Saving the history underfoot

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Pavement at Westminster and Eddy streets, in downtown Providence. (Pinterest)

Robin Williams, an architectural historian at the Savannah College of Art & Design, delivered a TED talk to explain “How Historic Street Pavement Modernized the City.” Williams has a pleasant manner that conveys his conviction that historic pavement is a neglected treasure that often is hiding in plain view right beneath our feet. In honor of the operation by the city of Providence to restore its own downtown’s historic pavement (it harks all the way back to the mid-1980s) – but seriously, it is very beautiful, and it is being restored right now – I am posting this video of Williams’s talk in Savannah to explain the vitality and importance of that work, and his own to preserve historic pavement. Here are some choice passages from his peroration:

Pavement is our most democratic form of built heritage. It’s accessible to everyone, and it bridges areas rich and poor. Indeed, there are enough historic pavement areas existing around the country to provide a bridge to the past, helping us to understand the struggle to make our cities livable.  Try to imagine a time before street pavement when all of our streets were dirt. No water mains, no sewers, no pavement. Just dirt. Well, the problem of getting stuck in a muddy street was common enough that it could be satirized, as in this view from San Francisco [see below]. But seriously, dirt streets pose a very important threat to the health and safety of the citizens of any given American city.

[Cities] had to decide what was most important for that street. Was it durability, smoothness, being quiet or being affordable? Because no pavement could be all of those things. Cities experimented with a bewildering variety of pavements. … Wood blocks seemed a promising option. They were smooth, cheap and quiet, like magic, but in wet weather they were slippery, and in southern cities termites and humidity eroded them quickly. In the South, readily available oyster shells were also cheap and provided a smooth ride, but turned to clouds of annoying dust. A more durable option was rectangular Belgian blocks, which were strong enough to take the heavy cart loads of waterfront and warehouse districts in cities like New York and Baltimore and other port cities. But Belgian blocks were bumpy and, worst of all, they were incredibly noisy under the metal hooves of horses. After 1880, vitrified bricks became the most popular and widely used pavement in America. … The development of modern asphalt in the 1920s was a game-changer. [It] was spread over older pavements but with a loss of local identity.

Williams goes on to describe how in many cities neighbors have fought back against asphalt, even confronting contractors with rakes and hoes (and let’s not forget pitchforks) to scrape away the affronting goo as it was being laid.

These two examples from Columbus and Philadelphia illustrate the power of pavement to activate civic pride and to define local identity. … Pavement can even be good for your health, as some researchers in Oregon discovered. … So if you really want to appreciate the distinctiveness of where you live, just look down!

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Cartoon mocks muddy streets of San Francisco, circa 1849. (TED talk, YouTube)

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Pavement in Ohio from image in Robin Williams’s TED talk. (Screenshot of YouTube)

About David Brussat

For a living, I edit the writing of some of the nation's leading architects, urbanists and design theorists. This blog was begun in 2009 as a feature of the Providence Journal, where I was on the editorial board and wrote a weekly column of architecture criticism for three decades. Architecture Here and There fights the style wars for classical architecture and against modern architecture, no holds barred. My freelance writing and editing on that topic and others addresses issues of design and culture locally and globally. I am a fellow of the Royal Society of the Arts, and a member of the board of the New England chapter of the Institute of Classical Architecture & Art, which bestowed an Arthur Ross Award on me in 2002. I work from Providence, R.I., where I live with my wife Victoria, my son Billy and our cat Gato. If you would like to invest your prose with even more style and clarity, please email me at my consultancy, dbrussat@gmail.com, or call 401.351.0457. Testimonial: "Your work is so wonderful - you now enter my mind and write what I would have written." - Nikos Salingaros, mathematician at the University of Texas, architectural theorist and author of many books.
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