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Paving Like It's 1899

Michele Cardella in Building Operations on June 24, 2019

Downtown Manhattan

Cardella: June

The nocturnal cobblestone harvester (illustration by Jeff Moores).

June 24, 2019

A visitor to my apartment asked about the row of rectangular stones embedded in the wall of my entrance foyer. I usually enjoy answering this question, but coming from a friend’s son, a man I had known as a young boy, I was uncomfortable. “It looks like New Hampshire granite,” he was saying, stroking the gray and black grains like the experienced rock climber he has become. “Where did you get them?” Uh, well, I found them. Sort of.

Which is true. Sort of. Years ago, they spent 18 months among several curbside piles of granite cobblestones that I had to navigate to cross my dug-up street in Lower Manhattan. The workers, who showed up sporadically to do something loud and dusty to the pipes they had uncovered beneath the street, assured me the cobblestones were going to be put back in place as soon as – if ever – the loosely defined project was completed.

As months went by and the project dragged on, I tried to view the cobblestone piles as an outdoor art installation rather than as a nuisance. I hadn’t yet begun to question the suitability of using rocks to resurface streets like it’s 1899, when, I suspect, horses turned many a hoof on the hard, uneven terrain. Instead, I accepted the notion that cobblestoned streets were vital to the area’s historic atmosphere – and, I hoped,  to the value of my co-op.

Over time those feelings changed along with the trajectory of my life: leaving a  high-heel spike wedged between two cobblestones as I got into a late-night cab, keeping groceries from spilling out of the shopping cart as it rammed a lump or a crack, trying to keep a napping baby asleep in a wobbling stroller, guiding an injured adolescent on wobbling crutches and, now, transporting an elderly parent in a wobbling wheelchair across my rocky road.

Yet my block is as level as a basketball court compared with a much longer, wider and busier street nearby. A few years ago its reasonably smooth surface, a schmear of asphalt over cobblestone, was dug up, worked on, and replaced with new cobblestones. Within months of completion the street became, and remains, a tidal wave of buckling, undulating rocks that peak and barrel in ways that would be appealing on the ocean, if we who use it were surfers. Instead, the street is impassable and is avoided by pedestrians and anything on wheels. For both the cause and cure, officials have offered little more than an equally rocky explanation: the problem was unavoidable, so it can’t be fixed.

Even on non-cobblestone blocks, the streets of Tribeca and the Financial District have become a maze of construction and reconstruction, both above ground and below. At my most optimistic, I pretend the lack of project coordination and the resulting inconvenience are part of a government plan to thwart crime and terrorism by making any  getaway impossible. Most of the time, I assume that no one in authority is paying attention.

Back when my street was dug up, I watched closely. After trucks dropped off pallets of new cobblestones, it was clear the endgame had changed. Workers told me they would be resurfacing the street with new cobblestones, and the piles of old ones were going to be discarded. Dumped at the curb, waiting to be discarded – didn’t that make the old cobblestones trash?

After my children were asleep, I wheeled their red wagon out of my building and picked up as many old cobblestones as would fit inside. In the years since, I never stopped being amused by the sight of them holding up bookshelves or keeping the dog from digging in our house plants. During a pre-remodeling purge, when many sentimental items were bagged, boxed, or tossed, the cobblestones were saved. I told our builder I wanted to see them when I walked into the apartment, maybe inlaid into the wooden floor, a repurposing of the old to create the new. But by then we all agreed that walking on cobblestones was not the best memory to carry forward, so instead he embedded a row of them into the foyer wall.

Of all the changes made to my apartment over time, the cobblestones in the wall draw the most attention. It turns out that the pang of guilt I felt describing their genesis to my friend’s son was unwarranted. As someone who lives a sustainable life complete with a composting outhouse – a life that couldn’t be more different from my urban existence – he seemed pleased that reusing and recycling gave us something more in common than just his mother. He stepped back, looked at the wall again and said, “Cool.”

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