Breathing Lights: Lessons on how to reclaim vacant houses and revitalize a neighborhood

Breathing Lights was a temporary public art installation in October and November of 2016. It illuminated the windows of hundreds of vacant homes in the cities of Albany, Schenectady and Troy with a diffuse glow that mimicked the rhythm of human breathing. Buildings were lit nightly between 6 and 10pm.

An evening tour of Breathing Lights.

The installation was supported by eight months of programming and events centered at three neighborhood hubs, one in each city – Albany Barn, the Boys & Girls Clubs of Schenectady, and The Sanctuary for Independent Media in Troy. Programming and events were designed to give voice to children and adults living in communities with high rates of vacancy and to offer resources for local residents to buy and renovate vacant homes.

Through youth media projects, building reclamation clinics, community arts presentations, gallery talks, policy discussions and more, Breathing Lights’ goal was to create an evocative, inclusive experience that transformed perceptions of vacant buildings and showcased an arts-based approach to stimulating local and regional revitalization.

Warm light filled each window with a diffuse glow that mimicked the gentle rhythm of human breathing. Concentrated in neighborhoods with high levels of vacancy, Breathing Lights transformed abandoned structures from pockets of shadows into places of warmth. Breathing Lights was a winner of the Bloomberg Philanthropies Public Art Challenge which engages mayors to collaborate with artists on developing innovative public art projects that enrich communities and attract visitors.

Local Ambassadors of Breathing Lights

This unprecedented, multi-city installation transformed public streets into an evocative experience and provided a platform to reinvigorate partners around the Capital Region’s most visible symptom of decades of disinvestment.

Working with dozens of community and private-sector partners, Breathing Lights included eight months of programming and events, including youth media projects, building reclamation clinics, community arts presentations, gallery talks, policy discussions and more. At the end of the installation, windows – one by one – fell dark. In sharing a sense of loss came a stir to action.

Breathing Lights was produced through a collaboration of public and private partners. Project leadership included Albany Mayor Kathy Sheehan, Schenectady Mayor Gary McCarthy, and Troy Mayor Patrick Madden. The Community Foundation for the Greater Capital Region served as the project’s fiscal agent and lead administrator. The Albany County Land Bank, the Capital Region Land Bank, and the Troy Community Land Bank provided access to vacant buildings.

Breathing Lights organizers and sponsors.

Albany Barn, the Boys & Girls Clubs of Schenectady, and the Sanctuary for Independent Media in Troy served as neighborhood hubs because of their track records of successful programming and their locations in communities with high levels of vacancy.

Lighting R&D was conducted by the Lighting Research Center at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. Siting and installation was led by TAP, Inc. A project documentary was produced by WMHT.

Meghan White of the National Trust for Historic Preservation derived six lessons from the Breathing Lights project, on how to reclaim vacant houses and help revitalize neighborhoods:

  1. Consider what you would for a typical purchase;
  2. Know what will need to be done for a rehab purchase;
  3. Check out financial incentives;
  4. There will be a lot of people involved in the reclamation process;
  5. Attend a class;
  6. Find a vacant property that fits your criteria.

All photos courtesy of Breathing Lights.

See Breathing Lights website.

See full NTHP article by Meghan White.

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