Mimi Kirk is a contributing writer to CityLab covering education, youth, and aging. Her writing has also appeared in The Washington Post, Foreign Policy, and Smithsonian.
The restoration of a historic Philadelphia thoroughfare has proven more difficult than expected.
South Camac is one of those old, narrow Philadelphia streets with buildings that hug the sidewalk so closely they seem to spill onto it. It’s made even more charming by the fact that it has hosted many of the city’s most venerable literary and art clubs since the late 19th and early 20th centuries. And if that isn't enough, until last year one section served as the only restored wood-paved street in Philadelphia.
South Camac was paved in wood in 1917. It and a few other streets in such cities as Pittsburgh and Chicago are the last remaining examples of this once-prevalent practice of the early 20th century. Wood was in greater supply than cobblestone and thus less expensive, but its real advantage was that it dampened the clip-clop of horse hooves. As a result, wood blocks were often used to pave streets in high-traffic areas as well as around buildings for which noise was particularly disruptive, such as churches, hospitals, and schools—and, in the case of South Camac Street, social clubs.
Wood blocks did have a disadvantage: their smell. They were soaked in creosote to prevent them from rotting, and they absorbed a whole lot of horse urine. With the advent of the rubber-tired automobile, wood blocks were no longer needed, and streets were paved over with less malodorous asphalt.
In late 2015, the city of Philadelphia removed South Camac’s wood-paved section. It turned out that a 2012 restoration, which was supposed to last at least five years, had been a failure. Inga Saffron of the Philadelphia Inquirer reported that almost as soon as the street was repaved, the blocks began to rot. “Some dissolved into pulp,” she wrote. “Others began to pop out of place.”
Philadelphia’s Streets Department, fearing that pedestrians would trip over the deteriorating blocks, took out the wood and spread asphalt over the area. Chief highway engineer Steve Lorenz and engineer Nicholas Baker say they have a few unconfirmed theories about why the restoration failed, including substandard drainage and inferior treatment of the wood.
“When we install it again,” they tell Citylab via email, “we will be exploring different wood, the size of the blocks, improving drainage, restricting vehicle traffic, and different sealers.” The plan is for Camac Street to be restored once again in 2017—in time to mark its centennial in old-world style.