When you are walking in Cambridge, think about three well known figures who
walked these streets in the 19th century when many of them were ribbons of
continuous brick: E. E. Cummings, Oliver Wendell Holmes, and James Russell
As previous blogs have discussed, since the late 1990s when Cambridge policy
toward this unique heritage changed dramatically, the City has been busy
transforming its brick sidewalk legacy in many ways (none of them good).
Whole stretches of brick have been removed along Broadway, in East
Cambridge, Cambridgeport, the Agassiz neighborhood, and others. Where
wholesale removal of brick has not been the case, wide swaths of brick have
been removed, even in the most sensitive historical areas, to install -- at
taxpayer expense -- extensive, ugly, bright white ramps at virtually every
Given the callous disregard for its brick sidewalk legacy that Cambridge has
demonstrated in recent years, we thought it would be instructive to see what
is going on both in New England and other, far-flung parts of our country
related to the treatment of historical brick installations.
This blog will focus on two nearby cities, Portland, Maine and Salem,
Massachusetts, two communities that have taken a diametrically opposite
approach to their brick sidewalks from that taken by Cambridge.
It will also highlight briefly 12 other cities that have recently awakened
to the importance and value of installed brick inherited from the past and
are taking measures to preserve and enlarge those installations. In those
parts of the country brick streets are more prevalent than brick sidewalks
but citizens value them just as much. These 12 cities will be discussed in
detail in a subsequent blog.
Let’s start with Portland. The city has recently decreed that brick
sidewalks will be preserved or installed in its designated historic
districts. This policy shift has resulted in the removal of ugly concrete
ramps previously installed in these districts. In their place are newly
constructed wire-cut brick ramps of the very type we have been encouraging
Cambridge to consider.
Citizen groups are also involved in preserving the brick legacy. For
example, the Kindling Fund in Portland ME has set aside $5,000 to stamp
stories into bricks used to fill gaps in the brick sidewalks. The stories
imprinted are those city residents deem significant, such as historical
facts, individual memories, and future wishes for the city. Think how this
artistic approach would add interest to Cambridge brick sidewalks for
tourists visiting the city not to mention on regular historic tours given in
Here are three photos of Portland brick sidewalks in its fabled historic district reflecting that city’s care and preservation of them.
Salem is another city that has been careful with its historical brick
sidewalks as can be seen from the two photos below taken at the Visitor Center and near the Peabody-Essex Museum across the street.
In addition to these two local cities, the drive to revive and preserve
brick streets and/or sidewalks inherited from past times has recently occurred in many places across the United States. A few of them are
Champaign, Ill. Ban paving over brick. Spend $100K to maintain brick
Winter Park, FL. Removed layer of tar previously installed over brick
Cumberland, MD. Expanded brick street preservation another 6 square miles.
Brooksville, FL. Removed pavement to expose brick streets.
Amarillo, TX. Spend $200K to restore one block of brick street. Plan to do
Blair, NEB. Shelved plan to pave over city's dilapidated brick streets with
Bedford, OH. Historic brick streets kept after it was proved the town could
save money in maintenance over long run.
Davenport, OK. Citizens up in arms over plan to pave over the bricks on
main street. Showdown averted when money for project dried up.
Wilmington, NC. Tests process to uncover brick streets.
Blairsville, GA. "Preserving the Past for the Future."
Tampa, FL. Fight to preserve brick streets.
Houston, TX. Work stopped to remove bricks from street for utility work.
Money was earmarked by Federal Government to preserve bricks. Going to
So what are the lessons to be learned for Cambridge from this activity in our region and
across the country?
Preserving brick sidewalks preserves as well our link to the past -- and
adds immeasurably to the unique character of our city. And, we now know
that this can be done as in Portland without compromising the ease and
comfort of the disabled who travel the sidewalks through the use of wire-cut
bricks for ramps. Wire-cut bricks cause less vibration than concrete and
hold up better over time. Also, unlike with concrete, bricks do not
manifest the problem of entire slabs being up thrust by growing roots.
I hope that you are enjoying your summer and that if you have photos of beautiful brick sidewalks you have encountered in our region or on your
travels, please send them along.
Diane Whitney Beck