by Michael R. Allen
Tonight, I was part of a group of three Old North St. Louis residents and one other city resident who undertook securing a building owned by a holding company controlled by Paul J. McKee, Jr. This particular house sits on a block McKee’s agents have worked hard to bust, and in just a few months since purchase has been stripped of new aluminum windows exposing other more historic features intact inside.
We in Old North are a vigilant bunch, and we don’t let our heritage get plundered. Upon spotting the empty window openings, my neighbor Barbara Manzara spread word and gathered an impromptu board-up crew. Now, the building is secure before irreplaceable parts are gone. Of course, boards won’t protect against brick rustlers who have destroyed many other vacant north side buildings owned by McKee’s companies, the city’s Land Reutilization Authority and other private parties. These boards can — and will — be removed. But residents will probably return to keep the boards on.
On the larger scale, though, we face hundreds of vacant buildings owned by McKee. Four people can’t get to them all, and most of the buildings don’t have even one person in close proximity to keep watch. Many are already so damaged by theft and weather that they may be lost forever.
Vigilante board-ups are no substitute for a public policy that would protect historic community resources and make them part of the burgeoning revitalization of the north side. Until there are assurances from city officials that they are interested in preservation planning as well as code enforcement for the area that McKee has targeted, residents will continue to take action — and be suspicious of those who are charged with safeguarding their rights as city residents to participatory government.