To Revive Your Old Neighborhood, Think Small

Iowa Culture
Apr 8 · 4 min read

Bernice Radle wants you to think small.

When she comes to Newton this summer for the Preserve Iowa Summit, she’ll encourage hundreds of historic preservationists, developers, architects and community leaders to dream big. But think small. Do small. Take on small projects, one by one, and see how they add up.

First a coffee shop. Then a record store. Then maybe a few single-family homes around the corner.

“Coffee shops are where revolutions are made,” she said over the phone from her home in Buffalo, New York. “It doesn’t take an army. It just takes a couple of people.”

Bernice Radle (Photos courtesy of Bernice Radle)

Radle has led the charge in her neighborhood and has turned her passion for historic preservation into a small but mighty empire, which she’ll discuss during her keynote address at the summit in Newton.

She runs Buffalove Development and Little Wheel Restoration Co., serves on the city’s zoning board, is a faculty member of Incremental Development Alliance and is active with Buffalo’s Young Preservationists.

A recent project in Buffalo, New York.

Now in her early 30s, Radle grew up in Niagara Falls, New York, and watched her hometown decline after Nabisco stopped making shredded wheat there in 1992. The factory kept making Triscuits, but Kraft bought the operation in 2000 and shut it down the next year.

She moved to Buffalo, 20 minutes down the road, but the prospects weren’t much better. Like lots of Rust Belt cities — Detroit, Pittsburgh, Cleveland and others — Buffalo suffered when factories shut down.

Folks moved away. Property values sank. Buildings fell into disrepair.

Here in Iowa, Newton faced similar challenges when Whirlpool bought Maytag in 2006 and closed the plant where, at its peak, more than 3,000 people used to make washing machines.

“I get it. I’m a poverty kid,” Radle said of her scrappy childhood, when she used to tag along with her dad to paint houses. “When you talk about a hierarchy of needs, food and shelter are a lot higher on the list than historic preservation.”

But there are some upsides, she said. Many older buildings are inherently more energy-efficient — or would be if they were properly maintained. And sometimes, they’re cheap.

In Buffalo, she recently bought a small 1865 house for $1 after convincing the seller that it would be cheaper to let her assume his debts and fees ($5,000) than to shell out much more for demolition (about $15,000).

She plans to install solar panels to make the home net-zero, to help it consume no more energy than the house produces. She bought the adjoining lot for $500 and plans to plant it with lilacs. She also filled out some paperwork to designate the house as a historic landmark, a brick cottage typical of working families in the late 1800s.

“That’s the fun part about cities like Buffalo,” she said. “It can be hard to find the financing for bigger projects, but you have so much access.”

“It’s the same in Newton,” she added. “In a world where millennials are strapped with a ton of debt, but people want to have kids and live a comfortable life, cities like these should rebrand themselves as places with low barriers for entry. There’s so much opportunity there.”

During the Preserve Iowa Summit, visitors will get a chance to tour the grand old Hotel Maytag, which the city and developer Jack Hatch are returning to its former glory after decades of neglect. The project includes 45 apartments, plus a few small businesses, a movie theater and a restaurant.

It’s a big win for historic preservation. But it’s not the kind of project that most people can tackle by themselves.

So Radle hopes to rally folks who don’t have a lot of extra cash or know-how.

“Pretty much anyone who cares about their community can and should be a building owner and a small-scale developer,” she said. “If I can do it, you can do it.”

— Michael Morain, Iowa Department of Cultural Affairs

Iowa History

State Historical Society of Iowa. Preserving and providing access to Iowa History.

Iowa Culture

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The Iowa Department of Cultural Affairs empowers Iowa to build and sustain culturally vibrant communities by connecting Iowans to resources. iowaculture.gov

Iowa History

State Historical Society of Iowa. Preserving and providing access to Iowa History.