If you walked past a house in the neighborhoods of Arbor Hill or Hamilton Hill that seemed to be “breathing” — with slowly pulsing lights in the windows — you witnessed a million dollar public art project; one intended to highlight the problem of vacancy and abandoned homes in the Capital Region.
“Art was at the center of this,” said Judie Gilmore, Project Director of Breathing Lights, beaming from the podium at the GE Theater, in Proctors, on Friday. “We as a region came together, and did something that was big and beautiful and meaningful.” Gilmore went on to say that she believes the project revealed “a demand in this region for public art. People expect it, and they want it.”
On Friday, Breathing Lights, the million-dollar public arts initiative funded by Bloomberg Philanthropies, had its closing event — a policy summit which summarized and exhibited the project’s accomplishments. Breathing Lights was primarily a public art project, but it was more than that — it was a public education campaign to teach the community about the problem of abandoned homes in their own communities, it was a series of Building Reclamation Clinics to teach interested homebuyers and investors about how to actually buy and rehabilitate these homes, it was group art classes to help children and older residents express, creatively, their feelings about the problem of vacancy in their neighborhoods.
About 10 percent of all the vacant homes in the Capital Region were lit with the lights — a process spearheaded by Adam Frelin, an associate professor of art at the University of Albany, who was also the lead artist for the project. Frelin reported that he was excited to “create an arts-based solution to stimulate local and regional revitalization.” He also told the audience that the list of houses available for installation of the project was constantly changing, as people bought houses — he called it a “fluid installation, that reflected the reality” of what the vacancy problem really looked like in the Capital Region. Frelin was able to see inside the houses — a view of the project few have seen — and shared pictures of the devastation inside; piles of trash, sunken floors, abandoned photographs of one-time residents.
“What does a community that cares about its citizens look like?” asks Shane Bargy, executive director of the Boys & Girls Club of Schenectady, which was a neighborhood hub for Breathing Lights — it was also the question asked by Jamel Mosely, photographer and videographer, who created the Arbor Hill Stories portrait series as well as helped local youth create the Youth Media Sanctuary — both projects funded through grants from Breathing Lights. One of Moseley’s central goals was to create empathy for the people who live in blighted neighborhoods — to humanize and document their stories.
The event was preceded by a question-and-answer panel, on which the three mayors of Albany, Schenectady, and Troy sat. They answered questions about their cities’ approach to the project, and told the audience about the initial skepticism they felt about Breathing Lights, and how they overcame it. Mayor Patrick Madden of Troy admitted to some skepticism about the program, telling the panel that he “wasn’t thrilled,” at first. But eventually, he realized that “artists approached this in a different way than community developers,” and that they had a “different way of thinking about the problem” of abandoned houses. And he eventually admitted that Troy was “able to generate more interest [in these houses] because of this project.”
Mayor Gary McCarthy of Schenectady talked about the role of art in the revitalization of cities — using the building the summit was hosted in — Proctors — as an “example of what the arts can do”. And as Proctors helped revitalize Downtown Schenectady, McCarthy expressed hope that Breathing Lights would help Schenectady be “just as successful in the neighborhoods”. (McCarthy’s political opponents, most notably Roger Hull in the 2015 mayoral election, have often spoken about the lack of economic development in Schenectady’s neighborhoods as compared to the development of the city’s downtown.)
And Mayor Kathy Sheehan argued that Breathing Lights was an opportunity to show the world that the Capital Region and its cities were “world-class”; that the region was ready to “take our place on the world-stage.” She praised Bloomberg Philanthropies for choosing to fund the project, noting that Michael Bloomberg “was a mayor himself, and lived this.” She praised the “transformative nature of the arts to help us think differently about cities.”
Barbara Nelson, the lead architect and community engagement director for the project, told The Alt that she wished the focus was less on the size of the grant given, and more on how compelling the project was. “The criticism was, ‘why would you spend a million dollars on something temporary?’ And people thought it was the city’s money — they thought it was the city’s tax money. Everybody’s a critic,” said Nelson. “Later, there were other people who were unhappy to to find out that a Breathing Lights building was on their block. They found it was somehow shaming. Partly because they didn’t know these buildings were vacant.”
Raven Villanueva, resident of Hamilton Hill and neighbor to a Breathing Lights house, has a different view. “At first I thought it was a little weird, but then after I understood what they were trying to do, I thought it was really amazing,” she said. Villanueva, who is an artist herself, said she believed the project did a good job of illuminating the housing crisis in Schenectady and across the region. “It really brought to light how many people are homeless and how many houses there were that were not being used, and how if we just renovated them, we could house people.” She also liked the project for more practical reasons. “Living on a dead end, the lights made it all a little safer. It was nice. I liked it.”