#TIL: Green over red: a traffic light’s tale

By Yash Narain

Today I Learnt (TIL) is a weekly series by OMI that brings you interesting nuggets of information that you didn’t know you needed. Follow us on Twitter for regular updates.
On the left: Inverted traffic Light at Tipperary Hill. Source: Dawn Amsbaugh (Pinterest)
On the right: A statue installed at the intersection in 1996 depicting an Irish immigrant father pointing towards the light and explaining its significance to his wife and children. Source: Sandy Fillinghan (Pinterest)

Nestled between Tomkins Street and Milton Avenue in Tipperary Hill district in the city of Syracuse, New York, a humble traffic light offers a curious exception to the otherwise dreary and monotonously certain world of urban transport infrastructure. It is the only traffic light in the United States- and by some accounts in the whole world- which is inverted, with green on top of red; and the story of how this came to be is incredibly fascinating.

Traffic lights installation in the city started in the 1920s. Being home to a large community of Irish immigrants, a bunch of local Irish youth could not stand the prospect of the “British” Red being perched on top of the “Irish” Green at an intersection of their neighbourhood. As a form of protest, they hurled stones to break the light. They repeated the deed every time a conventional traffic light was re-installed. Eventually, the city administration relented and put up the country’s first upside-down traffic light with green on top of red.

We presuppose our public sphere to be a value neutral realm populated by ideologically sterile objects. Urban transport infrastructure can be stultifying in its conformity. But as this example shows, visceral notions of nationhood, belonging and communal identity can pervade even the most routine aspects of our civic life.

Today I Learnt (TIL) is a weekly series by OMI that brings you interesting nuggets of information that you didn’t know you needed.

Follow us on Twitter for regular updates.

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