St. Louis, 2006-2007: Anti-Development Fires

Posted by 1877 on 2015/10/22

From 2006-2007, a series of fires tore through the construction sites of some of St. Louis’s largest and most expensive housing developments. These arsons took place in the centers of what today are still zones of tension between gentrifiers and all those whose lives they affect. The following is an article from the 2006 issue of War on Misery about the fires.

Including the June 13, 2007 $12 million condo arson at the corner of Lindell Blvd and Vandeventer Ave. (committed after the article was published), these acts of sabotage burned over $21,000,000 worth of property. A number of these fires pushed already precarious developers and their plans into the housing market crash of 2008, delaying projects for years and others indefinitely.

While a few of these luxury apartments were slowly rebuilt, Warehouse Lofts never was (currently a parking lot) and the other half of Compton Gate is only now (nine years later) thinking of starting construction. The fires made Millennium Restoration and Development (like many of the major developers in ’06) take out additional insurance and think twice about building. Millennium stalled its condos at Arsenal and Jefferson long enough for the recession to hit—forcing them to abandon plans all together.

Though hipsterdom and liberal feel-goodery have slowly made in-roads in the area*, that building would have been some of the first large-scale development in the area. One can only speculate how it would have impacted the area.

Note well, dear readers, that a number of things have changed in the near decade since these arsons: specifically the ubiquity of cameras, surveillance and the tracking of our day to day movements. While it’s still true that to start a fire it takes nothing “more than the flick of a match—something every 8 year-old can do”, only if that 8 year-old were wanting to get caught would they still so casually do so. Said 8-year-old (if really wanting to go to prison for a long time) would also not familiarize themselves with modern counter-surveillance and counter-repression techniques.

gargoyle fire

Remember, it’s sometimes worth stopping or preventing something if only for a moment—the unknowns of the future can turn that instance into a decade or an infinity.…



fire fire everywhere

My belief is that it may have been just somebody, passerbys, riding by and seeing the fire and just “Rah, Rah, Rah! Oh, look at that fire!”

-Kerry Wilson, St. Louis Fire Investigator, on reports that a neighbor heard cheering at about the time the Compton Gate fire started, April 27, 2006

A fire. And another, and another, and another… We exchange silent smirks. Maybe outbursts of laughter among friends. A skipped heartbeat or two. Whispers of anticipation that the burdensome tide of regularity might be shifting. That the social conflict of this city, that between the rich and the poor, might be outwardly showing itself as such. Some, more daring than ourselves, articulate our buried rage for the prison we call a city.

The arsons have thrown the media, mayor, police, and developers into a tantrum, but no one else seems to mind or feel threatened. The worry that one might be burned alive while exploring an empty building seems negligible when pitted against threats of eviction, one’s kid spending a night in jail, or getting the boot at work. Hell, and when the one’s who are responsible for those fears get publicly frantic, how can we not enjoy it. It’s no surprise that no one’s come forward to claim the $65,000 reward money. Better to appreciate revenge than spoil the party.

If people are repulsed by anything, it is the exorbitant prices these new developments are going for which, it must be said, only became public because of the fires. Surely 95% of the city could never afford these half-million dollar condominiums—money which dwarfs the reward.

Even the ones who set themselves up in Carondelet (see June 27 in Chronicles**) clearly had no problems with the act itself. (Even though the alleged arsonist should have come from the backside to roast the pigs along with the rat who set him up!) A quick look at the accused shows he just wanted some cash so he’d never have to work again, pay bills, worry about the coming eviction notice, childcare, dental bills, etc. No love for property and rightfully so. But he ultimately saw himself outside the clearly declared social conflict and chose instead to go on just getting by—at the same risk. But since everyone only whispers their excitement or shrugs with passive acceptance, we will be the first to publicly defend the burning of the city.

Compoton Gate: before, during and after. The block-wide, three-story wood frame when ignited reach 75 feet in the air, burned at 4000 degrees Fahrenheit and could be seen from Illinois.

It’s a great hindrance to any developer”

– Alderman Joe Vollmer after the Beck Ave. blaze in his 10th Ward, July 14, 2006

The “No Gods, No Masters” anarchist graffiti seen on the half-bulldozed St. Aloysius Gonzaga Church on the Hill this June was a promising show of a growing discontent (but given the context, only a clever warning). You only had to peek through the arched entrance way to see, blossoming from the ruins of the church, more new upscale homes—which are, judging from the incessant chatter of city officials and their blogging pro-city playmates, without a doubt, the city’s new God.

The popular assault and subversion of development projects is nothing new: construction dumpster fires, sabotaged construction equipment, graffiti, squatting by workers on weekends and holidays, stolen tools, broken windows and kicked in doors, dragged lines of spray paint, heckling of speculators when they come to visit, or far more difficult to swallow, harassing, mugging, or even killing of rehab workers. The class war never stops dogging the ever more refined structures of confinement and exploitation known as progress. But something new is giving this war a coherence—clearly pronouncing it as a two-sided affair—and that something is the smell of plywood ablaze[1]. Finally, they are on their knees. Chris Goodson, Mississippi Place developer and police board president, openly called the fires “a shot in the gut.”[2]

The Post-Dispatch, trying to uncover the motivations behind the city arsonists’ targets, accidentally revealed who they are and, more importantly, the intimate interconnections of those developing the city and the mafia like size of their web. Politicking aside, there is money to be made by politicians (left and right), construction companies, materials companies, future and existing businesses, even police and insurance companies, and of course, the developers themselves. A brief look at the contributors to the reward money—those who have the most at stake[3]—also reveals each of these sleazy enterprises.

Lafeyette Square, June 14: At either end of the same block, fires broke out a few hours a part costing Vail Place Townhomes and Mississippi Place Townhomes a combined $4.5 million.

Like any rebellious feat, let’s not forget how playfully brilliant and scattered these acts have been—incredibly so as we marvel at the scale of the destruction. A $100,000 summer-time arson attack on an urban Seattle condominium development has launched its officials into a frenzy. The damage so far this year in St. Louis City is 100 times that of Seattle: $10 million! A number too large for us rabble to comprehend. We seem small both to the numbers and the spectacular acts. But are the acts themselves so spectacular? C’mon, really, what does it take more than the flick of a match—something every 8 year-old can do. And they are happening everywhere. From north city to south city to everyone’s gettin’ the idea! And not just in the city[4], but in Illinois too. Four new houses lit up the Illinois sky in O’Fallon a mere four days after the South Grand blaze captured the imagination of the metro area. The dazzling timing got even better: the grand opening for the subdivision had to be canceled. A similarly-timed blaze two months later in Walnut Park almost canceled a news conference featuring Mayor Slay. From bombed out neighborhoods to bourgeois ones, the dispossessed have reclaimed a frightful, and immensely playful, new weapon against progress.

Outspoken rivals of progress take a position as disturbing as its exponents—that of historical obsession. Reactionary hype for the city’s historic buildings has even rubbed off on those who purport to be against this society—defending what exists because it must, by default, oppose the new vampire developers. But, no no no! Nothing is ours in its current state. Those who look not hing like us[5] designed the city to move capital and maximize profit. The vandals who smashed tea sets, slashed old paintings, emptied a fire extinguisher into an antique rosewood piano, and otherwise thoroughly trashed an 1840s 8-building museum complex in Kansas City this August understood this infinitely more than many of the historical building-obsessed leftists in St. Louis.

At a glance, it would appear the Left has remained eerily silent. But, if anything, the development itself is most in line with what city liberals would like to see. In fact, the developers themselves are Democratic Party politicians, founders of non-profit city gardening programs, small-business supporters, and queer activists, and the development they push is hardly the tear-’em down, slap-’em-up kind, but one of historic conservation, that is, the preservation of the ‘old’ city. They may not be advocating for the machine of Los Angeles or Atlanta, but for a humane Seattle, Minneapolis, Vancouver, or San Francisco—cities which, at their core, share the miserably efficient gears of L.A.

June 13, 2007: 3949 Lindell destroyed, $12 million

It impacts way more than me and our development.”

-Developer Ken Nuernberger at the scene of his smoldering $10 million Compton Gate Condominiums, April 28, 2006

So much for preserving in the old city. The fire at the old mattress factory on Beck and the arsons of the historic buildings on Cook and Finney complete the utter brilliance of the fire phenomenon—that of a total attack on not just new construction, or new developments, but on the city itself.

And oh how tiresome this city’s story is… St. Louis, like other Midwestern American cities, once the hub of wealth, reached a point where those who had actually produced the wealth, the rabble, began to make those who accumulated the wealth quite uncomfortable in their own neighborhoods. They tried to contain the rabble in ghettoes and housing projects, only to see them trickle into all parts of the city. Unable to contain the ghetto, they made the entire city a ghetto. The wealthy decided to move to the outskirts where safety and solitude awaited. But the outskirts weren’t empty. The wealthy overran small towns and farms. Property values skyrocketed and so did the rent… Again, the story is quite dull, the only thing worth recognizing is old news: The wealthy continue to move around, develop new frontiers, and displace the poor.


July 13, 2006: Warhouse Lofts destroyed. Never rebuilt, currently a parking lot.

In this moment, the contested frontier is the city of St. Louis. The fight over defending land itself—the existent—on some arbitrary basis rings hollow. Where we are now is a haphazard point in our centuries of displacement. The anti-gentrification activists argue we have a right to be here. We say, not just here, but everywhere is ours. And it’s not the land or territory worth fighting for, but life itself.[6] So the grand project then becomes, not to defend a space to make it safe from the rich, but to do everything possible to leave no safe space for the rich.

Most of the fires have sent a clear message to developers and the wealthy they are trying to attract: “You are not welcome in our neighborhood.” But the pyros sent their most promising message (that no anti-gentrification activist could decipher) on June 14 in luxurious Lafayette Square: “You are not welcome in your own neighborhood!”

Meanwhile, the corporate media has been busy playing policeman, imagining motives (labor disputes, anti-gentrification, crazy pyromaniacs!) and eventually settling on anti-gentrification. But what’s not in the vocabulary of those talking heads are words for all that—specifically, an offensive on work and property and the cold, repressive rationality of the society. These acts they deem dangerous or crazy are only dangerous and crazy to them; to most of us they’re some of the only acts of class war carving out a safe, sane space in a psychotic city—a city, despite its language of “smart development,” tumbling clumsily toward the sterile nightmares of Dubai, Singapore, and Atlanta where every year is 1984: gated parks, police abound, surveillance cameras everywhere, anti-pan handling laws[put link to anti-state], barren, slick nighttime streets, nowhere to gather…

Maybe all this is leading somewhere. It is with wide eyes that we watch the popular disgust with the rhetoric of “urban renewal” find new channels beyond arson—O’Fallon’s banner thieves causing the cancellation of pro-development exhibits and the Washington Ave. homeless marches of the past. And the recent string of car arsons in North County, the St. Charles church arson, the Wellston Molotovs, the smoldering Washington Park squad car, the combustion of Tan Co.’s millionaire president’s Fenton home, the torched luxury boats in mid-Missouri, and the writing on the South City wall proclaiming “Potosi Will Burn!” shows that folks are refusing to limit their new-found weapon of fire to issues of development. Perhaps the April flames of South Grand have triggered the imagination of a social war that no mayor, police official, developer, or left-wing politician can contain.

3949 Lindell, before and after

[The fires] make me a little nervous.”

-Developer Bill Hart after Lafayette Square burns twice in one night, June 14, 2006

Thanks to this year’s punishing wave of arsons, development—an organ vital to the detestable system of work and social control—is now sick and exposed. Nowhere else is the wound so big. And it is here in this wound, for now at least, that we can break them. The phantom-like attacks have succeeded thus far in scaring the wealthy. So, until those marvelous days when the mob awakes from our slumber to look them in the eyes, refuse to serve them, overturn their cars, and occupy their mansions, let us be a city of ghosts—everywhere, invisible doers of simple, yet potent, acts against their developments.

The maggot developers are everywhere. They tell us they make the city. They tell us they are one of us. They steal from us, they profit from us, they call the cops on us. They are not one of us. We build their buildings, we pave their streets, we watch their kids. We serve them food, we pay them rent, we carry them on our backs. We are the fucking city.

They are foolishly bold with their public appearances. We are foolishly shy with our misery. They have phone numbers. They have construction sites. They have offices. They have cars. They have routines. They have storefronts. They have banks. They have campaign headquarters. They have vacation homes. The least we can do is scare the shit out of them. To humiliate them to their friends and expose them to their neighbors. To break them financially. To prove to ourselves they are not invincible. That we are big and they are little. The most we can do is make them obsolete. To, atop their corpses, construct a fresh society where parasites of human labor and prison guards of the collective human imagination are at last thrown screaming from the bluffs.

* Does the community garden that now occupies the abandoned Jefferson and Arsenal condo lot fall inside or outside of these camps?

** “June 27, St. Louis City—Police arrest two men for attempted arson as they approach a new multi-family construction site on the 6600 block of Minnesota. Police report one man had agreed to pay his nephew cash to set the fire, but had also tipped them off beforehand in order to collect the reward money for previous arsons.”

1.  Although there was a beacon of hope when the bricklayers struck this May—alas something to slow this city’s structural progress- but a reserved hope given the false opposition this city’s organized strikes have recently proved to be, notably Lohr.

2.  One has to wonder what he would say if he was in fact, as much of the city would love, shot in the gut.

3.  In simpler terms, those who would clamor to burn us at the stake.

4.  Just as we were going to press we learned of the area’s largest arson this year, the $7 million condo blaze on the Lake of the Ozarks (see Chronicles, August 2). So much for trying to have a grasp on things. [“August 2, Morgan County—A suspected arson fire rips through under-construction Forest Pointe Condominiums on the banks of the Lake of the Ozarks. Twenty-four lakeside condos are incinerated totaling an incredible $7 million loss.”]

5.  mosiquito

6.  Even a local Fox News report confirms what’s really at stake in its report on a new Jennings development: “Retail Center to Pump New Life into Community.”

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