Monday, September 20, 2010

NYT: Can You Steal a Whole Building? Thieves Cart Off St. Louis Bricks

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Can You Steal a Whole Building? Thieves Cart Off St. Louis Bricks

Leroy Carter, on behalf of Alderman Samuel Moore, patrols his St. Louis neighborhood to try to deter theft of bricks, top, made in the city.


Published: September 19, 2010

ST. LOUIS — By the time Raymond Feemster awoke to the pounding of firefighters at his door, flames were already licking his shotgun-style home. The vacant house next door, which neighbors said was frequented by squatters, had burst into flames and was now threatening to engulf houses on each side.

Mr. Feemster, who gets around on an electric scooter, had to be carried out of the burning building, but today he considers himself lucky that the damage was contained to just two rooms.

“My neighbor’s house was completely destroyed,” said Mr. Feemster, 58. “I guess it was one of the crackheads in that vacant house.”

Dan Gill for The New York Times

Bricks made in the city.

Dan Gill for The New York Times

Brick thieves in St. Louis are believed to have stripped this house. The city’s bricks are prized by developers throughout the South for their quality and craftsmanship.

Perhaps. But the blaze, one of 391 fires at vacant buildings in the city over the past two years, may have had a more sinister cause. Law enforcement officials, politicians and historic preservationists here have concluded that brick thieves are often to blame, deliberately torching buildings to quicken their harvest of St. Louis brick, prized by developers throughout the South for its distinctive character.

“The firemen come and hose them down and shoot all that mortar off with the high-pressure hose,” said Alderman Samuel Moore, whose predominantly black Fourth Ward has been hit particularly hard by brick thieves. When a thief goes to pick up the bricks after a fire, “They’re just laying there nice and clean.”

It is a crime that has increased with the recession. Where thieves in many cities harvest copper, aluminum and other materials from vacant buildings, brick rustling has emerged more recently as a sort of scrapper’s endgame, exploited once the rest of a building’s architectural elements have been exhausted. “Cleveland is suffering from this,” said Royce Yeater, Midwest director for the National Trust for Historic Preservation. “I’ve also heard of it happening in Detroit.”

After the fire that devastated much of St. Louis in 1849, city leaders passed an ordinance requiring all new buildings to be made of noncombustible material. That law, along with the rich clays of eastern Missouri, led to a flourishing brick industry here. Historians say that at the industry’s height, around 1900, the city had more than 100 manufacturing plants, and St. Louis became known for the quality, craftsmanship and abundance of its brick.

“They love it in New Orleans and the South — wherever they’re rebuilding, they want it because it’s beautiful brick,” said Barbara Buck, who owns Century Used Brick. “It really gives the building a dimension, a fingerprint.”

Mr. Moore, who is drafting a bill that would increase the penalties for brick theft, said that while many thieves still used cables and picks to collapse a wall, arson had become the tool of choice. Thieves even set fire to wood-frame homes to create a diversion. Firefighters often knock down walls, making it easier for thieves to harvest the bricks.

“The whole block is gone — they stole the whole block,” Mr. Moore marveled as he drove his white Dodge Magnum through his ward’s motley collection of dilapidated homes and vacant lots. “They’re stealing entire buildings, buildings that belong to the city. Where else in the world do you steal an entire city building?”

There are more than 8,000 vacant buildings in St. Louis, and more than 11,000 vacant lots.

The maximum penalty for brick theft here is a $500 fine or 90 days in jail or both. The city police said there were 34 brick-related thefts in the last year.

“You see these guys with mortar dust all over them, and they’re stacking on a pallet, and they’ll say, ‘I’m just a day laborer working for that guy over there — whoa, where did he go?’ ” said Maribeth McMahon, a lawyer with the city counselor’s office. “So this poor stiff, who’s just trying to earn an hourly wage, gets a summons.”

Ms. Buck, who said thieves often arrived at her brickyard with “bricks in the trunk of a Lexus,” said she followed city ordinance and required brick vendors to produce a demolition permit to sell their bricks. A palette of 500 goes for roughly $100, she said, but other less scrupulous buyers do not require permits.

Ms. Buck estimates that as many as eight tractor-trailer loads of stolen bricks leave the city each week for Florida, Louisiana or Texas, because “St. Louis brick is in such high demand.”

The toll on the city’s struggling north side has been particularly heavy. During a hard-luck tour of his ward last week, Mr. Moore pointed out several piles of rubble where houses once stood.

Mature trees grew from the foundations of some, while others were missing entire walls, laying bare unsupported second floors, dangling electrical outlets and the remnants of those who once lived there — their wallpaper, posters, toilets, clothing and curtains.

Rounding one fallen-down building, Mr. Moore encountered a lone thief as he piled bricks into the back of an S.U.V. Pushing the rear seats forward, the man had nearly filled his vehicle when Mr. Moore approached on foot.

“Put them all back, and I won’t lock you up,” Mr. Moore yelled as the man, dressed in a filthy T-shirt and ragged pajama bottoms, stopped in his tracks.

Apologizing, the man, who declined to give his name, said that he had been “messing with bricks” for only a week, and that he had never been asked for identification when selling his harvest.

“I don’t even know the man,” he said. “You just pull up there and sell him your bricks.”

As the man drove off, Mr. Moore turned to head back to his office.

“He been doing bricks longer than a week,” Mr. Moore groused. “Those bricks will be gone tomorrow.”

A version of this article appeared in print on September 20, 2010, on page A14 of the New York edition.

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