Blazes in Blairmontland

There have been a string of around ten fires, probable arsons, in Jeff Vander Lou and St. Louis Place over the past three days.

Up until tonight, they all happened within a four-block area bounded by St. Louis, Glasgow, Hebert, and Jefferson. Glasgow is the western boundary of Blairmont property ownership in that area, and it’s also the boundary of the Fifth Ward there.

Tonight, 2206 Hebert burned. It’s at the edge of St. Louis Place Park, nearly to North Florissant. It’s several blocks east of the other fires, but still well within the boundaries of the Blairmont project area. It is owned by N&G Ventures, a Blairmont company. It is not the only building owned by a Blairmont company on its block, and in fact the next couple of blocks west along Hebert have some pretty high concentrations of Blairmont owned properties.

I had heard about the other fires, and so it was a terrible, terrible thing to sit here in my living room this evening, on the verge of sleep, and find myself yanked out of my peaceful state by the clamoring of numerous fire engines, the wail of all those sirens and the unmistakable honking of engine horns. It was clear from the sounds that they were all stopping nearby, and that it was not a small fire.

I climbed up on my roof, not expecting to be able to discern anything, and was met instead with the sight of a tall, luminous cloud of smoke just three blocks west of here. To see so much smoke so close to home, to know what it meant, was a terrible, sick feeling.

I went to see the fire. Thankfully, the building was not a total loss, but it felt so, so debilitating nonetheless. After years of Blairmont’s pummelings, I stood there and wondered how this can happen, and felt like no one cares about us here at all (Melodramatic, yes, but you try watching a similar event and see how you feel). Watching those flames lick at those iconic Near North Side eyebrow lintels, three blocks from my house, I felt profoundly helpless. Three blocks is not that great of a distance. Will it be closer next time? Will it be this one, or that one that’s attached to the one that’s being rehabbed? Playing that “What’s going to burn around here next?” game is a quick and surefire way to make oneself very queasy very fast.

KSDK covered the blazes today. Neighbors are interviewed. One man is watching his sister’s house while she’s at church, because they are terrified that the vacant building next door will catch fire and spread to her house. Unfortunately, it’s a completely legitimate fear. It’s a terrible, terrible way to live, to have to worry like that for one’s own home and safety. As I sit here, wearily wide awake at 3AM, I wonder how many people a few blocks west of me are awake, too, trying to protect their homes. Sitting up all night, knowing that you’ve got to sleep some time, biting your nails, holding the phone in your hand, tensing at the sound of every siren…. It’s terrorism in the most literal sense of the word, creating deep and unceasing fear in the hearts of one’s targets.

The magic question: What is the involvement of Blairmont in this? I do not know, but they did own and neglect the building, and had it been occupied this would not have happened. One wonders how many of the other recently burned properties they own.

I will say that I find it rather interesting that the batch of arsons up until this point all falls squarely within the bounds of the Blairmont project area, stopping at the west at the very street that bounds the Blairmont area (Glasgow). And on the North Side, there are plenty of other concentrations of vacant buildings that an arsonist could easily burn which do not fall neatly inside someone’s real estate project boundaries (where the objective of the project seems to be widespread bulldozing, no less). These are areas that have seen some brick rustling, but that have yet to experience the levels of devastation achieved elsewhere within McKee’s project area.

If Blairmont did not cause these fires directly, their ongoing parasitic landbanking and aggressive neglect in our community over the past several years created the conditions that allowed them to happen.

Even if it really is just the brick rustlers to blame (Fire separates the brick from the wood handily, and makes the police less even likely to stop illegal demolition than they already are.), brick rustling was not such a problem around here until Blairmont ownership started to metastasize. They used to pick off a wall here or there, but they now erase entire blocks, due in no small part to Blairmont’s ongoing depopulation and forcible neglect of our area.

And speak of the devil–in the process of typing this, I heard not one but THREE distinct rounds of sirens to the west of here. Oh, no. Please, no.

I promise you that Paul McKee does not sit up at night, hearing rounds of sirens and wondering, nervously, nervously, what buildings near his home must be burning. I promise you he doesn’t live like this.

Published in: on May 5, 2008 at 8:31 am  Comments (15)  
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15 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Yes, it’s a legitimate fear which has been exploited. Even if McKee didn’t target these buildings, the outcome remains the same. This fear compels homeowners to sell, which ironically makes the sale of the building illegal as contracts are void under duress. Yet the solution for government is to ignore the charlatan’s heinous acts and instead subsidize his plan which apparently we signed for before anyone ever saw it. In reality this was planned decades ago with Team Four Inc and spatial deconcentration. Slay knows the intent while some North Side leaders are diluted enough to believe this will benefit them. Perhaps the “spontaneous” combustion will change their minds.

  2. I never thought I would be advocating for eminent domain, but that is a LEGAL way to clear-cut a neighborhood. Why can’t McKee just apply for demo permits on the vacant buildings, hire reputable companies to demo, and ask for eminent domain on the rest of the neighborhood? At least people would be compensated in some small degree and not terrorized out of house and home. Those who haven’t left the epicenter already mostly CAN’T leave without assistance. Why allow them to be denigrated, attacked and humiliated when you could just move them legally?

    “Can I ask you one question? Is your money that good?”

    Barbara (smelling the smoke coming nearer and nearer)

  3. Was ED used with McRee Town?

  4. Yes, McRee was done with eminent domain, as was Loughborough Commons. ED is not needed on the northside though, you can just burn people out up here. So much cheaper!

  5. And Barbara there is paperwork with that messy court system.

  6. This post is moving. As a far-detached observer (New Orleans), I rely on my St. Louis blogging posse to maintain that visceral connection to my home city. Thus, I feel your pain and hopelessness as my own.

    I’m in the process of trying to do whatever I can via long distance (lots of calls, emails, essays, and blog posts).

  7. The situation is far from hopeless. McKee has not unveiled any plans, and is staying quiet. There is no redevelopment ordinance at the Board of Aldermen. The aldermen for the 5th and 19th wards have severed ties to McKee and desperately need the political support of activists. I think north side residents have been dealt a pretty good political hand, despite the building losses, and need to play it fast.

  8. Northside residents have tried hard to play the political hand, including traveling to Jeff City to lobby against the DALA tax credit bill. We keep consistently losing neighbors and buildings, year after year, so don’t tell me we are in a good position.

    Correct me if I am wrong, but when the city bills McKee for clearing away the burned building, he makes 50% tax credit on the cost of acquisition PLUS the cost of the emergency demo (if he can be shamed into paying).

  9. I fail to see what card can be played when North Side politicians have sold out their constituency. Regardless of their current stance, they lobbied for the tax credit. Maybe after the fact they’re upset, but the local control provision only ensures that their “hesitance” correlates with more payoffs. Perhaps I’m cynical but when African American leaders sign on for Negro Removal I’m just about dumbfounded.

  10. Doug,

    I never got the impression that the aldermen in question were the brightest bulbs on the Christmas Tree.

  11. Not surprised that Doug fails to see what card can be played. Since he lives in southwest city, he’s not part of the process here and quite removed.

    For anyone who actually wants to effect change here, I’d recommend getting to know those people who are a part of the process and not hurling insults about the north side aldermen from safer quarters in south city.

    Yes, the aldermen are part of the process — for better or for worse. April Ford’s family has lived in Old North for more than a half-century, and her father has actually purchased vacant buildings to stabilize them. The Fords care a lot about the future of the area, and while they may not be showing great leadership on the McKee issue could use some constructive dialog.

    There is a lot to be done to change the dynamic with McKee, but it won’t come from keyboard commandos who won’t even live in the north city they claim to know so well.

  12. I’ve gone to the meetings, written officials, and I can gladly say that I don’t want anything to do with this corrupt process. I don’t currently live in North St. Louis, but I do work there and spend more time than most Southsiders. I have enough experience to see what’s going on. Moreover, your provincial mentality, attacking those who don’t live there, is quite detrimental. Ward boundaries change every 10 years while only caring about what goes on ones immediate neighborhood is one explanation of St. Louis’ decline.

  13. The process sucks. What’s the alternative. Take the aldermen out of the equation. Who is going to lobby McKee and what are they going to ask him to do?

  14. There should be no lobbying. Take his property through eminent domain. He’s a fucking slumlord. Beyond that he’s in violation of Federal Law. He’s blockbusting. We can evict white property owners for Loughborough Commons, but we can’t throw out the asshole McKee?

    The argument that the property will simply go over to the LRA is inane. With planning the City could divide his projects, nominate some to a district, and get them redeveloped. But they are fucking idiots.

    They drank the cyanide laced cool-aide. This situation is dead from the beginning and no positive outcome will arise.

  15. […] crackheads–who happened to burn down a good dozen houses in one weekend. Read an account here written by Claire Nowak-Boyd about what it was like to live in the proximity of these obviously […]

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