by Michael R. Allen
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.