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Photographs by Frank Di Piazza
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If the story of the three little pigs has a moral, surely it’s that brick buildings are safe and enduring. That may be why the rash of brick theft from buildings on the city’s North Side—including walls and even whole buildings taken, in some instances, to sell the bricks—is so strange. It’s the ultimate man-bites-dog story. “It’s the weirdest damn thing in the world,” says Michael Allen, an architectural historian.
As many as 65 buildings in north St. Louis have disappeared in the past several years. Yet few seem to have acknowledged the alarming trend, beyond an article last September in The New York Times by local writer Malcolm Gay, and a few vocal residents like Allen and 4th Ward Alderman Sam Moore.
I first heard about Moore last year, just before Christmas, when he was on KWMU-FM’s St. Louis on the Air talking about brick rustling. It transpires almost exclusively on the city’s North Side, in its poorest neighborhoods, such as Moore’s ward, which encompasses The Ville. On the program, Moore said he’d give anyone a thousand dollars if they could find a single brick stolen south of Delmar Boulevard. Minutes later, he raised it to $10,000. If people in greater St. Louis did not know that chunks of the city were being stolen, it wasn’t for want of his calling attention to it.
The trend was so obvious, he insisted, “even Ray Charles could see it.”
On a brisk day in February, Allen drives through north St. Louis, pointing out the remains of once-sturdy brick buildings. The abandoned structures are easy to spot. The dark cavities where windows once hung burn with their absence, like eye sockets in skulls.
Allen is tall and thin, with a beard, glasses, and a studious pallor. Dressed in an overcoat and a fedora, he is easily mistaken for someone older than his 30 years. As a child, growing up near Belleville and Columbia, Ill., he had “no preconceptions about what a city was supposed to look like.” He recalls being fascinated by St. Louis’ enormous buildings during his family’s frequent trips to the city. Yet the sight of such large, abandoned office buildings left a lasting impression. “If all those buildings had been full of life and people, I may never have chosen the career path that I did, because the state of decay got me thinking: Why would you build a big building like this and let it fall to the ages?” After graduating from college, Allen became assistant director of the Landmarks Association of St. Louis. He worked there for four years, before setting up his own shop, the Preservation Research Office, in August 2009. Today, he provides historic-preservation consultation and research, in an effort to save St. Louis’ urban fabric.
Allen stops by a limestone-faced house on the east end of St. Louis Avenue, dating from the late 1870s or early 1880s. It’s a handsome building, until you peer around the side and see a brick wall has been torn away. “This happened in November,” Allen says. “The house has been abandoned since 1991, according to city records. I have a photo of it from ’72, and it looked pretty unkempt then, but occupied.”
We turn onto Sullivan Avenue, off Parnell Street, where a few houses seem to be collapsing. One’s been fully stripped of its bricks, leaving just a timbered spine of interior walls. “This block has been hit really hard by brick rustlers in the last year,” Allen says. “These were all pretty much hit in the spring and summer.”
It’s tough to pinpoint when the thefts began.
“Some salvation and demolition people will tell you this has gone on since the ’80s,” says Allen, “but they’ve never seen it on the scale it’s escalated to in the last five or six years—never 60 buildings in a three-year period.”
Allen first noticed the problem around 2005, when he was looking to buy a house in the area. “I started noticing these weird, dollhouse-looking buildings that had their walls peeled off,” he recalls. “Honestly, I first thought they were demolition sites that had been abandoned for one reason or another—you know, the contractor doesn’t get paid—until I noticed that what at first was two or three sites multiplied into five or six.” With some research, he discovered no one had applied for demolition permits on the buildings. “It was completely illegal activity,” he says.
For the past several years, he’s kept a photographic log of some areas on the North Side, such as St. Louis Place and The Ville. In that time, he says, “I have documentation of what’s happened to at least 60 or 70 buildings that I know have been worked by thieves.”
In May 2008, 11 buildings on the North Side burned in a three-night period. “It was all one guy setting the fires, working with the brick thieves,” says Allen. Roughly a year ago, there was a spate of four more fires. “They may burn the building down, to get the fire department to loosen up the wall with high-pressure hoses, but they’re burning a building that’s already been abandoned, sometimes for 15 or 20 years,” he says.
“But that’s not something that most of the thieves do,” he continues. “They’re showing up and using bare-knuckle force, pulling chimneys down with ropes, knocking out the base of a wall and letting it cave in. That’s more of the typical approach.”
How many people are involved in brick theft? “Given the number of buildings that have been stolen in the last couple of years, I’d guess a large number, a couple of dozen people at least in St. Louis,” he says. Of the houses demolished on the North Side in that time, Allen thinks about one in three have fallen victim to brick thieves.
The theft is mortal.
“It’s like a scene in a Hollywood movie where the vultures swoop down on a freshly killed gunfighter in the desert and start taking the body apart,” he says. “It’s dire. One of the readers of my blog left a comment comparing it to the fungus that devours a tree that falls in the forest—like the final reclamation.”
“In the forest, though, that’s a stage in the ongoing evolution,” I say. “In the city…”
“It’s not like another building’s coming back,” he says.
The rise and fall of north St. Louis’ brick buildings stretches back nearly two centuries.
The first brick houses here were built circa 1820, Allen estimates. Rich with clay, the land was a natural site for brickyards, churning out more than 20 million bricks per year by 1839. A decade later, local demand boomed after the St. Louis Fire of 1849, when an ordinance passed restricting frame construction inside a fire line running near Jefferson Avenue. “That created a boon for brick making and brick dealers,” he says. “All four sides of a building had to be brick or stone. Stone was too expensive, so everybody turned to brick.”
During the 1870s, German-American millionaires developed the area. Many had moved to St. Louis after the failed German revolution of 1848. These were new-money Germans who had founded their own companies after working years for others, learning the trades. “This area, for some reason, attracted a lot of them,” says Allen. “They weren’t necessarily welcomed in the social circle of Lafayette Square at the time.” The Germans came to the North Side, around St. Louis Place, to erect what they must have thought would be permanent structures of limestone and brick.
In the decades that followed, demand for brick grew beyond St. Louis, particularly in parts of the Sun Belt, where the soil lacks enough iron to make the bricks red. “If you go to Texas, it’s a very sandy, almost yellow brick; it doesn’t have the same kind of charm and character that our brick has,” he says. “You look at the catalogs and distribution networks of St. Louis brick companies operating between 1880 and 1920, and they did a lot of business in Texas, Louisiana, Tennessee, and Kentucky.” For example, St. Louis–based Hydraulic Press Brick Company—once run by Henry Ware Eliot, father of poet T.S. Eliot—played a major role in the development of Dallas and Houston.
The 1900s marked a new chapter in the North Side’s history. The second wave of the Great Migration, after World War II, brought thousands of African-American families from the South to St. Louis, where they settled in areas like The Ville and Mill Creek Valley. In 1959, the St. Louis Housing Authority began leveling the tract from Union Station to Saint Louis University’s campus, an area that gained the nickname “Hiroshima Flats.” A housing shortage, paired with blockbusting practices and white flight, created an abrupt shift in north St. Louis’ demographics.
By the late ’60s, the entire city was shrinking. During the second half of the 20th century, the city lost around 10,000 people per year; at the same time, St. Louis County’s population skyrocketed to more than 1 million.
In 1975, the “Team Four Plan” suggested that in “depletion” areas—which constituted much of the North Side—“efforts must be made to adjust services and public investments so as to provide for those who are remaining in these areas. Yet these efforts should be pursued without encouraging new investment until the City determined that Redevelopment can and should begin,” as reprinted on PubDef (pubdef.net), the website run by former journalist and current 21st Ward Alderman Antonio French. The plan was never adopted into law, but some, including U.S. Rep. William Lacy Clay, believe this idea became the city’s informal policy for decades to come. Neglect and abandonment set the stage for brick thieves in north St. Louis.
“They are taking advantage of a condition that already exists,” says Allen. “They don’t create the abandonment.”
On a Friday afternoon, Sam Moore meets with three partners—a middle-aged black man, a middle-aged white woman, and a younger Indian-American man—about their plan to bring a new business to the 4th Ward. Moore wears an understated velour outfit, a leather cap, and a Golden Gloves necklace. The small office is crowded with boxes of toys from a Christmas drive, several gleaming shovels, and photos of brick-rustled buildings that Moore had enlarged and mounted on cardboard with shrink-wrap, the way people do with close-ups of tropical birds or windsurfers. Jazz issues from a nearby boombox. The four talk about Shop ’n Save, the discount grocery chain.
“We need a store,” says Moore.
“The guy that I have interested, he wants to do, like, a service station with a chicken place or a sub shop next to it,” says the young man.
“We need a grocery store,” says Moore. “We have a liquor store, beauty shop, barbershop, church, chicken—that’s it. Right now, it looks like a tsunami hit. It looks like a third-world country. And we want to get rid of that. It’s going to get better.”
In his four years in office, he’s helped arrange to have many buildings demolished, he says, because people are stealing the structures’ materials. He hands the men several of the photos. “All our brick goes to Louisiana, Tennessee, Alabama, to New Orleans, where that storm hit,” he tells them. “Nowhere else in the world can you steal an entire building and get away with it… People are like, ‘They’re fallin’ down.’ No they’re not. They’re being torn down.
“I need something big here. I’ve been doing a lot of sacrificing. I’ve got to have more green space. I don’t have anywhere for baseball and stuff. So you’ve got to get me that Shop ’n Save. I want to preserve that space for you, but you’ve got to produce something on that site… I’ve got 2,200 lots and 857 empty buildings. It’s a mecca for development.”
As the trio leave, Moore shouts, “Hey!” He grabs some envelopes and runs out the door after them. When he returns a moment later, he says, “Here, you might as well have one of these.” He hands me an envelope for donations to the Committee to Re-Elect Samuel Moore.
Moore is a big, bluff man who gives precise directions. The outgoing message on his cellphone has the sepulchral force of Barry White’s voice. He likes to sing karaoke. And he’s addicted to The Three Stooges.
“I’d rather have Three Stooges than Grandmama’s sweet-potato pie,” he says, explaining it was the only TV comedy his parents allowed him to watch as a child. “I couldn’t listen to Redd Foxx and Moms Mabley because they were cussin’. So The Three Stooges was the closest I could get to laughing because we were so religious.” Moore’s lived here for almost six decades, since he was 6, when his father, driving his wife and 10 children from Arkansas to Chicago in search of a better life, ran out of gas. The family settled in St. Louis, where his father ran a used furniture store and laid bricks. “It ruined his kidneys and his back because he had to bend all the time,” says Moore.
He dropped out of high school, enlisted in the Army, and was sent overseas. “I was running away from society,” he says. “I wanted to get away from my dad and away from this city because I was getting into trouble, fighting, gangbanging, smoking weed, drinking.” Upon his return, he became a contractor and started his own business—M&M, Moore and Meriwether—in 1980. He was elected alderman in 2007, and he’s now up for reelection.
His brochure reads, “You can be poor, but you don’t have to be trifling.” It notes the 4th Ward’s been home to Josephine Baker, Chuck Berry, Tina Turner, Arthur Ashe, Dick Gregory, Robert Guillaume, and Nelly, and only 14 percent of the ward’s 8,400 registered voters cast ballots in 2007.
In front of a house several blocks from Moore’s office, a legitimate demolition crew is pulling down a house ravaged by thieves, says the alderman. Moore spots a middle-aged couple in the street and stops to chat. The man has a shopping cart loaded with a few pieces of scrap metal salvaged from the house. Later, Moore tells me the woman is a heroin addict and the man is “her boyfriend—he was a brick thief, but he has a bad heart, so he can’t [carry] bricks anymore.” They’ll sell the scrap at a junkyard, he says. “It’s open 24 hours! That encourages them to steal your storm door while you sleep and bring it over there and crush it and get five, 10 dollars.”
Thieves can get $250 for a pickup-load of bricks, he says, and one side of a house can fill four or five truckloads. In the 4th Ward, that’s “giant money,” he says. “Selling drugs is not any easier than anything else now, and they know there’s no risk in getting your hands slapped for $50.”
Driving along St. Louis Avenue, we pass several handsome houses, each with a third bitten out. “Isn’t that a shame?” he says. “What a sin. Look at this mess. Isn’t this amazing? Where else in the world do you do this? Look at that house, with the stone front—they don’t steal the stone—and the windows still in place. The awning still there. The poor little house.”
“You ever wonder what the folks who lived here long ago would think if they could come back and see their neighborhood now?” I ask.
“They would cuss all of us out,” he says. “They would say to us, ‘How in the hell did you let this happen?”
In a little over an hour, Moore points out 30-plus sites where he says brick thieves have been at work on the buildings, which appear on the brink of collapse. The neighborhood has 857 vacant houses, says Moore; since he took office, 501 houses in the ward have been torn down. “We’re losing them by the dozens, and it doesn’t make sense,” he says. Some of the houses have facades that are more or less intact, but a look around the side reveals grievous damage and crumbling walls. The buildings resemble false-front houses on a stage set—but there’s no screenplay.
“It feels like a ghost town,” I say.
“It is,” says Moore. “It used to be one beautiful neighborhood that I used to walk through with a house on every lot—‘How you doing, ma’am?’ ‘How you doing, sir?’—people out in the yard mowing their grass, planting their beautiful flowers,” he says. On Cote Brilliante Avenue, he points to a leaning wall: “Look at how gorgeous this house was.”
Moore knows every street in his ward. He directs me to go the wrong way down a one-way street—“We’re on city business; work with me,” he says—to see the renovated homes on Dick Gregory Place. “All these buildings were stolen; they were nothing but a front facade,” he says. “We had them done; I spent $26 million doing this. Look at the side there: There were no bricks at all. No roof and no sides.”
Is it bringing people back to north St. Louis?
“Hell yeah,” he says. “People want to be involved in this community. They want to do something. They don’t want to get run out.”
He stops on Dr. Martin Luther King Drive, where workmen are pulling down part of a facade, spilling bricks and debris across the sidewalk. Moore asks the workers if they have the necessary permits. After talking to one of the men, Moore returns and recaps the conversation: “He got to cussing. I said, ‘Are you cussing? Well, what I can do is call the police to shut your job down until we get an understanding.’ He said, ‘No, I don’t need that.’”
While Moore and Allen are both determined to stop the brick rustling, they take much different approaches. Moore draws attention to the 4th Ward through the force of his person. Allen, among other things, runs a blog, Ecology of Absence, that often reports on North Side issues, such as brick rustling and developer Paul McKee’s plans; lately, he’s been working on a proposal to make St. Louis Place a historic district.
Moore is wary that preservationists like Allen would trap him in a museum of ruins, that they would lie down in front of bulldozers sent to clear the way for new business. “You can’t tell me about my community,” says Moore. “Stay in your community and govern that. We know what needs to be torn down and what does not need to be torn down. I’m in preservation of property as well, but I know what is history and what needs to be history… Michael is very good at research, but I know what’s going on here… I’m a history buff, but I cannot afford to let history get in the way of progress. I’d rather have open space with weeds than have these vandalized properties.”
Nonetheless, Moore and Allen agree that local government isn’t doing enough. What amounts to larceny in a bad neighborhood will always fall low on the list of priorities for top city-government officials, it seems, as it will for police. So it’s left to the smallest unit of government and the people themselves to stop it, if it can be stopped.
Brick thieves can work in north St. Louis, Allen argues, because “nobody notices or nobody cares—most people don’t even call the police.” There are abandoned brick buildings in other neighborhoods, such as Benton Park West and Fox Park, but many are surrounded by occupied buildings—places where thieves would be reported. In such neighborhoods, there is “a culture of future focus and planning, with strong neighborhood groups, where elected officials see historic buildings as assets for redevelopment,” he says. “They won’t tolerate brick rustling because they also won’t tolerate carjacking.”
North St. Louis, on the other hand, has large swaths of vacant land where buildings are already lost, he says. Some blocks have no residents, so no one’s there during the day. “Nobody pays attention,” Allen says. “You go to The Ville, and you can’t even get people to come to neighborhood meetings. I just did a public meeting on the St. Louis Place historic district project, and we had eight people show up—and we have over 300 buildings in that area.
“What we’re seeing with brick theft is pretty mild compared to what’s already happened,” he continues. “In The Ville, there hasn’t been a viable real-estate market there in 40 years. You can’t get anyone to pay anything for a house in that neighborhood. You see them walking away from their houses; they just move out, they don’t pay taxes, and then the city gets it in three years. And then it gets torn down or brick-rustled or it just stands boarded up. Billions of dollars have been spent on north St. Louis since the ’60s, and where is it? You look around and wonder where it all went.”
Regarding the perception of north St. Louis—among both residents and outsiders—he says, “How do you inspire people when you’re dealing with a diminished environment that’s got Swiss cheese–like holes in its fabric? You may have a really great building from the 1870s that’s one of four buildings on the block. Now, there’s no other building in the Midwest like that building—but that block doesn’t really inspire you to think of that as a landmark. Some people are inspired by an artifact, but most want the context.
“A whole part of our city is dying,” says Allen, “and we’re not doing anything about it.”