Preservation Ridiculousness Peaks In the Great Dumbo Cobblestone Debate

The cobblestones in question. (animalvegetable, flickr)

The cobblestones in question. (animalvegetable, flickr)

New York is an old city filled with people who want new things. This leads, as one might expect, to endless problems, conflicts, debates, sometimes even altercations. We want to keep old things, but we also want new things, and new things often mean getting rid of old things, or at least changing old things. And when is change not fraught? Change is always fraught. It’s so complicated and fraught and terrifying that totally reasonable people who want totally reasonable things can end up in completely ridiculous debates. For example, the Dumbo cobblestone kerfuffle, a conflict that centers on whether the city should replace, as The New York Times put it, old cobblestones with old-looking cobblestones.

Basically, the city wants to tear out the charming, historic, but kind of hard to traverse cobblestones in Dumbo and Vinegar Hill. Not being totally insensitive to the unique charms of historic cobblestone (and the heightened real estate values that come with the ankle-twisting ground cover)—as well as being somewhat cognizant of the public relations nightmare of replacing historic Belgian cobblestones with common asphalt—the city has offered some more aesthetically replacing road cover: artificially-aged new cobblestones.

Besides the fact that this expensive ersatz solution pleases no one (it’s pricey and troublesome for the city and despised by the preservationists), it is obviously insane for more than a few reasons, not least of which is that the cobblestones don’t actually need replacing. At least, so claim preservation advocates.

The city claims that the cobblestones need to go because they’re bad for bikes and people with disabilities. Citing the Americans with Disabilities Act, the Department of Transportation says that stones on a crosswalk or sidewalk must vary in height by no more than a quarter of an inch. But the Americans with Disabilities Act has been around since 1990—if cobblestone streets were such a problem, why wait 23 years? Is it because Dumbo has only become super popular—in part because of its historic charms—in the last 10? Secondly, couldn’t the DOT just overlay the crosswalks with new stones and leave the other sections intact? Third, what about Soho and Tribeca? Are they also in violation of the ADA? Can there be no cobblestones in New York or anywhere else in the country? Surely, they might be grandfathered in? ((The DOT says that cobblestones have a much greater uniformity of size and color in other parts of the city.)

As for the bicycling problem, much of the city remains inaccessible to bicycles. It’s hardly as though the cobblestones of Dumbo were the missing link to a bike-friendly New York. Moreover, isn’t there some bike lane re-routing that could be done to avoid cobblestoned sections?

But all this complicated by the fact that before the great cobblestone debate, residents and businesses in the neighborhood were vigorously defending their parking spaces and complaining of the traffic disruption that bike lanes would cause. Modern convenience though they may be, parked cars and automobile kind of ruin the historic effect of cobblestoned streets, in our humble opinion. If we really want to preserve the flavor of the neighborhood, maybe we should make it a pedestrian park and ban all the automobiles cluttering up the scenery.

Which raises up all sorts of other questions. Does historic preservation really extend to basic urban infrastructure? Bridges, roads, subways, sewers? And quaint though the cobblestone look may be, is there anything more ridiculous than ripping out an archaic roadway because it is supposedly ill-suited to modern life and replacing it with another archaic roadway that is only marginally better suited to modern life? Especially given that no one even wants the faux-old stones on their street anyway.

It might be true, as the executive director of the Dumbo Neighborhood Alliance told The Times, that “somebody cut those things — thousands of people,” and it’s also true, as she said, that “we’re careless,” but isn’t that kind of the point of roads and our streets? Cobblestones, quaint and well-crafted though they may be, were not created as museum pieces. They’re there for our convenience and transportation needs, not our admiration, much as we might admire them. Maybe the best way to honor the historic spirit of a cobblestone is to rip it out when it’s no longer useful.

Update: The DOT has contacted the Observer to let us know that, in fact, the cobblestone streets are in pretty terrible shape and that half of the Belgian block on Water Street is currently covered by asphalt just to make the street navigable. The replacement effort is part of a complete capital street reconstruction because the cobblestoned section of Water Street hasn’t been improved in more than a century. “The streets continually flood in wet weather, and subsurface utilities—sewers, water mains, etc.—for the growing number of local residences and businesses are long overdue for reconstruction. So the point of the work is just to bring what’s underground into the 21st century,” wrote a spokesman.