The bright lights of cities and downtowns are powerful enticements—drawing tourists and locals to locations like New York City’s Times Square, London’s Piccadilly Circus, and the Las Vegas Strip. These urban places are filled with life and charged with energy, activity, and people.
But what happens when the lights go out?
A darkened downtown is a sign that something is amiss. Shuttered stores and empty sidewalks drain streets of vitality and excitement and the darkness creates a sense of danger—whether real or imagined. So, how do you bring the lights back on?
In the early 2000s, York, Alabama, a small town (pop. 3,000) located in the Black Belt region of the South, was struggling with poverty after the demise of the agricultural economy around which the town was built. Issues of racial segregation compounded these economic challenges. The town is nearly 80 percent African American and almost 40 percent of its population lives below the poverty line.
In May 2006, York’s Coleman Center for the Arts (CCA)—a not-for-profit organization founded on the belief that public art programs can engage communities in dialogue and problem solving—launched a project called The Darkest Hour Is Just Before the Dawn, taken from a speech delivered by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. during the time of the Montgomery bus boycotts.
Resident artists Owen Mundy and Joelle Dietrick came up with the idea of a community-based project that would symbolically “light up” the downtown. The artists borrowed lamps from the homes of participating York residents and installed them in the ground-floor windows of an abandoned grocery store, which had most recently been used to store FEMA supplies after Hurricane Katrina.
After the installation space had been cleared of debris, the lamps were displayed on FEMA water boxes. Around sunset each evening, they were turned on one-by-one until the entire first floor façade was glowing. The grouping of individually donated light fixtures, set ablaze, represented, as the artists explain, “the possibility that collective action can impact our communities in positive and lasting ways.” The lamps were all shapes, sizes, and colors, reflecting the diversity of the community and personal tastes of each individual.
The project brought people back to the downtown to view the installation and offered a sign of hope and optimism, according to Shana Berger and Nathan Purath, co-directors of the CCA. During the installation, people began to rethink the old grocery building, and it became “the talk of the town.” Subsequently, developers made several purchase offers. The building was ultimately sold and the new owner rehabilitated it and opened a new store.
CCA has worked on several other projects in York that, like the lighting of the downtown, create what Berger calls an “integrated social space where the community can address issues.” From the creation of a community garden to hosting community dinners and working with resident artists, the CCA is helping to capture the enthusiasm and imagination of the collective community—and sparking positive change.