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Illuminating Highland Park, one solar streetlight at a time

Soulardarity streetlight installation

Installing a solar powered streetlight

Soulardarity solar powered streetlight


Nighttime has been especially dark in Highland Park these past three years since officials approved the removal of most of the city's streetlights in a deal to resolve an outstanding utility debt.
 
Responding to the debt-imposed blackout, a grassroots group called Soulardarity had the idea of using solar-powered streetlights to brighten city streets. In 2012, the group raised enough money for a single streetlight -- what they hoped would be the first of 200 lights -- which they erected that November at 150 Victor St. near the site of Henry Ford's historic Highland Park factory.
 
Since 2012, however, the lack of progress installing other lights raised doubts as to whether Soulardarity could achieve its goal of bringing 200 solar lights to the city by 2017. On Sunday, August 17, however, Soulardarity ended its hiatus, installing a new device on 24 Avalon St. at Jacobi Ra Park.
 
Neighborhood resident John Perdue, 60, attended the light installation celebration and is excited about its implications.
 
"All I want is for Highland Park to come back up," says Perdue. "At this block where the lights are out, it's really bad. Basically, [the light] changes it so people can see at night."
 
Like its predecessor, the Avalon light is a 45-watt LED device manufactured by Solar Street Lights USA, a Michigan-based manufacturer. It's taller than the original and mounted on a steel pole, but features the same resilient engineering. The Victor light ran without any maintenance until just last week and was repaired with little fuss.
 
As for the Avalon light's location, it has deep ties to the group. Community activist and Soulardarity Co-director Shamayim Harris, known as Shu, established the park to commemorate the loss of her son, who was killed after being hit by a car nearly seven years ago. She sees the streetlight's presence as transformative.
 
"For this particular neighborhood, it's practical because people feel more safety and security, and it shows anyone can have a light in their neighborhood," she says. "It shows we're self-sufficient, and we can solve our own problems."
 
As Shu suggests, the project's vision extends beyond simple solar power. It points to community cooperatives as a method to manage utilities in financially-challenged cities, a third way beyond municipal control or privatization.
 
After the installation of the Victor streetlight, two of Soulardarity's founders split ways. A.J. O'Neil went on to start the Detroit Bold Coffee brand and Kyle Wohlfort left to pursue a green energy career. Founder and Co-director Jackson Koeppel, however, stuck around, raising money with speaking tours in New York City and restructuring the organization with a greater emphasis on community ownership and control.
 
Soulardarity now makes its decisions with the help of a seven-member advisory board that includes Highland Park's director of Public Works. Free monthly dinners are held at Nandi's Knowledge Café to raise awareness and facilitate planning efforts.
 
"Community dinners are our building blocks," says Koeppel. "The rough idea is to build off the community connections we have right now to build regional councils that represent a geographic area."
 
Soulardarity is currently developing a crowdfunding campaign to buy more lights and help bankroll the cooperative planning process. It's committed to bringing 200 lights to the city by 2017 and plans to have 20 new ones online by the end of next summer.
 
Although he estimates the entire cost of the project at $2.5 million, Koeppel is confident it can be completed.
 
"I'm pretty sure we can do it with the base of support we have now," he says. "The level of support we have from a broad array of people in Highland Park is really impressive."

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David Sands is a Detroit-based freelance writer. He's covered the news forHuffington Post Detroit as an assistant editor and worked as a staff writer for the transportation news site Mode Shift. Follow him on Twitter @dsandsdetroit.
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