#865: Wood-Paved Alleys

December 20th, 2017

There’s a block where, if you have to step aside for a car slowly rolling down crackling alley pavement, the car is a Bentley.

There’s a block where even the back entryways are tastefully decorated — can’t seem unseemly even to the rats and covert urinators who seek alleys as habitat.

There’s a block where tall staircases lead to immaculate brick homes with Christmas tree fairy lights and the everyday crystal chandeliers glinting and glowing out the windows.

And I was hunting these streets for an alley made of wood.

The wooden alley off the 2100 block of Hudson Avenue is one of two left in the city according to the article that alerted me to the prize, one of three according to a different site.

I had no desire to spend a dark 5 p.m. night heading to the moderately well-known wood-paved alley behind the mansion the archdiocese keeps for the archbishop. I wanted to see the other one, the crappy one, the one not recently renovated and restored by a cabal of friends, neighbors and fans of antiquated paving materials.

I wanted to see what history looks like when it’s ignored.

At the time of the Great Fire, 37 of Chicago’s 61 miles of improved streets were paved with wood. Twenty years later in 1891, wood made roughly 480 of the city’s then-774 paved miles.

It was called Nicolson pavement in honor of its inventor, Samuel Nicolson of Boston. Cost had forced Bostonians to use wood over stone; Nicolson invented a process for making the wood last as long as possible while providing a smooth surface for carriages and horses.

“The Nicolson pavement, if not the most durable, is certainly the most agreeable of roads,” an undated but no doubt ancient Scientific American article claimed.

So off to Hudson Avenue. Off to one of those little streets even Edward Paul Brennan¬†(1866-1942) couldn’t fit into order. It starts, it stops, it jumps two blocks to the left, it continues for a mile, then only lasts a single block. It was a dozen streets crammed in a single name when Brennan tried to make the city make sense. The street’s as much an archaism as the paving.

I walked by twice before realizing I had found the alley. I even walked all the way down it on one of the gos, before realizing later that the bricks I had stood on weren’t.

On the second, maybe third look — wondering all the time when the richies would call the cops about the guy clearly casing the neighborhood — I looked down. One brick, I noticed, had rings. Then I noticed a second with a whorl. And a third with loops.

In the dark and cold, among garbage cans, recycling bins and a scurrying that sounded too much like a rat when I stepped too close to said bins, I realized I was walking on a wooden floor. They were arranged in brick pattern, sawed into brick size, rectangles held in perfect brickian proportioned, tarred to a wonderfully brick finish in Nicolson’s effort to make wood act like cobblestone.

The wood section only extended maybe 40 feet into the alley. Beyond that, decades of residents had poured amorphous 10-15 foot splotches of asphalt, hot patch — maybe even some macadam here or there — to coat the alley by their garages. The different materials used and times they were spread made a multi-colored, multi-level effect, the only consistency being it covered that damn wood that rattles the Bentley.

Little semicircles of the wood lay exposed surrounding each garage’s rain gutter. Either the asphalt had never been poured there, or it had worn away through decades of rain splash, the more useful material dissolved like a stalagmite to reveal the more beautiful one. I prefer the second option, but I believe the first one.

On Monday, I wrote about a man who hand-built an arts center to revive Englewood. Last week, I wrote about a group of volunteers trying to make Springfield make sense. The week before, I painted in glowing bacteria amid a group of biologists who want to teach the world. Even by this site’s capricious standards, “Hey, that’s not a brick!” is a big who cares.

But I find it important. People talk about how no one looks up — I’ve bemoaned it myself. We become complacent to glass towers a thousand feet high and magical metal birds that whoosh us wherever we want to go.

I like the secrets of alleys as well. I like the little hiddens. I like that things we take for granted sometimes aren’t.

I like walking down a darkened street, looking down and realizing the world isn’t made of what I thought it was.

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You are currently reading #865: Wood-Paved Alleys by Paul Dailing at 1,001 Chicago Afternoons.

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