The New York Times had a story on brick theft in St. Louis yesterday. I’m late getting to it, yes, but somehow I doubt brick theft is a big issue in the blogosphere. The gist: Scrappers, crackheads and other scavengers are taking advantage of abandonment and social disarray to steal the city’s red bricks, “prized by developers throughout the South for its distinctive character.”
The preferred harvesting technique is arson. Then,
“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.”
You have, Royce? You heard right:
I ran this picture a while back. I took it in the fall of 2008 while escorting a pair of French journalists around the city. They wanted to see the $1 houses, and this one was across the street. This house had been looted, scrapped, torched and, when we visited, was giving up its final harvest — the bricks. Two homeless-looking guys were at work with crowbars and a rubber mallet, taking them off one by one and knocking the mortar off. They were tossing them on a pile, but I draw your attention to the pallet in the side yard, the bricks neatly stacked and wrapped in plastic, awaiting the fork lift to take them off…somewhere. I guess to the south, where developers will prize their distinctive character.
In many ways, this photo inspired a screenplay I’ve been working on for a while now, and will finish — 30 more pages! — if I ever get a minute or two. It started me thinking about scrapping in general, how this economic disaster has made it so much easier to take the accumulated wealth of our region and distribute it around the world. Whole factories are being disassembled, their assembly lines cut out with torches, loaded onto freighters and shipped off to places where labor doesn’t demand a living wage and certain safety precautions. Abandoned houses are being stripped of their plumbing and window frames, which is trundled off to the scrap yards and sold by the pound. And now the bricks. Well, I can’t say I’m surprised.
See, it just slayed me how systematic all this was, how the sleazy mortgage brokers and other sharpies figured out how to descend upon a city that any fool could tell you was already a pretty well-picked-over carcass to begin with, and still find some marrow to suck out of its bones. This neighborhood, the Realtor told me, had been a functional concern until fairly recently. I wouldn’t have wanted to live there, but a lot of people a little closer to the margins had found it acceptable enough. And then the knock came one day, a former drug dealer trading up to home refinancing, and that was the beginning of the end. They wrote loan after loan against these modest little houses, aided and abetted by their friends in the business, who didn’t care they were loaning 110 percent of a house’s worth to someone whose residency in the working class — and chance of repaying even a fraction — was tenuous in the extreme; their end came out of the fees, the risk passed down the line to some other sucker. Who, it turned out, was us.
Then it all caved in, and the fun really started. Seen above.
A few years back, I toured the Edsel and Eleanor Ford estate with Kate’s Brownie troop, a Cotswold-style mansion on the shores of Lake St. Clair, the sort of thing built by the second generation of a great fortune. The guide pointed out all the architectural details that had been imported from some dismantled English country home — the windows, the floorboards — and it made me wonder if it hasn’t always been thus. Wealth is created, then stolen or traded, traveling around the world in tidal waves of destruction and reconstruction.
I bet the Fords bought their windows fair and square, however; the developers snatching up those nicely wrapped pallets of St. Louis and Detroit brick, not so much. But they have plausible deniability.
In case you’re wondering, I put a few human beings in my fictional story. My struggle is how to make a story that’s essentially about worthless real estate compelling. Get me rewrite.
Another ridiculous day ahead, so better hop to the bloggage:
Ohio University’s Rufus Bobcat delivers an end-zone smackdown to Brutus Buckeye, and friends? I couldn’t be prouder. When your little MAC team is about to serve as an early-season hors d’oeuvre for the Big 10 behemoth 90 miles up the road, the least you can do is get a little mojo for the school any way you can. The guy says he’s not sorry, and he definitely would do it again. Hell yeah.
Gene Weingarten mourns the death of the English language, citing in his evidence:
The Lewiston (Maine) Sun-Journal has written of “spading and neutering.” The Miami Herald reported on someone who “eeks out a living” — alas, not by running an amusement-park haunted house. The Fredericksburg Free Lance-Star described professional football as a “doggy dog world.” The Vallejo (Calif.) Times-Herald and the South Bend (Ind.) Tribune were the two most recent papers, out of dozens, to report on the treatment of “prostrate cancer.”
I shared with him one of my favorites, which appeared in a small Ohio daily way back when: “(The film) contained more violence than a Peck & Paw production.”
Bonus for those who’ve read this far: The brick-theft story, in the venerable and still fully staffed New York Times, contains a similar homophone error deep in the copy. Find it, and I’ll give you…my sincere respect. UPDATE: Eh, never mind. It’s been fixed. Bricks are stacked on a pallet; the original version had them on a palette. That would have been hard to hold.
A good day to all.