Red brick, green brick

An abandoned brick building near Choteau and 14th in St. Louis. Photo by Bill Keaggy.

A while back, I read that brick buildings in St. Louis were being burned down so that the bricks could be stripped, shipped south and sold:

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.”

Driving through downtown yesterday I found myself thinking about this, because downtown St. Louis is littered with abandoned, bombed-out warehouses and factories made of this same brick. There are a lot of them, butting right up against attractions such as Busch Stadium, and they are a significant source of blight in the area. To the extent that St. Louis has a crime problem (and it does), these big, empty buildings aren’t helping make things better.

Presumably somebody owns these properties and pays property taxes on them, or the city owns them. Either way, if this St. Louis brick is in high-enough demand to warrant burning houses down to steal it, why not tear these things down and sell the brick? They’re in no shape to move new businesses in anyway — if something were going to happen in these buildings they’d need near-total renovation. Perhaps there’s a good answer to this, but I’m not sure what it might be.


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