Chanting and waving flashlights, about 20 people marched through dimly lighted streets in Hamilton Hill Thursday night, hoping to illuminate city officials on the need for more and brighter lights in their neighborhood.
The Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now organized the event. The Albany-based group has spent the last eight months building a chapter in the community.
“We are hoping to help people feel safe, we are trying to get crime down and we are tired of the way the city is treating people,” said ACORN organizer Chris Franklin.
ACORN member Kevin Charres, who has lived on Paige Street his entire 49 years, said he participated in Thursday night’s event to help the neighborhood. “It’s bad. I am afraid to leave my home at night because of the problem with the lights,” he said.
As he spoke, a streetlight on Mumford Street winked out briefly, then returned with a dull glow. “Everybody. Look at that pole. That is pole No. 1,” a participant said. Others chanted, “We won’t stop the fight until every light is right/bright.”
One other streetlight was not working on Schenectady Street, while those that worked emitted a weak light, leaving large sections of the street in darkness.
“Brighter lights would help people feel more secure,” Charres said.
The event started slowly, with media and politicians outnumbering participants. Lester Freeman, a candidate for the 21st Congressional District seat, which Rep. Michael McNulty, D-Green Island, will vacate next year, was there to shake hands.
Said Freeman, “I’m the only congressional candidate here. That’s because of my urban agenda, which is to fix the lights, fix the potholes and build community centers instead of convention centers. There is federal money earmarked for these things.”
City Councilman Joe Allen said the participants were right to criticize the city about the problem with streetlights. “We are paying for them whether they work or not,” he said.
In the week since ACORN announced it would conduct a protest march, Mayor Brian U. Stratton has reached out to group members, Charres said.
“We got no response before. We made calls and dropped off letterhead. This week, the mayor called us up.”
Stratton was not at the demonstration.
Stratton said he would consider adding more streetlights to brighten the neighborhood. He warned that it could be too costly: $102 a year to add a low-wattage light to the neighborhood and $351 a year for the brightest light, which shines at 400 watts.
That might not sound like much, but it adds up: the city spent $1.658 million on the electricity for all of its streetlights in the last 12 months, Signal Control department head John Coluccio said.
There is another option. The city could privatize the lights, following a system that seems to have been successful on Emmett Street.
Residents have complained for years about the lack of light and long waits for repairs. In 2006, ARISE pushed the issue at a public forum in which City Council representative Barbara Blanchard promised to send the neighborhood coalition a weekly list of the repair requests it had sent to National Grid.
But ARISE organizer Andreas Kriefall said that never happened.
“What happened is, we got all the lights fixed in the three neighborhoods [including Hamilton Hill] we focused on. We pinpointed about 50 of them,” he said. “The lights got fixed this time, but we didn’t get the follow-through.”
He took part of the blame for that.
“We dropped the ball as much as the city did,” he said, explaining that ARISE stopped focusing on the issue when the lights got fixed. “Maybe we can help come up with a permanent solution this time.”
City officials said they report outages to National Grid every day but that the company takes its time in repairing them.
“My understanding is National Grid is the logjam,” Corporation Counsel L. John Van Norden said.
But National Grid spokesman Patrick Stella hotly disputed that, saying the company has received 137 repair requests in the city so far this year and has repaired 130 of them. About 80 percent were fixed within five days, even though some required extensive wiring or post repairs. Simple bulb replacements were almost always completed in a week, he said.
In 2005, Better Neighborhoods Inc. took matters into its own hands by simply installing 20 streetlights.
Workers went up and down Emmett Street looking for residents who would be willing to pay the electricity for a light by their house. The response was overwhelming — residents even dug their own trenches for the wiring while workers installed the posts.
BNI Executive Director Ed August said his solution should be duplicated throughout the area. It cost him just $3,600 to buy and install the lights, using a state urban homeownership assistance grant.
“I’d like to see more of what we did. That makes sense to me,” August said.
Owners can replace the bulbs themselves and are motivated to maintain their light.
“If it was my light, I certainly would take care of it. Pride of ownership, you know?” August said.
He argued that the shorter poles also provide better light because the bulbs aren’t blocked by nearby trees, unlike many of the higher National Grid lights.
More from The Daily Gazette: