Breathing Lights in Upstate New York: Public Art and Deserted Buildings

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April 7, 2016; Albany Business Journal

Bloomberg Philanthropies has provided a $1 million grant, administered by the Community Foundation for the Greater Capital Region, to illuminate hundreds of vacant buildings in Schenectady, Troy, and Albany, New York. The Breathing Lights arts project will highlight neighborhoods marred by many empty buildings to draw interest to community rebirth.

The mayors of the three cities have planned events to accompany the installation, including the building of reclamation clinics and youth media workshops. Art exhibits and performances related to the Breathing Light theme will run at galleries in the area. The project ends next spring with a regional summit on vacant homes and neighborhood revitalization.

The idea, according to lead architect Barbara Nelson, “is to highlight the dormant life within each structure and the untapped life within each of the neighborhoods.” Nelson is the executive director of Troy Architecture Program, while lead artist Adam Frelin is assistant professor of art at University at Albany. They are working with about 25 partner organizations.

The Breathing Lights installation will pulsate like a living being. Details still have to be finalized, but Nelson expects that the lights will be on from 6 to 10 p.m.

There was some measure of pushback during the planning stages of the project. In June of last year, the Albany Times-Union ran an opinion piece that mentioned concerns from area homeowners that lighting vacant buildings could make them targets for crime and that the project might draw poverty tourists to poorer neighborhoods:

There is a Capital Region tendency to view innovative and creative ideas too skeptically—if not to reject them outright. We should guard against that and be more welcoming of fresh thinking. But nobody should have somebody else’s idea of what’s cool imposed on them. How do we know that residents of those neighborhoods want the vacant homes around them filled with light? Say you had an empty house across the street from you. Would you want it pulsating like a breathing animal?

“I don’t need to be reminded of vacant homes at night, when everyone knows that they’re there and knows they’re a detriment to the neighborhood,” said Judd Krasher, an Albany councilman. “What people want is something done with them.”

While eight buildings in Schenectady were illuminated in March as a test, the project buildings have not yet been chosen, although that’s slated to take place by the summer for a fall debut. Some of those empty buildings are owned by absentee landlords or have, naturally, had their power shut off. This means access to those structures is necessary for the installation to go forward.

Buildings included in the project will be available for sale following Breathing Lights.—Marian Conway

  • Sahar

    Thanks for the article, Marian! We actually got wonderful feedback from neighbors during the beta test in March… one woman who lives across the street from one of the test houses said it was like someone was home again. Many neighborhood residents came to the kickoff event on April 6 and shared their enthusiasm that there’s finally some momentum around the issue of abandoned buildings.

    We’re really happy that the mayors, local land banks, and more than 25 public, private and community partners are working on Breathing Lights. Finally, people are seeing our neighborhoods as full of potential and opportunity! The art installation can’t fix the problem of urban vacancy, but it is getting the people who CAN fix the problem talking and working together.