When is a street more than simply a thoroughfare? I sought answers from Amanda Staley Harrison, vice-chair of Columbia’s Historic Preservation Commission. She says she sees brick streets as a ubiquitous symbol that a city has a history worth exploring. “I think that’s representative of the success that Columbia has had in its last 200 years, its resilience, its perseverance and its economic vitality,” she says. She acknowledges that most people likely don’t think that as they traverse brick streets, but she says she believes it works on a subconscious level to captivate residents’ attention.
Original brick streets are endangered entities in American cities. Waugh Street, Seventh Street and Cherry Street are three of eight exposed brick streets in downtown’s “core zone,” and at least 20 more lie beneath layers of asphalt or concrete. With barely contained excitement, chair of the Historic Preservation Commission Pat Fowler tells me, “(The city) has in storage thousands of paving bricks on pallets — historic bricks — set aside for either brick street repair or historic landscaping projects.” She’s right. I saw them. Barry Dalton from Columbia Public Works escorted me to the Quonset hut where they are stored on Parkside Drive and Creasy Springs Road. Up close, I could read the words etched in the side of some bricks: “Columbia Paver.”
Fowler says the best possible use for the bricks might come with the expansion of Flat Branch Park, which is planned to coincide with Columbia’s Bicentennial Celebration. She likes the poetic nature of 100-year-old brick streets possibly being recycled to celebrate the city’s 200th birthday in 2021. The plaza’s design hasn’t been finalized, but Fowler says she would love to see those bricks incorporated into the combination of street surfaces and green spaces.
Fowler mentions transportation tax funds that should start to accrue around 2021 and could pay for a “demonstration restoration project.” The city could attempt to repave the bumpy bases under brick streets so they don’t cause damage to motorized wheelchairs. But, as of right now, there isn’t enough money to conduct this type of project. Another possibility would be uncovering what’s thought to be original brick under Fourth Street.
Until the city can afford it, Fowler says the policy is simple: Do no harm. That way, if financial circumstances change, Columbia can prioritize its history. Thinking back to the historic bricks in that hut, I remember feeling like I was going through an attic or thrift store; the objects themselves exude historical importance, and my mere presence among them made me feel connected to the past. I had learned what Harrison and Fowler already knew — these weren’t just any old bricks, these were old bricks. That distinction made all the difference.