CAPITAL DISTRICT — A year later, a creative project to help combat urban blight is taking flight.
“I think it’s exciting,” said Adam Zaranko, as he stood inside a gutted, two-story row house on Albany’s Clinton Avenue. It’s one of many foreclosed properties owned by the Albany County Land Bank Corporation, of which he is executive director. It’s the organization’s mission to rescue such properties from abandonment and decay. But, last Tuesday, Aug. 30, Zaranko joined all three mayors from the Tri-City area to see progress on what will be a part of “Breathing Lights,” a creative engineering concept to illuminate 300 abandoned properties into pieces of art for two months this fall.
Last year, Bloomberg Philanthropies invited mayors of U.S. cities with 30,000 residents or more to submit proposals for innovative temporary public art projects that address a civic issue, and demonstrate close collaboration between artists or arts organizations and city government. Proposals covered a range of issues, such as the revitalization of decayed downtown areas, underutilized waterfronts and vacant neighborhoods. They also addressed social themes including neighborhood safety, environmental sustainability and promoting city identity. More than 230 cities submitted proposals for consideration in the Public Art Challenge, representing 68 million residents across the United States.
Bloomberg Philanthropies named Breathing Lights, a concept born between Adam Frelin and Barbara Nelson in a joint submission to represent the three Capital District cities, as one of four areas from across the United States to receive up to $1 million as part of its Public Art Challenge.
“I realize the magnitude for this grant award, especially for this region,” said Zaranko. “I like that it’s going to create conversation, maybe on the national level, about the scale and scope of the blight.”
The artwork entails the use of LED lighting, applied in strips upon the windows of a chosen vacant building. The lights will have a special effect applied to them, something developed through the help of the Lighting Research Center and engineers at General Electric.
“We’ve come along way since [last year],” said Frelin. “It’s in motion. It’s completely in motion…. In general, this is the project I’ve been waiting to do for my whole life… It’s wildly rewarding.”
Frelin, Nelson, the Lighting Research Center at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, and more than 25 community and private sector partners, have worked together, tasked to regenerate interest in once-vibrant neighborhoods that now have high vacancy rates. The project will culminate in a regional summit on vacant homes and neighborhood revitalization that will engage local residents, prospective buyers and investors and policy makers.
The project has a way of “humanizing” how blight impacts the people within the neighborhood, said Albany Mayor Kathy Sheehen.
“There are people living in this neighborhood, and the fact they have to walk by these buildings every day,” said Sheehan. “It impacts, in many cases, their attitudes and outlook for the day, not much less than the challenges that these buildings face. They are magnets for problems.”
While the downtown areas of Albany, Schenectady and Troy continue to see a revitalization of residential properties in recent years, like many cities throughout the United States, the outlining poorer neighborhoods suffer. Decaying homes are left empty, sometimes becoming havens for criminal activities.
“This is about more than just a building,” said Sheehan, “this is about the fabric of our cities and our neighborhoods.”
The Capital District’s work on the Public Art Challenge is in alignment with the work of the Regional Alliance for a Creative Economy’s Capital Region Creative Economy Project. The joint application also reflects the growing trend toward collaboration between local cities, municipalities, businesses and nonprofit organizations to encourage projects and initiatives that benefit the entire region.
The Regional Alliance for a Creative Economy is a community-selected assembly of Capital District leaders working on behalf of the region’s creative economy. This project operates under the leadership of the Center for Economic Growth and the Community Foundation for the Greater Capital Region.
The Creative Economy of New York’s Capital Region encompasses the enterprises and people involved in the origination, production, and distribution of goods and services in which artistic and cultural content gives the product or service value in the marketplace.
“The unintended consequence of this grant is the level of excitement, the level of engagement, that I don’t think any one of us [anticipated],” said Schenectady Mayor Gary McCarthy. “Though we were very pleased to get it. It was a big win for the three cities in a national competition, to see the activity going on around here, to see the different groups come together, people who are adding their perspective around the base that’s been created, it’s great for everyone.”
It’s hoped that each of the 300 homes targeted for the Breathing Lights project ultimately are turned into vital pieces of an improved community, but the land bank executive understands neighborhoods are challenged by its own problems.
“The way I look at it is, as a land bank by ourselves, are we going to solve all the challenges in a community? No,” said Zaranko. “But, we are a powerful part of the solution because we can create stable homes and stable neighborhoods, one home at a time. … We’re doing it every day.” Coincidentally, Zaranko was approached by the owner of a former land bank home, just three doors down. “The purchaser came running out to show us what he’s done. It’s really exciting. Each of these homes has a story.”