Heart Bombs: Young Preservationists Spreading the Love

by Maxwell Tielman

Photographs by Jason Wilson

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.

After the jump, we talk with BYP member Bernice Radle about heart bombing, her love of Buffalo and her hopes for the city’s future. — Max

Design*Sponge: Tell us a little bit about Buffalo’s Young Preservationists. What was the impetus for its creation?

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!

D*S: What are your favorite things about Buffalo right now?

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

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  • I’m a native Rochestarian who spent a lot of time in Buffalo when I was a kid. I LOVE this idea and am so happy to see my peers taking ownership over their city. Go Sabres!

  • What an awesome idea! I love how such a seemingly simple idea is making such big waves! Very inspirational. One question, the article mentioned that a Texas building was heart bombed. Any idea as to where? I live in Texas and I’m curious. Keep up the good work!

  • I’m very glad to learn about Buffalo’s Young Preservationists – thanks! It’s such a good idea.

  • I love this initiative–it creates visibility.

    Poor Buffalo, however. It just can’t seem to get political leadership with two brain cells–which is why many of us left years ago. How can Mayor Brown be so stupid and allow this neglect to persist? Does he not see the INTERNATIONAL coverage of Buffalo’s architecture? For how many other reasons is Buffalo written about in a positive light?

    Stop this neglect, take actions (other than demolitions). If necessary–read a newspaper (cities from Syracuse to Providence are taking actions to get neglected, vacant properties in the hands of people who will do something with them–artists, graduate students, civic workers, etc.)

    Sorry, Buffalo. But you clearly have a moron on your hands.

    • Buffalo Fan: I couldn’t disagree more! While Buffalo certainly has some poor politicians, what place doesn’t? In recent years, I’ve seen Buffalo blossom before my eyes. Mayor Brown, to his credit, has played a significant role in supporting some of the positive changes afoot in the city right now. It’s going to be a slow and steady process, for sure, but things are getting pretty exciting! Check out all of the fabulous things going on in my Buffalo City Guide here: http://www.designsponge.com/2012/09/buffalo-ny-city-guide.html

  • Bernice- Let’s bring this to Newburgh! I would love to start a movement. If you set up a tour- keep me posted I am there! @ Cher- I am a native Newburghain currently working in affordable housing. I love your blog! I would love to follow Bernices’ model in Newburgh- schoenbergersamantha@gmail.com

  • As a preservationist and architectural historian, I’m thrilled to see D*S finally giving some attention to the preservation movement (thanks, Max!). After all, so many of the homes featured on the are historic! I’d love to see a regular column (hint, hint) pertaining to historic interiors and restoration, adaptive reuse, and architectural history.

  • I guess we have our own realities, then, Maxwell.

    See, I view it as the people of Buffalo who are making this great change (which is unrefutable), such as this group is doing. The change is certainly not coming from the government or, specifically, Brown. On the topic of preservation alone he has been asleep at the wheel (at best).

    I can only imagine where the city would be if it had smart leadership of, say, a John Norquist or Cory Booker.

    Anyway, again, kudos to this group.

  • YAY! As someone who lives in a historical, transitional neighborhood, I joined a group of people who not only had to fix their own old houses, but we had to fix what was outside those houses! Thank you, D*S, for finally addressing the area surrounding our houses (because, sometimes, it affects how we feel inside or whether we even buy those houses).

  • I love the notion that valentines day is about all typed of love, not just the romantic type, and I DOUBLE LOVE how this project harnesses valentine’s enthusiasm for a social awareness campaign! Great job Buffalo Preservationists!

  • I live in Buffalo and am so inspired by your posts about our hometown! Thank you… and keep the Buffalove coming! Happy Valentines!

  • besides this post being the bomb, this expat wants to know where she can score that “i like you, i love buffalo” t-shirt?

  • My mom was born in Buffalo. Both of my Grandparents were born and raised there. My siblings and I are from L.A.. Many years ago, when I was a young teen my grandparents took two of my cousins and myself back there to stay for a month, one summer. Is there any way I could purchase one of the restore Buffalo T-shirts? I’m sure my, now deceased, grandparents would be very proud of what these young people are doing.

  • So awesome to see more Buffalo on Design Sponge! Bernice, Jason and the rest of the BYP guys do so much good for our city!

  • Yes, I am a Buffalo native as well. I grew up on the east side of Buffalo. I wish some of the buildings on the east side would be restored because a lot of the area has become run down over the years. I reside in New York City but my mom and other family members still live there in North Buffalo. PLEASE look in to improving downtown Buffalo.

    P.S. I heart that Buffalo t-shirt Bernice! Can you please tell me where I can purchase this shirt? I want to represent my city in the big apple. Thanks.

  • I have fought to save buildings half my live in England, I’m 58 but I’m so so glad young people are getting in engaged its so yes heartening!!!

  • Bernice’s hard work, energy and enthusiasm are really inspiring!! Every city needs more Bernice Radles!

  • Thank you SO MUCH for your work and creativity in saving these Buffalo buildings. I moved to Boston 7 years ago, but I still love Buffalo, and what I love IS those beautiful old buildings. I always HATE to hear about buildings being demolished. When in Bflo, I took a course on the architecture, in order to become a volunteer tour guide. While I never ended up giving tours, I loved just gazing at the beautiful old buildings, and learning about their history. If I were still there, I would join you. Keep up the great work!

  • Just sent this link to my sister, an architect who graduated from SUNY BUFF and really loved the school and the town. She recognizes some of the buildings in the pictures and was so glad to see this post. So am I. What a beautiful idea, to share our love with the wonderful buildings that house, protect and inspire us all.
    Once again, I read Design Sponge and walk away with new inspiration and expanded vision of the world around us. Thank you DS.

  • I just love seeing posts about my home city Buffalo on D*S! Now, a current SF-resident, I always carry the 716-pride with me!

  • Nothing would make me happier than to see the rebirth of this city! I’m glad there’s a group dedicated to saving these historic places