At night, for long stretches of road on large busy streets and residential ones, it’s completely dark in Southeast Albuquerque’s International District. Residents say not having enough streetlights is an urgent problem, because it leads to hotspots of crime and more vehicles hitting pedestrians. Politicians failed to spend hundreds of thousands of taxpayer dollars for new lights in the area, leaving neighborhoods in the dark.
One out of every five times a vehicle collides with a pedestrian in all of Bernalillo County, it happens in the International District. Reynaluz Juarez is the co-coordinator of the district’s Healthy Communities Coalition. People here have been calling for better lighting for more than a decade.
"We started hearing all this exciting stuff," Juarez said. "People come to different community meetings and announce this wonderful thing that they’ve done for our community. But then, you know, a year or two goes by and nothing has happened."
Local elected officials got $100,000 from the Legislature to add streetlights a few years back, but somehow, less than one-third of it was spent. The money almost had to be returned, but they got an extension and have a new deadline of summer 2020. Since the late ’90s, this happened a few other times. In total, less than one-quarter of the money actually became new streetlights in the area.
"You see development in the communities around us, in Nob Hill and other places," Juarez said. "So it’s like, OK, the will is there to improve built environment, but not here in our community. And so it does, it leaves you to wonder, you know, why are we not valued in that same way?"
This part of Albuquerque is unlike anywhere else in the state. It’s home to the largest number of African American people, one of the biggest urban Native American populations and more Hispanic people than nearly all the neighborhoods immediately around it. It’s called the International District in part because it’s the starting place for refugees and migrants who come to Albuquerque from all over the world. And most people who live here earn much lower incomes than elsewhere in New Mexico.
The city didn’t put up any new lights, aside from a couple associated with the long-delayed Albuquerque Rapid Transit project. Bernalillo County doesn’t usually put lights inside city limits, but managed a handful, spending some of that state money.
Neighbors, meanwhile, uncertain about what was going on with all this money they’d heard about, volunteered and surveyed the area, passed a hat around at a meeting, and installed solar-powered lights in dark spots. They’ve done 24 so far.
County Commissioner Maggie Hart Stebbins stands under one of the county’s lights outside the fence of Emerson Elementary school, where some kids are at recess. She's represented this area for a decade. "From the very beginning of my time on County Commission, in every town hall, every meeting I’ve had with residents of the International District, good lighting has come up as a concern," she said.
KUNM asked the commissioner: Since the residents have felt urgency around the lighting issue for so long, didHart Stebbins think it was frustrating for them to hear there was money allocated that didn't get spent on streetlights—or spent at all?
"Look, nobody’s more frustrated than I am," she said. "If we can expedite this process, we absolutely will. But we need leadership from the city administration, and we need leadership from PNM, and we have not had that."
City Councilor Pat Davis represents part of Southeast Albuquerque including the International District and Nob Hill. He said it comes down to political maneuvering. "Honestly, it’s politics and money, and all the things wrong with New Mexico politics right now."
Davis also said they have to fix all the broken streetlights before putting in new ones, and the Council funded new streetlights all over the city next year. "Money has not been a problem, but I think we have to get the data to show us where we really need them," he said.
Longtime International District resident Juarez said the coalition she co-chairs already did that work and knows where the lights need to go. "That information already exists," she said. "You know, we’re being told stuff that doesn’t make sense. And so it feels shifty and it feels shady."
She's worked on this with more than one city administration, and Juarez said, that just feels like a repeated excuse to keep pushing things out.
Mayor Tim Keller, Councilor Davis and Commissioner Hart Stebbins just announced on Wednesday, May 8, eight more new streetlights destined for the district. And Keller promised that all of that $100,000 would be spent on new lights this year.
This is part of a series called "In The Dark." Rashad Mahmood and Lissa Knudsen did the data analysis for the series. Check out the maps they made here.