The symbolism of light and the lighting of spaces have existed in human building projects for thousands of years, from the lighthouse of Alexandria to Seattle’s Space Needle. What many of these majestic structures seem to declare is: We are here. We are not just existing, but thriving.
Philadelphia is building an enormous light system itself. An $8.7 million “improvement initiative” fund is helping build 41 new light towers that will stretch along Broad Street from Hamilton Street to Glenwood Avenue. Philly.com names architecture firm Bohlin Cywinski Jackson as the leading designers. They are being managed by the Avenue North Renaissance community organization, which is a recently formed conglomerate of community leaders from North Philadelphia.
It seems that all of Philadelphia is experiencing a Renaissance. With its recreational parks, like the beautiful Spruce Street Harbor Park and the desperately needed Dilworth Park, along with the distinct experiences available, think: the Tall Ships Festival and many pop-up beer gardens, Philly is getting hipper by the day. This, combined with media coverage like the New York Times naming Philadelphia in its 2014 list of the Top 3 international destinations, is set to launch Philly out of its traditional underdog status into a cultural, cosmopolitan metropolis.
Many people are excited about the lights project, including the Avenue North Renaissance group, which was formed during the Avenue of the Arts 20th anniversary in 2014. The group said they were inspired to change the sharp contrast of South Broad Street, with their many theaters and glittering restaurants, to North Broad’s empty buildings and underutilized spaces.
According to philly.com, City Council President Darrell L. Clarke said during a press conference in 2014, “On North Broad Street, we’ve been saying for a little while that there needs to be some new direction. This is different than [South Broad]. There is going to be a different focus.”
These are fine words, as North Philadelphia is home to many beautiful historical locations, like the Divine Lorraine Hotel and the many historic mansions that stretch to Strawberry Mansion and Germantown. Many citizens, however, are concerned the funds for the light tower project may be misappropriated.
During a press conference Aug. 27, Mayor Michael Nutter explained the funding for the “improvement initiative” came from a mix of state, federal and city money. Like the light projects of old, Nutter says part of their purpose is to send “the appropriate signal that North Broad Street, we are here, and we are here in a big way.” This message, though, doesn’t come from the community the lights will brighten.
The top comment on phillymag.com comes from a reader who says: “These 41 light poles will cost $8,700,000 , or a little over $212,000 each. Wow! Imagine what that money would buy for those under-funded schools. Lighting??! Really?!”
Although I believe the reader misunderstood the exact appropriation of funds, it may represent an underlying opinion that there are more pressing matters in Philadelphia. To some who consider the absolute crisis of the Philadelphia schools constantly closing or having funding cut, it may seem unfair.
Another top comment reads “Brighter or whiter?” questioning exactly what message Nutter and the team behind the lights is trying to send.
A group of students in one of my classes commented on the new light fixtures, which will profoundly impact both Temple’s presence and appearance, remarking, that the light sends a message:
“We can see you [referring to the local residents]. We are watching what you do,” said Erica McGloin, a freshman visual studies major.
Her mention of students’ presence in surrounding neighborhoods gets at the point and relays the message through a different meaning as students continue to take spaces formerly owned for years by the same community members.
Although Nutter has seemed excited about the physical brightness of the so-called “light towers,” chief engineer of the project Darin Gatti, speaking to CBS Local, insisted their purpose is mostly decorative: “It’s not meant to light the street. It’s an architectural lighting, so it’s reflective.” He also added that the city is adding trees and landscaping to the corridor wherever there is space available. All in all, he stated that the streetscape project will cost about $11 million.
It may be reflective light, but the 50 foot masts will undeniably brighten the area. I spoke with Davis Thal, a senior film major, near the 7-11 on Diamond Street and where a string of robberies took place over the summer. Thal used to live near Diamond Street near Broad. Undeterred by the crimes, Thal, said “Wait—isn’t Broad Street already the lightest street in the area? And traffic will be terrible during construction.”
The architectural firm insists that to minimize delays, construction will mostly take place during evenings and weekends, but it definitely poses a threat to commuters, as well as those who rely on bus transportation.
If the lights’ aim is to make our part of Broad street more attractive, then I hope the project achieves that. If, though, the project does send the message that we are here, unabashedly and trying to “whiten up” the neighborhood, the money really is better spent elsewhere.
Grace Meredith can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.