December 08, 2015

Shedding light on the issues: Breathing Lights effort to raise awareness of abandoned buildings

TROY >> Abandoned buildings in the city’s North Central neighborhood will show signs of life for at least a couple months next fall as part of a multi-city public art program.

A coalition of more than two dozen local organizations hope to shed an artistic light on the widespread impact of vacant properties around the Capital District through Breathing Lights, an effort led by the Regional Alliance for a Creative Economy and including officials in Albany and Schenectady, as well as Troy. Organizers plan to illuminate vacant buildings throughout North Central to raise awareness of the ever-growing problem, spotlight ongoing reclamation efforts and engage the community in a discussion of possible solutions.

“Vacant buildings are something that’s very much in the forefront, that really just suck the life out of our neighborhoods,” said Barbara Nelson, executive director of the Troy Architectural Program and lead architect for the project. “People’s lives are being affected by these vacant properties, these holes in their neighborhoods.” 

The program will kick off locally with a “neighborhood think tank” meeting at 6 p.m. Wednesday at the Sanctuary for Independent Media, 3361 6th Ave., at which organizers are seeking public input, including ideas for activities or specific properties to be included in the program. The group already held a similar meeting Sunday in Albany, with one planned for Thursday in Schenectady.

“These meetings this week are really about education and listening,” Nelson said.

In addition to the city of Troy and the Troy Architectural Program, other local partners include Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute’s Lighting Research Center, the Troy Community Land Bank and the Arts Center of the Capital Region. The effort will be funded through a grant of as much as $1 million awarded last summer through the Bloomberg Philanthropies Public Art Challenge, as well as more than $500,000 in matching funds raised locally. 

The nationwide program was mounted as a challenge to the mayors of U.S. cities with populations of 30,000 or more to come up with temporary public art projects focusing on a specific civic issue. More than 230 cities submitted proposals addressing issues including decaying downtowns, underutilized waterfronts and vacant buildings.

Buildings chosen for the project will be illuminated using lighting strips created by RPI students. Those strips will be placed around the windows of abandoned properties to simulate the look of an occupied building and show how different the neighborhood would appear if those lights permanently replaced boarded-up windows and darkened doorways.

“The light itself will appear to be breathing, inhaling and exhaling, showing signs of life,” Nelson explained.

Organizers have identified about 5,000 properties in the spotlighted neighborhoods in Albany, Schenectady and Troy that could be included in the program. And while they are looking for buildings they can literally breathe new life into, they are also looking for other creative ways to shine a light on the overall problem,

“We’ll use these smaller programs to give voice to the specific concerns of each community,” Nelson said. 

Mark Robarge can be reached at 290-8362.

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