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City’s new LED lighting program may be putting some communities in the dark

Some neighborhoods on the South Side say lights not bright enough to illuminate sidewalks

One of Chicago’s new LED streetlights.
Kevin Tanaka for the Chicago Sun Times

I’ve got a lot of faith in Mayor Lori Lightfoot and Chicago Police Supt. Eddie Johnson.

But I don’t expect them to quickly solve Chicago’s murder rate that seems to spike whenever it’s a beautiful day.

What I expect is pretty basic.

I want to walk outside of my apartment building and be able to see the two-legged rascals and the four-legged pests before they see me.

As is too often the case, after dark I feel like I should sprint from the parking lot because of poor lighting.

The new LED lighting came up last week at a community meeting that was called by U.S. Rep. Bobby L. Rush, D-Ill., to explore the possibility that the murders of 55 women since 2001, most of them black, could be the work of a serial killer or killers.

“They darken our streets in terms of our sidewalks and it is a public safety concern,” said Donna Hampton-Smith, president of the Washington Park Chamber of Commerce.

“They’ve been up a year and I’ve been on the phone, emailing back and forth with the city and nothing has happened,” she said.

The city’s streetlight modernization program, which included the installation of 100,000 new energy-efficient LED streetlights, is one of the crown jewels of former Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s administration.

The former mayor claimed the city’s taxpayers would save $100 million over the next ten years because of the modernization.

“This is what concerns me. I don’t remember ever having a community input meeting about this,” Hampton-Smith told me.

“They should have done an assessment of these streets. A lot of these communities have not had a lot of development. The pedestrian lights that are called piggyback lights; they are ones on the poles that help to illuminate the sidewalk. The city neglected to do an assessment and put up these light that are not bright enough to illuminate the sidewalks. The old ones did.”

A spokesman for the city’s Department of Transportation acknowledged there’s been a mixed reaction to the LED lighting.

“Some people have said it is not enough light and some people have said it is too much light,” said Mike Claffey, adding that the department would respond to this complaint.

“The LED light spreads light evenly to cover the streets and sidewalks. They are designed to focus the light down and they also cut down on light pollution.”

Tonya Trice, executive director of the South Shore Chamber of Commerce, and a local business owner, agreed that the new lights are a concern, especially along the commercial strip.

“The beams shoot downward and make the corridors a little darker. We would love to have that addressed. That is very important to make our patrons feel safe going in and out, “ she said.

To that end, on Monday, Lightfoot unveiled a new partnership between the Department of Business Affairs and Consumer Protection and the Chicago Police Department designed to make residents feel safer patronizing the small businesses in their neighborhood.

“Small businesses are the lifeblood of our economy, and if we want our neighborhoods to thrive and grow, then we have to ensure we’re supporting our local entrepreneurs while rooting out any bad actors,” Lightfoot said in a press release.

All 22 police districts will have a designated business liaison officer to work “closely” with the district commander and BACP to “address chronic problems.”

The South Shore business district has had two police officers serving as business district liaisons from the Grand Crossing District for a while, according to Trice.

But she expects a more “robust” engagement under the new partnership.

“That person will be meeting with local business owners and collaborating with community organizations like the chamber to make sure the business owners’ voices are heard,” she said.

“I expect them to address their concerns dealing with some of the negative elements, loitering, and perceived crime and work to create a safer business environment.”

We all want to feel safe.

Still, in neighborhoods where tensions over policing tend to run high, “robust” engagement can quickly become complaints about police harassment.

But no one is going to complain about the city’s prompt attention to quality of life issues, like poor lighting.

That’s an easy fix.