“Breathing Lights” Gives New Life in to Abandoned Buildings Across New York State

Photo: Schenectady Breathing Lights

Abandoned buildings are like bodies without souls. Emptied of all life, they stand resolute as decay begins to eat away at what remains. Described as “zombie properties,” foreclosed buildings become a burden on the state, as the local government inherits the property and its maintenance. But that maintenance is minimal, requiring its only meet code, and slowly but surely these structures begin to erode. They become health hazards, invite crime, and lower property values, triggering mass exodus from those who can afford to flee.

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Ultimately, abandoned buildings become mythological symbols of everything from haunted houses to urban blight, indicating our propensity to make the bad even worse. But, as with many things, perception (rather than fact) is central to belief. With this understanding, Breathing Lights, a new public art project, aims to change what we see—and therefore how we see—the world.

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Breathing Lights illuminates hundreds of abandoned buildings across Albany, Schenectady, and Troy, New York, between the hours of 6pm-10pm in October and November 2016. Two years in the making, Breathing Lights is the brainchild of Principal Artist Adam Frelin and Lead Architect Barbara Nelson, who have worked with mayoral offices, arts communities, business leaders, and residents to make the project a reality.

“The launch of Breathing Lights demonstrates anything is possible with collaboration, hard work and dedication of community partners, staff and volunteers. The project has generated support of the arts, as well as thoughtful conversation about the issues facing New York’s Capital Region,” said Barbara Nelson observed.

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Breathing Lights is the Capital Region’s first large-scale public art project funded through a $1 million grant from Bloomberg Philanthropies Public Art Challenge, beating out 230 other projects vying for the grant. The project extends well beyond the lights themselves, creating a wide array of opportunities to bring the people together through walking and trolley tours, seminars, workshops, films, installations, and performances that are specific to each of the featured neighborhoods.

Breathing Lights focuses on making us look—rather than look away, offering a poignant reminder of the process of redemption and renewal that comes after a crisis. We need not allow destruction to be a limitless process. The very fact that a light in the dark changes our perception of hope, offering us a sense of safety, community, and camaraderie is essential to the process of coming together to rebuild what has been lost.


The flickering lights of Breathing Lights draw the eye, and in doing so, they spark the imagination to new possibilities in our world. It becomes the first step in reversing the impact of years of neglect, generating fresh ideas and energies that foster solution-based thinking. It is a quiet project that exists for the community itself, designed to reintegrate those who have felt alienated by the changes their community has been experiencing. Breathing Lights reminds us that if we change how we see the world, we can change our response to it.

All photos: © Breathing Lights.

Miss Rosen is a New York-based writer, curator, and brand strategist. There is nothing she adores so much as photography and books. A small part of her wishes she had a proper library, like in the game of Clue. Then she could blaze and write soliloquies to her in and out of print loves.