"I have a little thing with numbers," says Henry Senyak. He shares this as he drives in the dark along Clark Avenue on Cleveland's gritty near West Side, spouting addresses as he passes them and making notes on a piece of paper he keeps on the console of his gray Chevy van.
It's after 9 p.m., just about starting time for another night's work. The addresses are the way he lets Cleveland Public Power know the locations of burned-out streetlights. It's no small problem: Cleveland Public Power admits that as many as 1,400 streetlights are dark around the city at any time. Senyak puts the number at more like 5,000. And dark streets are dangerous streets.
"I can remember them like the back of my hand," he says. In jeans and a polo shirt with creased sleeves, Senyak, 47, drives all over the West Side, from the zoo to the lake, from the Cuyahoga to West 73rd Street, tracking the darkness. He sees a dead light, and he makes a note to report it.
There's a small-caliber bullet hole in one of his tail lights — a gift from a citizen back in April who saw Senyak making the rounds through a dark alley. Some folks don't take kindly to guys creeping along their neighborhood at indescribably slow speeds.
Perhaps the city's most tenacious and detail-oriented neighborhood activist, Senyak has for more than a decade kept a vigilant eye on the streets around Tremont. For years he had been an electrician, installing phone systems until getting laid off in the 1990s. These days, he cares for his elderly mother in the same Tremont home he's spent his life in, near Scranton and Starkweather.
Five years ago, he drew attention for training his video camera on the bar across the street. The place had attracted all manner of illicit activity to his little corner of Tremont. The bar was cited for various code violations and eventually closed. (It has since returned under new ownership.)
At about the same time, Senyak's obsession with streetlights blossomed. Back then, entire streets on the near West Side were dark. He says 80 percent of the lights on West 53rd were out. Today, West 53rd and most other West Side streets are well-lit. He estimates that in Tremont, there are "probably less than 10 lights" not working, out of 3,000 to 4,000. Along the length of Clark Avenue, from the river to West 73rd, just three lights don't work.
On the other side of the Cuyahoga is a different story. An eerie, Third World quality envelops the streets just east of downtown — places bludgeoned by foreclosure and abandonment, where few can afford to be concerned with such seemingly trivial matters as the blackness that descends on them every night. Along Orange Avenue, Senyak points to a pitch-black highway underpass. "That's a rape waiting to happen," he says.
To get to this point, he's been driving the streets ten hours a week and logging another ten at his computer and phone. He maintains color-coded charts to remind him which lights he's called about, whether CPP has responded, and whether their repairs have been successful. If not, he calls again. In six months, he's phoned in exactly 1,433 malfunctioning lights to Cleveland Public Power's automated streetlight complaint system. The system requires that he call in each light individually, and so he does. Navigating the menu of questions takes about three minutes per light — a tedious, methodical task he'll do for about an hour at a stretch.
So yes, the folks at CPP know Senyak well. The City of Cleveland pays the company $12 million a year to maintain and provide power to the lights. Senyak pockets not a penny in his quest to ensure we get our money's worth.
"I inherited Mr. Senyak's efforts about a year and a half ago, when I was promoted to this position," says Cleveland Public Power streetlights chief Jim Ferguson. "Mr. Senyak was already moving in the streetlight sector at that time. He calls a lot. Yes, he does. I like Mr. Senyak. We are actually good friends; we don't see eye to eye all the time."
There is at least one thing they disagree on: The number of lights that don't work.
"I totally disagree with the 5,000 number," Ferguson says. "Our complaint tracking shows the number to be about 1,400 lights out right now." Of course, tracking outages via the complaint system ignores the likelihood that lights throughout the city's most downtrodden neighborhoods never become the subject of complaints.
He says 1,400 outages is a little higher than he's accustomed to, because he's down one of his seven repair crews and because summer vacation schedules have slowed operations. He'd like to keep it to about 1,000 lights out — well under 2 percent of the city's 64,028 light poles. That would put the nation's poorest city — with its decaying roads, bridges, and sewer systems — far below the national average of 5 percent dysfunction.
"We gave the city a voice they didn't have before," Ferguson says, referring to the automated system installed in 2009. He blames the new system for the rise in complaints from Senyak, who previously was required — and gladly obliged — to discuss each broken light with an actual CPP representative.
But city councilmen have nothing but praise for Senyak. Joe Cimperman, who represents downtown and parts of Ohio City and Tremont, has even put up seed money from community development grants to create a part-time job so that someone can get paid to do exactly the kind of work Senyak is doing. Ever the politician, Cimperman is careful to note that the job will be publicly posted, so as to encourage all qualified obsessive streetlight monitors to toss their hat in the ring.
"I hope Henry applies," he adds.
Brian Cummins, who represents part of Tremont and Clark-Fulton, also considers throwing discretionary dollars toward such an effort, though he has reservations about spending money intended for social services.
"I'll probably do it even with that hesitation, because of the importance of safety" he says. "But you'd hope we wouldn't have to expend ward money for such a basic service as road lighting."
Senyak's midnight crusade will continue, whether on or off the payroll. "Keeping the streetlights on is one of those essential city services that everyone should expect, for safety and quality of life," he says. "It needs to be a priority."
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