A ton of bricks is a hit

Oct. 21, 2003

The downtown movie theater and bowling alley--gone. The red-brick road--reduced to a mere crosswalk.

The downtown movie theater and bowling alley--gone. The red-brick road--reduced to a mere crosswalk.

I believe every hometown should do its best to show the same face year after year. Where I grew up, Jefferson Street was a throwback thoroughfare. There was the old movie theater . . . and the red-brick road. My mom used to pull me along while she shopped, and at the early age of 4 I was fascinated by the square pieces underneath my feet. I knew then this wasn't your ordinary road. There was a special feel to it and a special sound to it. The pitter-patter of the rubber rolling on Jefferson Street was always inviting.

Suburban development, however, has a way of burning childhood memories. They tore down the old movie theater. I guess it was too expensive to maintain. The rustic bowling alley down the block received the blow of the wrecking ball, too. And the powers that be must have grown tired of the nostalgia of Jefferson Street. The pavement of the 1800s was scaled back to strips surrounding a couple of intersections. My hometown's time machine pulled up the ladder, slammed the door and flew off years ago--never to return.

But word in the road-building industry is red bricks are once again providing a surface my Buster Brown shoes loved to cross. The streets were a welcome alternative to the dusty, dirt routes--which quickly turned to mud and swallowed horse carriages in the 1800s. Charleston, W.Va., installed the first modern brick pavement in the U.S. in 1870. Brickmakers and engineers quickly improved the quality by restricting material to clay free of impurity and choosing stone-like shale clay as their key ingredient. The bricks became tougher and more resistant to water. Most of the red-brick roads in the U.S., however, were knocked out before WWI. 

Today there are dozens of cities that prohibit paving over existing streets with other materials, and some are now going to extremes to bring the old look back. The city of Wilmette, Ill., is a proud preservationist when it comes to dealing with red-brick roads, which handle traffic on more than 20% of the town's streets. Asphalt, however, still dominates the territory. Crews were ready to resurface Linden Street a few years ago when a resident noticed red bricks under the existing pavement. A neighborhood group in favor of the aesthetic alternative soon formed and lobbied to have the asphalt ripped and the blocks saved. The two-block project cost $330,000 to complete,  $66,000 more than what it would take to pave using the usual material. City officials hope they'll recover the difference in the long run due to the durability of the red bricks. The success led to a complete makeover for Linden Street. In place is a three-year, three-phase plan to lay bricks on Linden between 5th Street and Popular Drive.

The benefits of returning to the infrastructure look of the Industrial Age run short but tug hard at the spirit of Americana. There is the character angle. The charm and unique dimension of Jefferson Street bronzed moments of my youth. No other road carries that kind of effect. Brick roads also survive the test of time, although the foundation is susceptible to weakening. Safety is another plus. Those in favor of brick say the traffic noise helps alert children.

On the downside, brick paving has been known to be difficult to snow plow. An operator could spend 30 additional minutes clearing the area. Accelerated construction is a useless term in this field. If a subdivision wants to beautify a road then residents need to be prepared to lose it for a longer period of time. Bricks also are the roughest option when it comes to bike, scooter and skateboard riding.

If a city or town has a crop of money to cultivate into some kind of return-to-historic-roads program, then horse in the bricks, hold some type of re-enactment gala and enjoy the scenic upgrade only a brick road could provide.

But if I'm a mayor or a city manager in 2003 and had my choice between a $330,000 brick paving job or a $330,000 intersection reconstruction gig aimed at improving traffic and pedestrian safety I'm most likely going to choose the latter. During lean times there really isn't any room for dessert.

About The Author: Bill Wilson is editor of Roads & Bridges. He can be reached at [email protected].

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