Wed December 22, 2010
Brick theft steals St. Louis history
Every day, train cars and semi trucks leave St. Louis stacked high with pallets of bricks. They head south to cities like New Orleans, to be reused in new construction.
But those bricks leave at a cost to the city—they’re often stolen from buildings the city owns, damaging both the government’s investment and city’s historic heritage. Mandi Rice takes us to one of those neighborhoods, and asks what the city government is doing to curb the problem.
RICE: Preservationist Andrew Weil is driving around St. Louis’ north side, pointing out vacant rowhouses and breathtaking mansions. Some of these historic neighborhoods have been restored, to great effect. A few corners away, it looks like a war zone. Houses are half-standing, and you can see right into the rooms. Broken bricks litter the ground.
WEIL: “This is brick theft. We’re on St. Louis Avenue and this house has just been pulled over and carted off… The whole one third of the building has been pulled out. And it doesn’t look like it burned, it looks like it was literally pulled over and hauled off.”
RICE: Weil is the Assistant Director of the Landmarks Association of Saint Louis, where he works to preserve the area’s 19th-century buildings. But for at least five years, thieves have been knocking down those buildings, to sell the valuable bricks they’re made from. Weil says the crime scares away homebuyers and redevelopers.
WEIL: It makes the place look bombed out even if it’s otherwise a fine place to live. But it looks like hell because there’s half torn down buildings everywhere. And they’re buildings that nobody had any business half-tearing down.
RICE: The police department doesn’t keep statistics about brick theft. But they say it’s a hard crime to stop, since they can’t always recognize illegal demolitions. Sergeant John McLaughlin is in charge of nuisance and problem properties for the department. He says thieves know how to blend in.
McLAUGHLIN:“They’ll dress in work clothing and uniforms and look like they’re completely legitimate. They’ve actually stolen signs form legitimate contractors and put them in front of a place. For the most part people wouldn’t challenge that until after half the building is gone.”
RICE: The city’s building division is trying to make it easier to identify which demolitions are legitimate. Starting this month, the office will issue its demolition permits on fluorescent paper. Department Manager Ed Ware says the bright colors would tell residents when they should be reporting a crime.
WARE: “If somebody’s driving home and they see a demolition occurring, if they don’t see a color-coded demolition application either on the sign or in the window of their vehicle, they need to be aware that this may be an illegal demolition and help the police department respond to this.”
RICE: Ware admits it’s a low-tech solution, but he says that the division has to try low-cost measures first.
WARE: “If it doesn’t work out, like I said, there’s the attitude that ‘Whatever it takes, we’ll do it.'”
RICE: For years, fourth ward alderman Sam Moore has been fighting to bring attention to the issue of brick theft. His office has boxes of posters, each one showing a half-destroyed brick building. Moore says the profits from illegal brick sales are hurting his neighborhood, financing drug dealing and other criminal activity. And he says the city isn’t doing enough to stop the thefts.
MOORE: “In America, you don’t steal buildings. You just don’t steal – it’s against the law to steal period. And when you’re stealing a building that you can’t build for a million dollars, why are we letting them get away with it?”
RICE: In part because of Moore’s prompting, the city has passed several ordinances to regulate brick dealing. They require brick dealers to see a demolition permit for the bricks they buy, to photograph brick sellers, and to record all of their transactions. But Moore says they’re very hard to enforce--police and judges have to be familiar with too many separate, related ordinances. That’s why he’s working now on a bill to streamline the existing regulations.
MOORE: “I must write the ordinance so that the police can enforce the law, and the judge can interpret it properly and get these people off the street.”
RICE: Moore’s new bill would also increase the penalties for brick theft. Right now, he says, thieves that are caught can be fined as little as $50. Moore wants penalties to reflect the cost to repair the historic buildings, a cost that goes up as more walls come down. He says it’s imperative to protect the city’s heritage.
MOORE: “African American history is in this community. Chuck Barry, Tina Turner, Nelly...These people’s houses were here at one time. Most of them have been stolen. The history’s not in the lot, it’s in the structure the person lived in, and we have to protect this.”
RICE: Alderman Moore says there’s no time to waste. In his ward alone, 22 buildings have been stolen in the past two months. He hopes to have his bill in writing before Christmas.