Roadside greetings

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By early November you know that Christmas is coming. As the weeks roll on the decorations become thicker and more splendiferous. More glitter. More greetings. More Barbie heads.

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I’m talking about Maurice’s decorations on the streetside furniture in Annandale, an inner west suburb of Sydney. Maurice Jappanarid Ponza is a Sydney character always in seasonally adjusted costume complete with appropriate head gear. He is often a pirate, sometimes a cowboy, an academic or a wizard, and at this time of year his daily choices include variations on Santa, elf or Christmas tree.

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For years he has been darting into the traffic to wash windscreens, initially at Johnson Street and Parramatta Road, more recently at City West Link. This year there seems to be some problem with the windscreen washing but he’s still there intermittently, taking donations in exchange for his photocopied Christmas card. Sydney loves its personalities and Maurice has appeared in student short films like Adam Rosenberg’s award-winning ‘Maurice’ and Sam Barnes, Bek Hawkey and Laura Cosgrove’s ‘Window man’. He even featured this year in an ABC TV Lateline segment ‘Behind the squeegee’.

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Happy Christmas or Happy Whatever-You-Choose-to-Celebrate from me to you, the people who look at the Pavement Graffiti blogsite and the Pavement Appreciation Facebook page. Thank you for your friendship and support. Special cheerio to Mark McLean who has his own way of noting the beginning of Christmas as he traverses the stormwater drains of Hamilton North (in Newcastle, Australia). May the road ahead be filled with little surprises for all of you.

And thanks to Maurice for providing the festive scenery for this blog post. Best wishes to him and all the city’s fringe entrepreneurs.

It's a sign. It's a sign. All photos by meganix.

It’s a sign. It’s a sign.
All photos by meganix.

The gendered underground

I cannot help liking manhole covers. In fact they feature in quite a few of my blog posts. In October 2010 I wrote: They are reminders that the pavement is not only a floor but a roof – the roof of a busy world of tunnels, tubes, chambers and canals; of light, electricity, water and workers. Manhole covers are shutters on the skylights in this roof.

Manhole cover holding together a dilapidated road in Camperdown (Sydney). Photo: meganix 2013.

Manhole cover holding together a dilapidated road in Camperdown (Sydney). Photo: meganix 2013.

 

But why do I persist in calling them manhole covers? I am usually careful about using gender-neutral language, and there are alternative terms available – service cover, access hatch, maintenance hole, for instance.

Although part of the answer is inertia – that’s what I’ve always called them – there is also the desire to align myself with a loose but international oddball fraternity of people who find aesthetic satisfaction in manhole covers. They admire the dull sheen of worn cast iron, remark upon the distinctive municipal manhole embellishments in Japan, take rubbings from old street covers and reproduce them in knitted bedcovers, and photograph tiny weed gardens growing in the patterned indentations.

If ‘manhole’ had not been part of my vocabulary I might have missed Mimi and Robert Selnick’s lovely book of black and white photographs, Manhole Covers. I certainly would not have found one of my all-time favourite websites, Tim Pitman’s Misplaced Manhole Covers. Worse still, people interested in manhole covers would never find my site.

LOOK RIG, Sydney. Photo: meganix 2010.

LOOK RIG, Sydney. Photo: meganix 2010.

 

Anyway, does it really matter that we call them manhole covers? It’s an established term in the English language. My copy of the Macquarie Dictionary (Revised edition 1985) defines ‘manhole’ as a hole, usu. with a cover, through which a man may enter a sewer, drain, steam boiler, etc. And there you have it. Why does their name need to be gender inclusive? It’s men who use manholes because it’s men who do the dirty work underground.

That was the entrenched opinion of many people when Andy Mitchell, the chief executive at Thames Tideway Tunnel, recently announced that he wanted to achieve gender parity by the time construction of London’s ‘super sewer’ was finished in 2023. There was a response of disbelief because, after all, this is a distinctly unglamorous construction project in a ‘man’s world’.

Andy Mitchell, chief executive of Thames Tideway Photo: Matthew Joseph/Thames Tideway in The Guardian 10 December 2014.

Andy Mitchell, chief executive of Thames Tideway Photo: Matthew Joseph/Thames Tideway in The Guardian 10 December 2014.

 

Browsing around a bit more I found a string on Yahoo! Answers/Social Science/Gender studies in response to the question ‘Why don’t women often choose jobs such as coal miner sewer worker etc. are these jobs unfeminine?’. While most replies were ill-informed, anti-woman and/or anti-feminist rants, there were some interesting thoughts amongst them.

One person wrote that those dirty, dangerous, unhealthy, jobs are called ‘glass cellar’ jobs. Feminists, he maintained, are only concerned with the ‘glass ceiling’, and look to the top in an attempt to shame society into giving women ‘positions of power’. They should also be looking at getting equal positions for women at the bottom. Men choose those jobs because they pay well as a trade-off for safety and comfort.

In reply to others who insisted that women won’t do dirty jobs, one man wrote, “In my former metropolitan area, the Labor Council and many of the individual unions sponsor a program to recruit and train more women for labor jobs. With no exceptions, whenever they open the books, every single available spot is grabbed by a woman looking to get in”.

A couple of years ago, the Daily Mail reported that two young women were to become the first females in Britain to start an apprenticeship in waste. The newspaper’s headline read ‘The pay’s OK but the hours stink’. Looking for an alternative to office work, these women applied for a position with South West Water where their jobs would involve visiting sewerage works, hand-raking raw sewage, taking samples for testing and using rods to clear blockages.

Change, of course, isn’t always easy. A New York Daily News article sub-headed ‘They work in the sewers all day, but they say the really nasty stuff wasn’t in the pipes – it was in the locker rooms’ tells the story of two woman laborers for the city’s Department of Environmental Protection, who have withstood years of threats and insults from male colleagues treating the agency as ‘a man’s world’. The pair claim that they were denied overtime and promotions, and that the few other women in the agency were driven out by constant harassment.

But, as Andy Mitchell continues in the Thames Tideway article, ” From my first day in the job, I knew this was a place where we could achieve something different which would leave a legacy for generations about how good the construction world can be. This is not really a man’s world: we need women, and we need diversity […] We are working to create a culture that finds out from women themselves what they want and how they think we can attract their counterparts. It’s not a bunch of blokes sat around a table making assumptions on why we think women don’t want to work in construction. We are finding out the true obstacles so that we can we try to overcome them”.

Cellar grate under front doorstep, Antwerp. Photo: meganix 2013.

Cellar grate under front doorstep, Antwerp. Photo: meganix 2013.

 

Back to manhole covers, then. Baden Eunson tells us that ‘manhole’ is a restricting name that reinforces traditional gender roles. Such terms are examples of the ways in which the English language reinforces patriarchy. Other examples include spotlighting (male nurse, career woman); dimunitivisation (actress, waitress); differential naming (Mr Smith and the girls from Accounting); and featurism (Prime Minister Julia Gillard wore a little black dress and a collarless blazer with olive green sleeves when she gave her farewell speech). Eunson’s article on ‘Gender-neutral communication: how to do it’ was published in a recent issue of The Conversation.

Amongst speakers (or writers) who persist with masculinely-loaded language, some do so because they are openly opposed to all this feminist nonsense and what they think it stands for. As for the rest, some are fuddy-duddies who do not want to put effort into changing old habits. Others do not want to sound conspicuous amongst peers who normally use non-inclusive language. Of course, even amongst these people, I think there are those whose resistance to gender-neutral language is really an indicator of their resistance to gender equality, even if they won’t admit it to themselves.

Where does that leave me and manhole covers? Down amongst the fuddy-duddies, I suppose. Since I intend to go on photographing these enduring items of street furniture, it is up to me to find a term for them that I can use consistently and comfortably – ‘cast iron street covers’, perhaps. But I will probably still include ‘manhole covers’ in the list of tags and keywords for relevant posts, in the needy hope that this will bring some extra hits and likes.

Last resting place for cast iron service covers -- Sydney Water's Movable Heritage Store, Potts Hill (Sydney). Photo: meganix 2015.

Last resting place for cast iron service covers — Sydney Water’s Movable Heritage Store, Potts Hill (Sydney). Photo: meganix 2015.

Reference

Melnick, Mimi & Robert Melnick, Manhole covers, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 1994.

Imitations of Eternity

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Will Coles (aka Numb) is a guerrilla street artist who knows a thing or two about aphorisms. His casts of consumerism’s cast-offs often bear one-word invitations to think deeply about the shallowness of present-day culture. So perhaps it was inevitable that he would eventually appropriate Arthur Stace’s single-word sermon, ‘Eternity’.

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Thanks to my loyal band of spotters, I was able to find and photograph several of Will’s ‘Eternity’ drink cans this weekend. They were stuck to the stanchions of Sydney’s now defunct monorail, a train that went from nowhere to nowhere and connected to nothing. The monorail closed down at the end of June after uglifying the streets of Sydney for 25 years. Most people would say good riddance but Will had apparently found it a great space for his mini-installations. As a farewell gesture he hit it hard with his works last week, and by the time I got down to Pitt Street many of them had been souvenired while others had been damaged, presumably in an attempt to remove them.

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Will Coles is an artist who straddles both the gallery and the street scene. A more dignified example of his work is currently on show at the high end of town, in a window of the Optiver Building in Hunter Street.

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(My earlier blog posts about ‘Eternity’ can be found here and here, and Will Coles’s work pops up here, here and here)

 

Newtown

 

'I have a dream' Square, King Street, Newtown, 2008

 

A while ago I came across this description:

King Street, Newtown is always more or less busy, but on Saturday night it is seen at its best and brightest.  Fancy a double line, more than a mile long, of brilliantly lighted shops; and “side-walks” so inconveniently crowded that it is often a matter of some difficulty to push one’s way through the throng of people on business and on pleasure bent.

The description seems fairly accurate to me, although it does not mention the vehicles that crawl up and down King Street on a Saturday night while their occupants ogle the crowds on the footpath. But that would be because this passage comes from an article in the June 1889 issue of the Sydney Illustrated News. King Street has been a commercial success for more than 150 years while the demographics of Newtown have ebbed and flowed.

Readers of this blog will have noticed that many of the pavement graffiti examples that I mention were photographed in Newtown. There are two main reasons for this – I live close by; and Newtown is a hub of graffiti activity. In fact, it was small esoteric stencils on the footpaths of Newtown that sparked my interest and prompted me to start my collection of pavement graffiti photographs in 1999.

Stencil publicising The Blair Witch Project movie, King Street, Newtown, 1999

Newtown was incorporated as a municipality in 1862. Cast iron roof-water outlets set into the kerb In King Street still bear the letters NMC, even though Newtown Municipal Council ceased to exist in 1949. These days part of Newtown is included in the City of Sydney, while the remainder falls within the Marrickville local government area.

Roof water outlet to gutter with embossed letters ‘NMC’, King Street, Newtown, 1999

I have discovered that this kind of information and much more is available on the Newtown Project website, which has been created by the City of Sydney Archives and various volunteers to bring together historical information about the Municipality of Newtown. The information ranges from Council Minutes to the history of the street-art group Unmitigated Audacity, whose works included the I Have a Dream mural. There is a self-guided walking tour and plus lots of early photos of Newtown streets, buildings and people – and  contemporary photos as well. Definitely worth a look.

Windows

Graffitied service cover, Surry Hills, Sydney, April 2010

I sometimes like to think of the pavement as a roof – the roof of the busy underground world that supports our day-to-day living. And if the pavement is a roof, then manholes (correct term:  maintenance holes) are skylights, and service covers are the shutters on those skylights. I wrote earlier about how I tried to peer down a chink in one of these ‘shutters’ to see the Paris sewer system below. How gauche can a tourist get?

Geoff Manaugh makes a good suggestion on his BLDGBLG site: how about installing ‘upside-down periscopes’? In vertically dense cities, he proposes, these would allow everyone to peer down into subterranean infrastructure, exploring subways, cellars, plague pits, crypts, sewers, buried rivers and streams. They would be a kind of archaeological ‘truth window’.

Island hoping

Since this blog has become something of a travelogue, I should write about Lord Howe Island, which I visited recently although it is not an ideal destination for someone hoping to study pavements and pavement graffiti.

A few facts and figures then. Lord Howe is a World Heritage island paradise located some 600 km east of the Australian mainland. Nearly all the roads on the island are sealed but there are only 10 km of them. There are very few kerbs, gutters or paved footpaths. The speed limit for the 100 or so motorized vehicles on the island is 25 km per hour, consequently there are hardly any street signs except for one or two Stop signs and several warning about Mutton Birds on Road and Woodhens on Road.

I kept an eye out for graffiti and traffic marks on the bitumen itself but found none. Well, almost none, except for one upside-down-pudding-bowl ‘silent cop’ (correct terminology: traffic dome) at the
T-intersection of Lagoon Road and Ned’s Beach Road, and some
angle-parking spaces marked out nearby.

The only other pavement embellishment I found was an exceedingly flat rat on the road outside the Museum (close-up view omitted in deference to the squeamish). Rats came to the island off the wrecked ship Makambo in 1918 and promptly set about making at least five native bird species extinct. Rat control measures have been in place since then. Although not totally successful, these measures are probably more efficient and certainly less random than squashing by car.

Sous les pavés

It must be one of the most quoted graffiti slogans from the mai 68 student protests in France: Sous les pavés la plage (Beneath the cobblestones the beach). Naturally, when I visited Paris I thought I should find some road works to photograph so that I could make a witty comment about what really lies beneath the cobblestones. But the CPCU (La Compagnie Parisienne de Chauffage Urbain) beat me to it. Notices at worksites and even on their website read: Sous les pavés la plage le chauffage!

CPCU is a public utility that distributes heat (le chauffage) through an underground network for space heating and hot water in Paris. The notices in the street explain that it is currently upgrading the system to make it more environmentally friendly, with apologies for the inconvenience caused by having to take up the road surface.

(And I apologise for the smudges on my photographs caused by a temporarily malfunctioning lens cover)

Rue de la Verrerie, Paris

Carpet runner

There are many artworks to see in the streets of Paris, both classical and contemporary, permanent and temporary. Whether you have set out with guidebook in hand to visit a particular attraction, or whether you are simply wandering, you are bound to encounter artistic surprises even if you don’t ever visit a museum.

It was while I was on a wander that I came upon the beautiful garden of the Palais-Royal. At the southern end of the garden is the palace itself, built in 1629 (now government offices), while the other three sides are bounded by colonnaded buildings added 150 years later. These colonnades –one side open to the garden and the other side originally lined with boutiques, cafes, restaurants, hair salons and museums – are the forerunners of the 19th century passages or arcades that I wrote about in a previous blog.

I walked down Galerie de Valois on the eastern side, glancing in the windows of its expensive fashion salons and art dealers. Along the length of the tiled floor I noticed what seemed like a carpet-runner with a striped pattern in black and white. It took me a while to realise that I was walking on a temporary art installation. Notices attached to the arcade’s iron railing informed me that the work was Text(e)-Fil(e)s by digital artist Pascal Dombis. On the 252 metre long ribbon Dombis has reproduced thousands of lines of text taken from the works of both notable and obscure authors who have written about the Palais Royal, “for two centuries the most fashionable and visited place in France and even Europe”.

Sometimes I wonder whether people who write on the ground really intend for passers-by to read their messages. Similarly, I wonder whether the inspiration and effort that goes into horizontal artworks might not be wasted. As I loitered in Galerie de Valois I did not see one person look down at the ‘carpet runner’; and even as I moved about taking photographs from this angle or that, no-one looked to see what it was that had caught my attention. But then perhaps Parisians are inured to tourists with digital cameras and are too sophisticated to want to be seen taking any notice of what a tourist is photographing.

Cemetery

On the outskirts of the city proper, the Cimetière du Père-Lachaise is apparently the most visited cemetery in Paris. Amongst its crowded terraces of new and old graves lie the remains of many notable people. At the office visitors can help themselves to a free map of ‘sépultures parmi les plus demandées’ (some of the most asked-for graves).

Even though there are many examples of pavement graffiti in the gritty streets of the surrounding 20th arrondisement I did not find any in the cemetery itself. Nevertheless there is still much to interest the pavement and/or graffiti aficionado here, not least of which was a heavy duty manhole cover whose cast-iron pattern resembled the cobblestone pathway in which it was set.

Père-Lachaise Cemetery

Jim Morrison’s grave was not hard to find, with its gathering of sightseers paying homage behind a metal crowd barrier and a guard keeping a watchful eye on their behaviour. A nearby tree was covered in graffiti, some of it scraped into the trunk and roots, some of it written on the bark in felt-tipped pen.

Jim Morrison’s grave: the barrier, the guard, the tourists, the tree (the grave itself is out of sight in this picture)

On the other hand, the grave of artist Modigliani was more difficult to find, set back several rows from the intersection of two avenues in a Jewish part of the cemetery. Amedeo Modigliani’s art is characterised by beautiful figures with elongated faces and bodies. He was the archetypal bohemian, his dissolute way of life leading to an early death in 1920 at the age of 35.

At this site there was graffiti written on the gravestone itself, but just small inscriptions, most of them blurred by the weather and indecipherable – a tiny Modigliani-style face scratched into the stone, remnants of red writing, something in blue felt-tipped pen, another in white-out. I find it interesting that Modigliani still apparently engages young people – is it his art or his lifestyle?

The grave of Amedeo Modigliani and his lover Jeanne Hébuterne

Manhole covers (3)

Manhole cover in Avenue Bosquet

I have a certain fondness for manhole covers. They are reminders that the pavement is not only a floor but a roof – the roof of a busy world of tunnels, tubes, chambers and canals; of light, electricity, water and workers. Manhole covers are shutters on the skylights in this roof.

Readers of this blog will know that earlier this year I was lucky enough to do a tour of the underground Tank Stream in Sydney, and to photograph several manhole covers from below. But now I have gone one better – I have toured the sewers of Paris, or at least a small section of them. Parisians are justifiably proud of their sewer network, their ‘city beneath the city’, designed and built in the mid-1800s. So proud that they have a museum – Le Musée des Égouts –  where, descending beneath the street of Quai d’Orsay, you can walk through tunnels with drinkable and non-drinkable water flowing through pipes beside you, and a river of sewage running along canals beneath you. In the photograph below on the left you can see the tunnel lights reflected in this river.

Bruneseau Gallery of the Paris Sewer Museum

I tried to find a manhole cover that I could photograph from below but the best I could do was the iron stairway leading up to one. I could not stretch my arm far enough beyond the museum barrier to photograph the cover itself.

Afterwards, when I returned to the fresh air of the street, I walked along Avenue Bosquet and, assuming that I paced the distance out correctly, found the manhole cover I had nearly photographed in the chamber below.

Steps beneath manhole in Avenue Bosquet