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scott flander
four to midnight
sons of the city

day job


FIVE MORNINGS a week, the grate thief goes out and steals Philadelphia's past.

It's sort of a steady job for him. He usually starts at 7 or 8 a.m., when people are heading to work and kids are on their way to school.

"The more activity the better," he says.

So when people see him pulling ornamental grates off basement windows, or hauling away sections of wrought iron fence, they think he's just another workman, not a thief.

And he takes more than grates and fences. He'll go into vacant houses and steal the mahogany fireplace mantles, the polished banisters, the 100-year-old stained-glass windows—just about anything an antique or used-furniture dealer might buy.

A dealer who won't ask too many questions, or worry too much about where the stuff is from.

A dealer who will give him $5 or $10 for a grate, then turn around and sell it for as much as $500.

"It's easy money," says Joe Garvey, an antiques dealer who used to buy items from street people, but who says he stopped when his conscience got to him.

"Deep down inside, I knew it was hot," said Garvey. "But you just can't say no to it."

One "Antique Row" dealer on Pine Street put it this way:

"Some guy comes in with a grate and wants $10 for it. The same grate will cost me $90 at an auction. You can't make any money turning this guy down."

The grate thief—a homeless man who sleeps in abandoned houses—is just one of countless street people who are plundering Philadelphia's older homes, stealing their architectural treasures.

They do it because there's a market for it.

Around the country, it's become hip for those with money to restore old houses—or outfit new ones—with genuine architectural items.

And Philadelphia has been paying the price.

In recent years, entire neighborhoods in this historic city have been stripped of valuable wrought-iron.

Brass doorknobs and front-door lights have disappeared.

Even cobblestone streets and brick sidewalks have been stolen.

Philadelphia is being shipped—piece by piece—to cities in Canada, and out West, and in the South, where there's an insatiable demand for decorative items from old houses.

"People are putting them in their gardens, decorating their Victorian homes," says Mark Charry, owner of Architectural Antiques Exchange in Philadelphia. "It's fashionable, fun and trendy, and they think they're doing something positive by recycling. Unbeknownst to them, they're aiding and abetting the street-level crook."

Many of the architectural items leaving Philadelphia are coming from homes that are being demolished, and are obtained legally.

But many others are being stolen.

And for the grate thief, there's no shortage of targets.

Germantown and other city neigborhoods are full of Victorian-style houses built in the late-1800s and early-1900s.

Many are vacant—the old folks who lived there have long since died or moved to nursing homes, and relatives can't sell or rent the places out.

Those are the thief's prime targets.

In a lengthy interview the other day, the thief described how he strips the houses, how he sells his booty to dealers, and why he's so difficult for the police to catch.

The thief, who's 35, says he's been stealing grates for about three years. He won't talk about his life before the streets—except to say he's from out of town—and he certainly doesn't want his name used.

He usually works five days a week.

"I get drunk on the weekends," the thief says with a laugh.

During the day, he'll ride his "raggedy" bicycle around Germantown, Kensington and Frankford looking for grates, and wrought-iron fences, and for old houses that might have what he wants inside.

"If I see something I like, I'll circle around. I'll see if someone lives there, what kind of car they drive. Do they got a dog?"

He'll keep an eye on the place for awhile.

"When I see something, I don't take it the same day," he says.

One of his favorite items is the basement grate, often decorated with arrows or flowers. He can get $5 or $10 for it.

"If it's got both arrows and flowers, I can get twenty," he says proudly.

He'll take grates from both occupied and vacant houses, but he prefers it when no one's around.

"I'm not just worried about getting caught, I'm worried about getting shot," he says. "People might think you're trying to break in."

The thief will only steal grates that are unlocked. He swings it open, then—with the long, thick screwdriver he carries—pops the grate off its hinges.

"It takes one minute," he says. "Less than one minute."

He'll put the grate in a plastic trash bag and "fold it up to make it look like a picture or something," and carry it under his arm.

Should he get stopped by the police—which he says has happened only once—the grate thief has a ready response.

"I'll just say I got it out of the trash."

If he's taking it to a nearby antique or used furniture dealer, the thief will use a shopping cart, filled with junk to keep the grate hidden.

Getting to Center City with the grate under his arm is no problem, either.

"I'll take it on the El," he says simply.

He also looks for sections of wrought-iron fences, which are usually about four feet long, and three to four feet high.

Because of age and the elements—many of the fences were built a hundred years ago—the four-foot sections have often come unbolted from the fence posts, and are now held to the poles simply with wire or coat hangers.

The thief carries a pair of wire-cutters. Snip, snip, and off he goes.

"You pick it up and jet," he says. "You do it and you get away."

He'll be able to sell the fence section for $10.

As with all the large items he steals, he won't take the fences too far away. He'll stash them in nearby weeds, or under a pile of rubble at a demolished house.

"I always have a place to stash it before I take it," he says.

And always on the same block.

"I never cross the street with it," he says. That would make him too visible.

Once he's got the item hidden, he says, he'll find a phone and call one of the antique or used furniture dealers he knows.

Come and pick it up, he tells them. And they will—usually in a pick-up truck.

The thief works indoors as well as out.

Inside many of the city's Victorian-style houses are valuable oak-paneled doors, colored glass doorknobs, cast-iron bathtubs, fireplace mantles, stained-glass windows.

Large numbers of houses in Germantown, as in other areas of the city, are vacant, though not abandoned, says Police Capt. Thomas Nestel, of the Northwest Detective Division.

Owners often have trouble renting or selling the houses, which may need extensive renovations. And a house like that is a magnet to thieves, Nestel says.

The grate thief says it's usually easy to get into the vacant houses—he can often find an unlocked window, and he pries it open with his screwdriver.

If he's after one of the oak, cherry or mahogany fireplace mantles, he'll bring along a small car jack, and pry it from the wall.

"That's not the hard part," he says. "The hard part is getting it out of the house and stashing it. You can't put it in a bag."

Sometimes he doesn't want to stash it, and will arrange for the dealer to drive by just as he's coming out of the house.

"That's where your timing comes in," says the thief. "You call people, tell them what time to be there and where to be—no earlier, no later."

He can get $25 for a nice fireplace mantle. The dealer who buys it will be able to resell it for $300 to $400, says Garvey.

The thief says he's well aware the dealer is paying him only a fraction of what the item is worth.

"I'm getting chump change," he says. But he doesn't want to demand more, because the dealer might get angry and tell him never to come back.

"What can I do?" the thief asks.

Still, he says he averages about $30 a day, which is plenty for his modest needs.

The thief says he sells to a small number of dealers in Center City, Frankford and Kensington. He knows who to go to by talking to other street people, and by watching who goes in and out of the antique and used furniture stores.

"You see somebody walk in with a bag, struggling like it's heavy. When they come out, if they don't have the bag, you talk to them."

Of course, when he sells an item to a dealer, he never mentions that it's stolen. But he doesn't have to.

"The ones I deal with know it's stolen," says the thief.

A number of antique and used furniture dealers interviewed recently said they never buy items from street people.

On "Antique Row," a stretch of shops on Pine Street in Center City, some dealers were worried about being unfairly tainted by the actions of a few.

Other dealers, however, said they wouldn't be surprised if some of their colleagues were buying from street people.

And one, who asked not to be identified, said it's not uncommon.

It's hard for dealers to say no, he said.

A man might come into a shop with a grate, barely able to hold it because he's so drunk and it's so heavy.

"He'll say it's from his grandmother's house," the dealer said. "How do you tell it's stolen? I don't want to hate this guy because he's an alcoholic, because he's poor, because he's black."

The dealer paused in thought, then added, "Of course, it might be the fourth time he's come in—and you have to wonder, how many grandmothers does this guy have?"

Garvey, who used to buy items from street people, says they always have a story about where the grates and other pieces are from, and it always seems to involve their grandmother.

"You don't ask too many questions," he says. "You don't want to know the answers."

Garvey formerly co-owned a Center City antique store, and moved his business to South Jersey about two years ago.

He says that although he never knew for certain the items he was buying from street people were stolen, he strongly suspected it.

And after a while, he says, he just couldn't do it any more. He couldn't stand the thought of contributing to the theft of Philadelphia's history.

"It makes me sick when I go into Society Hill and see all the grates gone, all the fencing gone," says Garvey. "If I see a real nice grate, I'll admire it, I want to tell people, put a lock on it."

Garvey says some dealers don't wait for a street person to come in - they'll actually scope out the neighborhoods themselves. And if they find a basement grate or fence they like, they'll ask a street person to get it for them.

"It's a quick dollar," says Garvey. "It's just about making money."

Charry, of Architectural Antiques Exchange, says he believes that very few antique or used furniture store dealers are buying items from street people.

Most of the grates and other items stolen from old houses are being sold to "underground dealers"—rather than legitimate store owners—who sell the pieces at auctions, he says.

The grate thief is cautious, and that's one reason he's hard to catch. But police say that even if a street person is found with a grate or any other architectural piece, it's difficult to prove it was stolen.

"You need a witness who saw him take the grate," says Nestel. Or, police need someone who can identify it.

But since so many grates look alike, and usually have no identifying marks, that's difficult. Often, the owners of the houses are nowhere to be found.

Nestel says the theft of architectural items isn't as bad in Germantown as it was a couple of years ago.

But the grate thief says that at least in some neighborhoods, more houses than ever are being stripped. Like everyone else, though, the thief has a line he just won't cross.

He leaves churches alone.

"If I took things from a church, I know my luck would change—just like that," he says, snapping his fingers. "I believe in God. I do what He tells me not to. But I won't take nothing off no churches."


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