A distinctive building in the northern reaches of The Ville is no more. In late August, the city wrecked the two-story, mansard-atop-brick mass at 4159 Ashland Avenue. This strange specimen sat on the sidewalk line on a block where remaining buildings — fewer in number than ever — maintain a general setback of ten feet, and are residential. This building had traces of a storefront opening (see the painted, nearly-concealed I-beam above a new entrance at left) suggesting a commercial past.
Out of sight, out of mind? Not brick theft. Brick thieves continue to strike abandoned buildings in north city, although the territory of operation has shifted westward. Two years ago, brick theft was prevalent in JeffVanderLou and St. Louis Place. With many targets hit, and fewer vacant buildings left, those neighborhoods have seen a drop in activity. Today brick thieves are more likely to be working in The Ville, Greater Ville, Fountain Park, Fairgrounds and Lewis Place neighborhoods.
The thieves are even taking down buildings located on major thoroughfares in north St. Louis. Today I noticed two buildings damaged by obvious illegal demolition activity whose locations are very prominent. The first of these was at 4477 Page Boulevard, just east of Taylor Avenue in Lewis Place. This vacant building may have been marred by fake stone veneer and heavy paint, but its solid structure was intact until very recently. The house stands not far from the campus of Ranken Technical College, and on a block where most buildings are occupied.
The city’s brick theft crisis may be ended if the Board of Aldermen passes a proposed ordinance intact. Last Friday Alderman Freeman Bosley, Sr. (D-3rd) introduced a long-awaited new ordinance to tighten regulation of brick dealers. The bill, BB 57 (link to full text), makes the following changes to existing city law:
Limits brick yard operation to between 5:00 a.m. Monday and 6:00 p.m. Friday. A lot of brick theft and fencing takes place on weekends. This change would not stop theft and fencing from happening on weekends, of course, but it would allow the city to shut down any yard open on the weekend.
Cameras required during business hours to record every transaction. This makes sense. The fly-by-night yards will have a hard time meeting this requirement since they use open air spaces lacking electricity and shelters.
Dealers must photograph every seller’s vehicle and all of the bricks purchased, and also get a copy of a valid demolition permit. These are again very smart changes. The photography requirements are clear and will mandate records of vehicles. This will help combat the practice of crews using the same vehicle with different drivers. The requirement to obtain a copy of a valid demolition permit really is the law that we’ve needed for years. That is plain, simple and enforceable.
The Director of Public Safety shall have power to revoke any brick dealer permit. This is another big and fundamental policy change. There is a notification and hearing process, so it is fair but tough. The Director of Public Safety won’t need to go after more than a few dealers, but in those cases will have a swift and direct way to take them out of business.
Each stolen brick shall be considered a separate instance of theft. Currently, the maximum misdemeanor penalty under city law is $500, and voters rejected the last proposed increase. However, $500 per brick will add up quickly — as will the alternative possibilities of 90 days sentence or community service per brick.
Alderman Bosley’s bill goes straight to the center of the brick theft economy by shifting the penalty burden to dealers. Dealers are convergence points in the network, and it is nearly impossible to catch all of the thieves. Taking out dealers who buy stolen goods may disrupt the network. Of course, there is a possibility that less-regulated brick dealers in St. Louis County or the Metro East will step in and fill any void for fencing stolen brick that this bill would create. Ideally, the Board of Aldermen will pass Alderman Bosley’s bill and soon after adjacent municipalities and counties with brick dealers will pass similar laws. However, stolen brick usually does not travel far, so the proposed ordinance will do a lot of good in itself.
Two pairs of houses had stood on the east side of Bacon Street just south of North Market Street since before the turn of the last century. Now, three of the four are reduced to ruins by brick thieves in St. Louis’ ongoing brick theft crisis, removing more of the JeffVanderLou neighborhood’s unique architectural character and housing units that were occupied until just three years ago. Some count three buildings lost, and shrug, while others count these among over 100 lost to brick theft across north St. Louis in the last decade, and wonder when it will end.
1920 and 1924 Bacon Street
These unusual houses were both built in 1897 by the same builder. Unusual for the surrounding area of JeffvanderLou, the houses share a party wall. However their front elevations show differences in execution of essentially two identical (but flipped) same floorplans. The northern house, at 1924 Bacon Street, uses flat limestone lintels and a triangular pediment that put it in the Greek Revival. The other house employs rounded arches with ornamental label courses as well as a cornice of ornamental brick,traits that put it in the Romanesque Revival that was very popular in St. Louis during the 1890s.
We recently gave Bill Streeter, director and producer of Brick By Chance and Fortune, some 60 before and after images of north St. Louis buildings struck by brick thieves since 2005. Our photographs illustrate perhaps as little as one third of the buildings in the city destroyed through theft in that period.
Here’s a sample. For the rest, you won’t wait long: Brick by Chance and Fortune will be released this spring.
There is a certain charm to the row of three stone-faced houses on the south side of the 4200 block of West Evans Avenue. The bracketed wooden cornices and stone sills with carved consoles add elements of the Italianate style prevalent in the United States in the middle-to-late 19th century. The carved moldings around the tops of the window and door openings provide stylistic flair and craftsman’s expression to the front walls. Although two are vacant, the group — which probably dates to around 1888 –seems to be in great shape.
Great shape except for the stolen side walls, of course. Brick thieves have stripped away the most valuable parts of the westernmost house at 4258 West Evans — and the lovely carved stone pieces and articulated cornices are not what has street value now. Red brick does. Not surprising, perhaps, is that these houses are just a half-block west and across the street from a “doll house” that I photographed in December 2009 (see “Depletion, West Evans Avenue” from December 3, 2009).
The battered house is owned by Laverne Henley of Compton, California, and has been condemned for demolition since January 25, 2010. The other two houses are privately owned, and thankfully one is occupied. At least two of these houses should survive into the near future. Perhaps also in the near future will come laws that will curtail brick theft once and for all.
On December 7th, a resident of the Old North neighborhood caught a man stealing bricks from a stack in front of her house. When she asked him to put them back, instead of complying he hurried into his maroon Jeep Cherokee and drove off.
Police did not have a hard time finding the thief. After the resident called in the crime, officers headed to Unlimited Bricks at 2600 University Avenue where, as if following the directions of a brick rustling script, the thief’s vehicle was parked. The man was selling bricks to the yard, owned by Charles Rosene. After the victim identified the man, he was arrested and taken into custody.
Readers may wonder how Unlimited Bricks was still in business after the Board of Adjustment revoked its occupancy permit on November 17. (A lot of the credit for this action goes to the tireless effort of Fifth Ward Neighborhood Stabilization Officer Kathryn Woodard, supported by Alderwoman April Ford-Griffin.) While the business had a legal time to appeal that ruling, it had to obey the revocation order pending appeal. Unlimited Bricks — a business that is not incorporated in this state — truly was an outlaw operation when it nearly fenced some stolen front yard bricks. No more.
Thanks to the Old North resident’s complaint, the St. Louis Metropolitan Police worked quickly to get the Building Division to condemn the property for occupancy on December 8. Rosene has had an active occupancy permit since July 1, 2005. Noncompliance with the revoked occupancy permit will land Rosene with fines of $500 per incident, so if you are in the area please check on 2600 University and see if the yard is running. If it is, call the police. They will know the operation all too well.
Those who are not familiar with the corner of University and North Jefferson, shown in the aerial photograph above, can be excused. The vicinity of the yard is a waste land of wrecker’s yards and unlicensed dumps. Looking at a summer-shot aerial photograph, one can see how accurate the term “brownfield” is in describing certain conditions of battered urban landscape. This is the vortex where near north bricks go for fencing out of the neighborhood. This area is very much like a black hole that consumes area building stock and churns out cash to a handful of harvesters, again and again until there is no more possible destruction.
To the south and southeast of the Rosene property are lots owned by the Hemphill wrecking family. Around those are still more half-used lots. Typically, these lots have tall chain link fencing — often missing in sections — and haphazard gravel paving. The lots have many scrub trees around the fence lines, so that in the summer they are almost forested. In the middle will be some wrecking equipment, salvaged materials or random items.
On the south side of St. Louis Avenue on the east side of Elliott Avenue is a grimly comic landscape of a tall slope of of dirt, dumped from wrecking jobs, on a lot so unkempt one wonders how it can possess any legal occupancy permit. Not all of the yards in the area are so unsightly, and wreckers who hold licenses do honest labor for money. Yet the conglomeration of messy yards around St. Louis Avenue and Jefferson, just northwest of the old Pruitt-Igoe site, are a black eye for the north side.
One is not surprised that the Northside Regeneration plan takes aim at this swath of blight. Yet the fact is that it does not take $8 billion plans to shut down illegal brick yards and clean up vacant lots. Citizen action, not the weight of promised redevelopment, has shut down Unlimited Bricks. What else can it do?
One of the few remaining buildings in the wrecking wasteland is the handsome 19th century commercial building at the northeast corner of St. Louis and Elliott Avenues, owned by Paul J. McKee Jr.’s companies for years now. Its strong form is a vigilant reminder that the dead center can also be a land of urban life, where bricks build community rather than petty fortunes.
Brick thieves have attacked the house at 1925 St. Louis Avenue in St. Louis Place in recent weeks. Read more about this block here.
Yesterday the St. Louis Board of Adjustment revoked the occupancy permit for Unlimited Bricks, a brick yard located at 2600 University Avenue. Police had suspected that the yard has received stolen bricks taken from abandoned buildings in the area, which violates the city’s brick ordinance. Unlimited Bricks conducts business and storage outdoors in a chain-link fenced yard that neighborhood residents describe as unsightly.
The Secretary of State’s database lists no registered company or fictitious registration by the name of “Unlimited Bricks.” According to the Assessor, Charles Rosene owns the parcel at 2600 University Avenue as well as large fenced parcels to the north and south where there is open storage of demolition equipment and salvaged materials.
For Bill Streeter’s Brick by Chance and Fortune (slated for completion in December), our town’s inimitable Pokey LaFarge has crafted a song about brick thieves that is chilling, smart and catchy. Tap your toes and learn the sad story of St. Louis’ underground when you listen to the newly-released studio version of the song, which is simply entitled “Brick Thieves.”
“I tell you St. Louis, we ought to have had enough,” sings Pokey mournfully, and I am sure readers of this blog will agree. If only the song were a plaintive elegy instead of a sober observation.
Brick theft is an act that is neither novel nor particularly likely to spur strong response in St. Louis. Malcolm Gay’s excellent recent New York Times article on brick theft in St. Louis reported to the nation what has become a sad backdrop to life in distressed neighborhoods of the city for decades. In the thirty odd years that illegal destruction of brick buildings has hit the city, especially the north side, few efforts have been made to increase legal penalties for the action. There is outrage in the streets, but the dealers who buy stolen brick still sleep peacefully in their own homes when sun sets.
Once when I wrote about brick theft in this blog, I received a thoughtful comment that likened brick thieves to fungi that consume fallen trees in the forest. The commenter suggested that an organic and harmless transaction occurs when a supposed useless old brick building is picked apart by thieves that often set the buildings afire first and leave a dangerous pit behind. Gay’s article let us know that the arson that precedes brick theft has collateral damage that cannot be rationalized under a theory of urban material reclamation. The notion that thieves are recycling neglected material is belied by the fact that their methods are far from systematic, and so much useful material is left to be placed in landfills. Demolition contractors — who lose hours of paid work to the thieves — may be the fungi that tackles the city’s building stock, but brick thieves are more akin to the loggers that rob forests of their most valuable wood, leave behind a damaged ecosystem that others must mend.
I thought about the comment on brick theft when I examined what remains of the North Galilee Missionary Baptist Church at 2940 Montgomery Avenue in JeffVanderLou, now owned by Northside Regeneration LLC. The brick church, built in 1900, recently was cleaned of its side walls by thieves who have systematically worked the surrounding buildings as well. There seems to be no compunction halting the destruction of a historic house of worship.
North Galilee Missionary Baptist Church, April 2009
North Galilee Missionary Baptist Church, August 2010
There would be many who would argue that this old church was a useless remnant of a lost neighborhood, and that its gruesome demolition mandates no more than a passing word or a Flickr photograph. They are wrong. The church served its function for over 100 years, only going vacant a little over three years ago. While the building had been altered beyond the criteria of architectural integrity required for listing in the National Register of Historic Places, it remained the embodiment of decades of African-American worship and community life. Churches are their people, but church buildings are stores of memory worthy of our care. The North Galilee Missionary Baptist Church building deserved a more dignified end, and the brick thieves and their clients ought to suffer significant penalty. The New York Times article should not be shaken off as “bad press” but taken as a call to action.