click images for larger viewAn example of which can be seen in the photo above, taken in 2007, of Chicago's last complete wood block alley, located between State and Astor, just south of the Cardinal's mansion and coach house on North Avenue. It was built between October 29 and November 23rd of 1909, when wood paving was still an option for city streets and alleys, including in the Loop. Wood blocks treated with creosote, a coal-tar derivative that kept out moisture, were created in batches of up to 30,000, and could be had for $4.74 per square yard. In the city of London in only one year, just one company laid down 370,000 square yards of wood paving, including in such major locations as Leicester Square.
All of Chicago's wood-paved streets are long gone. The alley off of Astor was placed on the National Register in 2002. The registration form contains an exhaustive history of both the alley and of the rise and fall of wood pavers.
Restoring the alley off Astor became a long-term project, championed by former 43rd ward alderman Vi Daley, and Maureen O'Brien and the Gold Coast Neighbors of Chicago. Their cause was taken up Chicago Department of Transportation Project Director of Streetscape and Sustainable Design Janet Attarian, who with co-workers and compatriots formed the band of "Blockheads" who taught themselves everything there was to know of the snares and challenges of wood paving in the 21st century.
At this Saturday's ribbon-cutting ceremony, Attarian gave a fascinating account of the long, laborious process of figuring out how to restore a wood paved alley, which you can see in the video below, starting at about 1:50 in. "Where do I get wood blocks? Well, nobody's making wood blocks. No one's installing wood blocks."
The alley is 18 feet wide, and 919 square yards, with blocks that are four inches deep, by four inches wide and in sizes of 6, 8 and 10 inches in length. The original pavers were cedar blocks, treated with creosote, set in tar and gravel. To her surprise, Attarian found that the original base was of concrete, "not in that bad a shape concrete"
Attarian found only one company, Kaswell Flooring Systems in Massachusetts, still making the wooden blocks, but not for exterior use. (Check out their website for a wealth of great historical information on the use of wood paving.) Today, wood blocks are used as distinctive elements for interior design, and on factory floors, where they absorb grease. But when Attarian tested the blocks, they shrank and distorted within months. Making them usable by treating them with creosote was out. As a known carcinogen, it's now a banned substance. And the type of old-growth cedar used originally is no longer available.
After a long search - for a while the only alternative seemed to be a wood found in virgin rain forest - she found the ideal replacement wood: black locust, an "incredibly hard, incredibly stable wood that doesn't absorb moisture very well or very quickly . . . it turns out that it's sort of a scrap wood down in Pennsylvania - invasive weed trees." So the supplier of the black locust was put in touch with the manufacturer to create the new pavers.
Green Alley initiative, which replaces expensive storm sewer connections with a permeable paving that allows water to soak into the soil or infiltration basins, and uses a light, reflective surface to reflect solar heat, the cost per block is $125,000. According to an article in Skyline, the cost for restoring the Astor Street alley was $400,000, paid for out of an alderman's annual allotment of $1.35 million for ward projects they select.
Is it worth it? In these days of budget cuts and layoffs, with libraries cutting hours, and police and fire stations consolidating, it's tempting to say no, but down that sackcloth-and-ashes path lies a dull, dead city, where beauty becomes an extravagance, and living, a bargain-basement slog. If everyone did their job right, the beautiful wood alley off of Astor could last another 100 years, and $4,000 per annum seems a reasonable price to to secure this irreplaceable part of Chicago history.