Killings, Rallies Spur Action over Vacant Buildings

Article excerpt

Georgia Dedmon was carried through difficult summer days on thoughts of her 14-year-old granddaughter, Tasha Hennings. Recalling a smile framed in braids and teen-age sass, the grandmother would forget for a while the cold reality that hung in the humid air.

Police found Tasha's body June 4 in the basement of an abandoned building in the 2200 block of Hebert Street, less than a mile from Dedmon's home. The body had been there for at least a month.

That building didn't kill Tasha, and police still don't know who did. But the burned-out, three-story brick structure became a monument to Tasha's death. A monument on which Dedmon and other citizens focused their anger. A monument that in the city of St. Louis is by no means alone. A Post-Dispatch analysis of city records found 5,485 vacant and abandoned buildings in St. Louis. Of that number, 1,095 are condemned and waiting to be destroyed. Most of them are north of Delmar Boulevard. For many, the buildings are a hazard that has become a part of everyday life. A neatly decorated patio lies behind Sue Bolton's row house in the 1400 block of Destrehan Street. Farther back is a garden that brimmed with vegetables this summer. Next to the garden stands a dilapidated one-story building, its windows boarded up with burgundy-painted plywood bearing the white-lettered words: CITY OF ST. LOUIS. Bolton tries to make the best of a bad situation. "At Halloween we put fake spider webs over the windows and doors," she said as her grandchildren scurried around the yard. "Then we decorate it at Christmas. That's to hide some of the ugliness." The Hyde Park neighborhood, where Bolton lives, is one of the 10 worst in the city with regard to abandoned buildings. On June 13, Georgia Dedmon and about 25 relatives, friends and strangers stood outside the building where police found Tasha's decomposed body. Dedmon pleaded for someone to come forward with information about Tasha's death. Dedmon asked why her neighborhood, Hyde Park, was riddled with dilapidated buildings that act as magnets for criminal activity. And she promised she would keep asking until something was done. In 1992, Dennis Oberbeck was found dead behind a vacant building in the 11100 block of Riverview Drive. Last year, an off-duty St. Louis police officer fatally shot a man in a struggle in a vacant building in the 1600 block of North 16th Street. On July 22, a 10-year-old girl told police she had been abducted from her home in the 3500 block of Minnesota Avenue and raped in a vacant building about a block away. Facts, statistics and authorities agree: Vacant and abandoned buildings attract crime. A Post-Dispatch analysis showed that neighborhoods with a high percentage of abandoned buildings also have a high percentage of violent crime and property crime. Derelict buildings offer hide-outs. They become drug houses, flophouses and often playhouses. Even police are wary of them. "It scares me every time we have to send somebody into one of those buildings," said Police Chief Ronald Henderson. "I'm always concerned when we have to go in there." The main concern is over structural damage and decay. Still, officers usually send a police dog into an abandoned building before they enter. Youngsters are at the greatest risk from abandoned buildings, Henderson said. "They're just an invitation for criminal acts or for some youngster to think this is their playhouse," Henderson said. "It's that corridor between school and home that we've got to worry about." When police locate problem buildings, they report them to the city and ask that the buildings be boarded up. "It's an obstacle that we have to deal with," he said. "And it's an obstacle the community has to deal with." Another rally was held July 9. There was another face to mourn. Devlin Wilson, 19, was found dead July 3. His body had been dumped in an abandoned building in the 1100 block of Newhouse Avenue. …