed every time I walked by them. How had this happened?
I was fully aware just how disproportionate my fury was to the issue at hand. This was street lighting, not, say, global warming. But the change still felt like a violation, like the robbery of some precious, delicate thing noticed only in its absence. A decade in New York had taught me that a sustaining urban life depended on encounters with everyday grace notesthe shade of a favorite maple; the particular way two buildings framed the afternoon sun; the whiff of lilies wafting from the flower shop. Ephemeral, often unnoticed, and seemingly unimportant, streetlight struck me as one such grace note. These new lamps had changed the song of New York. They’d made it visually dissonant. Something had been lost.
Or had it?
Though the shift to these LEDs (“light-emitting diodes”) felt sudden, years of research, planning, and expectation had preceded their installation. The culmination of this effort came on a clear, chilly October day in 2013. Standing in front of a dinky Department of Transportation banner, Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced that all of New York City’s 250,000 streetlamps would, over the course of the next few years, shine LED light. The exciting technology was “the wave of the future,” he said. The new lights “last forever and they use a lot less energy” than the current crop of high-pressure sodium vapor bulbs.
The pursuit of brighter, fresher street lighting is nothing new. Consider the problem faced by the Common Council of 1697: New York City was establishing itself as a vibrant trade center, yet its nighttime streets were still as dark as the loopy mane on King William of Orange. Frustrated that the impenetrability of the evening was limiting commerce, the Council instructed homeowners to place candles in their windows. Because of “the great Inconveniency that Attends this Citty being A trading place for want of having lights in the Darke time of ye moon in the winter season,” it was declared “that all and Every of the house Keepers within this Citty Shall put out lights in their Windows fronting ye Respective Streets.”
Those unable to parse the Council’s syntax were soon in luck: a revised order decreed that only every seventh home had to provide lighting in the form of an outdoor, stationary lamp. Neighbors were required to help cover the cost.
No matter the Council’s best intentions, candlelight was unreliable, not to mention weak. Enter the oil lamp. Though first invented thousands of years earlier, and used on city streets alongside candles, oil lamps didn’t become brighterand therefore more usefuluntil the mid-eighteenth century, when Benjamin Franklin developed new wick and ventilation systems. Aimé Argand of Geneva made further improvements by introducing a cylindrical glass chimney as well as an even more efficient wick.
But the real revolution was gas lighting.
Picture it: the year is 1824. A tired New Yorker stumbles through Frank-lin Square on his way home from work on the piers. Entering the park, he’s jolted awake by the shocking brightness of the place. This newfangled gas lampa temporary display, he soon discoversis ten times more vivid than the oil lamps he’s accustomed to. He pulls the morning newspaper out of his pocket, andby God!he can actually read it.
Had our friend been a theater-inclined fellow, he might’ve encountered gas lighting earlier. In an 1821 article about new gaslights at the Park Theatre, the New York Evening Post raved, “The color of the light is whiter than that of oil, & more brilliant.” Gas lighting was to be cheaper, scentless, and “free of that degree of smoke which is not only injurious and offensive to the eye, but proceeding from lamps, is nearly ruinous to the light silk dresses of the ladies.” By 1827, gas lamps could be found up and down Broadway.
It was along that same thoroughfare that electric streetlamps first appeared in New York. In 1880, the Brush Illuminating Company installedon its own dimea series of “electric candles” up and down Broadway. Thanks to their overpowering glow and the subsequent arrival of electric advertising, the street became known as “The Great White Way.” These so-called “arc lights” were extremely bright and ultimately cheap to maintain and power. Arc lamps were soon joined by incandescent bulbs, developed by Thomas Edison and others.
Each change in street lighting technology has been motivated largely by the same set of factors. Of particular importance was safetybrighter lights were thought to scare off criminals. As Emerson said, “Gaslight is the best nocturnal police.” It was also the best schoolmarm: one Boston commentator praised streetlights’ ability to stop “scenes of lewdness and debauchery which are so frequently committed with impunity at present.”
Economic considerations were no less important. Thanks to bright, nighttime illumination, a laborer could make (and spend) money across a wide range of hours. Streetlights helped to establish a standard workday, so that no matter the time of year, a laborer could find her way to the factory, even in the dead of night. There were also the financials of the lamps themselves. Though new technology often came with a steep installation price, the cost was usually justified with the promise of forthcoming savings.
Just as significant was the perceived “modernity” of each update. New streetlights were beacons of progress, a reminder of humans’ relentlessly innovative impulses. In 1886 The New York Times noted that “within a comparatively few years the application of electricity to the manifold requirements of our advanced civilization has been wonderfully extended, and in no direction is this so apparent as in electric lighting.”
And then, in the middle of the Kennedy Administration, a thirty-three-year-old scientist at General Electric changed everything. Nick Holonyak, Jr. was tinkering in the lab when, with a little red flash, he completed the world’s first practical light-emitting diode. “It’s a laser! It’s a laser!” came the ecstatic scream of a colleague. “The magic one,” as they called this blip of light, was vastly more efficient than its incandescent counterpart, and ultimately cheap to produce.
Red LEDs soon made their way into elevator buttons, circuit boards, and digital watches. Scientists developed other colors as the years went by, but one shade remained elusive: blue. The color was crucial not so much for its admittedly lovely glow, but for the essential role it would play in creating white (the product of blue, red, and green all mixed together). White, the holy grail of LED illumination, could shine in homes, offices, and streets. It was flexible in a way that other colors weren’t.
The trouble creating blue was born out of the unique properties of LEDs, which shine when an electric current is applied to a semiconductor material. Scientists identified gallium nitride as a promising possibility, but no one could grow crystals of the stuff at the timeit was too finicky. And then, thanks to dogged persistence, some creative thinking, and a little bit of luck, three scientiststwo Japanese, one Japanese-Americanmanaged to create crystals of the compound in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Their operating suspicion had been correct: gallium nitride produced blue light. For their efforts, these innovators were awarded the 2014 Nobel Prize for Physics. Theirs was “an invention of greatest benefit to mankind,” as the award’s criteria put it. White light promised significant electricity savings a boon to the planet and to developing nations that couldn’t afford major energy expenses. Dr. Frances Saunders, President of the Institute of Physics, told the BBC that a full twenty percent of the world’s energy was expended on lighting. (The Swedish Academy put the number at about twenty-five percent.) With “optimal use” of LEDs, that number could drop to four percent.
Such usage reduction could, quite literally, help save the world.
As the city began to install LEDs in various New York neighborhoods, opinion writers and many citizens were largely negative in their appraisal of the change. A local in Windsor Terrace told The New York Times, “It feels like I’m in a strip mall in outer space.” New York Magazine architecture critic Justin Davidson, though ambivalent about sodium vapors, wrote, “We might pause to wonder if we’re painting our nights the way we want them to look. In neighborhoods where the streetlights have already switched over, some residents complain about feeling as though they inhabit a crime scene, an operating room, or an alien-landing pad.” In an especially passionate New York Times op-ed, writer Lionel Shriver called the changeover “mass civic vandalism.”
Of course, not everyone agreed. Reporting from Queens, The New York Times spoke with residents who felt safer around LEDs. “It used to be quieter, scarier, before they changed the lights,” said one person. “I used to be afraid to go out at night with my kids,” said another. “There are a lot of stupid little guys around who like to start stuff. Now it’s different.” Anecdotal reactions to LEDs seemed tied to affluence: richer neighborhoods disliked the lights on aesthetic grounds, while less wealthy areas praised them for their presumed crime-fighting abilities.
But crime statistics related to street lighting are unclear. While some studies have indicated lower crime rates in better lit areas, a New York City Police Department spokesman told The New York Times, “There is no correlation between bright streetlights and lower crime rates. Police officers cannot speculate on hypothetical theories.” There’s also evidence that brighter street lighting only makes people feel safer. To add to the confusion, LEDs are a recent addition to American streets, and it seems plausible that we won’t know their full impact for some time.
In the moment, however, the frustration of lighting-minded New Yorkers was strong enough to convince the city to make a change. The Department of Transportation stopped installing 78-watt LEDs, opting instead for a 72-watt variety. In a written statement from November 2016, a DOT spokesperson told me, “We have received fewer than 300 public complaints since the installation of lower wattage LED lights about a year ago.” The DOT met with the LED manufacturer to address the concerns, and began using different fixtures based on those conversations. The city also changed the color temperature of the lights, switching to “a warmer white for upcoming contracts.”
I was impressed by my fellow citizens’ activism and the responsiveness of the agency, but out on the streets I didn’t notice a damn bit of difference. Walking home every night, I still felt the old fury stirring, still lowered my head to avoid looking my multitudinous enemy in the eye. Whatever changes may or may not have been implemented were, to me, invisible. I was happy to hear about the “warmer white,” but suspicious, too: was this not as a description every bit as oxymoronic as “diet cheeseburger”?
I had to admit, however, that there were places around the city where I’d grown accustomed to LEDs, especially those places where the lights were enclosed in decorative baubles that blunted the edge of the glare. But such lamps were few and far between. I didn’t doubt the city’s good intentions or the veracity of its claims, but the stated drop in brightness was imperceptible to my eye, and the color seemed as brazen as ever. Sure, complaints had gone down, but I wondered if many of my neighbors had simply resigned themselves to a change that felt irreversible.
Seeking the perspective of an artist, I spoke with lighting designer Eric Southern, whose credits include productions at Lincoln Center, Carnegie Hall, and BAM. If the city itself was a stage, what did Southern make of all the LED illumination?
“In theory I’m definitely supportive of it,” he told me, citing the cost, crime, and environmental advantages of the new lights. “But it really does change the face of New York.”
White LEDs, like sunlight, emit and make visible a wide range of color. The old sodium vapor lights, on the other hand, “emanate a very narrow bandwidth of light, so you actually can’t see most colors. If you get robbed and the thief is running away, you can’t even tell the police officer what color jacket they’re wearing.” Indeed, Southern incorporates sodium vapors into his lighting designs when he wants to “destroy all of the color.”
“I’ve actually found it kind of confusing that people are so longing for the sodium vapors,” he said, “They’re not an attractive kind of light.”
Still, Southern found the new LED streetlights to be too bright, and would’ve engineered the changeover differently. “Onstage, if I did the first scene in sodium vapor lights, and then I did a jump cut to a bright white LED, the whole audience would literally close their eyes and recoilit’s just a huge change. It feels abrasive.”
It’s not just the intensity of the lights that makes them offensive. It’s their color, too. Even if a sodium vapor light and a white LED are shining at the same brightness, the LED will feel more intense because white contains the full color spectrum. Emanating a smaller range of color, sodium vapors appear to be dimmer.
As it happens, an enormous amount of research has gone into developing a warm, amber-colored LED that mimics the glow of an incandescent bulb. (You probably have a few of these LEDs in your apartment or house.) To Southern, this warm LED light is the fix. “I think it’s actually quite simple: Just replace the white LEDs with a warm LED. If they had tried to stick with the same color palette, no one would have even noticed.” Southern suspects that the choice of white is deliberate, and probably has to do with crime prevention.
Either way, he said, “The city should have a lighting designer.”
Much as I agreed, I was thrown by Southern’s distaste for sodium vapors. To my eye, they made the streets romantic…but perhaps I was tangled up in my own admittedly relative sense of color preference. Perhaps I loved sodium vapors because they were all I’d ever known. If I’d only ever lived in a New York lit by LEDs, would I have preferred a harsh white instead?
Waiting for a friend one night on the Upper West Side, I found myself on a street that hadn’t yet been updated. Having grown accustomed to white LEDs, I was struck by the intensity of the deep, tangerine aura cast by the sodium vapors. I could grant that there was a kind of tyranny in their insistent monochromaticism. Just as Southern had said, the color on my clothing was rendered mute.
Yet I found that I didn’t mind the erasure. In fact, it was part of what I appreciated about the old lights. Like a layer of snow, the sodium vapors fuzzed the edges of the city, making it gentler and softer. There was a marginal loss of clarity, but that loss was part of what I found appealing. The visual cacophony of trash bags, vomit stains, Twizzler wrappers, and fallen leaves settled into a common palette, and was thus transformed into the kind of rosy city vista that makes peopleme, for onemove here in the first place.
Life in the big city is the accumulation of sights and sounds, of smells and touches and tastes: You open the Post and get an aromatic hit of newsprint; you listen for the three-note melody of the B train pulling out of the Fourth Street station; you press the squishy rubber buttons on the credit card reader at Duane Reade. These little sensory experiences constitute the very fabric of a life. Paying attention to them doesn’t make one nostalgic; observing the details of existence places you firmly in the present, not the past. And neither is such attentiveness necessarily sentimental. Noticing things is not the same as making them mawkish. Being conscious of detail means, rather, that you’re showing up for your own life.
Few facts of the city so influence these details as does lighting, every kind of it: bathroom lighting, subway lighting, office lighting, classroom lighting, wine bar lighting, street lighting. The miracle of light is its singular ability to cast the world in its own image, whether that image is fluorescent or sodium vapor or LED. To choose a light source is to decide what kind of world you want to live in, be it soft, psychedelic, or sexy. We should choose wisely.
When I was growing up, the world I wanted to be in was the world of the theater, and it was onstage that my fascination with light came into focus. In the process of doing a playhigh school, college, or professionalthere usually came a glorious, fraught moment when we left the rehearsal room and moved into the theater to “tech the show”that is, to incorporate technical elements like sets, lights, costumes, and sound. Walking into the stage lights for the first time was always a staggering and ennobling moment. You felt yourself to be fuller, better. Then, as you rehearsed under the lights, you felt the DNA of your character quietly reshuffling; your performance was transformed in mysterious, unspeakable ways. The words were the same, and so were the stage directions, but the light plan set the mood and subtly directed you toward revised emphases, gestures, and feelings.
Street lighting functions in much the same way, quietly pointing us to a certain set of thoughts and behaviors. It sets the emotional landscape for the play that is New York. Is this block welcoming or dangerous? Is that park romantic or aerobic? Look to the lights. They will tell you everything.
Hearing me rant about LEDs, a friend informs me of a sleepy street in Brooklyn Heights that’s illuminated by gaslight. He recommends that I take a look, and a few nights later, I do. Exiting the subway station, I snuggle into my jacket. It is December, and it is cold.
It’s been about a year since I first noticed the LED street lights in my neighborhood. Now I think about them every time I set foot outside after dark. I think about them tonight. How can I not? Even here they scowl down like rabid flamingos, one after another.
A few blocks down, unsure if I’m headed in the right direction, I catch the telltale flicker. There: a small flame inside a four-pane lantern held aloft by a thin black pole. The light throbs at the rate of a dog’s heartbeat. Flick flick flick flick. I smile. Time travel at the speed of gaslight.
I walk closer, and more of the quiet street comes into view. There are some old brick buildings, four and five stories, as well as some bigger ones that don’t feel altogether out of place, despite their newness. The gas lamps, a few of them unlit or broken, border only one side of the street. This doesn’t mean the block is dark. Three LED lamps are positioned amongst the vintage streetlights. No matter the presence of the vintage fixtures, the LEDs are utterly dominant in their relentless, icy claim. Here, their effect is to make the gaslight look sad, almost comical, and clearly decorative. It’s too perfect, the way this one street so completely encapsulates some of the opposing forces at play: preservation versus innovation, efficiency versus expense, white versus yellow. Here they are, smashed up against each other in a quiet, luminary war.
I keep walking. I know it’s the height of arrogance to foist one’s own taste onto another, but in this moment the matter seems more fact than opinion: these LEDs destroy the intimacy of the street.
Still, I think, meandering further, somewhere between the extremes of LEDs and gas lamps there must be a middle way, one that accounts for both progress and taste. Perhaps the answer lies with the LEDs that shine amber tones. Perhaps shields for the harshest units can help. Perhaps some form of lighting preservation is needed in otherwise historic districts like this one. Or perhaps a greater diversity of lights is called for; what’s right for a small neighborhood isn’t right for a gas station isn’t right for a park. Nor should it be. Variety is the spice of city life.
I’ve arrived at one of the LED lampposts. I look up. Though I still detest its color and brightness, I now understand the light’s game-changing possibilities. Far be it from me to stand opposed to such a monumentally significant innovation. But using a new technology and using it well are two very different things indeed.
I lower my gaze and walk further. Directly off the street is a little gated garden of evergreen trees, ferns, and mangy boxwoods. I approach and wrap my fingers around the black ironwork. This is a “certified wildlife habitat,” says a plaque at about eye levelgrand words for such a humble patch of green and brown.
The garden reminds me of another patch of greenery. In Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables, a French bishop devotes most of his garden to vegetables, but gives one small area over to flower and fruit trees. His servant questions such impracticality:
“Monseigneur, you are always eager to make everything useful, yet here is a useless plot. It would be much better to have salads there than bouquets.”
“Madame Magloire,” the bishop replied, “you are mistaken. The beautiful is as useful as the useful.” He added after a moment’s pause, “Perhaps more so.”
I think of these words as I back away from the garden and retrace my steps. The interplay of shadow beneath my feet is a marvel; the conflicting streetlamps cast shades of semi-darkness onto the sidewalk in a silent, improvised light show.
Of course we must continue to seek out the useful and the innovativedoggedly, passionately. LEDs can be an essential part of that. But we ignore grace notes of beauty at our peril. They are as useful as the useful. Perhaps more so.
Harrison Hill is an MFA student in Columbia's nonfiction writing program.