Highland Park, Mich. has a streetlight problem of staggering proportions, but it's an issue that a small group of citizens believe they can remedy.
Faced with $58 million in municipal debt and a $60,000 monthly electric bill it could not pay last year, it decided to physically remove 1,000 of its 1,500 streetlights to help lower utility costs. The decision may have saved the city money, but it also left residents in the dark.
Tired of just accepting a permanent night-time blackout for much of the city, cafe owner A.J. O'Neil banded together with several Highland Park residents to find a solution. They believe the answer to the city's lighting woes lies with crowd-funded solar powered streetlights -- and they're making progress on their vision. The first of these lights was installed Tuesday at 150 Victor St. near the historic backdrop of the United States' first automotive assembly plant -- just in time for Thanksgiving.
The Huffington Post spoke with O'Neil about the technical, environmental and social dimensions of the project.
Huffington Post: Explain what's going on with the streetlight project.
A.J. O'Neil: This started as a vision several months ago. Highland Park had to make an agreement to retire a debt and they did that by having two-third or more of their municipal streetlights actually repossessed by the utility company and taken out so. I realized as I have been doing a lot of business and other things in Highland Park that it was just a just a crying shame -- the dark. It was absolutely awful to see and navigate around in the neighborhood. It's not good for neighborhood safety. It's not good for anybody. So we started a campaign called Soulardarity. It's a three-faceted word of soul, solar and solidarity. We're raising enough to get the first street light in and hopefully 199 after that all over Highland Park.
Tell us a little about the streetlights themselves?
The streetlight is actually state of the art. It's LED, 45 watt, maximum output of lighting. It just does a beautiful job of illuminating a very large path of landscape. It is made virtually entirely by Michigan-made products. What isn't made in Michigan is made here in the U.S.A. It stands 25 feet tall with a composite fiberglass pole and the batteries -- four 115 pound battery tanks -- sit high on top locked in an enclosed compartment. It protects them from the elements and is absolutely virtually theft-proof. The glass itself is rock-throwing vandal retardant. It's a fantastic light.
How long has this type of streetlight been around?
The patent is two years old. The company's been around for a long time. Craig Brumels is my technical assistant and owner of Solar Streetlights out of Holland, Michigan. We co-collaborated on this venture. And we look forward this being a great opportunity.
How much does one of these streetlights cost?
The total cost for a streetlight is going to be around $5,500, when you account for the streetlight, the shipping the installation and the excavation and the backfill. It could go even up from there, if we start getting into municipal permits and requirements. We need to address how the community wants to handle these streetlights, because we're going to get a zero utility bill. ... But they're going to need to be adopted and taken care of and [we'll need] a community fundraising campaign for battery replacement and maintenance and things that go along with running a municipal thing -- unless the municipality wants to grant the utility bill going through their taxpayer dollars. This is just the first step in the overall upkeep of this. There's about a ten-year life of the batteries, but you're talking about $1,100 to replace [it]. We don't want to see that thing go out in ten years.
Why do you think this is an important project for people to know about?
Very simply, it is not just green economy. It makes our town safer. It's not much more simpler than that. ... Highland Park can serve as a prototype for urban lighting needs, a model for the rest of the country. It's totally doable. If we can do it in Highland Park we can do it anywhere.
Who's involved with the project?
Soulardarity started out as very small unpretentious basement talk in the church basement -- Kyle Wohlfert, Jackson Koeppel, Stephanie Edlinger, Lawrence Ray and myself. We basically started this thing down there. (O'Neil operates his cafe in the basement of St. Benedicts church and shares the space with a number of other groups).
How are you funding the project?
We came up with it through an indiegogo program and some of it was privately donated through checks as well. I think its called crowdfunding. It's a relatively new way to make loans or money available for projects that are deemed worthwhile. We submitted a video and you can find that on indiegogo.com/soulardarity. We are almost two-thirds of the way to our goal of $6,250 but we did get the barebones minimum to at least get the streetlight installed. We still have to pay for the costs associated with running the campaign now, but we're confident we'll get it and then some. Any leftover money will go to the next one. We need 200 of them altogether.
Why 200 lights?
That's what the city estimated they needed to fill their lighting needs.
That seems kind of ambitious. How do you think your going to be able to pay for all those streetlights?
From conversations just like this, for one. Highland Park is ground zero at the center of the manufacturing economy that led to the middle class -- that led to everything. I'm not the only one who doesn't want to see Highland Park without proper street lighting during the 100 year celebration of that first assembly line. I can share this story with as many people as I can -- who either made their fortunes or their families in Highland Park -- and hope that some of them will want to subscribe to it. I think it can be done.
Anything else people should know?
You can donate or get involved. Visit soulardarity.com If you'd like to donate. You can find a link on that page.
Why the Motor City makes us grateful. Happy Thanksgiving from HuffPost Detroit!
"I have several friends who are members of the Detroit Party Marching Band. I'm grateful to them every time I'm caught by surprise, hearing those drums and the sound of the horns before I can even see them coming around the corner or darting from a bus. Thank you for reminding me that some of the purest pleasures in life are those that remain unplanned, spontaneous and joyfully wild." -Ashley C. Woods
"As a book lover, I'm very happy to live in the same town as Michigan's largest used book dealer John K. King Books. The bookstore has over 750,000 titles crammed into a four-floor warehouse. Although I never can find the book I come there looking for, I always seem to walk away with something great. Some of my awesome finds have included: a copy of Don Marquis' humorous poetry anthology "Archy & Mehitabel" illustrated by Krazy Kat cartoonist George Herriman, an auction book with high-quality prints by modernist artists like collagist Kurt Schwitters and a fantastic Japanese haiku anthology with cool block prints. The staff there is really friendly -- and I even got a chance to meet the impresario Mr. John King once when I brought in a bunch of old books for trade-in credits. It was a real hoot having him go through my old stuff giving commentary on why or why not he would be taking a particular item. Great fun. Thanks for everything, John King Books!" - David Sands
"Opened earlier this year, Salt and Cedar in Eastern Market is a frenetic, evolving and welcoming space, where founder Megan O'Connell can usually be found running the letterpress in a space full of fascinating art objects. The combination studio, exhibition space and community gathering spot (where I learned to bind a book) to me, embodies some of what's best about Detroit." -Kate Abbey-Lambertz
"I'm grateful for El Barzon because I love seeing the care and kindness that everyone shows me when I go to eat there, from the old man who helps me cross the street to the young high school students waiting tables in their starched button-up shirts. I always come away from a beautiful dinner in Southwest Detroit feeling like whatever I paid to honor Norberto Garcia and his professional family for the work they do is never enough. And, of course, I'm thankful for EL Barzon's calimari tossed with peppers, sopa de mariscos and the carefully hand-pressed and cut ravioli." -Ashley C. Woods
"I always have a blast when I go to the Garden Bowl -- and who isn't grateful for a good time. This bowling alley is America's oldest active bowling alley, sharing space with the Magic Stick, a mecca for rock'n'rollers and other acts. The building is also home to Sgt. Pepperoni's Pizzeria & Deli -- my destination of choice for greasy guilty pizza pleasures." - David Sands
"I'm grateful that Detroit has a vibrant art scene with incredible shows nearly every weekend, anchored by a world-class institution. The Detroit Institute of Arts is where I first fell in love with art -- some of my favorite memories from growing up are making projects during kids' activity days, running through the rainbow tunnel (RIP) and imitating the Degas sculptures' graceful ballet poses. A reproduction of my grandmother's favorite painting, "The Nut Gatherers," hangs in my parents' home, and I was in awe that I could see the original at the museum with the Renoirs. Since childhood, I've found other favorite artists in the museum's collection and traveling exhibitions -- Julie Mehretu's "City Sitings" comes to mind -- and the Prints, Drawing and Photography galleries are one of my favorite spots in the city." -Kate Abbey-Lambertz
"The Motor City's art -- especially its language -- is part of what makes the city great for me. So I can't say enough about the Woodward Line Poetry Series, which started out at the marvelous, and now regrettably defunct, Zeitgeist Gallery. The series is put together by Detroiters James Hart III and Kim Hunter (who was named a Kresge arts fellow earlier this year). It's held once a month at Detroit's Scarab Club and features local poets as well as touring wordslingers from other parts of the county (L.A.'s Will Alexander is pictured here in front of the Scarab Club). At times I've had the honor of participating in and supporting the series. It's fantastic to spend time among those who believe and live the wonders of the word." - David Sands
"I'm so grateful to live in a city that closes down the main artery of the city, Woodward Avenue, for a night that celebrates what makes the holidays special. The music, the art, the food and lights and carriage rides and snow (please let it snow again). They're all so beautiful to me -- but it's the sight of Detroiters of all stripes standing together, caroling through the streets, that really makes me a believer." -Ashley C. Woods
"I've only been involved with the Mercy Education Project for a few short months, but from the moment I encountered the program, I've been grateful that a place like this exists. The southwest Detroit nonprofit to provide tutoring and GED classes for school-aged girls and women, furthering its mission to empower women through education and give them tools to succeed. While it's been great to witness the passion and dedication of the hardworking staff and volunteers, I've been inspired by the ninth-grade girls I've worked with who give up their afternoons to study, motivated to do well in school and acquire tools for success beyond the classroom." -Kate Abbey-Lambertz
"Detroit's take on the corner store is particular to the city. As someone who consumes an embarrassing amount of Diet Coke and Rip Its (the best energy drink, hands down), I'm all-too familiar with the shops that sell snacks, liquor, lotto tickets, cigarettes and all the household essentials -- and grateful that there's several within walking distance of my house. They can be grim places, most notably when I'm getting my a.m. caffeine fix as some are putting together change to buy a pint. But they're also great places to meet Detroiters from all walks of life, where workers often make a point to know their regulars and people chat about the news of the day." -Kate Abbey-Lambertz Flickr photo by JSmith photo.
"This is a thanks to tradition -- the Dally in the Alley. Here's to the musicians, artists, wild youth, old timers eccentrics and out-and-out oddities of the Cass Corridor. Much Appreciation to the North Cass Community Union, which sponsors the free festival and gives the corridor a much-needed homecoming each year." -David Sands
"In some ways, I grew up at Joe Louis Arena, since both of my parents worked there when I was young. I remember playing hide-and-seek with those atrocious red vinyl curtains, living in mortal fear of the dog-sized rats that supposedly haunted the top floor, drinking vats of Shirley Temples and gorging myself on Little Caesar's Pizza. I'm grateful this building still stands, because I still think the design speaks for itself. When it's the third period of a close game, and the first seconds of ACDC's "Hell's Bells" booms out through the sound system, it's so loud and furious and kinetic that the entire arena seems to shake. Talk about home-ice advantage." -Ashley C. Woods
"Spaceband. What can I say to give thanks to this Detroit treasure box? It's wonderfully bizarre Afro-funk band with touches of jazz and a deep infusion of surrealist and Dada wildness. I love running across these folks -- often by accident -- at local festivals and music venues. The costumes, attitudes and moods these good folks bring forth are utterly mind-imploding. I mean that in a good way. Keep it up, Spaceband." -David Sands
"Dear Elmore Leonard. Thank you for having been born and living in Detroit all this time and writing so many books that make me so unbelievably happy. It can happen anywhere, you can be anything anywhere you want and you don't have to leave Detroit for that to happen. You're proof of that. I've got such a huge writer crush on you and my first-edition copy of 'Get Shorty' is one of the best birthday gifts anyone's ever given me. With love," -Ashley C. Woods
"If you haven't yet practiced your moves on the dance floor at this free Woodbridge Pub DJ night, you're missing out. I'm grateful for the soul hits and obscurities DJs spin each week that make Monday something to look forward to." -Kate Abbey-Lambertz
"This is a weird little expanse of Detroit stretching over the I-75 freeway in Southwest Detroit. My gratitude goes out to whoever built it. It's pure fun. I enjoy my sojourns walking and biking over the odd little sculpture, which feels more like a fort or an art experiment gone wrong then a bridge. Skateboarders and others love it too. It's an art treasure and a Detroit original." - David Sands
"I tried to pick a favorite, but it was impossible. From the Detroit Opera House to PJs Lager House, the city (and Hamtramck) is full of amazing venues to see live music of all kinds every night of the week. Classical, jazz, country, noise, electronic, punk, rap, metal, pop -- Detroit music runs the gamut and so does its venues, whether you're most comfortable in a vast club, packed bar, DIY space or historic theater. Music was one of the first reasons I started coming to Detroit on my own from the suburbs in high school, and its still one of my favorite things about the city. Detroit has to have one of the best music scenes in the country, if not the world.. though perhaps I might be a just a little biased." -Kate Abbey-Lambertz