Abandoned buildings in St. Louis are burning at a rate of up to six a day. During the last two and a half years, there were nearly 700 fires in vacant buildings, according to the city fire department.
Mary Herron lives on the 3600 block of Lee Avenue in north St. Louis. Ms. Herron, an elderly mother of eight grown children, lives next to an abandoned building that burned 15 months ago. The vacant building caught on fire twice in June of 2007.
The water used by firefighters to put out the flames destroyed most of the inside of Ms. Herron's home, causing more than $30,000 in damages and required her to stay with a relative for two months until a contractor fixed her house.
Today, the burned out shell is still there attracting drug addicts and vagrants who use the abandoned building as a safe place, which helps explain why Ms. Herron doesn't feel safe with it just a few feet from her own property.
Who owns that burned out building?
Well, the city of St. Louis. That's who.
Our investigation found that 75% of the vacant house fires in the city of St. Louis happened in seven north city zip codes. Those zip codes have a population that is 93% African-American. Obviously, that's largely because the overwhelming majority of vacant buildings are there too.
Some of these buildings have historic value and can be saved, but until developers fix the property the red brick century old bombed out looking structures sit and rot, and sometimes catch fire next to people like Ms. Herron.
Many of the fires are small, but imagine the frustration of people living next to 4324 Lee Avenue, a building that burned three times in the same day or 3824 Blair, a building that caught on fire three times in just two days.
Although many of the fires are small and do not cause structural problems, some of the these blazes gut the buildings and wind up reflecting the hopeless feelings and lack of pride found on many city blocks, especially in the north St. Louis neighborhoods that have so many abandoned buildings.
The office of Mayor Francis Slay has repeatedly declined to let me interview any city official involved in building inspection or property management about the problem.
On Tuesday, we interviewed Fire Chief Dennis Jenkerson who admitted that vacant house fires are potentially more dangerous for firefighters because the buildings are often more unstable. However, unlike his predecessor Sherman George, who considered vacant building fires a huge problem for his department, Jenkerson told me that vacant building fires don't "stretch" the department's resouces.
In fact, even though he speaks only for the city Fire Department, Chief Jenkerson often sounded like a spokesman for the entire city when he repeatedly talked about the great job the city was doing taking care of the problem, adding that we're "moving in the right direction."
Keep in mind my questions focused on the fires and the problems with fires in vacant buildings, not the look and feel of the city. The Chief addressed my questions, but he added so much spin that it seemed out of character for a Fire Chief and more like the response of one of the Mayor's top aides.
Perhaps that's why the Mayor's office didn't make anyone else available for an interview. Chief Jenkerson, a nice, disarming guy, was an ideal spokesman for the city. He was in uniform talking about something he understood and could put it in perspective so that the Mayor and his top aides could justify (in their minds) not making other officials available to answer tough questions on-camera.
The city of St. Louis is only one of many major urban areas that have the same problem with fires in vacant buildings. Chicago, Baltimore, Philadelphia and many others cities share the same frustrating situation that winds up costing taxpayers a small fortune. We asked the St. Louis Fire Department how much it spends fighting vacant building fires, but those figures were not available.
East St. Louis has had one of the worst problems in the state of Illinois for many years. In fact, fire investigators have told me that the metro-east city of 30,000 residents is widely considered to be the "arson capitol" of the state. The problem was so bad at homes owned by companies connected with Sieron and Associates, a local real estate company, that the Illinois FAIR Plan, an insurer of last resort, refused to provide coverage on any buildings owned by Sieron or it's related companies.
Many of the buildings that have burned in East St. Louis are small wood frame houses that should be bulldozed. However, many of the burned out buildings in St. Louis are worth saving and can greatly improve the quality of life and market value of inner-city neighborhoods if they are rehabilitated.
Until that happens, Mary Herron prays that the historic burned out shell of red brick next to her doesn't catch fire again before someone "saves it" or the city finally decides to tear it down.