Back in the 1950s, when I was growing up, parents used to tell their younger children, “Come inside when the street lights go on.” This was before Mayor Daley Sr. began installing the bluish Mercury vapor lights that hung over the streets.
Different parts of the city had different styles of street lights. In Portage Park we had harp lights. At least that’s what the older people called them, referring to the distinctive curved metal arms that held the lamp fixture at the top. Our neighborhood was settled in the 1920s, the era when this style became popular.
The vertical light pole was usually made of cement. However, some harp lights had a metal pole. I suspect the city discovered that metal poles were cheaper, and switched over to them at some point.
These harp lights were in place mostly on side streets. On streets that had streetcars, the poles supporting the trolley wires were commonly used for street lights. The only arterial streets with the harp lights were those with motor buses, such as Addison or Austin.
The first hint that the Mercury vapor lights were on the way was city crews digging trenches along the curbs to carry the underground electric wires. Everyone on our block was eager to be rid of the old incandescent lights. It was 1961, and led by our dynamic new president, we were moving forward into modern times.
In parts of Chicago, some people actually preferred the old street lights. I remember reading that the residents of Jersey Avenue petitioned the city to keep theirs. I don’t know if the Jersey Avenue lights were harp style or something else, but the petition didn’t work. They got the Mercury vapor lights anyway.
By the mid-’60s the harp lights were gone. Chicago’s streets were much brighter. And that was a good thing, as anyone who’s driven through Evanston after dark knows.
In recent years Chicago has been putting up retro-style lights on many major streets. Perhaps the harp lights are due for a comeback. But only if they are brighter than the originals.