Sidewalk Wars

Though the quiet streets of Newburyport may not reflect a war nevertheless there is nothing less than an on going conflict over the walking surfaces of our City.


Mr. Bromfield, a prominent merchant, had willed a trust fund to cover the city with sidewalks and trees back in 1851 and by the 1880’s, most of Newburyport’s North and South End was covered.  The common surface of the sidewalks was brick.   

  At that time, the streets were packed dirt and at times mud flats or wide-expanses of swirling dust in the wind.       One of the DPW responsibilities during the 19th and early 20th centuries was to hire contractors who would sprinkle water over the street surfaces to keep the dust down.    But when it came to sidewalks, regardless of the condition of the surfaces, bricks were used as the preferred material when most people walked.     It wasn’t something to worry about because the city had three brick yards.       A small group of people would travel around town repairing and if necessary, resurfacing the bricks.


But at the dawn of the 20th century, cement surfaces became popular.    At first, they would skim coat the brick and then later, they would completely replace them because it was felt labor could be saved with flat slabs.      Later still, after World War II, blacktop became a cheap means to cover the surfaces and soon that was commonly used usually in the poorer neighborhoods.


The city received a boost during the depression years when the WPA were brought in by Mayor Merrill to keep the local people employed and many a street was covered by cement.


Then, later still, brick was used for the downtown to restore the historic feel of the city.     To save money, the true historic brick was replaced by an underlayment of sand and half-bricks.    


But most of the city is a hodgepodge of brick, blacktop and cement.    


There are no continuous surfaces except in a few rare places in our historic neighborhoods.    Unless you are willing to keep your eyes focused on the ground, the chances are you will be stumbling over different materials.   Worse, the lack of consistent maintenance has made any surface difficult to traverse.     Worse even, when the Dutch Elm disease came in, the city used Norway maples which are known to have shallow roots.      Now, along with the lack of maintenance, there are huge roots up heaving the sidewalks as if some great earthquake had struck Newburyport.

Now there are different sides taking up arms as to how to solve this dire situation.


One group is headed by the Council on Disabilities and the ADA Coordinator, Diane Eppa, who want to ban brick sidewalks.      They feel that its bricks that are the number one cause of the problems in the city and by replacing them all with cement sidewalks, the average citizen will be able to walk the length and breadth of Newburyport without the fear of falling and hurting themselves.      They are angry at the downtown for not having the sidewalk surface ADA certified.     ADA is of course, the American Disabilities Act.


Another group is the historic preservationists.      They believe that framing the city sidewalks within the Newburyport Historic District will up property values and encourage heritage tourism.    They point out that the American Disabilities Act does not single out brick as a culprit and that the National Park Service who supervises the National Register of Historic Places recognizes brick as a perfectly acceptable surface as long as it is perfectly flat.    Lack of maintenance is the real culprit.     They also point out Portsmouth, NH that extended the bricks into the historic neighborhoods and is now enjoying a renaissance in property values and a big boost in heritage tourism.    The preservationists want to see Newburyport enjoy the same benefits.


The third group are the dark siders.    Bringing back brick sidewalks is a silly tourist gimmick and they would like to see straight, clean cement sidewalks placed all over the city.      They also see no reason why they can’t put blacktop down since it’s the cheapest way to fix the pathways.       They don’t care about the implications for property values in an historic district and are more concerned about safety.   They want to do it in the cheapest way possible and that often means blacktop.      They feel putting in brick sidewalks is just silly and also the most expensive of the three materials possible.     They would prefer cement, cement and more cement but blacktop will do.


The fourth group is the developers who come here to flip houses.   Flipping is when you buy a distressed home because of foreclosures or poor condition and then renovate them for a profit.      Some come here totally clueless and through ignorance will put down blacktop or cement.    A good example is on Temple Street near Federal.      Most though are enthusiastic about the property value increase that historic brick sidewalks will bring to the value of their developments.    They put brick in front of their homes.     Notice the brick in front of the new building at 287-1/2 High Street though surrounded by other properties with cement.       The wise developer knows that property values can be boosted as much as 20% with a few well-placed bricks.     They are very enthusiastic.    They also know that the abutting properties on a city block or streetscape if consistently brick would further jack up their market gain.       They want more brick sidewalks!


You can see this war going on throughout our neighborhoods.     Historic sidewalks of old S&H pavers will be running along and then suddenly, a homeowner will lay down blacktop cutting off the continuity of the streetscape.       Some because they don’t care, others to make a point.


The question is who will win the war?      That victorious faction will be rewarded with uniform surfaces through the city, but at what cost?


-P. Preservationist

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1 Response to Sidewalk Wars

  1. Dianne Eppa says:

    I realize this is an old post, but I want to clear up some inaccuracies. At no time, have I ever said anything about banning brick sidewalks, nor do I recall the Commission on Disabilities wanting to do so either. In fact, we’ve worked on projects installing and repairing brick sidewalks and ramps in the downtown area. I do recall a discussion I had with you a while back regarding improper installation of brick sidewalks, and I thought I was clear that my concern was about the methods you were suggesting in your CPA grant application. I do in fact support brick sidewalks, assuming they are installed correctly. I’m a bit troubled that you are suggesting that we want to ban bricks all together. It is also wrong to say that the Commission and myself are “angry… for not having the sidewalks certified,” especially since this “certification” does not exist. The Commission’s job is to promote accessibility, not act as a road block. If you would like to discuss this further, feel free to contact me.
    Dianne Eppa, ADA Coordinator (2004-2011)

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