TROY, N.Y.—Empty homes on blighted blocks here pulse with a ghostly glow every night.
Windows in more than 150 abandoned buildings in three upstate New York cities have been fitted with light-emitting diodes that steadily brighten and fade, giving the effect of slow breathing. The two-month public art project provides something pretty for gritty neighborhoods in Albany, Schenectady and Troy and shines a light—figuratively and literally—on the problems posed by the vacant brownstones and clapboard homes.
“Remind people that these buildings exist, because so often we just get so accustomed to the darkness we just walk right on by,” says architect Barbara Nelson, who created the “Breathing Lights” project with artist Adam Frelin.
Behind each glowing window is a wooden frame with plastic stretched across the exterior face to diffuse the light. LED strips inside brighten and dim at about seven times a minute for four hours a night. Power comes from golf cart batteries.
Frelin and Nelson won a $1 million public arts grant from Bloomberg Philanthropies to get the project started. The phasing of the lights in and out like breaths is intended as a metaphor about the lives of buildings and alludes to the life now absent from the empty spaces.
“To someone who doesn’t know my history, they will walk by and see an abandoned building,” says project neighborhood liaison Jerry Ford, who once lived in a Troy home that was later abandoned. “I look at it and I see where I used to live. I remember Christmas. I remember my son being brought home to that building. I remember mowing the grass. It’s memories to me.”
There are some 2,500 vacant buildings in the three cities. Frelin says filling every empty building is not a realistic goal, but the project certainly has started some conversations since the lights first blinked on last month.
People told Frelin they initially thought the buildings were ready to explode, or were haunted. In Schenectady, locals found that the glowing homes lightened the block in more ways than one.
“There were squatters in some of the houses, actually,” says KeyLynn Belrose-Westfall.
In Troy, Jason Franklin wonders if the money spent on making two homes breathe on his family’s street could have been put to better use.
“They need to put the money into the houses to get them fixed,” he says. “You’ve got these people … they’re sleeping on the streets.”
Nelson says $1 million would be enough money to rescue only four houses and besides, the grant was specifically for arts projects. She recalls a Facebook post comparing the project to giving lipstick to a bum so people will pay attention. Nelson replies that’s not all wrong: If more people pay attention, maybe they will do something about it.
Workshops are being held for people interested in buying a vacant building though February, but the lights will begin blinking out for good at the end of the month.