When the built environment is the only resource left in a community: Thoughts on scrapping and rustling

Over at Sweet Juniper, a wonderful blog about life in Detroit, there’s a very thoughtful post about scrap metal and scrappers: Deconstruction. I highly recommend reading it. It captures a lot of the thoughts I’ve had to myself about my own encounters with scrapping and metal theft, but puts ’em a lot more eloquently than I ever have.

I live just across the highway from a large concentration of scrapyards here in St. Louis, and thus have to contend on a very frequent basis with the spectre of scrap metal theft. Scrap metal theft is not an occupation pursued by anyone who has much in the way of options or resources, and thus many scrappers (thieves, especially) they don’t want to travel far between theft and the ‘yard, and thus we take a solid and relentless whoppin’ from them here on the Near North Side. Famously, even the plaque denoting the location of the Big Mound that gave St. Louis the nickname Mound City has disappeared, leaving naught but a rectangular indent in the rock it once adorned. The building I live in had metal stolen from it (plumbing, sewer service, cornice, etc.) so many times that my landlord ended up moving in to the building well before it had working plumbing, because she had no choice. Something about the fact that scrappers hit the Near North Side so hard seems particularly sick–I mean shit, go pick on an area that’s got resources to spare. Steal from someone who’s not poor.

Then again, these days, with Blairmont-fueled brick rustling (and the semi-regular “accidental” fire) eating my community alive and making whole blocks completely vanish off the face of the earth in a matter of months, scrap metal theft seems almost quaint. Stealing the plumbing out of a building punches holes in its walls, incurs thousands of dollars in costs, and makes the difference between a rehab you can move into right away and one that requires you to simultaneously maintain a mortgage and rent…. But it doesn’t immediately condemn the building to certain death. Stealing a sheet metal cornice and/or guttering rips bricks down and can bring on a slow, painful, multi-year death, but again, the building still can be saved, especially if the owner acts quickly. Not so with brick rustling, especially when flames are involved. Brick rustling is also much more physically dangerous to the thief himself–brick thieves work by standing at the bottom of a three story building and hacking with an ice-pick or similar tool at shoulder height until part of the wall collapses, at which point they harvest the bricks. Seriously, the police need to start taking this seriously before one of these idiots kills himself. It’s going to happen. It’s only a matter of time–trust me, I’ve watched them work, often on buildings near to my home and to my heart. Man, I remember when I only used to worry about the theft of radiators and pipes and the occasional terra cotta medallion…….. Sigh.

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Published in: on July 23, 2008 at 4:46 am  Comments (3)  
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3 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Talk about quaint…loosening brick with an ice pick? Shhieht.

    How about wrapping a thick metal chain around a bearing wall at the rear of a building, hooking the chain to the back of a pickup, and then pulling the wall out all at once, lock stock and barrel?

    Guess I shouldn’t be promoting such “trade secrets”, but I’m doubting there are many brick rustlers reading here…

  2. We’ve seen plenty of truck-and-chain assisted brick theft up here on 19th, but also the low-tech kind Claire is talking about. When the building next door to me collapsed due to a construction accident, the brick rustlers (who had been hired by Bellon to work on the real demo job) took about 60 bricks out of the back wall of my building using the ice pick technique. I’m Claire’s landlord, so she’s talking about stuff happening to the exterior wall of our own home while we are living here. Luckily, I know the greatest mason ever, Fred Impellizeri, who tracked the guys down and forced them to give back, then put them back into the wall for me at no cost.

  3. With structural unemployment and decades of public divestment from cities comes the reliance of the people on the informal economy which includes drug dealing, rustling, illegal scrapping, etc.

    But the solution to such discrimination and desolation does not involve urban renewal and the destruction of the viable, historic infrastructure that remains. Squandering this comparative advantage impedes our true potential as a City and our ability to compete with suburbia and other regions. The rehabilitation of historic buildings is not only ecologically sound, as it preserves existing resources and expels less energy than new construction, but also creates more jobs.

    If we, as a City, uniformly got behind rehabilitation then we would see fewer and fewer wreckers/rustlers and more rehabbers especially in the areas which need steady employment the most: our North Side. Beyond actual employment and putting food on the table, such a revolution would be putting the community back together, thereby attracting back the African American Middle Class which left areas like the Ville en masse.

    These are our priorities, not Earth City Redux.


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