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Why, Richmond, Why?!? Tripping on brick sidewalks - and back to 1866

Why, Richmond, Why?!? Tripping on brick sidewalks - and back to 1866

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Brick sidewalk

Workers installing new brick sidewalk in the 00 block of 1st Street in Monroe Ward, March 3, 2015.

We’ve got two kinds of tripping this week: avoiding tripping on uneven brick sidewalks, and tripping back to 1866 to when Richmond started putting numbers on dwellings.

Q. I have a brick sidewalk out front. It is beautiful, but it has waves like the ocean. Who is responsible for maintaining those sidewalks? The trees are beautiful, but the roots are just way too robust, and the bricks are in some places over 8 inches above grade. — N.S.

Brick sidewalks are attractive and appear more period-appropriate for historic neighborhoods and districts like Church Hill, but they tend to create hazards when the brick surface becomes uneven or choppy.

This Church Hill resident even volunteered to fix the sidewalk herself so that her elderly neighbor would not fall on the uneven walkway.

To smooth this situation out, we caught up with Sharon R. North, public information manager for the Richmond Department of Public Works.

“The city is responsible for structural repairs of sidewalks, damaged and hazardous sidewalks, etc.,” North wrote in an email. “As far as maintenance goes, residents are responsible for maintaining vegetation growing up through sidewalks, debris, etc.“

North described options for initiating repairs: post a report on; make a request through the city’s website and the citizen’s request system; or contact customer care at 3-1-1 or 646-7000.

I’ve made three brick sidewalk repair requests to over the years — one near the Jefferson Hotel was successful, but the other two (one in Church Hill and another in Oregon Hill) have yet to see action.

“Approximately 15 working days after the request is in the system, the operations and maintenance division conducts the initial site visit to assess the situation and determine next steps and which division will be responsible for the work,” North wrote.

If the repair is small enough, there might be a quick fix, but with larger projects, be prepared to wait. (Unless your brick sidewalk happens to be in an area of town where the UCI Road World Championships will pass through in September — those are most likely being expedited.)

Depending on the size of the repair (greater than 50 square yards of concrete or 200 square yards of brick), it becomes a capital improvement project, according to North. Smaller repairs are performed by roadway maintenance crews.

The city does not have a budget for sidewalk maintenance but pays for repairs from the annual roadway budget of $5.9 million, North said. Capital improvement sidewalk projects in Richmond have a budget of approximately $1 million per year.

We had to go back 149 years to find the answer to this week’s second question.

Q. The street numbers in the addresses on Main Street changed, evidently sometime in 1866. Just trying to pin down the details of when and why this occurred. Probably had to do with destruction after the evacuation fire? — D.H.

This reader is doing research for a book on Robert E. Lee, and the street number change has apparently skewed his ability to match up old photographs and locations from that time frame. This is news to me. I’ve researched plenty of Richmond history, but not street addresses.

“Numbers for houses and business establishments were proposed as early as 1811, but they weren’t used officially until 1866,” according to an old Discover Richmond article about the process Richmond followed to alphabetize the names of streets.

For more than 100 years, there was no need to name the few streets of Richmond. It was mid-18th century before the naming process began with the typical alphabetized assignment to streets running east and west and numbers for the north and south corridors.

That wasn’t the complete answer, so to get the best information, I researched in the archives at the Library of Virginia. If you think today’s Richmond City Council is tough to follow, try searching through microfiche for photocopied chicken-scratch notes from the 1860s.

An entry in the Daily Dispatch from April 13, 1866, announced that the “work of numbering the houses throughout the city is rapidly approaching completion, and already the greater portion of Main, Broad, Grace, Franklin and other streets rejoice in the handsome gold letters which decorate every dwelling-house and store. There is no doubt that the system will be a great public convenience.”

Why were the street numbers added? Well, the city was still very new in the process of reconstructing Richmond after the Civil War, which officially ended April 9, 1865.

The records of the Commissioners of Streets, Feb. 22, 1866, “generally recommend to the Council the expediency of numbering the houses and indexing the streets in the City.”

I got confirmation from The Valentine, which also has a vast archive of Richmond’s history. The 1860 directory didn’t include many street numbers, but rather identified buildings by corners and cross streets. Apparently there were no city directories during the Civil War, but directories were again used in 1866 after the number system was established.

(804) 649-6765

Twitter: @RigganRVA

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