Simulated History: Sidewalks and Streetscapes

One of my favorite moments of urban life is walking down a quiet street and listening to my shoes hit the pavement. The sound is a softer version of the clop clop I associate with horses and I’m inevitably transported to the 19th century; I imagine walking on down an uneven, dimly lit sidewalk that runs parallel to a car-less street.

Dekalb Avenue

I find the best shoe-on-sidewalk sounds are produced in the oldest parts of the city. Cobblestone in parts of the West Village and  D.U.M.B.O are delightful; Fort Greene’s combination of granite sidewalks and brownstones is the best. My fantasy of Victorian England lasts about a block, or roughly 350 feet, when I’m interrupted by Myrtle Avenue.

Mrytle Avenue

The majority of New York City’s sidewalks are made of grey concrete with a 5×5 scoring and a steel-faced concrete curb roughly six inches deep. This layout provides ample room for pedestrian foot traffic, isolates those pedestrians from vehicle traffic, and generally produces a muffled, dull sound. While I certainly appreciate the sidewalks of New York City, the majority of them are uninspiring.

The city’s Design Commission is in charge of designating distinctive sidewalks, or sidewalks that enhance the overall street design and help preserve the historic character of an area. Distinctive sidewalks must pass the engineering test of maintaining structural integrity and being slip resistant. Until recently, I was pretty sure distinctive sidewalks could also be identified by how well my shoes mimic horse hooves.

But I was wrong. Confusion erupted while walking down Clermont Avenue. I was looking at the stoops, decorative ironwork, and dreaming of London. But something was missing. THERE WAS NO NOISE. I looked down on the sidewalk. Wait a minute. Was that really granite?

I came home and went to Design Commission’s webpage. To my horror, I learned that distinctive sidewalks “may include the proposed use, in historic neighborhoods, of tinted concrete to simulate bluestone or granite.” My conclusion: cities are increasingly using the term historic preservation to describe nostalgic delusion. If I hadn’t been listening for that clop clop would I have assumed I was walking on a granite sidewalk? I think I would have and I’m still trying to decide if that’s okay.

In his post, The Geometry of Nowhere, Mathieu Helie points out that the 19th century sidewalks weren’t actually meant for people, but as the transitional space between buildings and streets. Sidewalks still serve this function in many cities throughout the world, it is a space for street vendors and motorcycles; foot traffic competes with hooves and wheeled traffic.

19th Century London streetscape


Chennai Streetscape

So maybe I should just get over my disgust for pseudo historic sidewalks, my nostalgia for the 19th century sidewalk is misplaced anyway. Either way, here are some sidewalks:



Richie Street






Long Xuyen





One Response to “Simulated History: Sidewalks and Streetscapes”
  1. drew says:

    i enjoy the bouncing laser sounds from footsteps next to corrugated metal walls in gpoint, bushwick, etc. oh lordy, i love that. i love that.

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