I decided on Friday to do a little investigating for myself of the rash of new arsons that hit the neighborhood around Grand Blvd and Page Ave earlier in the first week of March. This is not the first time a string of arsons has hit the area; two summers ago, an arsonist (who I suspect is the same party) burned numerous houses further to the northeast in St. Louis Place. Read about my coverage of that crime wave, which remains unsolved. After photos of each house destroyed by last week’s arsons, I have included a Sanborn Fire Insurance Map of the house and its neighborhood in the beginning of the last century. Marvel at the beauty of St. Louis’s 19th Century Street grid and the cohesive communities formed by it, and mourn the loss of just about everything you see in the maps.
The first house I looked at is 1721 N. Grand. You would think that this high profile location would be a bad place to commit fiery felonies, but apparently not.
See it before it burned here. Note the suburban style tract housing to the right of the picture; I assume they will be going up in flames twenty or thirty years from now.
Here is the Sanborn map, with 1721 located in the central right hand of the image. Imagine all the people who used to live by the house.
I spied the second house hit by the arsonist, at 1803 Bacon Street. The house had a slathering of permastone on its first floor, but otherwise was intact, until the fires.
See it here in Google Street View before the fire. I’m not going to claim it was the most spectacular house in the entire city, but it burning down at the hands of malevolent intent is the real problem.
Again, note the density and stability of the neighborhood one hundred years ago; I doubt someone could burn a house down without noticing back then.
I checked out 1910 Bacon next, and this was a truly beautiful house when it was first built.
Judging by its mate next door, this was truly a beautiful Italianate house, and its demise slightly damaged its neighbor. See the two houses in slightly better times here.
Again, one can only imagine what the neighborhood was like before demolition and blight set in so earnestly.
I set off then for the last house targeted by the arsonists, and soon realized I was spotting numerous other houses in various states of collapse. It turns out that dozens of houses are still being brick rustled in the area, and I photographed just one of them that you can see below. I first thought it was yet another victim of the arsonist.
The final victim of the arsons, 3510 Cozens, gave me a sense of deja vu when I saw it; these houses are identical to many of the vernacular styles in Baltimore, Maryland. Apparently the arsonist did not share my nostalgia, and by setting the one on fire, both will now face the wrecking ball.
See the Sanborn Map for this neighborhood below. See the houses before the fire here.
So who’s committing these crimes? I personally believe it is the same person or persons responsible for the fires almost two years ago in St. Louis Place. Their motives, or his motives I can probably say since 90% of arsonists are men, consist of two possibilities:
1) Brick theft
It’s well known that brick thieves set fires in the belief (perhaps true) that the heat of the fire and the pressure of the firefighters’ hoses clean off the brick, making it easier to harvest. While this is certainly a possibility, I am confused that many of the houses hit by the arsonist two years ago have never been harvested; in fact, a couple sit in the exact same condition more or less as they did the day after arson struck them. It is very possible, obviously, that the bricks were not salvageable after the fire due to damage or increased neighbor awareness.
2) Pyromaniac at Work
The arsons are merely the work of a lone, deranged man who gets an emotional or psychological release from burning down houses, or at the least, gets a rise out of watching the response of the firefighters. I think it is notable that only abandoned houses, often–but not all–with no nearby neighbors have been targeted. One should note that arson struck several houses in McRee Town after the area had been condemned for Botanical Heights; I call these figures “Guilt-Free Arsonists,” people who think it is some how less immoral to burn down a house with no inhabitants. It is very important to note that Washington, DC faced a similar character who set fires over the course of several years. Just as in St. Louis, there were often gaps in the arsons, as the perpetrator saw more stability in his life. The fires would resume when he was facing personal financial and emotional problems. Read about the DC arsonist here, and note the similarities with St. Louis’s rash of arsons.
I know many of my colleagues will say that this is Paul McKee or one of his “henchmen” ordering these fires to intimidate and force out remaining residents in order to implement Northside, but I find this preposterous in the face of zero evidence linking Mr. McKee with any known brick thieves operating in the St. Louis Place neighborhood. Everyone knows their yards sit in the shadow of St. Augustine, but until there is real proof, I think such wild accusations damage credibility for the anti-McKee crowd. Suspicions, or cries of “everyone knows he’s doing it” are not good enough for me. No one I know would want to be convicted of a crime solely on the basis that “everyone knows they did it,” so I don’t see why we should engage in the same behavior.
Read Ecology of Absence’s take on the recent wave of arson here.
I was also curious about how many citations had been issued for the properties, and who actually owned them, so I checked the St. Louis government page to find out:
1721 N. Grand Blvd.
Owner-occupied according to City.
Condemned to be demolished on November 24, 2009.
1803 Bacon St.
Owners live next door
1910 Bacon St.
Owners also live next door.
Condemned and boarded up on February 11, 2010.
3510 Cozens Ave.
Paul McKee Inspected on May 4, 2009, 17 violations found. Condemned to be demolished on March 27, 2008.
A final word: The property database for the City is clearly out of date; no one was living in the house on Grand when it burned, and I am doubtful anyone was next door to 1910 when it burned. An accurate and updated database would be nice.
I also found it a little sad that while photographing the buildings on Friday, not one of the people I drove by seemed to take any notice of me. Seriously, some guy photographing burned out houses less than a week after they were the targets of arson, and no one gets suspicious of me?
Update: Read my update from 2012..