In Sydney’s Angel Place, Michael Thomas Hill wants us to experience longing for nature long since lost and destroyed. His ‘Forgotten Songs’ installation charms us with its hanging bird cages and piped calls of native birds. But the sting is on the roadway where brass plaques inform us that the birds we are listening to “once sang in central Sydney, before Europeans settled and gradually forced them away”. The list of bird names inscribed there is like a wartime honour roll that we should follow along the laneway, lest we forget. The name label for the Regent Honeyeater is coincidentally positioned beside a manhole cover that, if opened up, would reveal the Tank Stream coursing beneath the lane in its modern-day guise as a stormwater pipe. Not only have trees been felled, Hill is reminding us, but the natural features of the landscape have been obliterated by the pavement itself.
But be careful what you want us to wish for, Michael. Regret the loss of charming songbirds and what do we get instead? Squadrons of honking ibis – swampland birds that have flown back from the countryside to learn the art of city living. Street smart and urban savvy, these scavengers revel in consumerism’s cast-offs.
Michael Thomas Hill’s ‘Forgotten songs’ installation belongs to a class of text-laden public artworks on the pavement that reproach us for wrongdoings past and present. I have written about these in an article called ‘Words of regret’ in Issue 3 of Sturgeon magazine, which has just hit the stands.
Black Santa was an Erskineville man, Syd ‘Doc’ Cunningham, who used to distribute presents to rural children every Christmas. Syd would sit outside the Woolworths supermarket in King Street, Newtown, collecting money and toys throughout the year. Around Christmastime he would give a Christmas card to people who dropped money in his bucket.
After Syd died in 1999 a bronze plaque was installed at the spot where he used to set up his folding table. On it was a depiction in relief of his plastic bucket.
In 2000 the footpath was repaved, with synthetic bluestone pavers replacing the asphalt.
Before the works commenced the plaque was removed. But in the place where it had been glued to the footpath, somebody wrote an impromptu memorial to Black Santa in red chalk.
After the repaving was finished, the original plaque was reinstalled, and it’s still there today. The supermarket itself has changed hands a few times. Currently it’s an IGA. And Syd’s plaque has become the focal point for beggars who keep his memory alive by collecting for themselves.
Funny thing though. Just a few days ago, someone wrote a post about the plaque on the Republic of Newtown Facebook page, adding, ‘ Sadly, the plaque was removed when the footpath was resurfaced’. Somehow this person had failed to notice that the plaque was put back fourteen years ago. That Facebook page got many comments and even though several noted that the plaque was still there, quite a few comments demanded that the plaque be replaced. Sentimental indignation prompted by misinformation. It happens.
Glossy black dance floor or ashen skin or something else entirely? The asphalt pavement stirs the poetic imagination of some writers but the hard truth spoils the romance of the blacktop.
It was Vladimir Nabokov who wrote , ‘Voraciously we consumed those long highways, in rapt silence we glided over their glossy black dance floors’. Australian author Jessica Anderson says of one of her characters, ‘… in her visual memory of Sydney as a city predominantly blue and green and terra-cotta, there had been an element missing. And here it was, this ashen skin covering not only the road, but the footpaths as well’.
Unfortunately that dark covering is making Sydney hotter because it absorbs heat and radiates it back out. Sustainability campaigner Michael Mobbs has the figures to show that suburbs with black roads and few trees suffer badly during heatwaves. It’s called the urban heat island effect, and to counter it the City of Sydney is conducting trials in Chippendale using lighter-coloured surfaces on some roadways. The pale pavement is open grade asphalt filled with concrete slurry.
Mobbs has been monitoring the trial. He says it reduces the temperatures by two to four degrees on a hot day, and predicts that during heatwaves there may be six to eight degrees difference. Death rates rise in cities during heatwaves, so that difference could save lives. Glary though.
Vladimir Nabokov. Lolita. 1955.
Jessica Anderson. The impersonators. 1980.
This week I have been thinking about the role the pavement can play in our thoughts and feelings about particular places and times in our lives. Long after the Hong Kong pro-democracy protest is over, and whatever the outcome, the gritty surface of the city’s public spaces will figure largely in the memories of the people who took part. The asphalt has been a major player in the drama of the so-called Umbrella Revolution.
Protestors themselves remove slogans and graffiti from the street. Getty Images
When I need a laugh I pull out my copy of Unreliable Memoirs by Australian ex-patriot polymath Clive James. The whole book is funny but one of my favourite passages involves concrete footpaths, billy carts and rubber tyre marks. Oh, and poppies.
The pavement often appears in people’s reminiscences of childhood. This is not remarkable, especially if they lived in inner city areas when they were young. After all, children are close to the pavement and playing on it is an everyday experience – or at least it was when children had more freedom. There were games like hopscotch and chalk chase that needed to be marked out on the hard surface, rhymes and chants about avoiding the cracks (or break your mother’s back), and hot sticky bitumen roads that were torture to cross in bare feet in the summertime.
Even in the sprawling suburbs where spacious backyards were the norm, streets served as a communal playground for ball games and competitive races that could only be staged on paved surfaces. Clive James played with neighbourhood kids on the footpaths of Kogarah, a suburb of Sydney.
James has been in the news lately. He is suffering from a terminal illness and The New Yorker has published an emotional new poem written by him as he contemplates his death. Also this fortnight there has been the two-part documentary Brilliant Creatures: Germaine, Clive, Barry and Bob on ABC-TV. So as a tribute to him I reproduce here an excerpt that introduces the episode of the billycarts and poppies. If you haven’t already read the book – or even if you have – I recommend you track down a copy.
Other children, most of them admittedly older than I, but some of them infuriatingly not, constructed billycarts of advanced design, with skeletal hard-wood frames and steel-jacketed ball-race wheels that screamed on the concrete footpaths like a diving Stuka. The best I could manage was a sawn-off fruit box mounted on a fence-paling spine frame, with drearily silent rubber wheels taken off an old pram … Carts racing down the footpath on the far side had a straight run of about a quarter of a mile all the way to the park … Carts racing down the footpath on the near side could only go half as far, although nearly as fast, before being faced with a right-angle turn into Irene Street. Here a pram-wheeled cart like mine could demonstrate its sole advantage. The traction of the rubber tyres made it possible to negotiate the corner in some style. I developed a histrionic lean-over of the body and a slide of the back wheels which got me round the corner unscathed, leaving black smoking trails of burnt rubber.
Clive James, Unreliable memoirs, London: Picador, 1981.
The billycart photograph is in the collection of Museum Victoria. Reg. No: MM 110102
Ernest Reynolds was a street showman, a colourful character who made a living as a pavement artist for over 30 years. His home town was Adelaide in South Australia and he claimed to have travelled the world as a seaman and artist. On the tramp around country towns in Australia, he drew such crowds that he often rated a mention in local newspapers as ‘the swagman artist’. His career as a ‘pioneer in chalks’ began in Sydney around 1900 and by the 1930s he was setting up his pitch in places like Adelaide, Mount Gambier (SA), Broken Hill (NSW) and Kalgoorlie (WA).
Described by reporters as a ‘picturesque personality’, Mr Reynolds called himself ‘a travelling artist and scientist’ and made pronouncements about scientific matters including, for instance, the geological origins of the Blue Lake in Mount Gambier. In Sydney, he said, he had been decreed the world’s champion pavement artist in 1930, and he liked to be referred to as the King of Pavement Artists.
He also told reporters that he was a descendent of Sir Joshua Reynolds, the famous 18th century English painter. But his most famous pavement art work was a rendition of William Holman Hunt’s 1910 religious painting, ‘The Light of the World’, which he could do in 6 hours 18 minutes. Once, after this picture had been on the pavement for several days in Broken Hill, the Barrier Miner newspaper reported that ‘ one devout woman … to prevent its desecration by the feet of the multitude, visited the spot with scrubbing brush and soap and washed the pavement clean’.
Reynolds made amusing comparisons about the generosity of various towns. In Sydney, he said, the people hurry past and ‘let you starve on!’ And in Mount Gambier he told a reporter that the public did not seem to be aware of the fact that he was doing this work for a living. The journalist duly wrote that ‘he would like them to realise that a silver coin would be acceptable’.
The drawing at the top of this blog post is copied from another blog Cipher Mysteries. Blogger Nick Pelling found Ernest Reynolds while hunting down another person named Reynolds (it’s complicated) but does not mention where he found the picture.
But I first encountered Ernest Reynolds in yet another blog, All my own work! – a history of pavement art by Philip Battle. I have since found out more by searching for newspaper articles about Reynolds in the National Library of Australia’s marvellous resource, Trove.
Philip Battle’s stories about screeving – mostly in Britain – are based on meticulous research and his posts feature wonderful archival illustrations. Philip is now turning his blog into a book, and he is hoping to raise a modest sum to publish it through crowd funding. Perhaps you would like to help him.
In an art gallery bookshop recently I came across a little book on a subject that interests me. It has taken me a long time to discover it, since it was first published in 1994. Wabi-sabi for artists, designers, poets and philosophers is by design philosopher, Leonard Koren.
It may have been Koren’s book that put the Japanese aesthetic of wabi sabi on Western curricula. These days most designers will have had some passing acquaintanceship with wabi sabi during their student years, although few have any real grasp of the concept. This is not surprising. Apparently author Marcel Theroux presented a program called ‘In Search of Wabi Sabi’ on BBC Four in 2006. In it he asked people on a Tokyo street to describe wabi sabi, but he was usually given a polite shrug and the explanation that wabi sabi is simply unexplainable. So, while I cannot possibly encapsulate Koren’s elegant little book in a blog post, I can give you an idea of some of the things he says about wabi sabi.
Peripherally associated with Zen Buddhism, and based on the idea that truth comes from the observation of nature, wabi sabi is a beauty of things imperfect, impermanent, and incomplete; a beauty of things modest and humble; a beauty of things unconventional.
Wabi sabi is an aesthetic appreciation of the evanescence of life, and its images force us to contemplate our own mortality. They evoke an existential loneliness and tender sadness mingled with bittersweet comfort, since we know all existence shares the same fate.
If things are described as having the quality of wabi sabi, it means that their appearance suggests natural processes. They are made of materials that are visibly vulnerable to the effects of weathering and human treatment, and they record these processes in a language of discolouration, rust, tarnish, stain, warping, shrinking, shrivelling and cracking. Their nicks, chips, bruises, scars, dents and peeling are testament to histories of use and abuse. Koren even says that “wabi-sabi comes in an infinite spectrum of grays”.
Now you can see why I might be interested in wabi sabi. Don’t these descriptions of the material qualities of wabi sabi fit so well the appearance of worn pavements! I am reminded of the chapter on ‘How to look at pavement’ in James Elkins’s book How to use your eyes. “Cracking, distortion, disintegration, ravelling, shoving, rutting – I love the terminology of distressed pavement,” says Elkins, “The utterly ordinary mangled surface of the road … is full of metaphors for human disaster”.
My interest in wabi sabi extends to the aesthetic appeal (or otherwise) of run-down parts of the city – old alleyways, derelict industrial sites, shabby shopping strips, crumbling houses. But I’ll save that discussion for another time.
Elkins, James, How to use your eyes, New York, Routledge, 2009.
Green, Penelope, At home with Leonard Koren: an idiosyncratic designer, a serene new home, The New York Times, 22 September 2010.
Koren, Leonard, Wabi-sabi for artists, designers, poets & philosophers, Point Reynes, California, Imperfect Publishing, 2008.
Wabi-sabi, Wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wabi_sabi
This is a story about the struggle between the green and the grey, between leaves and asphalt, between street trees and street parking, between what ought to be and what is. In inner city suburbs like Enmore and Stanmore, Marrickville Council is caught in this struggle.
One of the most stressful aspects of urban living is the shortage of parking. Suburbs that sprang up in the Victorian era, when there was no such thing as a motor car, are now undergoing gentrification; households often have more than one car but few houses have off-street parking.
Given the convenience of public transport in area, why do these people need cars? Partly it’s snobbery. Does your solicitor join the plebs on a bus to work? Would your doctor be seen dead in a train? Partly it’s necessity. With both parents working, try juggling work hours, childcare drop-offs and pick-ups, and Saturday sport all over the city. However much people might agree in principle with the environmental benefits of public transport and bicycle riding, often these are just not viable options.
Shortage of street parking spaces is made worse by visitors to the area. Now that Enmore has become a ‘vibrant entertainment precinct’ hundreds of customers come in the evenings to attend performances or enjoy the many new restaurants, bars and cafes. And they don’t necessarily want to travel across the city in public transport at night to get home. So they infiltrate ever-deeper into residential territory to find parking for their cars. Residents jealously guard driveways (if they have them) and fume when they have to park blocks away from their homes. Marrickville Council knows all this and is trying to address the problem with committee meetings, surveys, community consultation, plans and projects.
So why is Council intent on reducing the amount of parking in contested areas, rather than finding extra spaces? It’s because they are also committed to an Urban Forest Strategy that ‘recognizes the urban forest as an essential, living infrastructure asset and resource that provides a wide range of social, environmental and economic benefits’.
And this is what has prompted the demonstration project in Cavendish Street, Enmore, where large Lilli Pilli trees have been planted in structured soil in the roadway. I wrote about this project in my earlier post ‘What lies beneath’. And even though ‘permeable paving’ means that the space taken up by tree-planting ‘blisters’ is smaller than would normally be needed to keep trees healthy, there is no question that parking spaces have been lost. Residents of the street are supposed to have agreed to this arrangement, but they probably would have agreed to any scheme that saw the former huge, inappropriate and destructive fig trees removed from their footpaths.
Meanwhile parking pressure on nearby streets has been increased just that bit extra. What’s more, Marrickville’s draft Master Street Plan has Lilli Pilli (Waterhousia floribunda) or similarly large trees slated for some of these same streets. Given the narrowness of the verges, this must mean more in-road planting and more parking lost. Residents of these streets are not going to be too happy about this.
A 2013 survey of residents in the Marrickville Local Government Area found that most people like having greenery in their suburbs. Of course. But what the survey doesn’t mention is that householders also like to park close to their homes and businesses don’t want customers put off by lack of parking. Until a whole lot of things in the world change, this reliance on cars and the need for parking isn’t going to go away. In-road planting is an impractical component of the urban forest strategy and would have measurable social and economic costs. An ideological commitment to such a component would have a detrimental, not a beneficial, effect on the local area. Small trees, please.
New trees have been planted in Cavendish Street, Enmore, but for pavement fanciers the interest lies in the method used to install them. The process was far more complex than simply plonking a tree in a hole. It involved such things as ‘in-road planting’ and ‘structural soil’ and ‘plastic cells’ and ‘permeable paving’ – all designed to address ‘multiple issues, including impact of trees on infrastructure, safety of footpaths, enhancement of the urban tree canopy, landscape amenity and urban water management’.* And preventing the road surface from cracking or caving in.
Marrickville Council seems pretty pleased with the project, which is the first of its kind for this municipality, and maybe for the whole of Sydney. It’s been interesting watching the process, but I have some misgivings.
It all started more than three years ago, when Marrickville Council began removing very large fig trees from the footpaths on the street. Although enjoyed by birds and bats, these trees broke up the paving and invaded underground pipes. I wrote a blog post about local mourning when the first tree was removed.
The story resumes in April this year, and here’s how it goes. The Council excavates three huge rectangular pits in the street, digging deep down into the clay beneath the surface of the road.
Underground infrastructure, including gas pipes, is adjusted and gravel is spread in the bottom of each hole.
Next, a layer of large plastic cells is positioned in the pit and ‘structural soil’ is tipped in between them. Another layer of cells and soil is added, this time with a rectangular hole in the centre fenced off with plywood formwork. As I understand it, the plastic cells act as support for the roadway above; the structural soil is a mix of gravel and loam that resists being compacted and allows tree roots to spread and grow.
Over the soil comes a layer of geotextile then another layer of gravel.
Concreters build retaining edges around the central tree hole to form a ‘blister’. This will prevent cars bumping into the tree trunk.
Permeable pavers are laid. Rain falling on the road will flow towards this area of porous paving. This means that street run-off will infiltrate the tree pits instead of gushing down the gutters and into stormwater drains.
Within a day or so, on a nice rainy morning, advanced trees are lifted into the central hole, the formwork is removed and more soil is tipped around the large root ball. The three trees are Waterhousia floribunda ‘Green Avenue’, a cultivar of the rainforest Weeping Lilli Pilli that is expected to grow to 16 metres.
The project is not quite finished. A garden will be planted inside each blister. But the safety fencing has been replaced by witches’ hats and the official photographer has been sent to take photos for Council publications. As the unofficial photographer and busybody I’m rushing into e-print with this blog post.
In my next post I will talk about how my admiration for this aboricultural and civil engineering feat is tempered by reservations about the push and pull of local council policies.
*Marrickville Matters, December 2013, p.9.