The History of Cement
By Rob Applegate
Have you ever looked around your neighborhood and noticed a certain piece of city hardscape and wondered, “Why is that (blank) there?” Probably not. We usually think in terms of “Why isn’t there a (blank) on my corner.”
Several years ago, the missing (blank) in my neighborhood was a safe way to cross University Avenue at Front Street. That’s the corner between Florence Elementary School and the Spreckles Masonic Lodge as University makes a slight bend. This bend and an extra wide lane on Front Street encouraged drivers to “take the corner on two wheels.” Or that’s what Ralph Gordon, the long-term resident manager of the Masonic Lodge, told me. He is also prone to retell the story about the time a pedestrian ended up with a broken leg when trying to make a dash for it.
Fortunately those days are now in the past, and just part of the history of cement.
Who knows when the corner on Front and University became unsafe to cross. In 1907, when William Whitson founded Hillcrest, there would have only been horse and carriage traffic. By the 1920s and 1930s automobiles would have started to outnumber the horses. Maybe that’s when it started to be unsafe.
When I finally decided to do something, it was around 2005. I can’t remember when I made the first official phone call.
Around the fifth phone call I had the good fortune to speak to Jeffery Tom, Community Liaison for District Three’s Council Representative at the time, Toni Aktins. Jeffery was very supportive of my concern, but mentioned that the process could take awhile. “How long is awhile?” I asked. Without a trace of impatience, he said another street project took over four years to complete. Four years! And this was before the recent economic meltdown. If it hadn’t been for Jeffery’s upbeat attitude of “this is how we can get it done” I would certainly have let broken legs fend for themselves.
With his encouragement along the way, and hundreds, yes, hundreds of phone calls later, we managed to dodge the heavy traffic at City Hall and the various planning agencies. First the case had to be made for safety. Speeds and volume had to be measured and remeasured. Past accident reports had to be reviewed. The Fire and Police departments had to sign off on any proposed remedy.
And then there was the beauty factor. Who wants just safety? The recommendation from the City Street Division was for a traffic-calming hardscape called a “pop-out.” You see them around town, but rarely notice them or wonder what to call them until you are a pedestrian trying to cross in that vicinity. A pop-out is basically a big blob of concrete that bulges out into the street and narrows it. This forces the traffic to slow down.
Blobs of anything, but especially concrete, can be ugly. When you combine ugly and the life expectancy of concrete, most people think about it for a long time before they pour. The architects of Benson & Bohl tried their best on the corner of Front and University. We weren’t successful in getting any vegetation or color added to the design, but it is slightly more than just 10 yards of gray hardscape.
Whether it was a financial shell game, a beautification factor or simply the grinding of municipal gears, the total gestation time for the pop-out was well over four years. It finally was finished in late November.
Check it out the next time you are near University Avenue and Front Street. I even encourage you to safely skip your way across. The more important thing to do, however, is to notice what (blank) your neighborhood needs. Please remember, it might take awhile, and once it’s finally there, we will have the benefits and/or the “results” for decades to come.