The Martin Drake Power Plant
is a spotlight hog.
Locally, its significance goes beyond other urban eyesores and public health concern
With all the talk around Colorado Springs Utilities' pending Electric Integrated Resource Plan (EIRP)
— plus the much larger national debate over President Obama and the EPA's lame-ass
Clean Power Plan — Drake has largely become a symbol of dirty coal
and outdated fossil fuels.
Its steam stacks are ground zero for the debate, representing a future we can either prolong or avoid.
Pennsylvania's SteelStacks offers one model for creatively repurposing historic industrial landmarks. The lights, in this case, illuminate non-operational steam stacks.
According to the Clean Air Task Force
, via the Sierra Club
Retiring one dirty coal-burning plant will prevent:
more than 29 premature deaths
47 heart attacks
491 asthma attacks
22 asthma emergency room visits
That said, it's not surprising to find controversy boiling over artist and Cultural Office of the Pikes Peak Region executive director Andy Vick
's idea to Light the Drake
, despite City Council's enthusiasm.
Writer Billie Stanton Anleu outlines the "outrage to some in Colorado Springs
" in the Aug. 4 issue of the Gazette
Anleu cites dissent from local science teacher Laura Van Der Pol
, outspoken Old Town Bike Shop owner John Crandall
and Monument-based attorney Leslie Weise
Anleu quotes Van Der Pol as saying:
If they wanted to put on a skull and crossbones or numbers showing the nitrogen oxides put into our air, OK. But not masking it as something beautiful we should glorify.
And Weise as saying:
To consider beautifying the Drake plant with pretty lights while it still burns coal would be an embarrassing symbol associated with our city ... What makes this proposed project even more offensive is to consider lighting Drake as a backdrop for the Olympics (Museum), which upon last check remains an international symbol for good health and personal excellence.
And Vick, defending his idea:
I respect their opinion, but our job at COPPeR is to work to elevate the arts in our community and help to use the assets and resources available to us to make a statement about art. I'm just not interested in making a political issue about it.
In the KOAA piece I link to above, inspiration is credited to a "similar lighting project used on an old steel mill in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania," with Vick saying:
Instead of fighting what was there, they decided to embrace it and use art as a way to engage the community and it added some kind of excitement, and wow factor if you will to those structure and we're hoping to do the exact same thing here with the Drake Power Plant.
The obvious difference in this case is that the SteelStacks
project Vick is ostensibly referencing is a "ten-acre campus dedicated to arts, culture, family events, community celebrations, education and fun," sitting atop what was formerly
the nation's second-largest steel manufacturing plant, which ceased operations in November, 1995.
They've been revitalized in a way similar to Birmingham, Alabama's Sloss Furnaces
, which have been designated as a national historic landmark.
On her Facebook page, Van Der Pol commented on a link to the article:
What the Gazette's original article neglected to mention, is that similar projects in other towns beautified power plants that were ALREADY decommissioned. If the art project could coincide with decommissioning Drake and was an intermediate stage between Drake the Superfund Site, and Drake the Community Center — I would be all for it.
From the sidelines, it's easy to see how Vick comes across as tone deaf in the above media exchanges and with his idea, though his heart for public beautification seems to be in the right place.
Other than embracing Drake and trying to "put lipstick on that baby," in Councilman Don Knight
's words, we aren't really hearing much of a "statement about art" from Vick. (Other than it can potentially be useful in transforming ugly things into pretty things?)
This is the COPPeR news page on its website recently said about the initiative:
Regardless of future usage of the Drake, the stacks will be part of our built landscape Downtown for many years. COPPeR is leading the charge to use dynamic, state of the art lighting to make the stacks an attractive backdrop for economic development in Downtown and an enticement for travelers on I-25. We are working with a committee of local stakeholders to make this project a positive example of how creativity can brighten the future for our city.
Though Vick may not be interested in "making a political issue about it," it comes across as naive to think he would be able to avoid doing so.
To illuminate an operational coal plant in the night sky simply for "wow factor" seems as careless as accidentally championing Monsanto for producing pesticides that wreak havoc all over our environment. (Laser Lights Over the Lab!)
make a statement, as it has brilliantly, in multifold forms, for thousands of years. And art that takes on political issues
acts as an important voice, mirror and catalyst in communities. Van Der Pol's idea for a skull and crossbones would at least be saying something by way of critical commentary.
Let's proverbially shine lights on corruption, underserved citizens, crumbling infrastructure, budget woes, etc., and hold off on the the actual LEDs until Drake's done fuming and we have a healthful community space worth celebrating.
Vick's current push feels like a missed opportunity for true art activism
or a social movement, which would arguably be a better way to "elevate the arts in our community" through his role at COPPeR. We don't want our city-sanctioned arts advocate appearing as a booster of big industry — an intended effect or not — or as a toothless pet to City Council (also our Utilities Board).
"Wow" us with something different that points the way forward, not backward. Light the Drake wouldn't celebrate local history or legacy as much as it would make a worrisome wart glow.