When you live in a city as old as Philadelphia, the spirit of the past is everywhere, from the tops of our historical buildings all the way down to the streets we walk on every day. Stone paved streets — most colloquially called cobblestoned streets, though many are actually made of Belgian granite block — can be found all over the city. While many people love these iconic roads, saying they complete our storied city’s historic streetscape, others find the stones annoying and tough to walk and bike on and would like to see them removed.
The Inquirer turned to two Philadelphians to debate: Are cobblestones a dangerous relic that sprain oodles of ankles every year, or a charming historical feature that makes our city unique and actually helps keep people safer? Is it time to ditch Philly’s iconic cobblestones?
No: Stoned streets slow down cars, are better for the environment, and remind us of our history.
By Andrew Pry Ortega
Philadelphia is America’s only World Heritage City, and peeks into our past could very well be under your feet. One of the most visceral connections to the past we have are the often neglected and sometimes maligned cobblestoned streets, as they are colloquially called. In reality, the majority of stone-paved streets in Philadelphia are actually Belgian blocks, not the more widely referenced cobblestone. The main difference is that cobblestones are raw stones laid down in no particular order with slightly rougher results, while Belgian blocks are purpose-cut stone blocks laid out in a consistent grid pattern.
Belgian block, when properly maintained, provides a great transport surface with its telltale clickety-clack sound. There are examples of this paving still found throughout the city, and it’s not uncommon for stones to last more than 100 years, needing little more upkeep than the occasional leveling. On the other hand, asphalt streets can begin picking up potholes mere months after installation and need to be replaced every 10 to 15 years. Additionally, asphalt is a major contributor to heat islands in urban areas and hugely involved in problematic water runoff issues.
Belgian block’s natural nooks and crannies allow for the slow filtering of rainwater, lessening these runoff issues. Currently, the Philadelphia Water Department is spending millions to rectify stormwater surges created by asphalt. Asphalt radiates the sun’s heat back into our neighborhoods, spiking temperatures and escalating related health issues. Belgian block, contrastingly with its lighter coloring and naturally cooler surfaces, defuses heat and cools at night.
The trademark clickety-clack sound provides a tangible function in that what you’re hearing is friction literally slowing cars down. Today many people recognize the issues automobiles in urban environments have caused, and the city has committed itself to achieving Vision Zero to counter it. One of the easiest ways to achieve this goal is quite simply by slowing down cars.
“We as a city have done a woeful job upkeeping them.”
By sheer luck of tight post-World War II finances, Philadelphia’s Belgian block streets survived well into the 20th century. Today, rather than being viewed as historic treasures, remaining Belgian block streets often are seen as detrimental to driving ease and problematic for walkers. In reality, most of that misguided impression is caused by the fact we as a city have done a woeful job with upkeep. Asphalt roads exist on big-money contracts and jobs connected to never-ending paving schedules. Oppositely, our stone-paved streets survive mostly on meager government funding, private dollars, and their sheer dogged unbreakableness. Neglected, they’ve gained no shortage of detractors wary of bumpy car trips or twisted ankles. Some will argue that these lumpy leftovers have no place in the modern world, but rather than paving over the remaining stretches, we should be looking to expand them!
Stone-paved roads provide us an opportunity to slow cars and calm our streets, making them safer for all. They help remediate environmental damage caused by asphalt, solidify our municipal historic brand, and undoubtedly add some long-lasting beauty to our built environment.
For the past 25 years, Andrew Pry Ortega has been exploring Philadelphia with equal passion for its history and its future. When not traveling the globe working as a DJ, he is a long-time board member of his local RCO, an engaged and active community member, and an advocate for public transportation and safer streets for all.
Yes: Cobblestones make it hard for people with disabilities to get around.
By Kim Kelly
Over the past year, my interactions with the world outside of my South Philly house have shrunk down into a small series of mostly grocery-oriented circuits. Carless, bikeless, and wary of crowded pandemic-era public transportation, I walk a lot these days and have come to relish my long strolls through the city. It’s helped me fall deeper in love with Philly, but during the course of my small-scale travels, I have also acquired an unexpected new nemesis: cobblestones.
I live close enough to Center City that it factors into most of my major errands, and my route there and back tends to wind through the picturesque, cobblestoned streets of Society Hill and Old City. I badly sprained my ankle a couple of years ago, and have twisted both ankles numerous times since — and it’s all because of those damn cobblestones. The poorly maintained sidewalks that make up the secondary bane of my existence as a pedestrian have not helped matters, but it’s Old City’s smooth, deceptive, stubby cobblestones in particular that have truly driven me to distraction. And mind you, I’m not concerned about historical treasures like Elfreth’s Alley, or even the streets around Independence Mall where flocks of tourists gather. I’m not a total Philistine, and I have a sincere appreciation for the city’s long, complicated history. You can barely turn a corner in Philadelphia without stumbling upon a historically significant site or house or alleyway, and that’s one of the things I love most about living in (and walking through) it.
“They’re uneven, noisy, and dangerous.”
But outside of those specific contexts, cobblestones are one historical artifact that I think we can do without. They look nice, but what practical function do they serve?
Yes, they can slow cars down and make it safer for pedestrians in that sense. But on the flip side, Philly’s bicyclists are well-acquainted with the danger of slimy street rocks and nasty cobblestone-inflicted injuries. And its drivers aren’t exactly thrilled with the jostling and bumps that cobbles offer, either. In addition, accessibility is important, and if an able-bodied person like me has a hard time navigating those archaically paved streets, how is someone who uses a mobility aid going to fare, especially in bad weather when those overgrown pebbles are wet and slippery? Thanks to those stubborn old rocks, some of the city’s loveliest corners may be inaccessible and effectively off-limits for people who use canes, wheelchairs, or other mobility aids.
There is a reason that the vast majority of the city’s cobblestones were removed decades ago: they’re uneven, noisy, and dangerous.
Yes, they’re aesthetically pleasing; yes, they’re a part of the city’s history; and yes, they served a very real purpose back when the streets ran with mud, muck, and wastewater. They harken back to the city’s younger days, when the air crackled with revolution.
That may be reason enough to keep them around, but there’s got to be a better way to incorporate them into the city’s future. It’s true that asphalt is terrible for the environment, and wooden blocks don’t hold up (though we may see them back on South Camac Street later this year).
Perhaps the real solution, instead of yanking out those last few iconic cobbles, is for the city to properly level out said cobblestones to make them easier to navigate; to add more crosswalks; and to make a real effort to repair the city’s many jagged, broken sidewalks so it’s easier to avoid those treacherous pebbles in the first place. I can’t say I’ll miss them when they’re finally gone, but I’d be happy to find a way to coexist more peacefully with the damn things. Now, where did I put my ankle brace?
Kim Kelly is a freelance journalist, labor reporter, and author currently based in South Philly. Her work can be found in Teen Vogue, the Baffler, Esquire, the Washington Post, and many others; please don’t yell at her on Twitter @grimkim