Chip Off the Athens Block
The brick streets and buildings of Athens, Ohio are considered a trademark of the town by many students and residents.
The bricks that line the streets, many inscribed with the iconic “Athens Block,” were produced by the now-defunct Athens Brick Company. The city-owned brick factory closed in the mid-1920s, according to former Recycling Coordinator Ed Newman.
“Making bricks turned into this huge industry here,” says Newman, who has extensively researched and collected bricks. “In Athens, that was a dominant business… The city saw enough of a value in it that they invested in this company. It was a big economic development scheme for this area at the time.”
The “Athens Block” inscription has become almost as notorious as the brick streets themselves, which has led many students to take an Athens block as a memento. For many students, stealing an Athens block has become a rite of passage.
Of the 379 undergraduate students who anonymously answered our survey, approximately 25 percent reported stealing an Athens block. When asked why, the majority of respondents answered along the lines of “because it’s a tradition” or “for sentimental reasons.”
Although some view the practice of brick stealing as a harmless tradition, others see it as a safety hazard and a monetary drain on the city. Stephen Wood, the associate vice president of facilities management and safety, says the practice of brick stealing increases the operational costs of his department.
“At a time when everyone is concerned about the rising cost of college, that contributes to it,” Wood says. “If we’re spending $10,000 a year on bricks, that’s $10,000 [that] cannot be put into replacement of an air conditioning system or a troubling repair … It may seem very insignificant to an individual, but overall it can add [up] quite a bit over time.”
While the university does not have to pay for the cost of bricks, the cost of labor has weighed on the university’s budget. According to data obtained from the university, it has spent $41,941.50 since 2016 in labor costs for brick replacement, sidewalk repairs, masonry repairs and removing or repairing masonry.
“We do not have the ability to discern what specific portion of that work might have been related to vandalism,” Wood says. “We seek reimbursement for costs associated with vandalism when we can attribute individual responsibility through the legal process.”
Brick keepsakes are not only costly for the city, they can also lead to legal trouble. Stealing an Athens block is a misdemeanor of the first degree, says OU Police Department Lieutenant Timothy Ryan.
“Typically, the person would get charged with theft and released,” Ryan says. “They could be jailed on the charge.”
The OUPD was unable to provide reports of people caught stealing bricks.
Bricks are most often stolen in the spring as students prepare to graduate, Ryan says. Eighty percent of the students who reported stealing a brick in the survey are upperclassmen.
Wood says he “can’t tell how big a problem” brick stealing is on campus.
“When we respond to an area to make repairs, we aren’t sure the cause of what has occurred,” Wood says. “Bricks could’ve broken and needed to be replaced [or] bricks could’ve been taken as a result of vandalism or something like that.”
There is also a safety issue involved when students take Athens blocks, Wood says.
“If someone’s pulling [a brick] out and we can’t get back over and make the correction, which may not be the same day, you’re risking either creating a vehicle problem … or a pedestrian issue,” he says. “You could be hurting one of your friends, peers or one of the faculty or staff, and I wish they wouldn’t do it.”
Anne DiLorenzo*, a senior majoring in journalism, says she doesn’t like when students take Athens blocks from the main roads on campus because of safety concerns.
“With so many students trying to take them, it kind of affects the roads and leaves holes for cars and bikes,” she says. “If everyone took one, then they’d all be gone.”
DiLorenzo says she took a loose brick that she found near The Ridges her freshman year because she had heard about the tradition from an older friend. However she says she does not feel like she caused any damage.
“Mine was one that other people pried loose in a back section where no one [was] walking or driving,” DiLorenzo says.
She says it’s a “cool reminder” of Athens that she will treasure after she graduates. “It’s still in the flower beds at my house back home,” DiLorenzo says.
Ron Lucas, the deputy service safety director for the City of Athens, says paying employees accounts for the majority of costs incurred from brick repairs.
“It takes a significant period of time to repair a small section of brick,” Lucas says. “When it’s all said and done, to take those bricks out and then to level it off and put the bricks down and tamp them down and put the concrete and sand back into the street, a small repair might take a couple hours with three or four people, so it’s sta time that really eats into it.”
According to a spreadsheet obtained from the City of Athens, the city spent $25,197.07 in labor costs for brick repairs since 2016, with the total material cost of the bricks at just $1,700.66.
The material cost is considerably lower because the city has a stockpile of bricks in a service garage compound on West State Street, Lucas says.
“A lot of roads had multiple layers of brick, so we were able to get those and put them into the lot,” he says. “Some roads we tore up and put in as asphalt, so we were able to gather a lot of brick from those projects.”
OU also has a storage area for bricks, Wood says. However, the bricks cannot always be repurposed or used to repair damages.
“It’s important to remember that building bricks are different from road bricks,” Wood says. “Building bricks are usually heavier, a little bit different size, so … if we demolish one of the back South [Green] dorms, we can’t turn around and very easily turn that into road bricks.”
Lucas says general wear and tear on the bricks creates more need for repair than OU students stealing Athens blocks.
“Most of the time with our streets, it’s just brick sitting on top of a layer of sand and dirt, so the opportunity for that to fail is greater,” he says. “It has nothing to do with stealing the brick or taking the brick as a souvenir. It happens, but it’s not a huge impact. It happens in pockets of town more than others, like The Ridges.”
Of the 96 students surveyed who disclosed that they’d taken an Athens brick, 56 of them, like DiLorenzo, reported taking a block in the vicinity of The Ridges.
Patrick Pippins*, an OU alum, says he took an Athens block from a path near The Ridges during his sophomore year.
“There were a bunch of loose bricks, but all of them were Hocking blocks, not Athens blocks,” he says. “We finally found one … It felt very special to get one. I figure a lot of people have them, but it definitely was cool. I was all about taking it.”
Local artists and businesspeople have capitalized on the phenomena of stealing Athens blocks. James Robinson says he and his wife, Erin, started making Athens block-inspired art in 2001 when they were earning their graduate degrees in art at OU.
Robinson and his wife own Athens Block LLC, a federally trademarked company that makes a variety of Athens block memorabilia. Their products, which range from vases and piggy banks to concrete replica blocks, are sold at about 10 stores in the Athens area
“My wife and I graduated and got married and decided to put our two studios together to bring back the old Athens [Brick] Company in order to promote it and create interest in it,” Robinson says. “When we first started, people questioned us and asked why we did it. Now, the word has gotten out about the tradition and history … we do things in a variety of ways and mediums that function in ways that are interesting and useful while being decorative.”
DiLorenzo says she thinks more students should buy the souvenir bricks sold Uptown, rather than stealing actual Athens blocks.
“I think it’s a neat tradition, but it shouldn’t continue if it means messing up our historic roads or areas,” she says.