by Michael R. Allen
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.