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Now You See It, Now You Don't

  • Ted Landphair

A perfect candidate for the arson squad. Not the fire department, the squad of scavengers who first burn a building until it's unsafe to keep standing, then steal everything when it falls.

A perfect candidate for the arson squad. Not the fire department, the squad of scavengers who first burn a building until it's unsafe to keep standing, then steal everything when it falls.

Great old buildings are here today, gone by morning

Perhaps you've seen or heard of David Copperfield and other illusionists who seem to make entire buildings disappear right before your eyes.

Well, some people in St. Louis, Missouri - and in other U.S. cities as well - are going them one better. They're making whole blocks vanish, seemingly overnight.

This is happening in the poorest, most decrepit parts of town, where huge mansions and apartment buildings on street after street have been completely abandoned. Bricks there for the picking, quite literally.

Bricks there for the picking, quite literally.

Once among the most prestigious local addresses, they're now easy pickings for thieves, who strip them practically bare, stealing every lighting fixture, every piece of copper pipe and, as the saying goes, everything else that isn't nailed down. Stuff that is, too.

It's an all-too-familiar story in St. Louis, where at least 8,000 buildings stand empty. And after the human vultures have picked them clean, the buildings themselves are disappearing. Many are made of prized St. Louis brick, dating to a time when the rich, bottomland soil along the Mississippi River produced some of the finest clay in the land. The first thing to go these days are any and all copper cables in an abandoned building - or those under construction, for that matter.

The first thing to go these days are any and all copper cables in an abandoned building - or those under construction, for that matter.

Builders and renovators in southern cities, especially, covet that brick, and fast-moving thieves are grabbing it for them.

How do they do it? In the middle of the night, they set fire to the old buildings. Fire crews rush in and train high-pressure hoses on the burning structures. Not only does this knock down most of the weakened walls that haven't already collapsed, it also washes away much of the mortar that held the bricks in place. Left behind in heaps on the ground are classic St. Louis bricks, ready for scavenging.

Barbara Buck, who owns a used-brick store in town, told the New York Times that she figures at least eight whole tractor-trailer loads of stolen brick leave the city each week, heading south.

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