Street construction exposes wood paver blocks that formed city’s roadways more than a century ago
Souvenir seekers have been making their way to the Gold Coast block where the wood pavers were uncovered.
Burim Baraku stood outside the Gold Coast building where he’s the doorman and imagined the hairstyles, hats and horses he’d see if he could go back in time maybe 150 years.
It wasn’t a random daydream. He was staring at the wood paver blocks unearthed as city work crews tore up the surface of Banks Street just west of DuSable Lake Shore Drive to repave the road.
“People have been coming all week and taking home bits of wood as souvenirs,” Baraku, 58, said.
Portions of the wood along Banks Street are rotten and chipping away. Other sections are in much better shape and resemble brick until, upon closer inspection, the wood grain patterns on the surface become visible.
“They’re kind of all over the place,” said John Russick, senior vice president of the Chicago History Museum.
“Wood was cheap, and Chicagoans wanted to get out of the mud, so it became the paving system for the city that was used and maintained before the Great Chicago Fire and even into the 20th century,” Russick said.
Wood was used to build pretty much everything, setting the stage for the massive conflagration in 1871.
“There’s a lot of wood down there under our car tires still that got paved over and, once in a while, it gets exposed during street construction,” Russick said.
Ald. Michele Smith (43rd) said the city intends to repave the street, again entombing the wood.
The wood blocks are toxic because they were soaked in creosote to prevent rot, she said, noting that someone called her office to ask if he could haul away the wood blocks. She said no.
“It’s really just a fascinating piece of Chicago’s history,” said Ald. Brian Hopkins (2nd), whose ward bumps up to Smith’s ward.
Anyone interested in seeing a restored stretch of wooden roadway can visit the alley behind the Cardinal’s Mansion at 1555 N. State Pkwy. The alley was repaired in 2011.
It’s not a scary alley, as Chicago alleys go.
But if you want to see the wood paver blocks that were recently uncovered, you only have a few days before they get paved over again.
Hopkins went out early Friday for a peek. He brought a crowbar and popped a chunk of rotten wood from the street to take home with him.
“I’m going to put it on the credenza at my office at City Hall,” he said.