Wednesday, May 18, 2005

Curb Your Enthusiasm

Accustomed to the concrete curbs of Michigan and the Midwest, I was surprised and dismayed to realize that Washington DC curbs are, in fact, of the old-timey, granite variety. Dismayed not so much by the choice of materials as the shape of the curb, which is not rounded, because I was flying over my bike's handlebars after foolishly trying to pop the front wheel over the "curbstone" yesterday. Granite curbstones and brick gutters predominate in the District of Columbia, in stark contrast to the poured concrete I have known for most of my life. Curbstones are long, rectangular blocks of granite basically adorning the edge of the poured concrete sidewalks of the District. I would wager that they are more durable than concrete (they don't seem to crumble), but they much more frequently heave or otherwise separate from the sidewalk than do concrete curbs. There is evidently a robust granite curbstone industry on the East Coast that deals in cutting and finishing curbstones for refitting cities on the seaboard.

As it turns out, the curbstone figures in business lore much like the 18th century coffee shop Lloyd's of London: the American Stock Exchange, now part of the NASDAQ-AMEX, was originally an outdoor organization known as the Curbstone Brokers. This was a group of men who traded stocks on one of the corners of Wall Street; it was one of several competing stock exchanges. While the largest then and now was the New York Stock Exchange, it required a minimum number of shares to be traded in each transaction. The Curbstone Brokers would sometimes auction off single shares at a time. In addition, the smaller exchange had less stringent rules for the value of companies to be traded through their exchange (these general traditions continue to this day, with the NYSE being for larger, more established companies and higher volume and the NASDAQ-AMEX generally for smaller, newer companies). In 1919 the exchange moved indoors (several decades after the NYSE) and was known until 1953 as the New York Curb Exchange.


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