When Pavement Was Pretty: New York’s Cobblestone Streets

When we think of a typical historic neighborhood, what do we picture? Brick or stone buildings, to be sure. Tree-lined streets, maybe. But more often than not, I bet your mind turns to the streets themselves – paved, not in modern concrete, but with cobblestones. (Or, more precisely, stone blocks. But we’ll deal with that distinction in a moment.)

Wurst Bros., Fulton Street and Greenwich Street, looking west. 1912. From the Collections of the Museum of the City of New York.

Wurst Bros., Fulton Street and Greenwich Street, looking west. 1912. From the Collections of the Museum of the City of New York.

Cobblestone streets are an immediate signifier of the past. They don’t just tell us a street is old; they connote authenticity, quaintness, antiquity. They’ve entered our collective consciousness – a cursory search for the word finds many a tourists’ request for New York neighborhoods where they can find that “old cobblestone street feel.”

So, where can we find those old cobblestone streets? To start, most of New York was not paved with cobblestones exactly but instead “Belgian Block,” which are longer and more rectangular than an actual “cobblestone.” Belgian Block is, well, Belgian and originally made its way to New York as ship’s ballast. In the early-19th century, when the city began replacing the dirt and oyster-shell streets with a sturdier, cleaner option, they often chose Belgian Block to do it. Of course, “cobblestone” has become the general term for paving with any type of stone block, and today I’ll be using the terms interchangeably, too.

Now that we’ve got that covered – where in New York do these charming streets still exist? We’re proud to say that one of the largest concentrations of cobblestone streets lies within the Gansevoort Market and Greenwich Village Historic Districts. Jane Street in the Greenwich Village district boasts beautiful cobblestone streets. And West 13th, Little West 12th, a stretch of 9th Avenue, and Gansevoort Street are all paved with historic stones and protected in the Gansevoort Market Historic District. GVSHP successfully proposed that district for landmarking in 2003, and the streets were no afterthought. Gansevoort’s Designation Report mentions the cobblestone streets several times, noting the special sense of place that the streets give to this quaint neighborhood. The Belgian Block paving is an integral piece of the district’s significance.

Belgian Block on Charles Lane. Credit: Barry Munger.

But if these streets are so universally adored, why don’t we have more of them? For the most part, run-of-the-mill progress is to blame. Paving streets with stone blocks was expensive even when it was the standard, and the process is also time-consuming. Cobblestone streets can be loud, uneven, and difficult to repair. So when new paving methods were developed, the city moved towards modernization. These days, block paving also raises issues of accessibility – they’re not easy to walk on, let alone to negotiate a wheelchair or other mobility aid. (Creative new solutions for this issue include paving a crosswalk with a strip of smooth asphalt within the bumpier cobblestone drive.)

And of course, historic paving in New York is under threat from development and disinterest. Damage to the stones, unnecessary or unlawful removal, and inappropriate asphalt repairs are just some of the injustices suffered by our stone streets. GVSHP has been involved in these issues at a number of locations in recent years, including Jane Street, Charles Street, West 12th, and Gansevoort Plaza.

New York’s Belgian Block streets are practically an endangered species, but you can count on GVSHP to stay vigilant in protecting these charming reminders of our past. And the good news? In some cases, we’ve gained our cobblestones back! They’re often hiding right underneath modern pavement, and sometimes are unearthed during construction projects. You often have to act fast to catch a glimpse, like on the Lower East Side this April, but it’s a great treat. And in the case of redevelopment projects in Tribeca and downtown Manhattan, cobblestone streets were an integral part of the restoration and redevelopment of a neighborhood. Historic pavers’ contribution to a sense of place cannot be overstated, and although they’re not the easiest option, they’re certainly worth the extra work.

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Chelsea Dowell