If you’ve been reading Design*Sponge over the past few weeks, you know that we firmly believe that Valentine’s Day isn’t just about celebrating romantic love. It’s about celebrating any love. You can send a Valentine to your boyfriend, but you can also send one to your best friend. Or your pet turtle. Or your favorite tree. In Buffalo, New York, an energetic group of forward-thinking preservationists decided to take this notion to its extreme and send Valentines to some of the city’s most endangered buildings in desperate need of love. The idea is called “heart bombing,” and it’s awesome.
An appropriation of the street-art term “bombing,” this version is the brainchild of Jason Wilson and Bernice Radle, two of the founding members of Buffalo’s Young Preservationists. Conceptually, the idea is quite simple: Choose a number of endangered buildings from the city’s demolition list and cover them, sometimes rather haphazardly, with an explosion of paper hearts and love letters. Despite their innocuous appearance, these heart bombs pack quite a punch. In a city that has been dealt more than its fair share of economic hardship, they send a searing and urgent message: These buildings need love, and they need it now. “This is a way to shine a positive light and help the public understand that there are great buildings out there in need of attention, new ownership and ultimately — a new life,” Bernice says.
What started last year as an exclusively Buffalonian project has expanded into a national grassroots movement. This year, heart-bombing events have taken place in a range of places, such as Ohio, Louisiana and Texas. With urban rehabilitation on the rise and Rust Belt cities like Buffalo becoming more desirable places to live, one can only hope that this is just the beginning of this lovely trend.
Bernice Radle: Buffalo’s Young Preservationists is a large group of engaged and excited young professionals interested in Buffalo, planning, architecture and preservation. We come together to save buildings, celebrate Buffalo and to advocate and educate the public on why our historic buildings and neighborhoods should be saved. We push to do things a little differently than most organizations do — we like getting really creative with preservation initiatives to bring a different perspective to the table, one that is exciting, inspiring and lighthearted. But don’t be fooled; we can be tough, determined and serious when we need to be!
D*S: Whose idea was “heart bombing?” What do you hope to accomplish with the event?
Bernice Radle: Jason Wilson did a Christmas time “Bow Bomb” on a vacant house in Buffalo’s East Side in 2011, and afterward, a little light went off in my head, and I said to Jason, “Wouldn’t it be great to put hearts on some of the vacant buildings? We could call it Heart Bombs!”
Well, that idea stuck. We organized the first heart bomb event in February 2012, and we made hearts with lace, doilies, construction paper, etc. It was so much fun! While we crafted, we picked out four historic gems we found on the City of Buffalo’s demolition list. With hearts saying “Love me, don’t leave me” and “Invest in me,” our plan was to bring a little attention to these houses in a lighthearted fashion. And guess what? All four buildings are standing today; two of them are now in the process of being purchased from the City of Buffalo while the other two we continue to find owners for.
With this year’s event, we heart bombed five buildings — two houses, a church, a large daylight factory and a four-story brick building. The Trico building, a nationally registered daylight factory, is the largest and most known locally on the list. The owners have threatened to demolish half of the building — removing its ability to get the valuable historic tax credits needed to rehab the entire structure. Over the next year, our goal is to market and bring awareness to all of these buildings with the hope that they will become occupied and back on the tax rolls.
We are also encouraging other organizations to take this idea of heart bombs and run with it. Maybe it could become a national preservation holiday?!!?? Heart Bombs!!!
D*S: You recently moved here from Palm Springs, California. What brought you to Buffalo, and what makes your love for the city so strong?
Bernice Radle: Actually, I am originally from Niagara Falls, NY, but left the minute I could and headed West! I was convinced that California was the answer! Sprawl, cars and no seasons? I should have known better!
In 2007, I moved back and settled in Buffalo. I didn’t know what urban planning was at the time, but I knew I wanted to live in a place that had a sense of community, one that is affordable, unique and walkable. And I am so glad I did!!!
My love for Buffalo is pretty intense.
I wake up every day ready and driven by the idea of making change and creating growth through good urban design, preservation and creative thinking. Buffalo is a place where you can make things happen, and I thrive on being part of the wheel turning things in Buffalo. I am one of many who think, act and do for Buffalo. I can’t speak for everyone, but many of the BYPers hardly sleep, work crazy hard (usually for free) and live on coffee, but being part of the change is an incredibly awesome feeling and all worth it. I am convinced that the couple of grey hairs I have recently grown can be blamed on Buffalo!
Bernice Radle: Geez, that’s a good question . . . I love the grain elevators, and I am thrilled that they are now getting more attention! Larkin Land is very cool, and its growth is super inspiring to all Buffalonians. I am really excited for the West Side of Buffalo — it’s a growing area of the city where you can afford to live, walk to local coffee shops and stores and travel easily via bike, foot or bus. It’s diverse, raw and unique . . . I just love, love, LOVE the West Side.
D*S: Where would you like to see Buffalo in 10 years?
Bernice Radle: Overall, I would like to see Buffalo in every damn magazine, newspaper and blog for how cool, innovative and unique it is. I see Buffalo becoming a national leader when it comes to urban planning policy, adaptive reuse projects and preservation/restoration of existing buildings. Between our major preservation projects, continued increase in demand for restoration jobs and new form-based zoning codes, we are paving the way to see continued growth and success in our city.
I really want Buffalo to become a city that finally believes in itself and its ability to be a GREAT city. Maybe 10 years of successes and excitement will give us the confidence our leaders had 100 years ago. I dream of the day when people stop saying, “Well you should have seen what was here before.” I want Buffalo to take risks, remain open to creative ideas and youthful, edgy change and stay dedicated to creating strong, dense and well-designed places and spaces. I don’t want us to accept ourselves as a “good second-tier city” because, honestly, that is not good enough. If we think big, we will expect big and therefore get big!
D*S: Design*Sponge is all about supporting independent artists, designers and craftspeople. Tell us why Buffalo is a great place for aspiring and working artists!
Bernice Radle: I have seen fashion shows in churches, art shows in abandoned train terminals and dance parties, choirs and art openings in our grain elevators. Our existing building stock caters and amplifies our artists to think bigger and louder.
In the preservation world, we have a group called Painting for Preservation. It’s a group of people who get together to sit in front of a building and draw/paint/sketch, whatever their medium is, the building as a way to document the building in its existing state. They have captured demolitions in action and raw/decay, but what is really awesome [is] it inspires others to take a minute, look at and appreciate the incredible architectural gems we have across the City. P4P even has art gallery openings to celebrate and show off the art!
Below is a full list of properties “heart bombed” this year, from the Buffalo’s Young Preservationists press release. If you’re interested in any of these properties, please contact BYP at BYPteam (at) gmail (dot) com.
1214 Michigan Street — A single-family house, on the edge of the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus
This single-family house is in great shape and has a ton of original character. This house has original hardwood trim, floors, doors — you name it, this one has it; it’s a real historic gem. This house is currently threatened with demolition by its current owner who has neglected the property for years. During our visit to the property, we met a neighbor who explained her frustrating one-year-long attempt to purchase the house. The current owner has rejected all offers and is convinced that demolishing the property is the only alternative. This, of course, is a very common problem. However, it is not too late! BYP aims to market this property and is willing to work with interested buyers and connect them with the city and the owner to keep this historic house off the landfill.
Trico Plant # 1 Building — A daylight factory in downtown Buffalo
Trico is an iconic, National Register-listed building that continues to be threatened with demolition by the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus. For the last year, BYP and other preservationists in the community have been working with the current owner to identify an alternative adaptive reuse for the historic landmark. Local preservationists have hired professionals to investigate and identify an alternative proposal that will save the entire building, one that mixes new uses with its historic character. With several other examples of successful reuses across the city, state and nation, saving Trico is a no brainer for the growing Medical Campus. Visit www.savetrico.com for more information.
1469 Niagara Street — A four-story brick mixed-use building on Buffalo’s West Side
This is a great story! When BYP went to Heart Bomb this handsome four-story building, the owner was on site working on the property! Come to find out, the owner is working on rehabbing the building slowly over the winter with plans to have the building fully rehabbed and rented by this summer. The owner commented firsthand about the challenges of purchasing a long-vacant building. The past owner was sentenced to jail for the prior neglect of the property, which made the transfer of it even more difficult. BYP has offered to extend a helping hand if the new owner needs any assistance.
41 Spruce Street — an East Side church
This simple yet elegant 1880s church has been marked for demolition by its current congregation despite several attempts from the community to purchase it. Unlike other vacant religious structures, this is a church that can easily be converted or reused due to its manageable size.
221 Florida Street — A double in the historic Hamlin Park Preservation District
This two-unit house has been city owned since 2009 and was picked by BYP because of its location and existing condition. This house is manageable in size, a moneymaker for any potential owner and is also located in the historic Hamlin Park neighborhood on Buffalo’s East Side. A National Register Historic District initiative, led by local consulting firm Preservation Studios, is currently underway and will provide the future owner of this property with the ability to use Historic Preservation Tax Credits as part of any rehab effort. The Historic Preservation Tax Credit program provides owners with tax initiatives to invest in their historic properties when it might otherwise be cost prohibitive to do so. This house is in decent shape and can easily be yours.
Above image: Jason Wilson and Bernice Radle of Buffalo’s Young Preservationists