When Vermont Street resident, Louis Epstein, was a child in the early 1940s, he lived in the Mission, on Peters Avenue. He remembers the commonplace sight of cobblestones lining the middle of San Francisco’s many hilly streets. Cobblestones were frequently used as paving material before the dominance of automobiles. They provided more traction to horse-drawn wagons than smoother surfaces. In older American cities – San Francisco, Philadelphia, Chicago, New Orleans – old cobblestones are often revealed when modern pavement wears down and cracks.
Epstein rarely gets a glimpse of the cobblestones he viewed as a youth, except in select spots in some northside neighborhoods. However, this past summer a crew of construction workers were conducting boring and excavation work on the 600 block of Vermont Street in preparation for repaving, and cobblestones were found beneath the asphalt.
“I took an interest in the fact that they were boring outside of my street,” said Epstein. “They’re going to be repaving the street, so the City came and bored into the street and found cobblestones underneath. People think of them as being fancy and attractive, and so they take them to fancy neighborhoods north of Market. If they’re found in Potrero Hill they should stay, just as if it were Telegraph Hill.”
Epstein explained that the work crew told him that the stones would be taken to a store yard before being transported elsewhere in the City, such as to North Beach, where they’re desired for ornamental value. Epstein believes that the cobblestones found on his block are just the tip of the iceberg, and that layers of cobblestones likely exist on many of the Hill’s steep streets. A View reporter witnessed a similar scene last summer, in which cobblestones were found during roadwork on Dorchester Way in West Portal. In that case, work crew members said they were unaware of what’d be done with the stones.
A 2010 Department of Public Works order established procedures for recycling cobblestones found during excavations. According to the guidelines, stones should be cleared from the worksite, cleaned and carefully stored at the Cesar Chavez Street Yard, located at 2323 Cesar Chavez Street. The instructions don’t specify what should be done following storage. However, Public Works personnel said that the Cesar Chavez Street Yard is full; stones are now being taken to a Treasure Island facility.
According to Rachel Gordon, DPW’s director of policy and communications, the cobblestones are rarely reused unless there’s a project with a landscape component designed to incorporate them. “As for use, our streetscape projects are designed by a design team, usually a landscape architect, and in consultation with the community. If there is a desire for cobblestones, we will assess the feasibility of use and the maintenance needs. In general, we do not use cobblestone anymore for roads, but we do occasionally use them for planters, curbs, medians, et cetera,” Gordon added.
According to Epstein, the City at one time had a practice of dumping cobblestones at China Beach to serve as wave breaks. He no longer knows if that’s the case, but speculates that cobblestones are increasingly ending up in the hands of private owners who covet their historical nature and ornamental value.
Numerous building supply companies around the country sell cobblestones for home improvement and other projects. Some have products labelled “San Francisco Cobblestone,” which occasionally means that stones with no historic value have been modeled to appear old and rustic. Other companies sell “authentic” cobblestones from city streets of past eras. According to Ed Dunn, executive director of Building Resources, located at 701 Amador Street, the organization intermittently sells cobblestones for $2 each.
“We get cobblestones in from smaller-scale sources and sell them to the public,” said Dunn. “Sustainable Crushing, owned by Recology, takes all the rock and concrete that’s excavated and grinds it to have ready for fill-type uses. I imagine that they have received cobblestones, but don’t know what they do with them. DPW delivers to them, as well as private haulers. When a private property owner has a small truckload, the stones come to us.”
A Recology employee stated that 99 percent of the time cobblestones that reach the Sustainable Crushing facility are crushed. However, if there’s space to store them a pile will accumulate until someone purchases them at a cost of $300 a ton.
More aged City stones may become available for reuse in coming years. According to an August article from NextCity.org, a Market Street improvement project will make a stretch of road more conducive to travel by people with mobility challenges by replacing old brick sidewalks. Due to wear and aging, the bricks have become uneven and slippery when wet, deemed non-compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act.