A downtown alley’s Belgian block paving stones

Franklin Place is another one of those delightfully hidden alleys you stumble upon in Lower Manhattan—a one-block thread connecting Franklin and White Streets between Church Street and Broadway.

 Somehow, a new luxury condo managed to get an address on Franklin Place.

But no other business or residence opens onto this former 19th century lane, known as Scott’s Alley until the early 1850s, according to the Tribeca Citizen.

Long lined with loft buildings used for manufacturing, Franklin Place is actually a private street, owned by the property owners whose buildings run along either side of the alley, the Citizen reported in 2017.

Franklin Place is an evocative place to stand and imagine what today’s Tribeca was like almost 200 years ago. (Above, looking toward Franklin Street today; at right, the same view shot between 1970-1990.)

One aspect of the street that makes it even more redolent of the post-colonial, antebellum city?

The Belgian block paving stones, which nearby alleys like Cortlandt Alley and Benson Street don’t have.

The blocks are appropriately worn down and broken in some places, a testament to the industry Franklin Place (below, looking toward Franklin Street) has seen.

That’s not to mention the horse hoofs, wagon wheels, and foot traffic pounding the blocks day after day after day.

New York City still has roughly 15 miles of granite block streets, according to a 2017 Historic Districts Council report.

It’s unclear why these paving stones are called Belgian block, but the city began laying them down as early as the mid-1850s.

“The surviving stone we refer to as Belgian block began to be used in the 1870s,” notes the HDC report.

“Belgian blocks were hard, durable, and offered a much smoother and more regular surface than cobblestones—’a very solid and impervious roadbed,’ according to an 1895 report in The City Record,” the report explains.

“Such qualities made them particularly suited for use along waterfronts and other areas with heavy commercial traffic.”

“By 1900, the stones used for such purposes were shaped to a relatively uniform width of between 4 and 5 inches, apparently proportioned to the size of a horseshoe.”

Still, Belgian blocks had their problems. In the rain, they became slick and slippery. And they were especially noisy, according to the HDC.

Asphalt came into use in the 1890s, and slowly, Belgian blocks disappeared from the cityscape. You can still find them downtown, though, and Franklin Place contains a treasure trove of them.

[Third photo: MCNY, 2013.3.1.285; Fifth image: NYPL, 1925]

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8 Responses to “A downtown alley’s Belgian block paving stones”

  1. petey Says:

    huh – i always thought belgian blocks and cobblestones were the same thing. i remember when 2nd ave was paved that way. during the recent construction for the Q, the roadbed was cut into and you could again see them, beneath a few layers of asphalt.

  2. ephemeralnewyork Says:

    Apparently according to the HDC, they are different, and cobblestones disappeared from NYC streets.

  3. Tom B Says:

    The town I grew up in Ohio and the town I live in Florida both still have these Belgian Blocks on some streets. They wear well and don’t make pot holes like asphalt streets. The only negative is they can make for a wash board ride and slippery when wet.

  4. ephemeralnewyork Says:

    I think that was a big problem with Belgian block streets in New York, …and one reason why manhole covers and coal holes have decorative engravings, which helped prevent skidding!

  5. vintagejames Says:

    Don’t think many should worry about skidding, with that kind of surface not many will think about going more than a few mph. The residents tend to like that. I would like it in my neighborhood.

  6. Chip Says:

    Re cobblestone vs Belgian blocks –
    From Monarch Stone International website: “…we here in the U.S. generically refer to, as cobblestone which is the accepted term given to paving stones whose length and/or width should not usually be greater than twice the thickness.”

  7. David H Lippman Says:

    Great place to shoot a period New York movie.

  8. Rob Says:

    The lowest streets of Manhattan were cobblestone/belgian blocks, from colonial times forward (I had thought the terms fairly interchangeable). As a kid, late 60’s-70’s, I remember many streets/alleys lined with them, esp near Fulton fish market/South st Seaport.
    The blocks, at least early on, were ballast on ships coming over. Explained to me as: “wtf do we do with these? I know, let’s make streets out of em’!”

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