Taking Back the Streets: Neighbors fight to save the cobblestones in DUMBO
The granite arch and support piers of the Manhattan Bridge, spanning streets and sidewalks paved with cobblestones, frame vistas of DUMBO’s vaunted “gritty elegance”—industrial warehouses, dock storehouses, and remnants of a defunct railroad. A short walk to the water offers striking views of the Manhattan skyline and the East River. Yet Doreen Gallo, a resident since 1980, need only lower her vision from the horizon to the ground to feel a sense of loss.
The neighborhood’s historic streets, made of the granite Belgian blocks commonly referred to as “cobblestones,” are crumbling and disappearing. In some places, sections of the street seem to have caved in. In others, they bulge and gape with unseemly rips and tears. Efforts by the city to fix potholes and ensure smooth driving have resulted in cobblestone streets haphazardly patched with tar or entirely paved over with asphalt. In 1980, when Gallo first moved to the area, open spaces and brick factories flourished near the massive arch of the Bridge, where parked cars and luxury lofts now rule.
“There is no vision; the triangle by the bridge arch could have been a great entrance to the waterfront and historic buildings,” said Gallo, a painter. Starting in the late 1980s, when DUMBO (Down Under the Manhattan Bridge Overpass) was rezoned for residential conversions, utility companies began to dig up the cobblestone streets to lay gas, electricity, sewer and television lines and pipes. Pressure from real estate development has only increased in the last decade, and the demand for utilities continues to take a relentless toll on historic streets.
The designation of DUMBO as a historic district by the Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC) in December 2007 seemed to offer hope for preserving what’s left of its cobblestone streets. In its designation report, the LPC noted that some cobblestone-paved streets stretch to the building line, without any intervening sidewalks, and that some sidewalks are paved with cobblestones—features that, it said, are perhaps unique in New York City. Describing DUMBO’s original streets and sidewalks as “important to the character of the district,” the Commission included them in its designation. This means a utility company has to obtain approval from the LPC in addition to a Department of Transportation (DoT) permit in order to dig up the streets. But this added protection to the neighborhood’s historical character is proving to be largely a formality.
“There are no conditions that LPC mandates in order to receive a permit,” said Elisabeth de Bourbon, a spokesperson for the Commission. “If a utility needs to dig up a street paved in cobblestone, they must put it back.” Similarly, the city DoT also only requires that the utilities put the cobblestones back the way they found them.
But Gallo, vice president of the DUMBO Neighborhood Association, says the city’s monitors and activists like herself often differ on whether a utility has restored an excavated street to its original condition.
“It’s interpretive,” said Gallo, who has for years reported unauthorized road digging and shoddy stone resetting to the LPC, DoT, and elected officials. Often, the inspecting officials see no problem with a restoration that the preservation-minded would regard as hopelessly botched.
The contractors typically fill the cuts on the street with asphalt to “glue” the cobblestone pattern together, but the gaps left between stones are too wide and the asphalt erodes steadily over time, causing the street to sink where the cuts were made. “Eventually, they just pave over the whole street,” said Gallo, describing the Belgian blocks as individually handcrafted, not mass-produced in factories. “They’re incredible and worth preserving. What to me is tragic is that even 25 years ago—which is recent history—all of DUMBO was preserved in its perfect historic state.”
The streets still face threats despite the designation, according to Gallo. She cited the example of 20 Jay Street, owned by developer David Walentas of Two Trees Management. According to Gallo, Two Trees tore up and cemented over a rare and historic cobblestone sidewalk at that site—work that was done after DUMBO was calendared for designation in July of 2007. “The sidewalk was so beautiful,” she said. “It wrapped all the way around the building, and naturally sloped down to the street, with a slight gradation from sidewalk to street.”
A spokesperson for Two Trees refuted the charge, arguing “there was no curb at all and no sidewalk” at 20 Jay Street. The broken cobblestones there made it extremely dangerous for pedestrians, Barbara Wagner wrote in an e-mail. “Two Trees remedied this situation by creating a sidewalk,” she said.
According to LPC spokesperson de Bourbon, Two Trees was not required to get a permit from the Commission for the work on the streets. A permit would have been needed had the district been landmarked, she explained in an e-mail. LPC review of a calendared property is triggered when an owner or his agent obtains a Department of Buildings permit, but is not required for street bed work, she added.
In neighboring Vinegar Hill, designated an historic district in 1997, it is the same. In a walk around her block, Monique Denoncin decoded the clues left behind by utility companies: the yellow paint markings on a sidewalk warn of an impending visit from a gas company and the “fresh color” of a “trench of tar” indicated that a street was newly dug.
“Voila! It’s fancy work,” she exclaimed, stopping on Water Street where wide gaps between Belgian blocks revealed that they had been replaced by inexpert hands. Elsewhere, the pale tones of some stones—contrasting sharply with the older, darker cobblestones—hinted at something worse than lack of expertise. In extreme cases, contractors cut through the granite Belgian blocks, which she described as “pure destruction” because they can never be used again.
“Even though we are a historic district, it doesn’t seem the cobblestones are protected as they should be,” said Denoncin, an artist who came to Vinegar Hill in 1980, when it was run down and full of crime. Now highly sought after, within the past five years, several of its industrial buildings have been transformed into high-end homes, including a recent conversion on Gold Street that she complains “looks like it belongs to Florida more than here.” Inevitably, the demand for utilities has impacted the tree-lined cobblestone streets.
“To the developers, it is an embarrassment to have these stones. It’s a bother to them, it’s a bother to the city,” said Denoncin, a former president of the Vinegar Hill Neighborhood Association. The damage done to the streets has, in some cases, eroded support for the cobblestones in the community.
“Some people got exasperated because of the state of these streets,” she said. “They say, ‘Forget about the stones. Just pave it once and for all.’ Eventually they think this is too ugly, too difficult, too impractical.” It’s in marked contrast to her native Belgium and neighboring France, where historic cobblestone streets are also dug up by utility companies, but are painstakingly restored.
“It’s a craft,” she said of the way cobblestone streets are restored in Europe. “They repair it so well that you have absolutely no idea that maybe a month ago, they were doing this work, maybe a sewer or something. They have crews of people (for whom) this is their specialty.”
“It’s a little gem of a neighborhood, but to keep it as such is a constant battle,” said Denoncin.
Inevitably, the issue boils down to dollars. Robert Perris, district manager of Community Board 2, which includes the two neighborhoods, said the issue of cobblestone rehabilitation was first taken up by the board in 1998 and has remained a budget priority ever since, but securing the funds is a different matter. The “phenomenal” cost of large-scale restoration—approximately a million dollars per city block—would equal that of building one or two schools, he pointed out. “It’s tough to spend municipal tax dollars that way, especially in a time of economic austerity,” he said, adding the board remained “very sensitive that a great deal of the neighborhoods’ historic character is created by the cobblestones.”
DNA, meanwhile, is looking at alternative and collaborative ways to obtain money for the Belgian blocks, including a planned partnership with the Brooklyn Greenway Initiative. Greenway hopes to secure approximately $3.5 million in federal funds for a proposed bike path on Water and Plymouth Streets, connecting the Navy Yard bike lane with Brooklyn Bridge Park, said Milton Puryear, its director of planning. DNA supports the plan because the money could also be used to repair the cobblestones on these two streets to ensure a smooth path for bikers.
While funding is hard to obtain, Gallo believes it makes financial sense. “Within the past two weeks, we’ve had five film shoots, some of them movies, some commercials,” she said. “What they’re looking at all the time is the bridges, the streets. They want to shoot where there are Belgian blocks. It’s almost a no-brainer: If you preserve or restore it, it will pay for itself.”
The financial and developmental challenges have made her realistic about what can be done for the streets. “It has to be balanced with other things going on in the city,” she said philosophically. The effort to save DUMBO’s cobblestones greatly relies, for now, on the eyes and ears of its residents. “What should be so easy is difficult,” she continued. “The community has to be vigilant.”
Aparna Narayanan is a writer based in Brooklyn.