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Rethink art project for vacancies

Rethink art project for vacancies

Lighting up vacant houses will draw criminals' attention

Nothing says, "Come vandalize me because no one's living here," more than red, blue and green lights pulsing behind windows covered in butcher block paper.

As if the city of Schenectady needs to draw more attention from criminals to its vacant home problem, two Troy artists have finagled $1 million from a private foundation to turn 300 abandoned properties in economically disadvantaged neighborhoods in Schenectady, Albany and Troy into an art project.

The project, called "Breathing Lights," is intended to send the not-so-subtle message that these vacant buildings are not dead, but alive (hence, the pulsing part).

Lighting up the vacant buildings like Christmas for two months in the middle of autumn will create what the artists call an "evocative visual experience," while drawing attention to the problem of vacancies in downtrodden neighborhoods. Schenectady Mayor Gary McCarthy hopes to use the lights project to market the buildings to potential buyers.

Far be it for us to decide what constitutes art. And since the project isn't being paid for with taxpayer money, far be it for us to tell a private foundation how to spend its own money.

While we don't know if this is legitimate art or not, we do know potential trouble when we see it. And there just seems to be something reckless about advertising the fact that a property is unoccupied by lighting it up special at night.

We all leave a light on inside our homes when we go on vacation. And if we're going to be gone for a longer period of time, we schedule a neighborhood kid to come mow the lawn. The idea is that you want to discourage potential vandals by making them believe someone is home.

That's the same reason why the state attorney general's office and urban governments like Schenectady's are working so hard to keep owners facing foreclosure from abandoning their homes, and why they're pressuring banks and other mortgage holders to ensure that so-called "zombie properties" are maintained, even when their owners abandon them.

The theory is the same — the less these vacant buildings stand out as being vacant, the less likely they are to be targeted for vandalism, squatting, drug dealing and other illicit acts.

But this art project is going to send the opposite message. It's going to let everyone know exactly which buildings are unoccupied and which are easy marks for criminal acts. When the light show ends at 10 p.m. each night and the houses go dark, what happens then? We can only surmise.

Did anyone really think this project through? And will they really want to go forward with it once they do?

We're as much for evocative visual experiences as the next guy. But not at the expense of our city's most vulnerable properties.

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