Dennis Persica: Different kind of light brightens street

In my first column for The Advocate, on Oct. 4, 2012, I wrote about how a couple of streetlights in my block hadn’t been working for a few months. Both lights had gone out that summer, one just a few weeks before Hurricane Isaac, the other the direct result of the storm.

But I didn’t mind.

Across the street from my house was a stretch of empty lots where homes had stood before Hurricane Katrina. The malfunctioning streetlights and the absence of buildings created a peaceful, parklike feeling there. The darkness gave me a better view of the night sky when I took my dog out.

A few days after that column ran, an eager assistant to a just-as-eager public official asked for my address so they could get the streetlights fixed. I told her I was happy with things the way they were and that I was certain there were parts of the city that needed decent street lighting more than my quiet and only partially populated block.

In September, the lights came back on anyway. It didn’t really bother me that they’d finally returned. But now I seem to have an embarrassment of riches, because those bulbs were replaced a couple of weeks ago with new light-emitting diode bulbs.

The bulbs throw a white light onto the street, while the older bulbs produced a slightly orange hue. The strangest effect, though, comes from the shadows where the light passes through trees. Since the LED bulbs contain not one but several points of light, the shadows are a crosshatched pattern, as if someone had covered the street with giant waffle fries.

The LED bulbs, which use less energy and are expected to last longer than the bulbs they replace, are being put in all over the city.

I wonder if, decades from now, those who are young today will warmly reminisce with newer generations about what the light “used to be like,” the way older folks now recall when everybody in their neighborhood knew everyone else and nobody locked their doors.

They’ll talk about how the light from the streetlamps used to be orange and warmer, but became a brighter, more efficient white that created shadows that looked like something from a dark graphic novel or the silhouette of some kind of fractal structure.

We can only hope that by the time that era rolls around, the city’s streets will finally all be repaired as well.

Subsidence has always been the bane of New Orleans streets, especially those built in parts of the city outside of the more geologically stable “sliver by the river.” Hurricane Katrina only made things worse, when tons of water from the levee breaks weighed on the streets for weeks after the storm had passed.

Today, signs saying “Fix my streets, I pay my taxes” sprout like toadstools in New Orleans neighborhoods.

Streets — and in many cases the utility infrastructure underneath — are being repaired, but slowly. In many places, motorists are finally seeing smooth, new driving surfaces, with bright lane markings as well as welcome, but sometimes confusing, demarcations for bicycle lanes.

Elsewhere, though, streets are still pretty bad. Even the ones that are in relatively good shape have had the striping worn away, leaving drivers to guess whether their cars are traveling in the correct lane.

It’s frustrating and exasperating, but we put up with it. And maybe we put up with it out of love. After all, the broken, dysfunctional streets remind us that even while we’re installing new high-tech lighting all over town, the city hasn’t yet lost its timeworn character.

Dennis Persica’s email address is dpersica@theadvocate.com.