Dirty pavements and disease

Roads, footpaths and sidewalks in our towns and cities are dirty. They are surfaces where dropped food is irretrievable, where grit is picked up on shoes to be tramped indoors, where take-away wrappings blow, and where oily cars leak and spitters spit and canines shit. And because dirtiness is associated with disease the pavement, rightly or wrongly, often takes the blame for spreading infection.

Roads and footways were even dirtier before they were paved. In wet weather pedestrians used to slog their way through mud, and when it was fine carts and carriages threw up clouds of dust and pulverised horse manure.

So it is no wonder that the great British social and public health reformer of the 19th century, Sir Edwin Chadwick, was an admirer of asphalt. In his 1871 article ‘On the sanitary advantages of smooth and impermeable street surfaces’ he wrote how the new ‘asphalte’ roads in the City of London powerfully affected the cleanly habits and health of people and especially of children because they were always playing in the street. He remarked that, compared to macadam pavement, which was made from packed stones, asphalt was quiet, dried quickly, eliminated mud and dust and could be hosed clean.

Since that time hosing down seems to have become an imperative whenever ‘dirty’ pavements have been implicated in the spread of disease, especially during epidemics. Even when the actual mode of transmission of a disease is reasonably well understood, health authorities have made a show of decontaminating the streets.

This happened in 1900 when Sydney experienced a terrifying outbreak of bubonic plague mainly centred around areas close to the docks. Rats were considered to be the carriers of the contagion and householders were instructed to kill rats and prevent them from coming into their houses. They were also ordered to clean and disinfect their properties, so large amounts of rubbish were cleared out and piled in the streets ready to be carted away. The city pavements were part of this vast cleansing operation and crowds gathered to watch the streets being washed using fire hoses.

Another measure to disinfect the pavement was described poetically in a Daily Telegraph article of the time:

“Some men were put on during Thursday night to whitewash part of the streets within the quarantine boundaries. They made the footpaths like a succession of long white sheets.”

Street disinfection continues to be used as a public health measure during epidemics. In 2019 a new and fatal coronavirus disease began to spread around the world. It came to be called COVID-19.  There was (and still is) no cure but it was fairly quickly established that the virus was transmitted through the air by droplets sprayed out when  an infected person sneezed, coughed, or talked, and that it could also be picked up from high-touch surfaces like doorknobs and handrails where it lingered. 

Nevertheless, just as in the past, the pavement was also implicated as a factor in its spread. By 2020 news services were publishing photos from many countries showing trucks or workers in protective clothing hosing down streets and plazas, or spraying them with disinfectants such as bleach. Scientists from other countries, commenting on this phenomenon, concluded that these measures were almost certainly ineffective and may even be harmful to people and the environment.

It would seem that these street cleansing activities were as much about authorities being seen to do something as they were about actually stopping the spread of COVID-19. Some commentators even added that in many countries people like to see large-scale public action by the government and that, since it had been carried out in previous emergencies, this sort of action may be embedded in a country’s culture and tradition. At such times the pavement is co-opted into a show of government effectiveness and dependability.

References

Chadwick, E. (1871) On the sanitary advantages of smooth and impermeable street surfaces. Journal of the Society of Arts, 19, pp. 789-792.

Prevention of Plague: Instructions to Householders, issued by the Department of Public Health, Sydney, 1 March 1900.

Bubonic plague. Fighting the Disease. The Quarantine Area Enlarged. Clarence and Richmond Examiner. Grafton NSW, 27 March 1900, p.8 (quotes the Daily Telegraph).

Bricknell, L. & Trott, D. (2020) Sanitising the city: does spraying the streets work against coronavirus? The Conversation, 5 May 2020.

Bhat,  S. A et al. (2021) Environmental and health impacts of spraying COVID-19 disinfectants with associated challenges. Environmental Science and Pollution Research International, 29, 85648-85657.

Chung, E. (2020) Is spraying disinfectant in public spaces a good way to fight COVID-19? CBC News, 18 April 2020.

Images

1. Street flushing machine on Meagher Street Chippendale, 1928. (City of Sydney Archives)

2. Children playing on Bankside in London, 1893. (Paul Martin photographer. Daily Mail Online, 17 May 2019)

3. Crowds gather to watch the streets being washed using fire hoses in the docks area of Sydney, 1900. On one corner a barrel of whitewash can be seen.

4.  In Napoleon Street, rubbish has been cleared from properties and piled on the roadway ready to be carted away. The footpaths have been whitewashed. (This and previous image are from a series of albums in the State Library of NSW containing ‘Views taken during cleansing operations, quarantine area, Sydney, 1900, under the supervision of Mr. George McCredie, F.I.A., NSW’)

5. A worker spraying the street with disinfectant in Moscow, 2020. (Maxim Shemetov/Reuters, published in Chung 2020)

6. Municipal tankers spray disinfectant as a precaution against the coronavirus in Moscow, 2020. (Andrei Nikerichev/Moscow News Agency via Associated Press, published in Chung 2020)

WATERSHED MOMENTS. EXCURSION 4. FOREBODING.

11 July 2021

I am back at the magnificent Stanmore Sewer Vent. It is going to rain, but I have started out on this episode of my walk around the rim of the Johnstons Creek catchment because I want to photograph the vent under an overcast sky. Last time I was here the dappled shade from street trees obscured the details of its flaking sandstone plaque which, it turns out, reads METROPOLITAN BOARD OF WATER SUPPLY & SEWERAGE 1900.

As I stand back to get a full-height shot of the vent and its accompanying house, a man runs across the road, angrily kicking a piece of wood as he goes, and enters the cottage’s front gate. I call out, ‘I hope you don’t mind’ and he growls, ‘You can take photos of a sewer vent any time’.

Our route takes us round into Percival Road, the main street of Stanmore, flanked by more neat turn-of-the-20th-century houses and leading down to a park, the railway station and a small cluster of shops. The sky to the south is looking ominous.

The rim line runs between houses and emerges in the lane behind, where I find a garage roller-door tribute to the composer Philip Glass complete with sketch portrait.

In an adjacent lane a man is taking his kids and dog for their permitted outdoor exercise in their local government area.  Apart from the cranky sewer vent resident we have, as usual, seen practically no-one on our walk. People are all inside as the Covid situation worsens. In the state of New South Wales there have been 77 new cases today and one death.

(The previous paragraph now seems ridiculous. I need to point out here that, although I took this walk on 11 July 2021, I have not got round to transcribing my notes until six months later. The Covid comparison is staggering.

I am composing this blog post on 1 January 2022, when 22,577 new infections have been recorded in New South Wales and four deaths. The reasons for the differing case number statistics (but reasonably similar death rate) between July and January include the intervening advent of the Delta and Omicron variants of the virus, the lifting of lockdowns and restrictions on movement, and a very high proportion of the adult population fully vaccinated.)

It is spitting now and we have not brought umbrellas, so we loop back around to the car, passing a cute domestic wall decoration on the way. Safely ensconced at home I think I might listen to some favourite music – Philip Glass perhaps.

Bill posters won’t be prosecuted

Despite galloping gentrification, the Newtown-Enmore ‘destination precinct’ of Sydney’s inner west retains remnants of its former underground student activism, most notably in the form of fly-posters promoting leftist and anarchist causes.

Bill posting is illegal, with the local Inner West Council defining posters as ‘visual pollution’, along with other forms of ‘unwanted graffiti’. However, unlike the City of Sydney, which administers the north-eastern end of Newtown, the Inner West Council does not carry out an aggressive program of graffiti and poster removal. This might mean the Inner West has a smaller budget for street beautification, but over the years I have come to realise that it also indicates an uneasy tolerance on the part of Council, and that this tolerance is based on ambivalence. 

Inner West Council trades on the image of Newtown-Enmore as a ‘vibrant’ and edgy area where there is always something to see and do. Its arts program, tellingly named EDGE, seeks to reinforce the area’s position as ‘the cultural engine of global Sydney’. It is noteworthy that the 2019 EDGE program was themed Art and Activism and that it included works of pseudo-graffiti, such as a series of giant paste-up illustrations celebrating the Reclaim the Streets activist movement, and trails of animal stencils on footpaths described as a ‘guerrilla pavement art project bearing witness to The Sixth Mass Extinction’.

With this kind of endorsement of graffiti and paste-ups it’s not surprising that unauthorised fly-posters have become an intrinsic element of Newtown-Enmore’s cultural capital. Political posters draw attention to the locality’s history as a seat of activism and this history is encouraged by Council’s arts programs to be regarded as an element of cultural ‘heritage’.

This blog post is an edited excerpt from:

HICKS, M. (2021) Flyposter graffiti and the change in a Sydney streetscape during the time of COVID-19. Visual Studies, 36, 141-146.

Concrete Creeks. Excursion 11. The valley.

Monday 22 June 2020

For this last journey along Johnstons Creek we take a path not far from Tramsheds, but on the opposite side of the canal. To follow the concrete line of the canal towards Rozelle Bay, we begin beside a skate ramp and an assembly of earth movers standing by to work on Sydney Water’s ‘naturalisation’ project.

Not far along the sandy path I am surprised to see a reed-fringed pond with a signboard, ‘Federal Park Wetland’. The sky to the north is threatening, but above us there are blue patches and their reflections match the colour of the pet supplies barn beyond the trees. Overflow from the pond empties into two basins and, on the other side of the path, we see that it has run underneath us to the canal.

The tide is out, or perhaps it was prevented from coming in. The canal is dishevelled, strewn with pipes, barricades and building site paraphernalia. Water pumped from somewhere upstream pours from a large black hose. This scene is so different from the almost-idyllic autumnal waterway that we looked back on from the sunny Glebe foreshore in April.

The rail viaduct is the next landmark. Built to carry steam trains taking goods to and from Darling Harbour, it has since been modified with overhead electric wires for the Metro light rail. From where Federal Park has widened out into a grassy but soggy playing field we can look back and admire its elegant curve and graceful brick arches.

Further on, after stepping along a temporary plastic path between safety fences, we arrive at the feted and recreated Allan Truss Bridge. This is the spot where we abandoned our foreshore outing in April, which means we have completed our piecemeal exploration of Johnstons Creek proper, from drain to bay. Over the weeks we have encountered twelve bridges across the canal, passed under two mighty viaducts, and walked over countless hidden feeder pipes and drains.

The characteristic salty-muddy smell of a tidal flat accompanies us as we cross the truss bridge. On the other side a large section of Bicentennial Park has also become a reconstruction site, where hard hats must be worn and 1.5 metre distancing observed.

We now return to where we started today, this time taking a route along the eastern side of the canal between more wire safety fences and the trim white picket fence of Jubilee Oval.

Back at the two bridges that cross from The Crescent in Annandale to Harold Park and the Tramsheds food mall in Forest Lodge, I look upstream towards the vast residential development that has replaced the Harold Park Paceway. Before embarking on this last Johnstons Creek excursion I have done some reading and I now realise that this whole area is a broad, flat valley. Although there are acres of open space, nothing is orginal. Not the concrete-confined creek, nor the planted reed beds and grassy slopes in front of me. Behind me, not the little wetland, the tidy playing fields and parks, the Indian mynahs splashing in the canal, nor the neatly walled edges of Rozelle Bay.  Not even the trees.

In this valley Johnstons Creek once stretched out as a wide estuarine wetland with tidal mudflats and mangrove thickets, but in the 19th century the valley was filled with spoil from elsewhere in the curiously misnamed process of reclamation.

Over the generations since then, various organisations and departments have argued and compromised and acted to shape the land to their various needs and wants – grassy parklands and avenues of trees, factory sites, warehouses, timberyards, tramyards and a racecourse. Similar wrangling has characterised more recent efforts to restore fragments of the ‘reclaimed’ valley to a semblance of its former self.

So we have reed beds adjacent to a high-rise development, an artificial wetland fed by real runoff, newly planted patches of native vegetation (some already infiltrated by exotic weeds), and a corner of  mangroves in an area small enough that it doesn’t encroach on open space. The latest change is Sydney Water’s grand naturalisation project which includes, among other things, replacing the concrete banks of the canal with sandstone and native plants, and expanding the salt marsh around it. The City of Sydney’s concurrent scheme to improve The Crescent and Federal Park will feature less natural works, like a skate plaza and picnic areas with barbecues. 

During my walking and reading explorations I have been disappointed not to find specific references to pre-20th century Aboriginal people who might have frequented the immediate environs of Johnstons Creek. Recently written descriptions and histories of the surrounding suburbs usually begin with the obligatory generalised nod to the Cadigal and Wangal people of this area before getting on with the ‘real’ history. But even in serious accounts I have found no mentions of these people that can be pinned specifically to Johnstons Creek, nor can I find any stories handed down through generations, or contemporaneous mentions of Aboriginal people being seen here, or any records of archaeological discoveries.

It stands to reason. The region now covered by the suburbs of Stanmore, Camperdown, Annandale and Forest Lodge was very close to the original colonial settlement of Sydney, so even before the very early land grants were made here, most Aboriginal people had probably gone. During the subsequent periods of farming, subdivision and urbanisation, any traces of the original people would have been dug up, buried, built over or wilfully ignored.

Still, there is enough evidence from nearby or similar areas to suggest how these people lived. They might have hunted in what the colonists called the ‘Kangaroo Ground’ where Johnstons Creek rose. The might have accessed its fresh water. They would have probably frequented the sandstone ridges of now-suburban Glebe overlooking the estuarine valley, staying in overhangs like the rock shelters with associated middens that have been found not so far away in Lilyfield and Birchgrove.  

They would not have lived in the watery valley but almost certainly foraged there, just as people did in the long-ago ‘reclaimed’ Blackwattle Bay on the other side of Glebe Point, where archaeologists have recently uncovered several deposits of stone artefacts. Glebe historian Max Solling says there is ‘some evidence of Aboriginal middens – the remains of shellfish – in the narrow strip of remnant salt marsh fringing the lower parts of Johnstons Creek. The ark cockle, scallop and Sydney rock oyster and mud whelk found there indicate that this was a fertile swamp and a rich source of food for the first inhabitants’.

As this stage of my Covid-19 isolation project comes to an end social restrictions in New South Wales have been eased. I am not sure that I could muster the number of friends I am allowed to mingle with, but later in the week we are having lunch with two friends. They are volunteers with the State Emergency Service and so are interested in previous waterways and potential flood zones. Perhaps we will talk about the buried tributaries of Johnstons Creek that I have yet to explore. I want to hear more of their stories about local streets that turn into torrents, and basement pumps, and flooded police cells.

References:

Attenbrow, Val, Sydney’s Aboriginal past: investigating the archaeological and historical records, UNSW Press, 2010.

City of Sydney, Improving Federal Park and The Crescent,
https://www.cityofsydney.nsw.gov.au/vision/better-infrastructure/parks-and-playgrounds/current-works/improving-crescent-federal-park

Irish, Paul, Hidden in plain view: the Aboriginal people of coastal Sydney, NewSouth Publishing , 2017.

Irish, Paul and Tamika Goward, Barani: Sydney’s Aboriginal history/ Blackwattle Creek,
https://www.sydneybarani.com.au/sites/blackwattle-creek/

Office of Environment & Heritage, Glebe viaducts (Jubilee Park/Wentworth Park),
https://www.environment.nsw.gov.au/heritageapp/ViewHeritageItemDetails.aspx?ID=4801104

Sydney Motorway Corporation, The People’s M4/M5 EIS, Chapter 21: Aboriginal heritage, 21.2 Existing environment,
https://thepeopleseis.wordpress.com/chapter-21-aboriginal-heritage-2/

Sydney Water, Johnstons Creek naturalisation,
https://www.sydneywatertalk.com.au/johnstonscreek

Wahlquist, Asa, The foreshores of Glebe,
http://asawahlquist.com/?p=341

Concrete Creeks. Excursion 10. The shark park.

Wednesday 10 June 2020

At the northern end of Smith & Spindler Park in Annandale there is a quaint arched footbridge across to AV Henry Reserve. After passing beneath this footbridge Johnstons Creek flows under a road bridge where vehicles swoop around the arc of The Crescent. The canalside pathway has a separate underpass below the road. I have chosen to follow this section of the canal on a rainy weekday in the hope of avoiding encounters with speeding cyclists on the shared path. I am the kind of pedestrian they hate – slow, meandering, crossing unpredictably from one side of the path to the other to take photographs.

The Man Who Walks Ahead drops me at Smith & Spindler Park and will this time drive ahead to meet me at Tramsheds. Before I set off I am drawn to a cluster of small brick building in the corner of the park. It is another Sewage Pumping Station, SPS 4. I am surprised to find the high chain wire gate ajar and I walk right into the compound, as have many graffitists before me. There is an outdoor dunny attached to the main building and inevitable jokes spring to mind. Is it connected to the sewer, I wonder. When I tell him about it later The Man suggests it might house a relief valve.

There is a steep dip in the claustrophobic tunnel under The Crescent. A friend later tells me that when she used to cycle home from Glebe she would have to take a long detour whenever Johnstons Creek flooded because the water in the underpass was too deep to ride through.

When I emerge I’m disappointed to find the creek blocked from view by safety fencing and Sydney Water banners. ‘Johnstons Creek naturalisation’, they read, ‘We’re improving the health of this waterway, creating a better place for the community to enjoy’.  I peer through a gap in the screens and conclude that things have got a lot worse before getting better.  It was in this stretch of the canal that a confused bull shark, said to be 1.8 metres long, was stranded in a pool when the tide went out one day in September 2009. Happily it escaped back to Rozelle Bay when the tide came in.

I am now in Federal Park. Larger than all the other parks and reserves that edge the western  side of Johnstons Creek, narrow Federal Park runs all the way from here to the bay.  At a place where two separate bridges cross the canal (one for vehicles, one for pedestrians) two men in high-vis jackets are earnestly discussing ground water and surface water. Beyond them I can see the rail viaduct.

When I walk under the viaduct I will have completed the whole length of Johnstons Creek proper. But that walk must wait for another day. Right now The Man is waiting in the carpark of Tramsheds, where the former Rozelle Tram Depot has been transformed into an eating emporium.  Erected in 1904 and preserved by repurposing, the depot was one of several imposing infrastructure projects built near Johnstons Creek around that time including, of course, the canal itself.

If there aren’t too many people we will be allowed to sit at a café for a cup of coffee rather than having to buy takeaway.  It’s still raining but a rainbow has come out.

Concrete Creeks. Excursion 7. The tip.

Sunday 19 April 2020

It’s over three weeks since we visited this light industrial triangle between Johnstons Creek and Pyrmont Bridge Road. There have been other excursions in between but now I’m back to find out what happens to the creek beyond the forbidding metal fence where it drops into an open canal behind Water Street.  Just a few neatly kept little houses remain here, tucked between hulking factories and warehouses, and we have come on a Sunday hoping to avoid large trucks squeezing into delivery bays. I walk down a driveway between two houses in Water Street and find that it opens onto a gravelled space bounded on three sides by buildings and on the fourth by a thick jungle of banana trees, castor oil plants, convolvulus and asthma weed. With no machete available I can only peer down the steep slope for glimpses of the canal wall, recognisable by its symbiotic graffiti.

Frustrated by the banana jungle we move east to a wider industrial street that leads directly down to the canal. I have never been on Chester Street before but later I will read that there was once a household garbage tip amongst the houses on this side of Johnstons Creek. It was the source of much friction between the adjoining boroughs of Camperdown and Annandale in the late 1800s. For fifteen years countless  newspaper column inches were taken up with reports of council meetings and letters to the editor on the subject of the Camperdown tip, whose ‘deadly effluvia’ made the creek filthy and ‘endangered the lives of the residents of North Annandale’. There are no houses here now and no tip. Instead there is a motor repair business with a wild piece of wall art.

We walk down the hill to a newly-built footbridge over the canal. On the other side of the dip the street climbs up between the Federation houses of re-gentrified Annandale.

Everything here looks new, but the two playgrounds  are roped off to prevent children from disobeying social distancing rules. This tiny canalside reserve is called ‘Douglas Grant Memorial Park’ in honour of an Aboriginal man whose original name was Ng:tja. The survivor of a massacre, in 1887 he was taken as a toddler from his North Queensland home thousands of kilometres away and brought up in Annandale as a member of his captor’s family. His story is told on two plaques.  It does not end well.

By taking a short walk along where this narrow park skirts a series of backyard fences, I can look across to the place where I had earlier tried bush-bashing.  The clear band of water that I couldn’t see from the other side reflects the sky, but the graffiti is old and dilapidated, as if the renovation of the area has made the canal too public for spray painters.

This nook in Annandale is a revelation to me. But not to locals of course. Not the cyclists and joggers intermittently crossing the bridge. The two young men casually shooting a basketball. The squealing children doing wheelies on their scooters. Nor the three teenagers sitting at a picnic table and idly chatting not quite 1.5 metres apart.

Concrete Creeks. Excursion 4. Deep water.

Friday 27 March 2020

For the fourth of our piecemeal visits to Johnstons Creek we return to Parramatta Road and plunge into the narrow streets on the northern side where a light industrial triangle is squeezed between the creek and Pyrmont Bridge Road. The streets slope down to a concrete pathway that covers this section of the canal. We turn left and find ourselves at the sandstone bridge on Parramatta Road, where thousands of cars pass Stanmore McDonald’s every day. The creek traces a silvery line through the shadows under the road.

Turning around to follow the flow of the creek we walk between the backs of properties, respectable Victorian houses on one side, factories and derelict houses on the other. The path comes to an abrupt end at a metal grate and fence. Beyond is a deep channel of coolness where we can hear the creek falling. A bird calls from somewhere in the overhanging shrubbery.

We scramble up into a grassy area at the foot of Water Street. I will later read a lengthy real estate advertisement from 1850, when the farm here was subdivided into housing allotments. This grassy area is described as “a RESERVED WATERING PLACE at deep water on Johnstone’s Creek [that] will add materially to the comfort of the occupants”. There are still some residences in Water Street as well as warehouses and the last house before the reserve has a small but unusual garden.

Walking back to the car I spot an abandoned shopping trolley and for a moment think I have come upon a cache of toilet paper.  But no, the cartload only consists of styrofoam packaging cylinders.

Concrete Creeks. Excursion 3. A repro bush gully.

Tuesday 24 March 2020

Near the middle of its course, Johnstons Creek is joined by its main tributary, Orphan School Creek, and that junction is the destination of today’s excursion. There is a small reserve here, strewn with orange rental bikes, and we are able to peer through wire mesh fencing at the water tricking from a large rectangular opening in the side of the canal.

Orphan School Creek runs underground these days, but for some distance its above-ground course has been restored as a dry creek gully and a facsimile of the original eucalyptus forest has been attempted with native plantings. I know this now, because there are information signs at spots along the paths that wind down to the gully from surrounding residential areas in Forest Lodge. 

At this stage everyone is confused by the mixed messages about coronavirus precautions emanating from different levels of government. The toilet paper panic is well underway. Social distancing is advised but not mandatory. Keeping children home from school is advised but not mandatory. So it’s perhaps not surprising that late on this autumn afternoon the reserve is populated by people exercising as if there were no tomorrow. Chatty groups of women power stride together.  Men walk enormous dogs. Bike riders weave amongst them.

On a narrow path bounded by back walls on one side and a wire fence on the other, a woman shadows us at a distance. I am dawdling and taking photos but she won’t pass because, she says, there has to be 1.5 metres. Eventually we press ourselves into a large shrub and she goes by, but coming towards her is a family group of parents and children all on bikes. She is obliged pass between them and I wonder why she chose to take this route for her walk, rather than the wider back streets nearby.

Meanwhile, we are being bitten by mosquitoes and retreat, resolving to follow more of Orphan School Creek some other time.

Concrete Creeks. Excursion 1. The sandstone bridge.

Thursday 12 March 2020

It is the beginning of social isolation and I have devised a plan that involves, not staying in, but getting out into the customarily deserted streets of suburbia. To keep me exercised and interested, but distanced, I will try tracing the paths of local waterways, most of them now hidden underground or confined to canals that lurk around back lanes. My Journal of the Plague Year will document a watery wander.

I start with Johnstons Creek, a notable watercourse on the inner western fringe of central Sydney.  It is named after Lieutenant George Johnston, who arrived as a marine on the First Fleet in 1788. Within a few years of the colony being established Johnston was granted a parcel of land and this creek formed the eastern boundary of his property.

My first excursion takes me to Parramatta Road, which crosses Johnstons Creek part the way along its course. Peering over a railing I can see the creek still flowing way down in the bottom of its ovoid stormwater canal. Before writing up this journal entry I learn from someone close to me that her graffiti crew used to spray here. But that was many years ago. I doubt there’s anything of hers visible now.

A Bicentennial plaque set into the concrete footpath tells me that a wooden bridge was built here in 1839. There are remnants of a subsequent sandstone bridge on the other side of Parramatta Road. More graffiti, including the name of a well known street artist who’s just recently been charged with sexual assault.

Pedestrian vs Pedestrian

There are still people in Sydney who pine for the line painted down the centre of city footpaths to separate pedestrians moving in opposite directions.

Much has been written about the historical battle between pedestrians and motorists when the car took over from horse-drawn vehicles and commandeered the road. And in contemporary times, with the resurgence of bicycle riding, much is being written about the battles between cyclists and motorists on the road, and between cyclists and pedestrians on the footpaths.

But I have been interested for a while in the civil war amongst walking citizens, and the boundary lines that have, from time to time, been drawn up in an attempt to keep the peace.  Turning up photographs of these lines has been difficult but, in a current museum exhibition I found what I have been looking for.

Street photography at the Museum of Sydney displays photographs taken by the men who, from the Depression 1930s to the Post-war 1960s, used to stand in licensed positions and take snaps of city footpath walkers then press upon them a ticket with the address of a nearby studio where they could purchase same-day prints.

For people who bought them it was perhaps the best photo they had of themselves, the best photo their families had to remember them by. But the exhibition’s curators also invite visitors to see what else they can find beside the main subjects of the photos – items of clothing or accessories that date the pictures, figures in the background, still-recognisable locations in Sydney. I looked for and found the centre lines.


A by-law requiring foot passengers to ‘keep to the right’ on footways existed in Sydney from around 1900 but it was largely ignored. In a letter to the Mayor in 1902 a Mr George Richards fumed that ‘the people walking in our city are like a lot of cattle that has got into a barn and wander about looking for a place to get out. Surely you can do something to prevent this sort of thing’.

The City of Sydney Archives and clippings books reveal that Mr Richards was not the only one infuriated by the unruly users of Sydney’s footpaths. One columnist in 1911, for example, complained about there being ‘no visible admonition to keep to the right’.

Somewhere along the way the rule changed to ‘keep to the left’ so that pedestrians did not have their backs to the traffic if they stepped off the footpath onto the roadway. By the mid-1920s authorities in Melbourne had not only copied this rule but had painted white centre lines.

But it was not until 1948, after two years of to-ing and fro-ing between Sydney City Council, the Police Department and the Department of Motor Transport, that Sydney had a trial of centre lines on parts of George, Market, Pitt and King Streets, along with the stencil ‘KEEP LEFT’ at appropriate locations.

The trial was a success and the area of the city with lines down the middle of footpaths was extended. They were regularly repainted by the Department of Motor Transport but the KEEP LEFT stencils were not maintained because they were considered to be of little value.


In 1961 the Council wanted to extend the scheme further from Sydney Central to Haymarket and Railway Square, but the Department of Motor Transport had had enough, thanks to restricted finance and a heavy volume of work. The existing lines, which by then were painted yellow, were allowed to wear away.

They were not re-introduced and, in justification, the City Planner pointed out that ‘pedestrian traffic by its nature is unpredictable and it is not considered feasible that pedestrians can be controlled in the same way as vehicular traffic, nor is it considered desirable that they should be’.

Nevertheless, in the following years a steady stream of letter-writers pleaded for the return of the centre line. Mr Byott of Belfield’s 1974 letter was typical: ‘After suffering another Christmas shopper’s charge on the footpaths in the City its about time something was done about it. Please bring back the “YELLOW LINE” that adorned Sydney City footpaths a decade ago, so at least the poor employees in the city area (like myself) get a bit of a “fair go” at all times’.

Council toyed with the idea of reintroducing the centre lines but, apart perhaps from a period in the 1980s (something I’ve been unable to confirm) they never have.

However newspaper letter writers like Ms Alicia Dawson of Balmain have not forgotten. In 2015 she complained about the ‘very frustrating pace of stop/sidestep/duck and weave’ on city streets and cried, ‘Bring back the white line up the middle of the footpath or otherwise I might well be driven to march around the city carrying a large hot dog smothered in tomato sauce on a stick while yelling “keep left, keep left” at the top of my voice.

In 2017 Ms Dawson was still harping on the subject and others agreed, urging the City of Sydney to ‘reinstate the system of the 1940s and 50s, when Sydney footpaths had a painted line down the centre’. Yet others were incredulous: ‘Are you serious? What a waste of time and money to paint lines down the centre of footpaths. Will we have to use hand signals if we wish to overtake?’

Ms Dawson may consider that ‘other people’ on city streets lack manners, but letter writers and columnists who hold similar sentiments are not particularly polite themselves. Mobile phone zombies, they growl about fellow footpath users. Self-absorbed texters. Oblivious to the swirling tide around them. Cursing into mobile phones.  Smombies. Large contingents of residents walking shoulder to shoulder. A phone-twiddling human wall. Dopey dawdlers. The swayer describing a zigzag path. All over the place.  Crisscrossing. A free-for-all.  Dawdling tourists. Heel steppers. Sudden stops and turns. Slowcoaches. Slow old people with huge, boxy Volvo bums. Running groups and other pavement irritants. Window shoppers. People who bash into others with a backpack. Gophers that nearly run you over. And the worst pavement tyrants, those mothers with bigger-than- Texas prams.

So the indignation, the jostling and the sledging continue, and the keep-left rule is all but forgotten. There are some who still believe that the thin yellow line would have a calming effect but probably, as the City Engineer said back in 1974, the reintroduction of marked centrelines on footways would be of doubtful value.

Images

The photographs were all taken by a street photographer in Martin Place, Sydney, between May and December 1950.  The have been reproduced courtesy of the Caroline Simpson Library & Research Collection, Sydney Living Museums.

References:

Brown-May, Andrew, ‘The highway of civilisation and common sense’, Urban Research Program Working Paper No.49, ANU, 1995.

City of Sydney Archives 1902/0068 (1902); 268/60 (1960-1978); CRS 1083/14/70 (2011)

Sydney Morning Herald letters to the editor and columnists 2003-2017 (details available)