Step cautiously, Bernice Radle warns.
“There are these spiders,” she says, hunching over to scrunch her barely 5-foot-2 frame into the low-ceiling basement of her soon-to-be-home. This circa-1860s cottage on Buffalo’s West Side is broken: The brick walls are stripped bare, the wooden floor is pocked, the white and blue exterior is peeling. The stairs to the basement are dusty and cracked. At any moment, an arachnid – maybe dead, maybe alive – may crunch beneath your feet.
“The spiders turn white after they die,” Radle says. “It’s nasty. It reminds me of a horror movie.”
In its current state, this house is unlivable, even ugly. But Radle has built her life around the concept of transforming the seemingly untenable into something impressive.
She did it once; today she’s in the midst of doing it again.
Radle, 29, is a familiar name for her work in preservation, energy efficiency and urban planning. She rehabilitates old homes, like this cottage, which she bought for a dollar off the city’s demolition list. (Rather than renting it out, she’s going to live in it). She’s politically active and a vocal proponent for preservation. She’ll tell you her efforts as one of the team of people who fought to save the Trico Building downtown aged her. “I have gray hairs on my head specifically for that building,” she says.
Radle’s long locks, which plunge halfway down her back, are consistently dark; no gray visible. But her point’s taken: She’s worked hard, won awards, been featured in the New York Times and Huffington Post, and is a frequent keynote speaker at preservation and urban planning conferences.
This week, her national profile rises higher. With her now-ex-husband and former business partner, Jason Wilson, she’s the star of a DIY Network television show, “American Rehab Buffalo.” All six episodes will premiere on DIY beginning at 9 p.m. Wednesday.
To be young, entrepre- neurial, effective and celebrated. Sounds pretty good, doesn’t it?
The story gets even more enticing when you consider Radle’s roots: She grew up poor in Niagara Falls, with parents who loved her and her younger sister, Lynne, very much, but lived what Radle calls “a very, very simple life. They didn’t know any better, and they didn’t want better.”
Her mother, Doris, has long been ill and unable to work or even communicate verbally. Her father, John, was a painter and craftsman who did odd jobs for a living. He taught Radle to paint and use a hammer, skills on which she built the work she does today. But he didn’t push her to think big or aim high; that’s not who he was. “You don’t need to go to college,” John Radle once told her. “You can go work at Frankie’s Donuts and have a great job.”
The Radle sisters’ worldview was blown wide open by their aunt, Joni Paul, whom Radle describes as “a single mother, dynamite, sassy Niagara Falls woman.” Joni moved to Palm Springs, Calif., when the girls were young. But when she returned to visit, Joni would rent a convertible, pick up her nieces, put the top down, and take them on drives with the wind in their hair.
“She exposed us to stuff we’d never been exposed to, like going to the mall,” Radle says. Joni also encouraged both girls to pursue college. After high school, Radle lived in California with her aunt for a few years, then returned here and earned an urban planning degree from SUNY Buffalo State at age 25.
That was 2011. The next year, Radle teamed with Wilson, who would later become her husband and TV show co-star, to start Buffalove Development, a company that rehabilitates old homes using energy-efficient materials.
Things were good, even dreamy. By 2014, a television production company working with Scripps Networks (the parent company of DIY) booked the then-engaged couple for its “American Rehab” series. For four months, Radle and Wilson worked 12-hour days on camera renovating a home on 19th Street on Buffalo’s West Side. They married in July 2014, in the midst of shooting and with TV cameras all around.
“You’re in a great relationship, you get married, you’re in this magazine, that magazine, you’re on a TV show,” Radle says. “At some point, you need to slow down.”
Or crash. Which is what happened at the end of 2014.
It started in December when, five months after their wedding, Radle and Wilson decided to divorce. Two months later, Radle’s father was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, a fast-moving disease. With their father no longer able to care for his wife, Bernice and Lynne Radle moved their mom into a nursing home.
“Nobody is immune to the trials and tribulations that are way beyond your control,” Radle says. “For years I had been building up this very great life, and everybody needs to be brought back down. I was like, ‘Oh my God, my head is going to explode.’ ”
As she dealt with the end of her marriage and her dad’s grave diagnosis, Radle started to reel in her life. Looking for a fresh start, she switched jobs, leaving her position as an energy consultant for Buffalo Energy and joining City Dining Cards as a regional director for Buffalo and Pittsburgh. She stepped back from her political activism, decreased her roles in community organizations and boards, and “ditched friends that were negative in my life.”
“I’m a really positive person, always,” Radle says. “I feel like the universe takes the time to smack you in the face, and you should follow that path and listen to whatever is happening.”
A now smaller, tighter group of friends has stood by Radle as she resets her life. So has Drew Brown, the co-founder of Rise Collaborative, an organization that promotes small business in Buffalo. Earlier this year, Radle suggested to Brown, “Let’s get coffee and talk about Buffalo,” Over time, that friendship blossomed into a full relationship.
“It’s been a transformative year,” Radle says. “It’s been the hardest year. It’s been the most negative, the most challenging, but at the same time, a year to redefine myself.” She’s still emerging from the changes.
There’s coping: One month ago, Radle’s maternal grandfather, Norman Paul, died after a struggle with Alzheimer’s disease. Then her father succumbed to the pancreatic cancer on a Wednesday morning two weeks ago. The previous evening, over a coffee Bernice brought him from Sweet_ness 7 Café, he was giving her advice on how to paint the high peak of a house she’s renovating on Massachusetts Avenue.
There’s a new sense of freedom, too: Buffalove Development is now solely Radle’s responsibility; Wilson is no longer involved. After retreating from the spotlight for several months, Radle has booked two keynote speeches for 2016 and, of course, will be featured on a national TV series.
But instead of balancing her professional roles, the new Radle is determined to balance her life. Last Sunday, Radle and Brown drove to Chestnut Ridge in Orchard Park and hiked to the Eternal Flame.
Later that day, sitting on a dusty wooden bench inside the cottage she’s renovating, Radle is reflective. She’s thinking about her tumultuous 2015. She replays in her mind the last eight years: a blur of college, jobs, starting a company, community activism, interviews, speeches, a TV show.
And then she thinks about the pure simplicity of the hike. It was a peaceful outing so close to home, yet so far away from the life she was living.
“I never took time to take a 20-minute drive down and do that,” Radle says. “It was super fun, and I’d never done it.”
It made her smile. Radle is ready again for the hammers, microphones and TV cameras that have defined her career. But none of them outweigh the significance of that smile.