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Visit the New York State Council on the Arts online

The New York State Council on the Arts with the support
of Governor Andrew Cuomo and the New York State Legislature.


'Behind the Lights' goes behind-the-scenes of Breathing Lights, a temporary public art installation designed to illuminate the past, present and future of Albany, Schenectady and Troy through funding from the national Bloomberg Philanthropies Public Art Challenge. The Breathing Lights installation, conceived by artist and professor Adam Frelin and architect Barbara Nelson, culminated in Autumn 2016.


WMHT Specials

Behind the Lights

Aired: 2017-04-17 12:00:00 56:46 Rating: NR

Go behind-the-scenes of the local public art installation 'Breathing Lights.'

Breathing Lights: Planning | AHA! A House for Arts

Breathing Lights Exhibit | AHA! A House for Arts

Bloomberg Philanthropies Breathing Lights Documentary Part 1

The Opportunity to Learn (YouthFX)

Daddy, Why are The Stopping Us (YouthFX)

Bloomberg Philanthropies Breathing Lights Documentary Part 2

Behind the Buildings

Peggy Kownack, Troy | More than a decade later, people in the North Central neighborhood of Troy still talk about the day police landed a helicopter on an alleged drug house on Douw Street. Drugs were a main reason many parts of the city went into decline, residents have said.

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Empty houses, specifically, were evidence of people vacating their former homes and former neighborhoods. Thirty-six Douw Street has been vacant for well over 10 years – neighbors say it was abandoned due to the drug issues on the street. But, before it became a haven for bats, pigeons, and overgrown vegetation, the three story brick edifice was where Peggy (Von Fricken) Kownack spent her formative teenage years. It was where her family spray painted a strike zone on the side of the house. The white outline remains to this day, as do Peggy’s memories of growing up on Douw Street.

“This was a living, breathing house,” she observed.Her room was an 8 foot by 8 foot bedroom in the front of the house and, with two brothers and two sisters, it was the first time she had her own bedroom.

“I remember how happy I felt to have my own room. I felt like a big girl,” she said of living there from 1973 to 1976.

Peggy remembers playing football in the street with friends and a well-known make-out spot at the end of the road near the Hudson River – which residents there sometimes called the Fishkill since, on particularly hot days, it smelled like fish, before sewage treatment plant was finished in the city.

Peggy’s parents loved the street so much they bought 30 Douw Street and paid off its back taxes.

Drugs, unfortunately, overwhelmed the city and a house across the street was at the core of the problem. Police arrested the culprits, in the infamous helicopter raid, but the neighborhood was already impacted.

“It was too late for 36 Douw,” said Peggy. She has thought of buying the house multiple times. While it had sentimental value and some great architectural features, Peggy did not think it made financial sense for her.

“If salvageable, a person would need to put a lot of money into it,” she said. “It breaks my heart to see the building like this.”

The strike zone outline now overlooks a Capital Roots community garden on land that was once a parking lot. Flowers and plants poke out of the chain link fence, brightening the neighborhood.

“This building is so worth saving. You don’t find stonework like this. You don’t see details like this. You couldn’t afford details like this now,” Peggy said.

Using Census records, Peggy has researched her old neighborhood and family history. She found that four of the Breathing Lights buildings had her relatives as former residents, including a great-uncle who lived at the corner of Douw and River streets.

“I’m looking forward to seeing the lights throughout the block to show that, yes, this is a neighborhood. There is value down here,” she said. “It will be nice to see the neighborhood breathe again, so to speak.”

Peggy is planning to help with tours of the neighborhood as part of the Breathing Lights project.

“If even 10 percent of the buildings become occupied again after this project, I would consider it a success,” Peggy continued. “I’d love to see 36 Douw Street occupied again.”

Steve Pierce, Troy | The Sanctuary for Independent Media has been involved in the movement to utilize the vacant properties, especially around the organization in Troy’s North Central. 

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The first initiative was about five years ago when a stage was erected at what has become Freedom Square, on the formerly vacant lot on the border of Lansingburgh at 101st Street and 5th Avenue. Instead of tall grass and weeds, the site is now home to a community venue with a beautiful mural.

“We bought the lot to maintain it and prevent it from becoming an eyesore,” said Steve Pierce, executive director of the Sanctuary. He said the organization has bought a bunch of the surrounding vacant properties.

“It’s about finally recognizing that our housing stock is irreplaceable and we should not tear it down,” said Steve, 57, who received a Ph. D from RPI and has worked in Troy for more than 20 years. And the Sanctuary, he said, was established in 2005.

Along with Freedom Square, five formerly vacant lots have become gardens with the Collard City growers.

“The Sanctuary draws people from outside and you worry about how people perceive the neighborhood – which is hard in North Central,” he said. “We’ve stepped up with a lot of properties. It’s hard to maintain and do but it’s rewarding.”

Steve noted that this is happening all over Troy. The building where Vic Christopher and Heather LaVine’s successful businesses are in downtown, Steve said, was scheduled to be destroyed.

“Don’t look at vacant buildings as a problem. Look at them as possible opportunities,” he continued. “There’s more work to be done but this is an interesting twist in the city’s history and we’ll see where it goes.” 

Jerry Ford, Troy | Jerry Ford Jr. brought his youngest son home to 3038 7th Avenue in Troy. He and his family lived there from spring of 2005 to fall of 2006.

The house is now part of the Breathing Lights project.

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Jerry said he loved the location and the neighborhood. And the landlord only lived about 20 minutes away. It was a spacious apartment in a two-story building with high ceilings, a big bay window, and three bedrooms on each floor. His God sister lived upstairs so the children could play with their cousins.

“It was a vibrant neighborhood. All the houses were filled and there were young children, who would run up and down the sidewalk,” remembered the 39-year-old father of three.

Now, he says, that area has “a lot of issues” including crime and absentee landlords.

During the time that he lived at 3038 7th Ave., the owners sold the house to someone who lived outside the area. That ended up being a main reason for why his family moved.

“After a few days of heavy rain, a leak started coming down the kitchen wall and it was bad. A kitchen cabinet fell off the wall and my son was standing where it fell just minutes before it happened,” he said. “We called the new landlord but a week went by and no one came. We immediately started looking for a new place.”

As it turns out, at their new place, his next landlord, a resident of Averill Park, ended up helping the family buy their first house.

“Our new landlord saw my family grow. Saw my little daughter when she was born. Saw me go back to school to get a degree,” Jerry reflected. “In February of 2015, our landlord helped us buy our house. We’ve been homeowners now for over a year.”

Resources like TRIP also helped with the big investment, he said.

Regarding how to help the overall issue of vacant properties, from his experience, Jerry felt that landlords need to be held more accountable and need to be more present on their properties.

“Things always work out,” said Jerry, who is a community ambassador as part of Breathing Lights.

“Breathing Lights is a great opportunity to bring awareness of this growing problem,” he continued. “How does society expect children to have a bright view on life when they see blight every day. I’m glad this is bringing awareness. I hope something positive comes of this.”

Lisa Crompton, Albany | On the west side of the Hudson River, the cities of Albany and Schenectady are part of Breathing Lights.

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In the West Hill neighborhood of Albany and throughout her city, Lisa Crompton is spreading the word about the project.

“I think just about every building is worth saving,” said the UAlbany grad who now works for Historic Albany. “Vacant buildings get a really bad rap in the city of Albany.”

But Lisa and her colleagues know the city has some great housing stock – homes built for affluent bankers, businessmen and the like.

“They have great character and typically a unique past.”

Original wood planks. Original windows. Beautiful friezes. Wood cornice. These are just some of the architectural treasures Lisa sees with her pursuit to preserve buildings in Albany.

“Neighborhoods such as the South End Goesbruck Historic District have adorable houses from the mid 19th century, with great charm. These houses were built by European immigrants and reflect a variety of architectural features. It’s great to learn about the people who lived in these now-vacant buildings. They were peddlers, butchers, blacksmiths, all living in tight row houses on bustling streets. Today, many of those buildings are gone and large gaps are left in their place, streets are empty and neighborhoods struggling to stay connected,” she said.

“Vacant buildings are seen as eyesores. Your quality of life is less as businesses do not want to be where there are no people. Crime increases as a direct result and property values plunge.”

On top of this, the young generation – as well as some of their elders - sees these buildings as creepy, unsafe, scary, and ugly.

“Buildings are like paintings; some are good, some are bad, but all were created to be visual and create something that wasn’t there before. All buildings create a sense of place and feeling, which is what I always try to preserve. How you feel walking down State Street is completely different than when you are at a strip mall. West Hill has a completely different feeling that Pine Hills. They represent different times in Albany’s social, economic and cultural history that are all important to retain and represent.”

Lisa is still working on spreading her passion for these buildings and spreading the word on Breathing Lights.

“The reaction I’ve been receiving is typically, ‘I didn’t know about that’ or ‘Really, here? These buildings?’”

Lisa added, “The beauty of this project is that it makes people do a double take to what they might have always looked at as ugly, or abandoned, no-go buildings. And hopefully they think of what they once were. They weren’t built to look run down or sit vacant… they were built to be admired and be a home, a point of pride no matter how basic the design. I hope people will realize that and start looking more at their environment, and maybe see that it is beautiful or can be even more beautiful. I hope people both from the neighborhood and those who never come through here realize that these are true neighborhoods and have great potential.”

In The Community

Join the Conversation

The Bloomberg Philanthropies Public Art Challenge

The Bloomberg Philanthropies Public Art Challenge engages mayors to collaborate with artists on developing innovative public art projects that enrich communities and attract visitors. In June 2015, four teams were selected to receive up to $1 million each over the next two years to create temporary public art projects in their cities that celebrate creativity, enhance urban identity, encourage public-private partnerships, and drive economic development.

Learn more about the Bloomberg Philanthropies Public Art Challenge​ recepients from around the nation:

Arthouse: A Social Kitchen

Current: LA Water

Seeing Spartanburg in a New Light