Malcolm Gay, New York Times, September 20, 2014

By the time Raymond Feemster awoke to the pounding of firefighters at his door, flames were already licking his shotgun-style home. The vacant house next door, which neighbors said was frequented by squatters, had burst into flames and was now threatening to engulf houses on each side.

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“My neighbor’s house was completely destroyed,” said Mr. Feemster, 58. “I guess it was one of the crackheads in that vacant house.”

Perhaps. But the blaze, one of 391 fires at vacant buildings in the city over the past two years, may have had a more sinister cause. Law enforcement officials, politicians and historic preservationists here have concluded that brick thieves are often to blame, deliberately torching buildings to quicken their harvest of St. Louis brick, prized by developers throughout the South for its distinctive character.

“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.”

After the fire that devastated much of St. Louis in 1849, city leaders passed an ordinance requiring all new buildings to be made of noncombustible material. That law, along with the rich clays of eastern Missouri, led to a flourishing brick industry here. Historians say that at the industry’s height, around 1900, the city had more than 100 manufacturing plants, and St. Louis became known for the quality, craftsmanship and abundance of its brick.

“They love it in New Orleans and the South–wherever they’re rebuilding, they want it because it’s beautiful brick,” said Barbara Buck, who owns Century Used Brick. “It really gives the building a dimension, a fingerprint.”

Mr. Moore, who is drafting a bill that would increase the penalties for brick theft, said that while many thieves still used cables and picks to collapse a wall, arson had become the tool of choice. Thieves even set fire to wood-frame homes to create a diversion. Firefighters often knock down walls, making it easier for thieves to harvest the bricks.

“The whole block is gone–they stole the whole block,” Mr. Moore marveled as he drove his white Dodge Magnum through his ward’s motley collection of dilapidated homes and vacant lots. “They’re stealing entire buildings, buildings that belong to the city. Where else in the world do you steal an entire city building?”

There are more than 8,000 vacant buildings in St. Louis, and more than 11,000 vacant lots.

The maximum penalty for brick theft here is a $500 fine or 90 days in jail or both. The city police said there were 34 brick-related thefts in the last year.

“You see these guys with mortar dust all over them, and they’re stacking on a pallet, and they’ll say, ‘I’m just a day laborer working for that guy over there–whoa, where did he go?’ ” said Maribeth McMahon, a lawyer with the city counselor’s office. “So this poor stiff, who’s just trying to earn an hourly wage, gets a summons.”

Ms. Buck, who said thieves often arrived at her brickyard with “bricks in the trunk of a Lexus,” said she followed city ordinance and required brick vendors to produce a demolition permit to sell their bricks. A pallet of 500 goes for roughly $100, she said, but other less scrupulous buyers do not require permits.

Ms. Buck estimates that as many as eight tractor-trailer loads of stolen bricks leave the city each week for Florida, Louisiana or Texas, because “St. Louis brick is in such high demand.”