Just Breathe

A Capital District art project shines light on darkness visible.

Full dark, midnight dark, though the dashboard blinks that it is just 6:19 p.m. Rain, light and persistent, spatters the windshield as we drive through the forgotten streets of Albany’s blighted South End. Block after block lined with derelict houses, abandoned and empty, padlocks on doors, weeds reaching through cracked steps, plywood over windows — many marked by an ominous red X, warning even the bravest to stay away if they should burn, crumble or fall. We feel anxious, disoriented, strangers in our own land, as if the world we know and knew has been painted black.

We drive down streets we never knew existed — Alexander, Elizabeth, Teunis, Broad — and streets we knew to avoid. Our neighbors uptown, out in the suburbs, are settling into Wednesday night dinner, but my wife, daughter and I are spending a few moments on the last night of November looking for light. There is little to find. Then, 48 Elizabeth Street, where windows glow startlingly bright. The light then dims, then brightens again, in rhythm to our own slow, human breath. In, out. Bright, dim. Death comes alive with breathing light.

Another house breathes with light on Delaware Street, and more on Fourth Avenue and Second Avenue and Stephen Street and other forsaken streets of the Capital District. They are part of Breathing Lights, the art installation that brought attention to these empty patches of Albany, Troy and Schenectady this past fall. The project was one of four winners of the Bloomberg Philanthropies Public Art Challenge, which encouraged city mayors and artists to create art that speaks to community and civic engagement.

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There is little civic engagement here. Only a few houses are inhabited. On a shaky porch, a “business transaction” takes place. These are the only souls we see during our half-hour tour of this Love Canal, this Chernobyl within our own borders.  

And yet, life stirs, if only in fits and starts. A string of Christmas lights on a door. A handful of Habitat for Humanity homes stand clean and new and proud among the wreckage. There’s a functioning church. Three Land Bank lots are being turned into a community garden. Harriet Tubman Democratic High School offers alternative education, a park and playground offer recreation. The tour notes from Breathing Lights breathe with optimism: 

“Notice a new house on Osborne Street being built by a retired couple from Clifton Park on a Land Bank vacant lot.” 

“Notice the circular mosaic on the side of the Land Bank building adjacent to the vacant lot.”

“Notice the nearly intact streetscape and family scale buildings on this block. This block was historically a family street.”

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“Notice the circular mosaic on the Land Bank building across the street.”

“The buildings themselves are difficult, but this would be a good block to invest in.”

We finally spill onto South Pearl Street, drive past a bodega and a chicken restaurant and the DMV, back to Madison Avenue, and back uptown. The rain comes down harder now, the urban glow of streetlamps and neon signs and headlights broken and distorted through the raindrops, full film noir. We are all quiet, reflective. “It’s unbelievable,” my wife says. And yet it’s where we live. Our city, our country, is not what we thought it was. There is darkness we did not know, right next to us. Breathing Lights, it seems, offers the slimmest glimmer of hope. Just breathe. Breathe in the light. It’s not much. It’s everything.  

Learn more about Breathing Lights and the challenges — and opportunities — of vacant buildings in the region’s cities at www.breathinglights.com.

David Levine is a contributing writer for Hudson Valley magazine and Westchester Magazine

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