by Michael R. Allen
In the early 1960s, St. Louis began switching from shorter single- or double-globe street lights to taller “cobra-head” mercury vapor lights. Apparently, the new lights were not well-received by pedestrians. According to “Plaza Square Street Lights Leave Sidewalks in the Dark”, an article in the October 23, 1960 issue of the St. Louis Globe-Democrat, new lights around the Memorial Plaza area and other parts of the city increased light in the streetways while short-changing sidewalks. The new lights were also at 400 watts, replacing those of 500 watts.
“All agree that under the city’s new street-lighting system, streets in residential areas may be somewhat lighter but sidewalks definitely are darker,” states the article. Concerns raised by the darker sidewalks included increased danger of holdups and low visibility to motorists of pedestrians stepping into the street.
The article quotes acting St. Louis chief electrical engineer Frank M. Kratoville, who boasted that the new lights directed light straight down onto the street instead casting light into all directions. One of those directions, of course, was the sidewalk. However, Kratoville and others at the time were concerned with making lighting responsive to motorized forms of transportation. Unfortunately, the city’s effort ignored the needs of pedestrians at a time where there still was a strong pedestrian culture in the city. Once cannot know how much damage the street light system did to that culture, but years later pedestrian life in the city is greatly diminished.
Almost forty-seven years later, much of this “new” system remains in use in the city. Sidewalks all over remain fairly dark. In some areas, such as on Washington Avenue downtown and Delmar Boulevard near the city limits, recent street lighting has included ample sidewalk illumination. As the city reverses the mistakes of its past, street lighting should be high on the list for improvement.