The Power of Brick
By Janice Drake
Brick has been described as the ultimate substance for building homes as far back as the historic fairy tale. That wolf brought visions of a solid brick home to the forefront of every child’s mind. Nothing could be better than living in a brick home. No one, no matter how evil or tough, could hurt you if you huddled inside its solid walls.
I spent my childhood in the swamps of southeast Texas with my family, of course, but in a neighborhood with houses made of wood and shingles stuck on top of concrete blocks. Live oak trees shrouded in Spanish moss and long needle pine trees dressed my home and gave me endless hours of play in and under their branches. These houses were time and place appropriate to the area. Despite the mosquitoes and yearly hurricanes, I knew I was living in the best neighborhood. But I had heard of brick homes. Dreamed of solid structures lined up in rows.
I moved to St. Louis in 1987 and was fortunate to find myself in the Southwest Garden Neighborhood filled with brick buildings. Everyone knows the history of brick in St. Louis. But to someone who only dreamed of them, the sight of block after block of solid mostly red brick homes was mesmerizing. I have spent the years since rehabbing, preserving, falling in love with these colorful tanks.
For the first 50 years or so, a brick building certainly lives up to its fairy tale claim—solid as a brick wall. Add another 50 years to the life of the structure and things really start to need repair.
After rehabbing my own four family building and observing my family take on several buildings, it dawned on me that neighborhoods could be saved by taking on one rehab at a time. My involvement in the housing corporation opened my eyes to what a small group of volunteers could accomplish with the help of the alderman, CDA grants, a bank loan and determination to rebuild vacant lots into homes for low to middle income people and drug houses into family homes for a new generation.
When our housing corporation merged with two others five years ago and became Tower Grove Neighborhoods CDC, our mission continued and expanded into more neighborhoods. This time we had help, a full- time dedicated staff, so the job is made easier and the parade of repaired brick buildings is growing.
The reality of vacancy in St. Louis and its toll on neighborhoods is being addressed by our group as well as several other knowledgeable and caring individuals and social service agencies. These groups are offering ways to empower potential owners of vacant city homes through education on buying and rehabbing as well as giving access to resources in neighborhoods that have failed to receive funding in the past. With more than 25,000 vacant brick homes in various stages of decline, there is much work to be done. It is the human aspect of vacancy that is the most compelling reason to continue to look for ways to connect families to their own brick home.
I applaud all efforts to find solutions to the decay of vacant buildings and the regrowth of viable businesses and homes. We see photo essays of the homeless living in shells with blown down back walls and twisted rubble posing as sculpture against a backdrop of the Gateway Arch. Hopefully these essays will provoke empathy from philanthropists as well as volunteers with a better vision of St. Louis, not sadness and revulsion from outsiders grateful for their own safe neighborhoods.
On a hot, humid Sunday morning last summer, I sat on the front stoop of a tiny four room brick bungalow in the southern tip of the Tower Grove South Neighborhood. I was there to water the new foundation plants and to say good bye to one more successful rehab. I thought about all the hands that had touched this project and the neighbors on the street who had come by to express their thanks for saving this little gem that had sat vacant for so many years. I was happy for the neighbors as well as the young man who had purchased the home – his dream come true. I gave the brick porch one final pat—felt its warm response. The power of brick—the healing power of brick.