Roman Mars: This is 99% Invisible. I’m Roman Mars.
In the early 1950s, Sam Moore and his family left rural Arkansas, looking to start a new life. They planned on moving to Chicago.
Sam Moore: We were on our way to Chicago with all our worldly possessions and our dog Spot. We started off in my granddaddy’s ’53 Dynaflow Buick. And got to St. Louis and ran outta gas.
Roman Mars: And instead of continuing on to Illinois, Moore’s family just decided to stay. They settled in a middle-class area called The Ville. Back then, St. Louis was segregated, and The Ville was one of the only African American neighborhoods in the city.
Zack Dyer: But residents of The Ville made the best of it.
Roman Mars: That’s reporter Zack Dyer.
Zack Dyer: Black-owned businesses thrived, and the neighborhood became one of the most prosperous African American communities in the country.
Do you mind if we just roll the windows up just for the recording?
Sam Moore: Okay. I’ll turn the air on.
Zack Dyer: Sam Moore’s dad got a job as a bricklayer, and helped build some of the beautiful, stately brick homes in this area.
Sam Moore: He was a great bricklayer, he did quite a few jobs around this town. I still see some of my dad’s work.
Zack Dyer: Oh wow, really?
Sam Moore: Mm-hmm. There were beautiful homes, triple brick three stories, two-story buildings that would cost a million dollars to duplicate.
Zack Dyer: We’re driving around The Ville today, where Moore has lived for almost his entire life and is now the Alderman. The neighborhood looks very different. We pull up in front of a couple of the old houses.
Sam Moore: Hold on one second. Look at these two buildings. Look at that building. You can see clean through it.
Zack Dyer: From the street, the building’s façade looks normal. It’s a two-story brick home sitting on a white limestone base. Rounded brick arches frame the first-floor windows, but head just around the corner, and you can see that the entire sidewall is missing. The bricks are just gone. You can see straight into the rooms, each with a different wallpaper.
Sam Moore: We call them dollhouses because you can look inside of them and see what’s going on. Remember when the little girls played with the dollhouses, put the furniture in, you could see in the … You could put your hand in the wall?
Roman Mars: In the past 50 years, the city of St. Louis has lost more than half its population. Vacancy has skyrocketed in The Ville and other neighborhoods on the North Side. Entire neighborhoods here are just green pasture, punctuated by the occasional dilapidated building that’s slowly surrendering to the landscape around it.
Zack Dyer: When Moore became an Alderman back in 2007, he started to get calls from his constituents complaining about these collapsing buildings. So he set out to discover why they were falling down. He figured it was probably just because they were so old. But then he noticed that something was strange about these so-called dollhouses. They were surrounded by piles of broken bricks and debris, but something was missing.
Sam Moore: I often wondered why I never saw whole bricks.
Roman Mars: If the buildings were falling down into piles, but there weren’t any whole bricks in those piles, Moore knew it meant someone was taking them. Salvaged bricks are valuable, there’s a market for them, just like there’s a market for the copper that gets stripped out of old homes. A pickup truck full of old bricks could be worth upwards of $300. But these bricks weren’t being salvaged legally.
Sam Moore: Those were not legal demolition projects, they were theft. It was brick theft.
Zack Dyer: And this theft was happening on a massive scale in Moore’s district.
Sam Moore: Why I have 1,242 empty buildings and 1,700 vacant lots. So out of the 1,700 vacant lots, I guarantee you that 1,200 of them were stolen.
Roman Mars: And despite these being vacant houses, all of this brick theft is a problem. When a building’s bricks get stolen, the house usually can’t be resold. It also takes money out of the pockets of legal demolition workers, and it stalls redevelopment because you can’t sell a building when you can’t guarantee that it’ll be there next week.
Zack Dyer: But there’s also something intangible that’s lost with brick theft. The Ville has been home to famous African-Americans like Chuck Berry, Tina Turner, and the opera singer Grace Brumbry.
Sam Moore: I remember the Grace Brumbry house. That house was stolen. And they just call them old raggly building, but a lot of our history was taken away and stolen as well.
Roman Mars: Brick theft has been going on all across St. Louis since at least the 1970s. Whole buildings, whole blocks, whole parts of neighborhoods being stolen, carted off illegally, and sold.
Sam Moore: How and where in the United States can somebody steal a whole building and then not get caught?
Roman Mars: St. Louis’ history with bricks starts back in 1849 when a boat fire on the riverfront jumped into the city. Hundreds of wooden buildings along the river burned to the ground.
Zack Dyer: The fire’s devastation led the city government to order that all new buildings be constructed with fireproof materials. Luckily the city happened to be sitting on top of a lot of high-quality clay. As well as the coal that would be needed to fire the kilns to turn that clay into brick.
Andrew Weil: Well I could show you a couple of these different kinds of bricks. One thing that I think is interesting is –
Zack Dyer: Andrew Weil is the executive director of the Landmarks Association of St. Louis. Behind his desk, he’s got a giant framed pictorial map of the city back in the late 1800s. The landscape is dotted with evidence of the city’s once-thriving brick industry. It’s covered with mines and smokestacks.
Andrew Weil: You’ll see some smokestacks, and you’ll see some derricks set up, winches set up over mines. Some pit mines. And you’ll also see these beehive kilns. They look like big igloos.
Roman Mars: The red clay industry was so big that folks were even digging mines in their backyards to get the stuff. All this new industry attracted others to St. Louis. In the decades to come, waves of migrants from across Europe and the Southern US flocked to the city. It was a boom town.
Andrew Weil: So it’s sort of a perfect storm of materials, labor, and industrial innovation that combine to make St. Louis into the brick producing powerhouse.
Zack Dyer: By 1890, St. Louis was home to the world’s largest brick manufacturing company. Millions of bricks were exported across the country to build skyscrapers in Chicago and other buildings across the Western and Southern United States.
Roman Mars: Bricks were cheap and plentiful, and that meant that even modest working-class homes in St. Louis could have one of a kind brickwork.
Andrew Weil: They’re not just blank facades. They have this sort of corbelling, or extensions or recesses and ornamental bricks built into them, pressed flowers or designs and string courses and things like that.
Roman Mars: But even as these beautiful brick homes were going up all across the city, the conditions for the city’s eventual semi-abandonment were also being put into place.
In the early 1900s, St. Louis was forcing its black citizens to live in segregated neighborhoods. When the practice was found unconstitutional, realtors began asking homeowners in St. Louis to sign something called Race Restrictive Deed Covenants. These barred the homeowner and future homeowners from selling the property to African Americans and other minority groups. Here’s Colin Gordon, a history professor at the University of Iowa.
Colin Gordon: When realtors assessed properties for sale in St. Louis, well into the 1960s, one of the standard items on the assessment form was the nearest negro community or the degree to which negroes had invaded or intruded upon a neighborhood.
Zack Dyer: And is invasion a word that was used on these documents?
Colin Gordon: Oh yeah. These were the words that were used. Intrusion. Invasion, and the like.
Roman Mars: Not only were African-Americans blocked from certain neighborhoods by these racist deed covenants, the city was also bulldozing black neighborhoods for massive new projects like the Gateway Arch. This was the age of urban renewal.
Radio Announcer: Increasingly, we’re seeing large scale demolition as the first step in building modern cities. In this jet age, events move fast, faster indeed than we sometimes realize. And our progress is certain to be steady as we clear away the structures that block progress.
Roman Mars: In the 1950s, white residents had started to leave the city entirely. The departure was facilitated by the recent development of the highway system and by the GI bill, which gave white veterans easy access to home loans while largely denying black veterans the same right. White flight was happening all over the country. And St. Louis was no exception.
Zack Dyer: As whites rushed to the suburbs, the city’s population declined, and its tax revenues plummeted. By the 1970s, African Americans with the means started moving out of the city too.
Andrew Weil: We lost over half a million people in the city since 1950, so we have a huge problem with vacancy.
Zack Dyer: Andrew Weil again, from the Landmarks Association.
Andrew Weil: And at the same time, the neighborhoods that are vacant were built with incredibly high-quality materials and incredibly durable materials. Most of the brick that’s being stolen in St. Louis is 100 or 120 years old. So it’s really at the beginning of its lifespan.
Zack Dyer: Bricks can last for hundreds of years.
Roman Mars: The fallout from decades of racist housing policies and disinvestment in the North Side has created communities where the bricks themselves are worth more than the homes they support.
Andrew Weil: The only reason these buildings can be stolen is because they are perceived to have no value. So if the building is perceived to have no value, and there aren’t eyes watching it, it’s a perfect opportunity for it to disappear.
Roman Mars: By the time Sam Moore had become an alderman in 2007, brick theft had already been going on for decades. But there hadn’t been much of an effort by the city to stop it. So Moore set out to figure out who was stealing bricks and how. To start, he did what any gumshoe would do, he went on some stakeouts.
Sam Moore: I watched them steal the bricks and followed them to the brickyard where they sold them and wondered why would the city let an illegal organization like that or a business buy brick.
Zack Dyer: These brick thieves have found that abandoned houses represent remarkably easy targets. So easy that sometimes people are coming in from as far away as Las Vegas to steal them. It’s not actually hard to tear the buildings down. People go about it in a few different ways.
Sam Moore: So a guy gets up at 6 o’clock in the morning and gets on a bicycle and take a screwdriver and pick him out six or seven bricks out of the wall and then snatch the wall.
Roman Mars: That’s all it takes, is to make a hole in the wall, slide a metal pipe in the hole, attach it to a chain, give yourself enough clearance and pull. Instant demolition. The thieves had figured out how to steal bricks even in busy areas. They’d just take out the back wall of the house, hidden from view.
Sam Moore: This is a busy street, so what they did was, they took the back outta this one. Look to your right.
Zack Dyer: Oh I see now. You’re right. So literally the whole building, the back of the building is gone and there’s a tree that’s grown up in it.
Sam Moore: Right.
Zack Dyer: Yeah you’re right, the whole building is just, there’s nothing there in the back.
Roman Mars: There are various ways to steal an entire wall of brick. Some people run a cable through one window and out another, then attach it to a truck and pull.
Zack Dyer: Or they’ve used backhoes that were contracted for other legal demolition jobs. They would drive them over in the night, knock down an abandoned house, and then return later to steal the bricks.
Roman Mars: One of the more drastic methods of stealing bricks involves burning the buildings first. The fire destroys the wooden supports holding up the building and weakens the mortar between the bricks. When the fire department would arrive to put out the fire, their high-pressure hoses often knocked down the walls and even cleaned the mortar off the bricks.
Michael Allen is a preservationist who used to live in North St. Louis back in 2008 when brick theft was at its worst and dozens of buildings were being stolen each month.
Michael Allen: I had personally worked with some neighbors. We boarded up buildings that weren’t boarded, ’cause we weren’t waiting for the city. We nailed shut the doors to keep people out of them from setting the fires inside. And then you know, they’d be on fire. It just didn’t seem real. Driving to go get groceries past these buildings that had been stolen. Seemed otherworldly.
Zack Dyer: Stealing the buildings is back-breaking work, and it can be dangerous.
Sam Moore: A couple time, we have found people upside down in the rubble that had got caught. The bricks caught them and killed them.
Zack Dyer: Eventually Alderman Moore got fed up with sitting in his car and watching all this happen to his neighborhood, so he started to confront the thieves when he would find them.
Sam Moore: People been warning me, “Man, Sam, they got guns, they don’t like you. You need to stop running up on people.” I took his advice, I stopped running up on ’em.
Roman Mars: Moore eventually realized his interventions weren’t making much of a difference anyway. Brick theft is classified as a nuisance crime, kind of like breaking windows in an old building. It carries a maximum $500 fine and up to 90 days in jail. And given the amount of money that can be made selling stolen brick, a lot of people figure it’s a risk worth taking.
Barbara Buck: To me, what makes used brick so special and desirable is the color.
Zack Dyer: This is Barbara Buck. She owns Century Used Brick. It’s a brickyard in St. Louis.
Barbara Buck: And so when they tear the building down, you’ll get this mix of colors of oranges
and reds, and it’s really hard, it’s been really hard for new brick manufacturers to duplicate that.
Roman Mars: Buck says her brickyard is scrupulous about only buying legally salvaged brick. They typically buy from just a handful of trusted vendors.
Barbara Buck: Because we’re legal, we have to know exactly where our brick comes from, so we don’t usually have people showing up in our yard with just a pallet, trying to sell a pallet.
Roman Mars: But Buck says there are other brick buyers that aren’t as careful as she is.
Barbara Buck: There was a guy in St. Louis, he was buying brick after hours, one in the morning, you could get a shopping cart, fill it full of brick, go get money, and then go buy your drugs. He was doing a huge business, and then the police shut him down.
Zack Dyer: Buck explained to me that the supply of legally salvaged bricks is driven mostly by city-funded demolitions.
Roman Mars: So when the city runs out of money to tear down old buildings, more brickyards are willing to turn a blind eye to brick acquired illegally.
Barbara Buck: So that’s when it gets tempting for these guys to steal brick and sell it, because they know there’s a lot of demand and no supply.
Roman Mars: Some of the brick, whether it’s legally salvaged or not, goes to building or renovating new homes in St. Louis. But most of it heads to another part of the country entirely.
Barbara Buck: I would say that most of it goes to Louisiana. And we sell some in Florida. We sell some in Mississippi, we sell in Texas. So there are southern markets that really love our brick.
Gary McConnell: I’m 63 years old, I’ve been doing this since I was 18. And I’ve seen and heard just about anything you can think of in the brick business, so.
Roman Mars: Gary McConnell owns McConnell Brick in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and he’s been buying salvaged brick for decades. When demand was at its highest, he was getting boxcars full of used brick from St. Louis. New brick might sell for around $350 per thousand. Old brick, on the other hand, will go for almost two times that.
Gary McConnell: For example, we sell St. Louis brick for 675.00 a thousand.
Zack Dyer: There are a few reasons why there’s such a high demand for salvaged bricks in the southern United States, where McConnell’s from. For one thing, in the 1960s and ’70s, as neighborhoods in St. Louis were starting to hollow out, a new style of architecture in the South was creating a market for used brick.
Gary McConnell: We had an architect in Louisiana named A Hays Town, and he was the first person that I know of, and I was a kid back then, but he started designing houses using salvaged material.
Roman Mars: Town was influenced by Antebellum Southern architecture.
Gary McConnell: ‘Course you know, we’re down South, we have plantation homes. All those old, old plantation mansions and stuff, the brick were actually made on site.
Roman Mars: By enslaved workers living on the plantation.
Gary McConnell: And they would make the brick, and put them on these houses, so when Mr. Town, his reputation and his flair was to replicate some of these old plantation homes. So the only way that you could do that was to use antique brick.
Zack Dyer: Town’s designs called for used brick not just for the facades of homes, but for the flooring, courtyard patios, and pool decks. Even today, some neighborhoods in Baton Rouge require all new construction to use reclaimed brick.
Roman Mars: Demand for that weathered look has gotten so high, that only the wealthiest homeowners can afford to have salvaged brick.
Gary McConnell: They’re expecting to have salvaged brick or old brick floors, or pine beams, or pine flooring. Any kind of antique, salvaged stuff they’re expecting to see that in those upper-end houses.
Roman Mars: Aside from this desire for an antique look, there’s another reason why so much used brick from St. Louis is headed to the Gulf Coast and out west. It’s because not all bricks are created equal.
Zack Dyer: The exterior layer of brick, the face brick, produced in St. Louis is fired in such a way that it helps it withstand the freezing winters in the Midwest. Interior brick is softer and can’t stand up to the elements.
Roman Mars: In the 1960s and ’70s, St. Louis home builders in the suburbs who started using reclaimed brick from the city got a nasty surprise. The brick facades were crumbling away.
Zack Dyer: If you’re gonna put used brick on a new home, there has to be someone at the demolition site separating out the face brick from the interior brick. That’s something demolition companies can’t or won’t pay for. The easiest thing for them to do is just ship all of the bricks down to warmer climates, where even the softer ones can be used on the exteriors of buildings.
Roman Mars: To me, there’s something sad about the beautiful old houses of St. Louis being torn down to build beautiful old-looking houses somewhere else. Barbara Buck, who runs the St. Louis brickyard agrees.
Barbara Buck: You know, there are just times when I’ll go to a building that I know is coming down, and I just feel so sad because I think about the family. I’m very sentimental, I think about the family that lived there. I think about the family that built that house. I think about the generations that were raised in that house.
Roman Mars: But she’s also practical. Many houses can’t and maybe shouldn’t be saved.
Barbara Buck: We don’t have the population, we don’t have the jobs to support those houses. Everything has a lifespan.
Roman Mars: The worst of the brick theft is over today. Some of the brickyards that had a history of buying stolen bricks were shut down with the help of city workers, local activists, and representatives like Alderman Sam Moore. Brickyards in St. Louis are now required to photograph whoever sells them brick along with the demolition permit for that job.
Zack Dyer: Now the question is how to reinvent what’s left behind.
Sam Moore: I’m doing a brick interview.
Speaker 11: A brick interview?
Sam Moore: You know I’m the brick man (laughs).
Zack Dyer: Back in The Ville, Moore shows me some of the things they’re doing with the vacant lots in the neighborhood. We pull up next to a fence decorated with life-sized portraits of old Negro League Baseball players from the 1930s. Behind the fence is one of Moore’s projects, an urban farm.
Sam Moore: This is called The Ville Orchard. We got about 50 fruit trees in it. We’re growing Tilapia fish.
Zack Dyer: Oh, really?
Sam Moore: And catfish. We got a hatchery in there, we got chickens. We got the works.
Zack Dyer: And there’s new housing being built in The Ville too. But not the same kind of stately homes that the neighborhood used to be known for.
Sam Moore: It’d take a million dollars to build them old houses over again. So we want mixed use in there. I think they look good. Anything that enhances the neighborhood.
Zack Dyer: Moore shows me some of the new houses. A traditional brick home in this neighborhood would’ve been made with walls that were three bricks deep. From the street, the new houses look kind of like the old ones, but up close you can see that there’s something different.
Sam Moore: It’s not a whole brick. Those are little clip on gadgets. It’s a flat surface, it’s about three quarters an inch thick. It’s a veneer of a brick.
Zack Dyer: The clip on brickworks just like siding on a house. It’s a slice of used or manufacture brick attached to the wooden frame of the building to give it that look of a brick home.
Roman Mars: These homes with their brick veneer are far cheaper to build and will likely be the new face of The Ville. They’re not as ornate as the old turn of the century houses that used to define this neighborhood, but their affordability gets more people to move in, to lower the vacancy rate, and that’s what counts. Better to have a neighborhood full of life, even if the brick is fake, and replace those dollhouses with real houses.
A lot of cities were ravaged by fire in the mid-19th century. St. Louis reacted by building everything with brick. But when San Francisco burned down, it used brick in another novel way. We have a cool extra story about that after this.
Roman Mars: So a lot of other cities were also hit by fires in the mid-1800s, just like St. Louis. The 19th century was a very dangerous time in San Francisco for example, in regards to fire. People who came out for the Gold Rush lived wherever they could, in wood shacks and tents, and even on wooden boats in the shallows of the Bay. It was a disaster waiting to happen. And
Kurt Kohlstedt is here in the studio with me now to talk about how fire shaped San Francisco’s architecture and infrastructure.
Kurt Kohlstedt: In 1849, the same year that St. Louis suffered from a severe fire that ultimately turned them toward fire-proof brick, San Francisco was also hit by the first of a series of seven fires. Two years later, one of these destroyed an estimated 2,000 buildings, amounting to about three-quarters of the city at the time.
Roman Mars: And just so you know, the reason why there’s a phoenix on the flag of San Francisco is because of all these fires of the 1850s. Just a little fun fact.
But one of the things that’s very clear is that San Francisco did not go the route of St. Louis. There are not a lot of brick buildings in response to the fires of the 1850s.
Kurt Kohlstedt: Right. So, brick was expensive out in the Bay. The climate doesn’t really require the insulation or benefit from the thermal mass that brick provides, so a lot of the city was actually rebuilt using wood. But they did widen city streets to slow the spread of flames, and they funded better-equipped fire fighting forces. The city even imposed a range of fines for any citizen who stood by and didn’t help to put out future fires.
Roman Mars: So they basically conscripted regular citizen to be involuntary firefighters?
Kurt Kohlstedt: Yeah.
Roman Mars: That’s amazing (laughs).
Kurt Kohlstedt: I don’t know if that would fly today.
Roman Mars: No.
Kurt Kohlstedt: And these fighters, they also led to this creation of this underground cistern system around the city, which provided water reserves for firefighters, so they could tap the water closer to a blaze. But the importance of these wouldn’t actually be realized until about a half-century later.
Roman Mars: You mean for the big San Francisco earthquake of 1906?
Kurt Kohlstedt: Exactly. Water mains broke. Rubble prevented firefighters from reaching parts of the city. The fire ended up burning for days, and thousands of lives were lost. And most of the city was destroyed. But in the aftermath, San Francisco set about expanding its auxiliary water supply system with reservoirs, pump stations, fireboats, and more earthquake-proof cisterns using concrete and steel. All of which were designed to help in emergencies when conventional water systems fail.
Roman Mars: Those all sound like very good solutions, but it doesn’t sound like building with wood was a good idea still (laughs).
Kurt Kohlstedt: Well it was and it wasn’t. Masonry is better for fires, but it’s not as great in earthquakes.
Roman Mars: Right, right.
Kurt Kohlstedt: But all that being said, bricks did have a role to play. Walking around the city today, you can spot where the city cisterns are because they’re marked out on the surface with big circles of bricks on San Francisco streets. So the bricks aren’t actually part of the cistern, but they do indicate where the cistern is.
Roman Mars: And visitors and new residents always ask about these. They’re a huge mystery. What are those circle outlines that, they’re almost as big as a city street, actually.
Kurt Kohlstedt: Yeah, they stretch basically from sidewalk to sidewalk, and they hint at something much larger below. Ultimately they aid visibility in making these cisterns easier to spot in a crisis, and in the middle of these brick circles are these little manhole covers that provide the actual access to the cistern. And being spread around the city, these mini reservoirs can function independently if quake damage cuts off one area from another. In total there are about 170 of this spread around, and they have a combined capacity of around 10 million gallons.
Roman Mars: That’s amazing.
Kurt Kohlstedt: It really is.
Roman Mars: And so if you’re walking through San Francisco, you should really look for them, ’cause they’re quite cool.
Kurt Kohlstedt: Right. And I actually wrote an article titled Decoding Rings on our website which talks more about the history, has images and videos, but most importantly, it has a map. So you can actually hunt these down yourself if you want to.
Roman Mars: Oh, nice. And that website is –
Kurt Kohlstedt: 99pi.org.
Roman Mars: Thanks. 99% Invisible was produced this week by Zack Dyer. Mix and Tech production by Sharif Youssef. Music by Sean Real. Katie Mingle is our Senior Producer. Kurt Kohlstedt is the Digital Director. Rounding out the team is Avery Trufelman, Emmett Fitzgerald, Taryn Mazza, and me, Roman Mars. We are a project of 91.7 KALW in San Francisco and produced on Radio Row in beautiful downtown Oakland, California. 99% Invisible is a member of Radiotopia from PRX, an independent collective of the most innovative shows in all of podcasting. Find them all at Radiotopia.fm. We are supported by the Knight Foundation and listener donors who pitch in whatever they can to keep us honest and keep us working hard. You can find the show and join discussions about the show on Facebook. You can tweet at me @romanmars and the show @99piorg. We’re on Instagram, Tumblr, and Reddit too. If you’re thinking, “I need more 99PI in my life, well we have all the old episodes available, and new articles about design every couple of days on our beautiful website. It’s at 99pi.org.