When we moved into our corner storefront on 31st and Morgan St. in 2015, the night looked very much like it did everywhere in the city. It was a murky expanse of darkness, periodically illuminated by a globe of vivid orange light. Trees were a blurry grey. Figures on the street were silhouettes, their features undefinable. The colors of clothing and cars, even the most vibrant reds and greens, flattened out to a monochromatic spectrum of dark browns. The street’s few neon lights in storefronts dotted this backdrop. Otherwise, the defining light of the street was the rhythm of bright orange globes receding into a single point perspective in the distance. Night in Chicago to us—and to any Chicagoan awake past dusk in the city between the 1970s and 2017—was defined by darkness and the color orange, created by the 270,000 high-pressure sodium vapor streetlights that lined the city’s sidewalks.
It was in this amber, year-round-Halloween darkness that we began The Night Gallery. Our architecture office was previously home to a bar called the Poor Man’s Pub and had a large six-foot by seven-foot window at the street. Facing outwards, we projected film and video works by artists and architects from sunset to sunrise, during the summer months. Our window exhibition attracted passersby in the crepuscular hours. Folks on their way to Maria’s, the bar down the street, sometimes stopped to view the projected videos and animations. On their way home, those bar-goers stopped again as if there was, apparently, no better location—leaned in for a prolonged kiss. (We luckily had a side entrance, leaving folks to their privacy when entanglements advanced.)
By operating The Night Gallery, we came to meet our neighborhood’s nocturnal residents. An older man who did the rounds on a kid’s bike and called himself “the night mayor” to all who would listen. The motorcycle aficionados down the street, drinking beer on their corner stoop till the early hours, their lined-up Harleys glowing gold in the streetlight. A performance artist who wandered, once, down the block clad in a wedding gown costume, singing in an unrecognizable language. Our neighbor in slippers whose bat-like dog always needed one more trip outside. And, similar to nighttime in all cities, the many blurry unidentified denizens—silhouettes, figures, shapes, and movements—going about their business clad in the anonymity of darkness.
In the summer of 2017, Chicago’s orange-clad night ended. Along with 81,000 other streetlights on major arterials on the South and West Sides selected for the first phase of deployment, Chicago’s Department of Transportation replaced our high-pressure sodium vapor streetlights with new, energy-efficient LEDs.1 Projecting $100 million in energy savings over the coming decade, this contemporary lighting infrastructure ended the murky glow that had ruled since the 1970s.2 Old streetlights were replaced with a clean, bright 3000K-temperature glow: a cold, brittle light, strong and sterile enough it seemed to do open-heart surgery on the sidewalk below. There was no warning for the experience that felt as if someone had suddenly “turned the lights on” on our street while we were sleeping.
The Night Gallery felt decimated. Suddenly, our street corner was brighter than the fluorescent-light interior of our office. Cute moody selfies, once taken by visitors at events, turned into harsh passport photos. Not only was the fierce glare of the new LEDs brighter, but they also incorporated what is called a much better Color Rendering Index. In the new LEDs, colors were rendered truer to our experiences of them in the daylight. In short: whereas once our corner might have been a place for falling in love, defined by the blurriness that lets the imagination exceed the rational limitations of the day, it now seemed much more akin to the atmosphere of a hospital bathroom. We planned strategies to shoot out the new LED lamp with a slingshot.
We were not the only ones who hated the transition from orange to white. All across the country, where major cities including New York, Boston, Philadelphia, Detroit, and Los Angeles were also rolling out multimillion-dollar infrastructure upgrades to LED streetlights, folks like us suddenly felt as if their familiar blocks had been transformed into alternate universes. In New York, the effect of the new LED streetlights was described by residents as “a strip mall in outer space” and reminiscent of the Night of the Living Dead. One Brooklyn-based author described his experience: “The tribute to ‘the city that never sleeps’ was meant to celebrate a vibrant cultural night life—not a town of hollow-eyed ‘Walking Dead’ insomniacs.” His neighbor had begun walking the dog at night while wearing sunglasses.3
Chicagoans also expressed their displeasure, calling into news outlets, starting Change.org campaigns, commiserating on Reddit against the atmosphere and brightness of the new LED streetlights. They described the new lights as “a migraine trigger,” “painful and piercing intensity light,” and “environmentally toxic,” while mourning the loss of the “charm in the deeper amber color.”4 Complaints mixed poetry with scientific white papers. Everyday Chicagoans dug deep into the American Medical Association’s recommendations for streetlights against blue-rich high-intensity LED lights, which can affect the production of melatonin, resulting in “excessive sleepiness” because of reduced sleep.5 Many factors are at play: the color temperature, the overall brightness, the CRI, the orientation and lens width. Yet experiential knowledge prevailed: something about the new mix was just off. We couldn’t quite explain it, but under the new LED regime, Chicago’s night just no longer seemed to belong to us.
Curiously, this sense of sudden alienation—a kind of citywide nighttime aphasia—had occurred once before. Before the 1970s, Chicago’s streets were defined by a curious, gas-colored blue light. In 1916, poet Carl Sandburg described night in Chicago as, “The living lighted skyscrapers stand, / Spotting the blue dusk with checkers of yellow, / streamers of smoke and silver, / parallelograms of night-gray watchmen” (emphasis added).6 When this blue-tinged mercury vapor light was replaced by what was called by the Chicago Tribune a “cheerful, bright, gold-colored” sodium halide, residents also became unnerved.7 Chicagoans in the era of mayor Richard J. Daley felt the new orange lights “have given Chicago the eerie, ominous, after-dark look of a concentration camp” (1976), that they were “grotesque and unnecessary,” “the prison yard look” (1978), and “sickening” (1980).8 It seems as if, every thirty years or so, when the city upgrades its streetlights, people suddenly feel viscerally averse to night time in their own city. The amber sodium vapor streetlights were initially described as a “frightening futurism,” seemingly not only transporting folks to a new place but to a new time.
Artificial streetlights construct the city at night, as well as illuminate it. Sunlight, in comparison, which lands relatively democratically across everyone and everything, brings forward colors and shapes with effects beyond our mortal control. Streetlights, on the other hand, shape the city in their own image. In the 1970s, Chicagoans complained that a red dress, worn under the sodium vapor glow, became a murky brown, transformed into another color entirely. For all intents and purposes, if you didn’t wear that dress till dawn—that dress was another color. Take that dress out again today—or jacket, car, building, or skyline—and it is an entirely new look. Our experience of night is a direct function of the chemical composition of streetlight lamps. Beyond the perceptual, behaviors are changed by nighttime lighting. A study from the University of Exeter revealed that predatory beetles, spiders, and other invertebrates were attracted to LED light, impacting the fundamental ecology of grassland food webs.9 Imagine that in different eras at night, different nighttime ecologies emerging under different characteristics of light: different bugs, different animals, different plants thriving or failing over time. These experiential impacts also shape human life. Despite studies going back as far as 1973 showing that brighter streets do not correlate with reduced crime rates, and sometimes are even associated with an increase, brightness correlates with a perceived sense of public safety.10 In the 1970s, city safety was cited as a major concern about street lighting. The orange lights were piloted in Lawndale, on the West Side, as a “crime-fighting tactic” according to a Chicago Magazine article.11 In the recent switch to LEDs, mayor Rahm Emanuel argued that “you can brighten the lights to a very high level” in high-crime areas.12 Other behavioral outcomes are better scientifically proven: light color and brightness have clearly proven to affect sleep cycles.13 As the city shifts to LEDs, perhaps every person stays up ten minutes longer, turns over one more time at night, wakes up a little edgier. As every thirty years, the city’s nighttime lights shift, so does the entire behavior of a city, its mood, and its evening perceptions.
How might a future for Chicago’s streetlights begin to account for atmosphere, mood, and the silky darkness and orange glow we miss so much? A famously nocturnal city, Berlin, for example, in response to these same concerns about the harshness of LED lights, has re-engineered its streetlights to mimic the vintage, romantic glow of gaslight.14 Pragmatic suggestions abound: dimming lights at later hours of night, as is already done in wealthy enclaves like Beverly Hills;15 or calibrating color temperature in response to peoples’ reported experiences in pilot areas. Beyond this—Chicago’s new LEDs are also part of a “smart lighting” system, allowing bulbs to be tracked digitally, live, when they need to be replaced. As LED drivers have the capacity to change their brightness and temperature, could we imagine a fluctuating nocturnal cityscape? Could neighborhoods choose their own atmospheres? Could a block’s streetlight respond to its signage, to its events, to the numbers of people present on the street? Could a light dim or brighten, say, when two people whose faces are close together, experience a simultaneous shared increase in heartbeat? Still, the usual concerns about surveillance and control in the era of “smart city” emerge. Surely, no one has faith that an omnipresent nighttime light controller, human or algorithm, would be able to produce what is most beautiful about the night—surprise, unknown, and mystery.
Maybe the night is personal. Maybe each of us has our own Chicago night, irreconcilable with anyone else’s. We are reminded of author Rebecca Wolff’s response to Joan Didion’s famous farewell New York essay, “Goodbye to All That.”16 For every disillusioned resident leaving the city, New York City is over. Yet, as Wolff reminds us in her scathing text on the fallacies of nostalgia, New York “by attrition it will rise again.” Despite the many exaggerated warnings of the city’s demise by each generation, it nonetheless seems to continue. The bars that shaped the life of one resident in their 20s are gone, but are replaced, over time, with a new bar where a new 20-year-old is shaping their life in turn. The beat on a new song drops, a new overhead light flickers and burns out. Perhaps, like the Chicagoans of the 1970s who hated the new orange light and mourned the loss of the “blue dusk,” we too are victims to our own memories of night in Chicago.
For us, it was in that golden glow that our memories of the city were shaped. Night light, more than anything else, triggers both nostalgia and unexpected possibility at the same time: waiting outside a club with a bunch of strangers to go dance; freezing cold pacing on the L platform, after leaving work late, trying to stay warm as the Chicago Theater lights glimmer in the distance; flagging a cab under the darkness under the rail lines on Wabash Avenue; running to the store, after staying up, to pick up a snack in the harsh glow of the refrigerator light; meeting someone unexpectedly, in the way that people can seem to appear out of nowhere at night; speeding down Lower Wabash, with all the windows down, playing “Death” by White Lies at full volume. Perhaps, while all of these things happened for us in the orange glow, they are happening for a new generation at night in the harsh, crisp wash of the LED-illuminated street. Thirty years from now, when LEDs are replaced by a new technology—a self-regenerating colony of phosphorescent algae, perhaps—Chicagoans will yet again find their city unrecognizable, and then, for better or worse, come to know it again.
This text is part of the ongoing Nocturnal Landscapes: Urban Flows of Global Metropolises initiative. The project provides a comprehensive look at global metropolises at night, combining analysis and observation, questioning the correlation of human activity and light, and revealing hidden aspects of our cities.
This text has been supported by the Barcelona City Council – Institut de Cultura de Barcelona.