If you’ve visited New York City in the past 40 or so years (or have seen a film set here during that period), the chances are that you’re familiar with the city’s unique glow. While proud locals may attribute this twinkle to Manhattan’s own magic, there’s another explanation behind the city’s iconic orange gleam. Across all of New York City’s five boroughs, you’ll find street lamps equipped with high-pressure sodium bulbs. Upon their installation during the 1970s, these bulbs were a less expensive and more efficient alternative to their mercury-vapor predecessors. They also happened to emit a fiery orange light. Embraced by other major U.S. cities, including Chicago, the bulbs were adopted as a New York tradition.
In a world capital like ours, however, tradition can’t get in the way of progress. In 2009, Mayor Michael Bloomberg pioneered an eco- and economy-minded program to replace sodium bulbs with new LED lights in parts of Manhattan. With the program lauded as a success, the mayor’s office planned to broaden the program’s scope to include every last street lamp across Manhattan, Brooklyn, Queens, the Bronx, and Staten Island. Nearly 400,000 lights and countless communities will be affected by this swap, and as you might expect, not everyone is happy about it.
The new LEDs emit a glaring white light significantly sharper than the hazy orange hue to which locals are accustomed. This change has elicited negative responses from many, including internet commenters and residents of Davis, California and Seattle, Washington, which recently made the same switch. In fact, the backlash has been so passionate that back in 2015, The New York Times was prompted to publish an article on the debate. Some common criticisms of the new lights include the difficulty they pose for locals struggling to get some sleep and the cold atmosphere they create.
Unfortunately for this camp, the new lights are here to stay, with more on the way. To date, 60,000 LED bulbs have been installed in Brooklyn, and another 167,000 are expected to appear in New York’s other four boroughs over the next year. The city’s reasoning, whether one agrees with it or not, is sound. LEDs last longer and are more energy-efficient than their sodium predecessors, a point which translates to saved money and lowered greenhouse gas emissions. It is also posited that the new brighter lights help curb crime. While the change is bound to be an adjustment, New Yorkers are sure to see their city through rose—or orange—colored glasses once more.