by Michael R. Allen
Last week, on the way to a meeting in JeffVanderLou, I noticed a recently — judging by scent — fire-ravaged house on Bacon Street, shown here.
Then, early this week, I learned of a two-night wave of four fires. These fires hit vacant buildings in a small area. The buildings lost to the firebug share two characteristics: all were historic buildings in decent repair and all were vacant and unboarded. Since the location of all but one of these houses is within the footprint of McEagle’s NorthSide project, the press has been quick to report these fires, and the loose tongues of conspiracy have been wagging.
The sad fact is that arson claims vacant buildings across north St. Louis every month, and mostly the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and its cloaked comments-section pundits take no notice. The culprits in many of these cases are never caught, let alone charged. Neighborhood residents, who know best, generally suspect brick thieves.
Arson on the near north side also is an old problem. In the 1960s, some white property owners fleeing the near north side torched their own homes to collect insurance money. As time moved on, and buildings went vacant, assorted firebugs, vandals, bored teenagers, firework-launching revelers and brick thieves have done more damage. In 1997, Old North St. Louis suffered a rash of arsons that included a massive fire at the five-story former Peters Shoe Company factory just south of Jackson Park (since demolished).
Then there are the fires that never happened. Neighborhood patrols, starting in the evening and sometimes going to the early morning, have kept many buildings standing. Rarely do neighborhoods get the assistance of owners of the vacant buildings, or the busy police department. Still, many people have taken action to prevent senseless destruction of their neighborhood fabric.
What gets lost through arson are indelible parts of city neighborhoods. The brick piles and half-collapsed buildings are easy picking for brick thieves, and not enticing enough to those who enjoy arson. Most targets are buildings in sound condition, that are stores of community wealth. Negligent ownership is definitely a root cause that must be addressed systematically, but the arsonists aren’t going to be affected by scorn heaped upon McEagle or the Land Reutilization Authority.
Robbing neighborhoods of community wealth is a base crime. The police and the circuit attorney need to step up efforts to send neighborhood arsonists away for as long as statues allow.