The Blackout of 2003: Inconvenience or Inspiration?

(by Justine Mary Smith) When the lights went down during the Blackout of 2003 in Detroit, the Midtown neighborhood sprang to life with creativity, conversation, and children singing. By the second night of the blackout, I fell asleep on a mattress on my living room floor to the sounds of children’s voices singing in unison at one of the many neighborhood parties nearby….

But let me back up to the beginning and describe how, like a sleeping giant, neighbors once wary of each other stretched, took a few tentative steps into the darkness, and joined one another in fun and song, how the air smelled fresh after two days of rest from ozone and industrial pollution, and how people slept like babies under the cover of darkness.

Midtown is a diverse neighborhood made up of students, university employees, homeless people, artists, young professionals, the working poor, and retirees. The neighborhood borders Wayne State University and Detroit’s cultural center area, comprising theaters, museums, and some trendy restaurants and bars. Pre-World-War-I low-rise apartment buildings, liquor stores, and poorly-kept grocery stores surround a smattering of renovated lofts and new townhouses. Many of the buildings have bars on the garden level windows, and businesses are shuttered with metal security gates at night. Metal spiked fences, electronic alarm systems, and floodlights seem to appear with increasing frequency. As in many city neighborhoods, a wariness toward strangers is common.

By Thursday afternoon, the first day of the blackout, I heard on my transistor radio that the fire department had stood by helplessly as two home fires raged in the nearby suburb of Highland Park. With no water power, they were unable to still the flames. One of my neighbors speculated that the criminals would be out in full force that evening, taking advantage of the dark to do their dirty work. I feared fires raging uncontrollably, burning the many abandoned structures that plagued the city and spreading to residences.

By now, everyone knows that a huge power blackout affected the Great Lakes Region from Central Michigan, through much of Ontario and northern Ohio, and extending to New York City. The Detroit metro area suffered the longest, with most City of Detroit residents doing without electricity, street lights, traffic lights, retail, and gasoline from late Thursday afternoon on August 14 until the morning of Saturday August 16.

That first night, I joined one of the many impromptu parties that sprang up on the front lawn of a low-rise apartment building. A young woman brought out a guitar and played some ballads. We laughed and talked, then someone mentioned that without the harsh glare of the streetlights, we might be able to see thousands of stars in the sky, a sight that is rarely seen in most metropolitan areas because of the relentless spotlights, streetlights, and automobile headlights, as well as security lights around parking lots and businesses.

It often happens that in an attempt to deter crime, ever higher wattage bulbs are used in public lights, casting an unflattering glare on a neighborhood already struggling to improve its grim appearance. The lighting around businesses and the numerous parking lots is even more garish, resulting in a prison yard appearance, perhaps to hold on to the ever-dwindling population.

On most weekdays, workers and students from the university and cultural center area visit the trendy restaurants by car, parking in guarded lots. In the evenings well-dressed suburbanites dine there before attending theater and symphony.

During the blackout, with all but the small neighborhood beer-and-groceries closed, the well-heeled were no where to be seen. The population seemed to drop by two-thirds. The quiet on the street was offset by the remaining residents, who–tentatively on the first night, and then with more confidence–emerged outdoors. The city noises that I had become accustomed to–car alarms, people shouting, cars constantly on the move, the whirring of air conditioners–fell silent, allowing for a more restful sleep. I noticed that while the air didn’t exactly smell sweet, some of the putrid odor was gone.

The next morning, out for a walk, I ran into friends and neighbors mostly pleased with what had happened the night before, relieved that nothing “bad” had happened in the city and telling stories of spontaneous parties by candlelight in the alleys behind some apartment buildings. Several mentioned being able to see so many stars at night. One man out on his roller blades said that people were free to live their lives, instead of watching other people live theirs on television.

Whenever I tuned in to network radio, I had the feeling that if I was a visitor from another planet, I would guess that the most important value to American culture is convenience. The networks hyped stories of people having to walk or being without air conditioning for a couple of days. I lost interest after a while, since what was being talked about on the radio had so little to do with what I was experiencing in my neighborhood.

The second evening, I walked to a neighborhood party two blocks away on the sidewalk in front of one of the few bars that had remained open. Several people set up grills, and everyone brought food rescued from their dark refrigerators to share before decay set in. A festive atmosphere followed, with cooked polish sausage, bread, various cheeses, and fruits, as well as ice-cooled beer and soft drinks.

As if a neighborhood festival had been planned for months, little groups gathered in front of buildings and small fires shone as grills were fired up for cooking. A chorus of children’s voices filled the air as they sang song after tuneful song, followed by applause from the proud adults.

The NeighborhoodBy 9 am on Saturday, our electricity returned. Stores reopened, traffic returned to normal, and factories fired up again. On the radio, announcements followed one another in a chant-like litany as workers were recalled to the next shift at the auto factories, auto supply companies, and stamping plants. I was reminded that despite the many industrial jobs which have departed overseas, the area still maintains a strong industrial presence. I also knew that this was a last chance to breathe deeply, because the flurry of cars and the whirring of factory machines meant that the air would soon not smell as sweet. On Sunday, the air was positively fresh smelling, aided by a wonderful breeze and cool front from Canada.

For two nights, only people’s voices and crickets were heard, along with the occasional car or transistor radio. When it all started again, it seemed too loud, too frantic, too bright, and too polluted.

When I talked to people I know who lived in the suburbs, a different picture emerged. Most said they were miserable during the black out and didn’t have fun at all. They didn’t have spontaneous parties where they lived. The houses are further apart and many of the neighborhoods don’t have sidewalks. Most of the newer homes in the suburbs have central air while few of the apartments in my neighborhood do. The large bay windows in these older apartment buildings are excellent for allowing in the breeze on a warm summer night.

If this weekend was a preview of what our lives would be like if we use our energy more consciously, I feel hopeful about the future. Of course I don’t want to live in a world totally without electricity or water, but do we really need to shop so much, run our air conditioners when the temps are in the 80’s, watch the news on TV? Our urban lives could be made more pleasant with softer lighting, less driving, and more time spent creating our own fun and socializing with the neighbors we often never see.

Justine Mary Smith

About Contributing

Once upon a time, environmentalists lived in the forests, while the many of the rest of us moved the suburbs to be near the forests. Today we’re on our way back. Living near nature is an attractive notion, but many who tried it found nature soon vanished and they were left isolated. For both environmental and social reasons, living in the suburbs or the forest is not sustainable. Today we know cities are good for people and for forests. We know that the less land each of us occupies, the more space there will be for nature. In a city, we have a smaller footprint. Living in a city isn’t only good for the planet, it’s good for all of us. When home, work, shopping end entertainment are close, it encourages walking and promotes the active lifestyle that keeps us healthy. The New Colonist is about moving in from the suburbs, moving into and reclaiming towns and cities that have been depopulated, and building more housing in healthy cities. It’s about building smarter and closer-in new developments; building transit-oriented, mixed-use developments in new communities, and bringing more transportation options to communities where a car is presently the only option. Sustainable city living–chronicling the return from the suburban diaspora–is the focus of …Move In. City Life is good for you. It’s good for the your health. It’s good for the planet. Eric Miller Richard Risemberg