By Petula Dvorak
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, May 1, 2008
They lie awake for hours, squeezing their eyes shut, putting pillows over their heads and trying to close the louvered blinds tighter. They rearrange their rooms -- even their homes -- and spend hundreds of dollars on room-darkening shades.
Some furtively climb ladders to coat the bright streetlights outside their homes with a cloud of black spray paint, hoping to eclipse the glare.
One woman said the fancy new street lamps outside her apartment window are so bright that a recent dinner guest donned sunglasses before tucking into his pasta.
As neighborhoods across the District get lighting upgrades, residents increasingly are crying foul. New fixtures meant to fit a neighborhood's historic aesthetic and the introduction of energy-efficient bulbs have been causing sleepless nights from Georgetown to Penn Quarter.
"These lights are not practical for residential neighborhoods," Maryann Puglisi said of the streetlights erected in December outside her Dupont Circle building. They are beautiful, arching pendants that resemble a long bishop's crook with a fluted, ornamental base. "If you look out my window, it hurts. The globe of light just pierces your eyes."
Neighborhoods periodically get lighting upgrades, sometimes at the request of residents or because aging electrical systems need to be replaced. Other changes are made to evoke the city's history, like the rows of "Washington globes," wrought-iron sentries holding aloft glass spheres along Georgetown's quaint streets, on the grand stretch of Pennsylvania Avenue downtown and in other historic areas.
Upgrading the city's 67,000 lights is being done on a piecemeal basis. Rebuilding each streetlight -- with a new duct, wiring, manhole, pole, hardware, bulb and globe -- could cost up to $25,000, said Karyn LeBlanc, spokeswoman for the D.C. Department of Transportation.
When giant glass globes and decorative lampposts first graced the cobblestone streets of yesteryear, the light source was a small gas flame.
Today, white-hot 150-watt bulbs burn in the similarly styled light fixtures. The high-pressure sodium lights found throughout most of the city are the most energy-efficient, cost-effective and long-lasting product, LeBlanc said. But inside the old-time glass globes, their light spills beyond the sidewalk, up to the sky -- and into the bedroom.
In some cases, when residents have complained about too-bright lights, engineers found that the neighborhood had simply grown used to the soft glow of a dirty, dying light and are shocked at how bright a new bulb can be, LeBlanc said.
"People like the Washington globe. It's an old, historic look. The problem is, the Washington globe shines right into the home," said D.C. Council member Jim Graham (D-Ward 1). "I've had neighborhoods that lobbied and lobbied and lobbied for the Washington globes and got them, then hated them."
The problem of light spillage was addressed across America in the 1950s, when the sleek design of the "cobra light" made its debut. Looking much like the namesake's head, the cobra lights stream light downward from their aluminum casings.
But when they appear in a leafy neighborhood, the light shines on the treetops rather than on the sidewalk or parked cars. When neighbors want something they consider a little more charming or safe, the cobra lights are often replaced with the Washington globes.
A glance across the city shows that residents often take matters into their own hands. Wherever the Washington globes sit atop their $5,000 lampposts near homes, inevitably there are rows of the lights with half the globe spray-painted to block the illumination. Along P Street NW near Logan Circle, on dozens of blocks in Georgetown and in Penn Quarter, the quaint lights have been vandalized by insomniacs with paint cans in hand. Or, in the case of one Georgetown orb, strips of duct tape.
City engineers are working to find a solution, including adding an internal shade to the lights. In rare cases, DDOT has spray-painted the globes themselves, LeBlanc said. But that has not stopped the upending of lives.
"I have one of these bright lights across the street from my bedroom, and since it was installed last fall, I have had insomnia problems," said Virginia Jarrett, who has lived in her Chevy Chase neighborhood for about 60 years. "When I take my dogs out at night, I sit on my front steps and it's like daylight. The light gives me a headache. It was never like this, in all my years here."
A larger, more global issue is at play, said Richard Berg, a retired astronomer who has endured bright lights in his Chevy Chase neighborhood for years. In his back yard is a homemade observatory, complete with retractable roof. The light pollution that comes from the orbs that splash light in every direction is his biggest distraction.
"I'm dismayed by the wasteful amount of energy that's used to illuminate the sky, the sides of buildings and the second-floor windows in this residential neighborhood," Berg said. "I believe that Washington, D.C., could get by adequately with half the number of streetlights that exist today, especially if they were properly shielded."
There's even a group, the International Dark-Sky Association, that helps cities fight light pollution with its list of approved, shielded streetlights.
Council member Mary M. Cheh (D-Ward 3) is working on a measure to reduce the city's light pollution by, for example, mandating the types of lights that can be installed and restricting the hours the lights can be on. It was spurred by her memories of skies in places including Africa, where millions of stars glow brilliantly, stars that are perpetually outshined by the burning, bright bulbs of Washington.