CHICAGO — Everyone who lived near the old Falstaff brewery, abandoned since the early '70s, knew that kids played there. Adults in the southeast Chicago community had played there as children.
Then last year, Ricky Rodriguez died there.
The 10-year-old boy fell 15 stories while playing in the brewery's grain silo. His playmates were too scared to say anything, and Ricky's body wasn't found for five months.
When the circumstances of his death were discovered in September, 1990, Ricky's family and neighbors rallied to get the brewery razed. More than a year later it still stands, one of thousands of abandoned industrial buildings that haunt the Rust Belt.
Within a few months of his body being found, Ricky's family and S&P Co., which owns Falstaff, reached an undisclosed settlement and the family bowed out of the fight.
Chicago officials say the brewery isn't dilapidated enough to warrant demolition--a project that could cost $3 million. Prospective buyers have been discouraged by the potential cost of removing toxins or asbestos from the 14-acre site.
Around the Midwest, cities face the hazards posed by such buildings.
Kids dare each other to climb fences or sneak past security guards. At sites without adequate security, homeless people often move in, setting fires that can flare out of control.
"It's a big public health problem," said Michael Greenberg, director of the graduate program in public health and a professor of urban studies at Rutgers University in New Jersey. "In a lot of places, these abandoned buildings become occupied by drug addicts. They become places where people can conveniently dispose of hazardous wastes. They are breeding grounds for rodents."
Officials around the Midwest said there has been no count of abandoned buildings, and no one keeps track of how many accidents and injuries occur in them. But they agreed that they are common.
Chicago's buildings commissioner, Dan Weil, called the problem "the single most pressing issue" in the city.
"If you have an abandoned building on a block, it's like a cancer that spreads," he said. "It becomes a breeding ground for drug and gang activity and just plain dangerous for children, who can get themselves hurt."
The problem is compounded by environmental hazards, particularly at sites where dangerous chemicals were used.
"They become an immense environmental problem because of the tremendous cost of cleanup. It's not unusual where the cost would be $600,000 to $1 million to tear down a factory site," Weil said.
The department's annual budget for handling thousands of abandoned houses, apartment buildings and industrial sites is just $4.3 million.
The city is trying to prevent abandonment by working with building owners before they move out. Such a program has worked well in Akron, Ohio, officials there said.
"I don't mean to suggest if you come here you won't see any vacant buildings," said Dave DeShon of the Akron Office of Economic Development. "But there aren't vacant industrial areas that have become focal points for drug activity or criminal activity."