But First, The Moon: A Tale of the Detroit Sky(line)

The Origins Of Electric Light and Light Pollution In the Motor City

Before the flashing spaceship/casino lights lit up Detroit’s once quaint Corktown neighborhood and beyond, before downtown’s purple lights cast their spell over the city, and before the beams of DTE Park threw spotlights on innocent passersby—there was the moon. In fact, there were many moons. They were electric “moons.”

In Detroit, it’s easy to imagine no street lights because they have been turned off or broken for what seems like decades, but imagine a time of no street lights because they didn’t exist—at least in the form of streetlights we know now. Before electricity, streetlights were street lamps—gas powered and somewhat rare since somebody had to manually light them each evening.

And then – electricity!

When the electric lamp becomes a thing in the late 1800s citizens quickly got on board, but they didn’t quite know how to navigate the situation. To quote Megan Garber, writing for the Atlantic in 2013:

Detroit Light

Detroit Moon, 1890s. Photo courtesy of Library of Congress

“In the early years of electricity — a time when steady illumination was new and expensive and unwieldy –, Americans knew one thing clearly: They wanted light and lots of it, and as quickly as possible, please. What they were less sure of, though, was how they would get that light. A grid of electric lamps, studded throughout towns — a system that mimicked and often repurposed the infrastructure of gas lamps — was the early and obvious method. But street lights required wires, which, when hastily assembled, had an annoying tendency to disentangle and fall onto the streets below. At best, this was an inconvenience, at worst, a deadly danger. Street lamps were also investment-intensive: Towns needed a lot of them to provide the bright light that people found themselves craving. They were also expensive. They took time to install. They meant pockets of bright light punctuated, where the lamps failed to reach, by complementary swaths of darkness.”

The solution? Moons. Many of them.

Because when all else fails, stick to what’s standard, right?

Across America, cities began erecting giant moon towers, to create large swaths of daylight. Sort of like stadium lighting. That never turned off.  While people were elated by their newfound freedom from darkness—imagine someone discovering cocaine for the first time and having the epiphany that they NEVER NEED TO SLEEP AGAIN—animals began dying of exhaustion. Because sleep is something that happens when the sun goes down.

Plus, as Garber points out, where there’s light there is also not light. Broadly lit areas meant contrasting stretches of darkness. Kind of like giant spotlights in downtown which are maybe meant for safety—well-lit areas!—but have the opposite effect: person A is well lit while person B is hiding in the shadows.

Anyway, Detroit. Is determined to be the “best-lighted city in the world.” Again, Garber:

“The man-made heavens made their way to Detroit. Aldermen of the city, Freeberg notes, were eager to swath their city in the grandeur that would come with being ‘the best lighted in the world.’ They contracted with the Brush Company to erect 70 light towers around the city, each one massive and measuring at least 150 feet in height. Brush, recognizing the publicity that could come with lighting the world’s best-lighted city, offered to install the mini-moons at no cost to Detroit — and, to sweeten the deal, promised to charge the city the same rate for electricity that it was already paying for gas. The arrangement was a business transaction with celestial overtones: Brush promised Detroit and its citizens not just the awe of cities that still toiled in the dark, but ‘a light equal to first-class moonlight.'”

Whatever happened to the moons? Who knows! But next time you find yourself cursing the purple sky downtown, we ask you to contemplate the following:

Animals dying from exhaustion. It could be worse.

Maybe there should be an (enforced) ordinance against light pollution.

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