Reading the Road: Things Embedded in Paving Tar

white plastic figure embedded in road tar

white plastic figure, Oakland

By any measure, it’s a strange object to encounter in the middle of a crosswalk. Laying on its back, a pure white plastic humanoid figure stares straight up at you–not a care in the world–embedded in the road-paving tar of Fifth Avenue.

The little toy likely came into this world in a very different form. Perhaps the material was originally in full color, complete with hair and facial details painted on–the pure white merely a result of repeated sun-bleachings. A pair of matching holes on the torso suggest an optional attachment set of armor or wings or maybe a backpack. We can hope the little guy once had some clothes.

By now, though, it’s impossible to tell. Someone’s ex-plaything–jettisoned from a bumpy stroller ride or fumbled in a harried attempt to catch the Walk sign at Bellefield–wound up crushed under so many wheels of downtown-headed PAT buses and Oakland through traffic it’s become one with the street surface itself.

wire cap embedded in road tar

wire cap, North Oakland

machine screw embedded in road tar

machine screw, Homestead [photo: Lee Floyd]

Now, that little plastic toy is an extraordinary thing to find preserved in the macadam of a city street, but it’s not alone. It turns out that–like much of life–with close inspection there is almost limitless variety of this naturally-occurring phenomena just about anywhere you look.

The objects have a certain continuity, though. They’re the kinds of things that fall out of pockets and off of vehicles; worth little enough to neither require securing in place nor retrieval after they hit the pavement. None is of any value for a passer-by to bother picking up. Each must be so small that it can be subsumed into a thin layer of road tar.

zipper pull embedded in road tar

zipper pull, North Oakland

broken reflector and metal pin embedded in road tar

reflector, metal pin, Oakland

Like those fragments of household pottery or scraps of tanned buckskin preserved in historical collections, the objects we find fused in the road don’t have any intrinsic value. [Although we did find one small unit of U.S. currency (see below).] No, this is the flotsam of a population on the move, building, buying, wearing-out, and discarding the ephemera of modern life.

One needn’t look too far in the past to imagine a time when a penny wouldn’t be dropped absentmindedly and an eighth-inch drill bit would be worth the effort to retrieve from a job site. But today we live in a mechanized, mass-produced, disposable culture–one where the value of a single wire cap, machine screw, or even a kid’s toy is so little that no one would think twice when it is dropped on the pavement.

penny embedded in road tar

penny, Oakland

bottle cap embedded in road tar

bottle cap, Oakland

bottle cap embedded in road tar

bottle cap, North Oakland

These public, open-air excavation sites are a bonanza for the amateur archeologist. When we see the incredible skeletons of dinosaurs on display at the Carnegie Museum it’s obvious they are literally the one-in-a-million chance creatures that managed to collapse into just the right environment to preserve their bones intact for millennia, remain undisturbed for all that time, and managed to be recovered by the fossil-hunters of the early 20th century. Few among us can hope to participate in a real dig for T-Rex.

But anyone can be his or her own Howard Carter or Kathleen Kenyon on the morning walk to work or an afternoon constitutional. Like those pterodactyl-hunters before us, we imagine all of the bottle caps that didn’t happen to get stuck in a hot patch of road tar, the fractured reflector pieces swept down the sewer in the next big rain, the plastic detritus of America washed downriver and out to sea. It’s a lot to take in.

metal bracket embedded in road tar

metal bracket, Homestead [photo: Lee Floyd]

drill bit embedded in road tar

drill bit, Oakland

aluminum flashing embedded in road tar

aluminum flashing, Oakland

aluminum flashing embedded in road tar

aluminum flashing, Oakland

tooth flosser and bobby pin embedded in road tar

tooth flosser/bobby pin, Lawrenceville

ketchup packets embedded in road tar

ketchup packets, Bloomfield

One final observation: There is a unique related-but-different subset of the embedded-in-road-tar category of items. These are things that were actually baked into the road material itself at the time of construction. (Rather than appended to the street surface, later.) The fact that we came across two different full-sized red bricks melded with street tarmac does not a pattern make, but it’s an interesting double-occurrence.

How did these bricks get here? What were they doing in a batch of freshly cooked-up street surfacing? Were they laying on the denuded substrate or did they get mixed in with the goop pre-pour?

So many questions. But … that’s why we’re reading the road.

brick embedded in road tar

brick, Marshall-Shadeland

brick embedded in road tar

brick, Bloomfield

The Frankenstein Hillside of Woods Run

Hillside with embedded bricks and cinderblocks, Pittsburgh, PA

The Frankenstein hillside of Woods Run (detail)

This is about as Pittsburgh as it gets. A steep, nearly vertical, hillside forms a natural boundary between two distinct neighborhoods–Brighton Heights up above and Woods Run down below. Hillside erosion (or the threat thereof) has forced the hand of…someone (the city? industry? private property owners?) to infill cracks and fissures in the bare rock, but they’ve done it in the cheapest, most ramshackle way possible. It’s kind of like creating the goofy colored belt system instead of actually building any new highways–but to solve erosion issues instead of…directional? [The belts certainly do nothing for traffic.] In both cases, The Orbit applauds this philosophy of low-tech, minimally-destructive, infrastructure recycling.

Hillside with embedded bricks and cinderblocks, Pittsburgh, PA

Even with the bright morning sun shining on them, it’s a little hard to see what’s going on in these photos. The hill probably reaches fifty or sixty feet above street level at its highest and there are at least a handful of houses that back right up near the top edge. At the base is vacant land (today), but likely held row houses, retail, or small industry buildings back in the day.

Irregularly set into the rock face are a mortared collection of various masonry materials–bricks of all shapes, sizes, and colors, as well as cinderblocks, paving stones, and poured concrete. The overall effect is as if some bygone cheapskate public works director gave the order to “just fill the cracks with whatever you have laying around.”

Hillside with embedded bricks and cinderblocks, Pittsburgh, PA

The combination is beautiful, weird, and, yes, looks like the work of a mad scientist, or maybe a mad civil engineer. There’s the very awkward collision of nature and technology–like a brick and stone cyborg, only this one wants to keep loose rock from falling on you instead of hunting you down for crimes you’ll inevitably commit in the future. The spare parts and junk shop chic is something any crazy inventor with a bricklaying hobby would be proud of. The hill’s vertical face is rendered in wonderful 3-D, at points both smooth and jagged, metric and chock-a-block–it gives the whole enterprise this incredible depth and texture. Seeing these on a clear day, in the A.M. (when the eastern sun lights them up), will match any gallery experience. We guarantee it, just like Dr. Frankenstein did.

Hillside with embedded bricks and cinderblocks, Pittsburgh, PA

Getting there: The Frankenstein hillside runs along the dog-legged stretch of Woods Run Ave. between Eckert St. and McClure, right across the street from Mr. Jack’s Neighborhood Bar (“No guns. No knives.”)–just look up. Cyclists will be well aware of this particular patch of road as it’s the primary route from the very end of the river bike trail by the old jail to points west and north.