For two months last fall, Breathing Lights wove through New York’s Capital Region. Using gently pulsing lighting to humanize abandoned buildings, it was frequently perceived as a celebration, a sales pitch, or a call to action, but rarely as just art.
The installation literally shed light on an awful problem—abandoned and collapsing buildings in poor neighborhoods—for which solutions have not surfaced. It also gave the sad properties some TLC just briefly, only to return them to darkness.
“The lights had to be short lived to draw attention to the longer-lasting things,” says Adam Frelin, the upstate New York artist who helped conceive and lead the project.
The idea of temporarily lighting vacant houses in Albany, Troy, and Schenectady took shape as a group of community leaders and artists mobilized to win a $1 million Bloomberg Philanthropies Public Art Challenge grant in 2015. Breathing Lights was one of four proposals selected from more than 200. It ended up being one of the largest temporary public art works ever installed—requiring as much as seven hours for one person to see it all.
With it, 200 dark and vacant homes commanded attention from October through November 2016, beaming with light every night from 6 to 10 p.m. The lights, which pulsed behind white shades, were reminders of the people who had once lived there. They illuminated once-proud homes on quiet streets and rows of decrepit structures along thoroughfares. The impact was every bit as big as the project in a region that had perhaps grown accustomed to its empty buildings.
Breathing Lights galvanized three mayors as well as representatives from anti-poverty organizations, and land banks, and corporate boardrooms. Troy’s Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI) developed the lights with assistance by General Electric in Schenectady. Local contractors got jobs installing them. The project was an umbrella for home-buying clinics, art shows, and tours. Some neighbors embraced it for bringing long-overdue attention. Others were enraged by what it could not do: fix things.
The installation got people into their cars with maps to view the cruel problem in their cities. “It was art that got people to go to a neighborhood they’d never seen and see people they’d never seen,” Frelin says, “And maybe they were able to say ‘This fear is only in my mind.’”
The lights switched off for good in November. A diverse coalition of Breathing Lights participants assessed results at a summit earlier this month. They shared art made by children in blighted neighborhoods and the poetry, videos, and theater that also stemmed from the project. Policy makers hinted at large grants and plans to hire coordinators devoted to distressed housing. They talked about the regional network that had emerged, and their own response.
“In community development, you put resources into rehabbing buildings and there is never quite enough money,” says Patrick Madden, mayor of Troy and former head of a non-profit housing rehabilitation organization. “Here, artists came in and saw them as an asset and started telling stories about neglected buildings. You could almost smell the Sunday dinners cooking,” he adds. “These buildings were cradles of ambition. The future needs to be written about this but we can say this is a very new way to look at this.”
Getting lights into 200 far-flung homes should have been a logistical impossibility. Politics should have made it a non-starter. With the three cities’ combined population of 215,000, Albany, Schenectady, and Troy stare down an estimated 2,500 vacant buildings, a crisis created by population decline and fueled by economic distress. Separated by miles of suburbs, the cities share similar problems but historically had little experience addressing property vacancies together. To approve the project, Bloomberg Philanthropies needed three mayors to agree to share their cities’ ugliest edges.
“‘How are we going to pull that off? What if even one mayor changes his or her mind, [or] is un-elected,’” asked Barbara Nelson, a Troy architect who conceived and led Breathing Lights with Frelin. In fact, Troy did see a new mayor come in during the planning process. “At any moment they could have said ‘This is too risky, we’re pulling out.’ They didn’t.”
The Capital Region doesn’t have an arts commission to manage a large public grant. But it does have stakeholders who didn’t let the opportunity of Breathing Lights slip away. Nelson had managed numerous grassroots projects as a former RPI architecture professor and current director of Troy Architectural Program, Inc., which supports low-income neighborhoods. Frelin, an art professor at the State University of New York at Albany, had competed for grants and created large installations. They needed to bring dozens of parties to the table.
“From the beginning someone wanted to reinvent the project,” Frelin says. “It was, ‘OK, we’ll do it if we can only light these buildings that were fixed up.’ I would say, ‘We need a unifying aesthetic. This is not just about the successes. It’s also about the pain and loss of these places.’”
An infrastructure grew around the idiosyncrasies. RPI devised light kits. Nelson and Frelin designed the installation around buildings made available. A community foundation was deputized to manage the grant. Bloomberg noticed. “We work in cities around the world and have a sense of the difficulties of trying to come together,” says Kate D. Levin, the former New York City Department of Cultural Affairs commissioner who oversees Bloomberg Philanthropies’ arts programs. “What was so appealing was this willingness to collaborate. They were saying ‘we really need to rethink our important issues and if we can do that through a creative lens we may be able to energize people over or through or around policy impasses.’”
On opening night, just a handful of lights turned on with no way to dispatch hundreds of people to make (any) quick fixes. Despite the glitches, the human connections were instant.
Some neighbors—accustomed to pitch-black streets—figured a fire had erupted when lights went on. When Nelson or Frelin arrived at a site wearing safety vests, residents listed the many things the city needed to repair. Some became hopeful. “I could not get out of the car without hearing who used to live there and how long the property had been empty and ‘was it for sale?’” notes Nelson. “I’d say, ‘We’re not going to fix the problem but we’re going to draw resources to it.’ I probably said that 1,000 times.”
One time, she heard a group of young people saying “Breathing Lights sucks,” under their breaths. She approached them, and as the detractors learned more they said they wanted jobs. Frelin once emerged from a collapsing building to see a group of tough-looking men watching him. “When I said ‘I want to let you know what we are doing,’ within a couple of minutes they jumped in to discuss vacancy. They were really pissed about it and we ended with high fives,” he says.
Common ground was not always found. Critics who saw the art as a real estate scheme feared gentrification and displacement even though most of the illuminated buildings were not habitable. Breathing Lights also heard from Black Lives Matter. “They wrote saying, ‘Imagine a group of black artists going into a white suburb and bringing thousands of black people. It wouldn’t happen,’” says Frelin, who, like Nelson, is white. “That’s so true and it’s tough.”
As the project wound down, many said they wanted the lights kept on. “You’d see people coming out of their homes and saying ‘I love this. I’d love to live across the street from this,”’ Nelson says. As someone who restores historic buildings, the “temporary” concept was also difficult for her. “I’m sad the lights are gone,” she says. “I miss them.”