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CityFixer

Illuminating Blight in Upstate New York

A temporary art installation in the three Capital Region cities calls for a solution to vacancy and abandonment.

Judie Gilmore/Breathing Lights

Across the Capital Region in upstate New York, thousands of buildings sit vacant and dark. When manufacturing plants began to close around the middle of the last century, jobs disappeared, and with them, people. Between 1970 and 2000, the three Capital Region cities—Albany, Schenectady, and Troy—lost 16 percent of their populations. Since then, growth has been slow.

The blighted buildings stand in reminder of the region’s difficult times. But an art installation taking shape this fall recasts the abandoned properties. “Breathing Lights” will illuminate hundreds of buildings across Albany, Schenectady, and Troy, drawing attention to the widespread issue of blight and calling for a tangible path to revitalization.

In June 2015, the architect Barb Nelson and the artist Adam Frelin were awarded a $1 million grant through the Bloomberg Philanthropies Public Art Challenge to pursue the installation. The competition was open to cities with over 30,000 people, and solicited projects addressing local urban issues to spur economic development. The Upstate Alliance for Creative Economy convened the three mayors of the Capital Region cities and encouraged them to submit to the competition as a collective.

A blighted interior in Troy, New York. (Judie Gilmore/Breathing Lights)

Frelin and Nelson will outfit the windows of 300 abandoned buildings with LED lights, whose vibrancy will wax and wane—“breathe”—in a way that suggests human activity inside. The installation will run nightly through October and November; each city will organize community events like walking tours to engage the public in conversation around the issue of blight.

Nelson is the director of the nonprofit TAP, Inc., which brings architectural and design services to disadvantaged communities. When faced with the call to address a pressing urban problem, she thought of vacancy and abandonment. In his artistic work, Frelin often works with lighting systems, and “we just happened to be sitting in the region of General Electric,” Nelson says. The energy company is responsible for lighting people’s homes, but it’s also a symbol for the deindustrialization of the region that has left buildings empty. Earlier this year, General Electric announced the closure of one of its manufacturing plants, mirroring the disappearance of the steel and textile factories over the past several decades.

Shuttered windows in Troy before Nelson and Frelin began installing. (Judie Gilmore/Breathing Lights)

Early on, the public reacted to the project with frustration. “We had people say to us, ‘You’ve got $1 million—why don’t you fix up some buildings with that?’” Nelson says. Nelson and Frelin explained that the grant was not public money; it was never intended to be used for anything other than art. But “with a million dollars, you could fix four buildings,” Nelson says. Breathing Lights, she adds, draws attention to the need for public money to be funneled toward the buildings.

“A lot of people say that the project is shining a light on the problem of vacancy,” Nelson says. “But I think it’s the other way around: these buildings are shining a light on us. What are we going to do about this issue? It’s our reaction that really matters.”

Around the project, Albany mayor Kathy Sheehan has convened a group of housing advocates, including Nelson, to produce a policy report to present to the state attorney general. This will outline the need for increased funding and oversight of property databases, which Nelson describes as “extremely fragile” and out-of-date. Earlier this year, New York Governor Andrew M. Cuomo passed legislation to combat blight by holding banks and corporations responsible for maintaining foreclosed properties, and allowing the state to intervene on behalf of homeowners facing foreclosure. “I want to be able to point to that and say, yes, our project did that,” Nelson says. “But really, the stars are lining up—it’s time to crank up the volume on these problems.”

When the lights flicker on, it’s possible to imagine a Capital Region unmarred by blight and vacancy. “Life exists here,” Nelson says. “The people who live here are proud of their cities, and vocal about the issues surrounding them.” But without efforts to revitalize and repopulate the neighborhoods, they will continue to fall into disrepair. Nelson says the exhibition is a call for people to come together around these issues. “We’re giving these buildings breath,” Nelson adds, “but the community is giving them voice. We have to listen to that.”

(Judie Gilmore/Breathing Lights)

H/t Next City

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