Brick theft is a symptom of the maladies of abandonment and unemployment. The houses pillaged by thieves that present ragged half-walls and sagging, unsupported interiors are architectural signs of social distress. First, the buildings destroyed by thieves are (almost) never occupied. Thieves strike vacant buildings whose owners have long since abandoned the properties, or who do no not care about the buildings that sit on their land. The buildings destroyed look like they have no caretakers, and are easy targets. Secondly, the theft occurs largely in north St. Louis neighborhoods where there is high unemployment and where demolition often is the primary development activity. Remaining residents have little wealth and little chance of gaining it, save for picking apart the commodity left in their midst. Many thieves are out of work men who have spent time honestly working to build new buildings, rehab old ones or demolish others.
Preservation Research Office and our blog have chronicled brick theft since 2005, but the phenomenon goes back to the 1970s. As soon as large parts of neighborhoods were left unwanted and untended, thieves emerged to take apart brick walls to sell the valuable bricks for cash. Once, the bricks were recycled into local construction projects, but the salvaged bricks were never sorted for hard outer face brick and soft inner brick. The soft brick cannot survive the exposure of a St. Louis winter. Since the late 1980s, then, most St. Louis brick stolen or legitimately salvaged has been shipped to states where new houses rise in waves amid warm temperatures. Florida, Mississippi, Texas and Arizona have subdivisions full of new houses adorned with the stock of JeffVanderLou or Old North.
Brick theft rose dramatically after 2003 when developer Paul J. McKee, Jr. began purchasing hundreds of parcels — including over 150 historic brick buildings — using shell companies. McKee targeted Old North, St. Louis Place and JeffVanderLou and bought aggressively, leading to entire blocks going vacant. In the wake of the developer’s purchase came the thieves, whose destruction reached new extremes with arson and other methods used to speed along the illicit recovery.
Add McKee’s holdings to those of the city’s Land Reutilization Authority and private speculators, and hundreds of historic buildings across north St. Louis have been damaged or destroyed by brick theft in the last decade. protecting vacant buildings is not a law enforcement priority, so there have been few cases where brick theft has led to felony prosecution. The city has yet to strengthen its ordinance regulating the dealers who knowingly buy stolen brick. Until that day comes, thieves will keep the underground economy alive, and the city will lose more of its sense of self. – Michael R. Allen
One of the earliest media outlets to cover brick theft in recent years was Antonio French’s Pub Def. On August 21, 2007, Pub Def posted the following video in which Alderman Sam Moore (D-4th) shows brick theft damage in The Ville and discusses the methods used by the thieves.
Articles on Brick Theft in North St. Louis
From Ecology of Absence:
Matta-Clark in St. Louis: Welcome to the Desert of the Real (October 27, 2009)
From other sources:
“St. Louis Brick Thieves” – This Robert Meyerowitz article appeared in the April 2011 issue of St. Louis Magazine and profiles the efforts of Preservation Research Office Director Michael Allen and Alderman Sam Moore to stop the plague of brick theft in north St. Louis.
Birck Rustlin’ On the Rise – Matt Sepic’s story for National Public Radio’s Marketplace aired in 2007 was the first national story on brick theft in St. Louis in years. (There was some coverage in the 1970s.)
Thieves Cart Off St. Louis Bricks – Malcolm Gay’s 2010 New York Times article again brought the issue to national attention.
Brick By Chance And Fortune – Bill Streeter’s 2011 film contains a long section on brick theft with a before and after photographic collage that acts as an effective call to action.