Cities 101: Cobblestone Streets In NYC Are Expensive (and Disappearing)

cobblestone streets-brooklyn-dumbo-untapped cities-nycCobblestone streets like these in DUMBO, Brooklyn often go into disrepair as they are much more expensive to replace.

The term “cobblestone” itself refers to a patchwork of mixed rounded stones installed for pavement. While it is true that there was a time when all of New York City’s streets were made of cobblestones, you’d be surprised to find out that the ones that remain today (in DUMBO and SoHo, for example) aren’t quite as old as you would expect. And the Department of Transportation has already set in motion big plans to replace a lot of the city’s cobblestone.

In DUMBO,  these cobblestones are remnants from around 1904 when freight cars were active on the train tracks  in the middle of the cobblestone streets. The Jay Street Connecting Railroad serviced these warehouses in Brooklyn. But to accommodate bike lanes and the Americans with Disabilities Act, much of the cobblestone in Vinegar Hill and DUMBO are being replaced by laser cut stones, aged artificially to appear closer to the original. Residents and preservations have protested, but others remind us that even cobblestones haven’t been around forever.

According to The Works: Anatomy of a City by Kate Asher, “The concept of using small round stones as street paving goes back 350 years, but the cobblestones we ride across today are a mere 150 years old.” Every borough in New York City has at least a strip of cobblestone streets (except Staten Island, according to NYC Bike Maps–but I challenge readers in SI to prove them wrong!). They are generally rare in today’s framework of streets because of how expensive they are to install and upkeep, up to four times as expensive as asphalt.

cobblestone streets-new york city-soho-untapped citiesThis map highlights the cobblestone streets in SoHo and TriBeCa. (via NYC Bike Maps)

Asher writes:

Flat rectangles of Belgian granite, they were originally brought to New York in the 1830s as ship ballast. Today some 36 lane miles of cobblestones remain in New York City. Some streets, like Wooster, Greene, Mercer, and Bond in SoHo are in a protected historic district; others–such as Perry and Bank streets–are not. Four times as expensive as asphalt, cobblestones in “unprotected districts will only occasionally be replaced in kind. Often holes in these streets are filled in with asphalt or a mix of other kinds of stones.

And of course, it’s a pretty common sight to see asphalt worn away to reveal the original Belgian brick. Earlier this year, the Department of Transportation estimated that only about 15 miles of cobblestone remains uncovered, compared to the 6,300 miles of total roadway.

3 Comment

  • It’s not marked on the map, but 14th Street, in Manhattan, between 9th and 10th is paved with Belgian Blocks. Yeah, I know I’m being a pedant, re: “Belgian Blocks”, but that’s what they are. Not cobblestones. Not that it will prevent anyone from referring to them as such, though, I realize.

    • But you’re absolutely correct, they’re supposed to be called Belgian blocks. In NYC for some reason, everyone calls them cobblestones.Thanks for noting about 14th street!

  • Highview Avenue between Fillmore and East Buchanan streets is a very steep cobblestone hill on Staten Island.