These are not block boys

I would like to set the record straight about this picture of young boys taken by Sydney photographer Sam Hood in the 1930s. It is one of a set of three in the collection of the State Library of New South Wales all of which have been titled by the Library ‘Block boys at St Peters’. Because the boys are handling wood blocks, perhaps the label was originally written as some kind of pun, but it is entirely misleading. These are not block boys. That term belongs to another class of Sydney youths and I will come to them later.

The unfortunate labelling of this picture has been repeated by other cultural institutions (here and here, for example) and has even been expanded into erroneous explanations about what the boys are doing, which have then been broadcast – and not only on internet plagiarists’ sites. I was provoked into writing this blog post after seeing a beautifully mounted blow-up of the picture hanging in The Henson in Marrickville with a credit to the State Library of NSW. Nice addition to the décor but a pity the hotel has been provided with an incorrect description, which states that the boys ‘… are helping to build roads using a method called woodblocking’.

The real story is just as interesting, but without the connotations of child labour. The boys are not constructing a road. They are hanging round with their push carts and hessian bags to collect discarded wood blocks, which they will take home as fuel for the family fire or stove. Wood blocks were once widely used in Sydney for street paving. Until the late 1800s the city’s roads were generally unsealed but the 1890s saw woodblocking come into widespread use by municipal councils, with hardwood blocks steeped in tar being laid like bricks, hammered close together and top-dressed with more tar. But by the early 1930s this method of road building was no longer used and councils started ripping up the worn wood blocks on some roads and replacing them with asphalt or concrete, often in large-scale Depression-era programs that provided employment for out-of-work men.

Those tar-impregnated woodblocks would have burnt well. They were prized by householders as free fuel and were quickly purloined as soon as the road workers dug them up. The Sam Hood picture was taken during the hard times of the Great Depression and the local boys are contributing to their families’ wellbeing in a practical way.  The two other pictures taken by Hood in St Peters at the same time have been damaged a little, perhaps while the negatives were in storage but, with a bit of staging for the camera, they clearly show what is going on. In both of these there is also a girl collecting blocks alongside the boys.

And just to prove my point I searched for and found the photograph in question published in a contemporary newspaper. Sam Hood had his own commercial studio but also took press photographs, working full-time for a while in the 1930s for the Labor Daily.  On 4th April 1935 that newspaper printed his photo on page 8 under the heading Its an Ill Wind —  with the caption:

Cement is replacing wood blocks on Cook’s River Road, near St. Peters station, and the boys of the neighbourhood took advantage of the occasion to collect cartloads of fuel for the winter.

St Peters, by the way, is an inner suburb of Sydney and what was Cook’s River Road is now part of the Princes Highway.

So who were the actual Block Boys? In the early 1900s the City of Sydney employed a small army of youths to sweep up the tons of manure deposited by horses on the city’s streets. Equipped with long-handled brooms and scoops, these block boys, or ‘sparrow starvers’ as they were jokingly called, were each assigned a city block to keep clean. But by the 1930s motorized vehicles were outnumbering horse-drawn vehicles in the city and street cleansing was subsumed into the more generalised duties of Council’s other outdoor workers. The coveted job of block boy was phased out.

Not many photographs were taken specifically of these youths, but they often turn up in photographs taken for other purposes. The picture below is a detail from a photograph in one of the Demolition Books kept at the City of Sydney Archives. The block boy leans on his broom in Sussex Street to watch as the photographer documents the building behind him, which is slated for demolition.

 

I have a large, framed copy of this picture hanging in my house. Left over from an exhibition at Sydney Town Hall, it was given to me by the city’s archivist some years ago as thanks for a small job I had done. I chose this particular photograph because it is a double exposure. The boy’s doppelganger is lounging beside him.

References:

Davies, Alan, Sydney exposures: through the eyes of Sam Hood and his studio, 1925-1950. Sydney: State Library of New South Wales, 1991.

Fitzgerald, Shirley, Sydney 1842-1992. Sydney: Hale & Iremonger, 1992.

Fitzgerald, Shirley, The sparrow-starvers: block boys 1890-1930, catalogue for an exhibition of documents from the City of Sydney Archives, Sydney Town Hall, June 1997.

Shepherd, Allan M., The story of Petersham 1793-1948, Sydney: The Council of the Municipality of Petersham, 1948.

Roadworks retrospective

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Pothole marked for repair, Newtown, 2008. Photo by meganix.

 

Comedian Dave O’Neil has been to see the Jean Paul Gaultier exhibition, From the sidewalk to the catwalk, at the National Gallery of Victoria. He liked it because he’s into seeing what one person can achieve in a lifetime. But as Dave says in his newspaper column:

“It’s kind of sad that it’s mostly famous people who get exhibitions and accolades.

“Gautier rightfully gets his time in the sun, but what about other people who have contributed to society in some of the less glamorous fields? Wouldn’t you love to see an exhibition tracking the life of a road worker?

“Someone who goes around fixing potholes and other structural problems in the roads.

“Imagine the before and after shots of carefully repaired roads, a map pinpointing all the achievements and major works over the years.

“I can see a Next Wave Festival highlight already. I’m putting in for funding as soon as I finish writing this column.”

Yes please, Dave.

Glebe (Sydney), 2004. Photo by meganix.

Glebe (Sydney), 2004. Photo by meganix.

Dave O’Neil, ‘Man about town: celebrities are not the only ones who deserve an exhibition about their life’, Sydney Morning Herald, 13 February 2015, The Shortlist, p.2.

 

Black Santa

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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.

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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.

Syd (Doc) Cunningham plaque, King Street, Newtown (Sydney), 1999.

Syd (Doc) Cunningham plaque, King Street, Newtown (Sydney), 1999.

In 2000 the footpath was repaved, with synthetic bluestone pavers replacing the asphalt.

King Street repaving, 2000.

King Street repaving, 2000.

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.

'The Black Santa Claus' hand-drawn plaque, 2000.

‘The Black Santa Claus’ hand-drawn plaque, 2000.

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.

Syd Cunningham plaque, long since reinstalled, 2008.

Syd Cunningham plaque, long since reinstalled, 2008.

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.

 

The plaque in the same spot, next to the IGA supermarket, December 2014.

The plaque in the same place, next to the IGA supermarket, December 2014. All photos of this spot in King Street are from the Pavement Graffiti archives by meganix.

 

The demon blacktop

Paint splash, Botany Road, Redfern, 2013. Photo by meganix.

Paint splash, Botany Road, Redfern, 2013. Photo by meganix.

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.

Pale pavement, Chippendale, 2014. Image from City of Sydney website.

Pale pavement, Chippendale, 2014. Image from City of Sydney website.

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.

What lies beneath

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.

Cavendish Street, Enmore NSW, June 2014

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.

Cavendish Street, Enmore NSW, October 2010

‘Tree replaced by cement!’, Cavendish Street, Enmore NSW, October 2010

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.

Cavendish Street, May 2014

Cavendish Street, May 2014

Underground infrastructure, including gas pipes, is adjusted and gravel is spread in the bottom of each hole.

Cavendish Street, May 2014

Cavendish Street, May 2014

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.

Cavendish Street, May 2014

Cavendish Street, May 2014

Over the soil comes a layer of geotextile then another layer of gravel.

Cavendish Street, May 2014

Cavendish Street, May 2014

Concreters build retaining edges around the central tree hole to form a ‘blister’. This will prevent cars bumping into the tree trunk.

Cavendish Street, June 2014

Cavendish Street, June 2014

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.

Cavendish Street, June 2014. All photographs by meganix.

Cavendish Street, June 2014. All photographs by meganix.

 

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.

Hard rock

Service lane off York Street, Sydney.

Service lane off York Street, Sydney.

The remnants of asphalt and concrete, and the old paving stones underneath, give this laneway in central Sydney a pleasingly shabby appearance. The stones are not cobblestones – as I have been known to mistakenly call them – but pitchers, and in this case pitchers of trachyte. A pitcher is a rectangular stone paving block about 22 cm wide, 30 cm long and 15 cm deep. Trachyte – like granite – is a hard, impervious, igneous (volcanic) rock.

I learnt this from a recently published book, Sydney’s hard rock story: the cultural heritage of trachyte. With its many beautiful illustrations, the book tells a fascinating story.

Quarried from Mount Gibraltar (the Gib) near Bowral in the NSW Southern Highlands, trachyte was first used in the 1880s for paving cubes and for kerb and gutter stones in Sydney, replacing the sandstone flagging that was too easily worn away by the city’s increasing traffic.

But when the durability and imposing appearance of the Bowral trachyte was recognised it was soon incorporated into the design of many grand buildings and monuments, complementing Sydney’s characteristic golden sandstone and investing the buildings with a sense of strength, solidity and permanence. A special feature of Sydney’s hard rock story is its trachyte walk through central Sydney, which takes the curious ambler past over 30 buildings in just a few city blocks.

In parts of Sydney, such as the service lane I photographed, trachyte paving can still be found. And despite the efforts of recent City Councils to remove it, much of the original, roughly-dressed trachyte kerbing and guttering remains as well.

You can find out more about this lovely book at the website, Sydney’s Hard Rock Story. Here are a couple of photographic excerpts:

Trachyte1

The Sydney City Council began to use trachyte for kerbs and gutters in the 1880s and the kerbs at the edges of York Street, the ‘frames’ of the drainage inlets and the stormwater lintels are all made of cut trachyte blocks. Similar kerbs, still displaying the textures made by the masons’ tools, can still be seen in almost all of Sydney’s streets.

 Trachyte2

The former Bank of Australasia (now ‘Paspaley’), on the Martin Place and George Street corner. It was the American architect Edward Raht’s second Sydney building, designed in 1901. The entire building is faced in trachyte, with walls of rock-faced ashlar. The coat-of-arms and the sea-shell motif at the corner pediment represent some of the most detailed trachyte carving in Sydney. The building has two large basement levels which extend outwards for 5 metres beneath Martin Place.

 

Sydney’s hard rock story: the cultural heritage of trachyte, by Robert Irving, Ron Powell and Noel Irving, published by Heritage Publishing, Sydney and Leura, 2014.

A colourful story

This is a story about vindictiveness and vindication. On the face of it, it’s about gay pride and support for the gay and lesbian (LGBTQI) community. But it’s also about me, me, me and my Pavement graffiti project.

It all started with a pedestrian crossing at Taylor Square on Oxford Street that the City of Sydney Council painted in rainbow colours for the 2013 Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras in February-March. It was supposed to be temporary but Sydneysiders wanted it to stay.

Rainbow crossing, Taylor Square, Sydney, March 2013

Rainbow crossing, Taylor Square, Sydney, March 2013

The State Government declared it was a safety hazard and during the night on 10 April it sent in a crew to rip up the rainbow and repave the road. This is where the vindictiveness comes in. Many people saw this action as part of an ongoing campaign by  State Premier Barry O’Farrell to ‘Get Clover’ – Clover Moore, that is, the longstanding Lord Mayor of Sydney. Asphalt used as a political weapon. Here’s a newspaper report and video of the dastardly deed.

Rainbow crossing at Taylor Square replaced by grey asphalt, April 2013

Rainbow crossing at Taylor Square replaced by grey asphalt, April 2013

By the end of the week there were rainbow ribbons and flags flying around Taylor Square to mark the passing of the crossing.

Memorial rainbow ribbons, Taylor Square, 14 April 2013

Memorial rainbow ribbons, Taylor Square, 14 April 2013

But even more astounding, in protest against the Government’s action, a viral campaign to draw DIY rainbow crossings in chalk took off in Sydney, around Australia, and in other parts of the world.

DIY rainbow crossing, Forbes Street, just a few metres from Taylor Square, 14 April 2013

DIY rainbow crossing, Forbes Street, just a few metres from Taylor Square, 14 April 2013

Around where I live you can’t walk up the street without tripping over a rainbow.

Rainbow crossing outside Goulds Book Arcade, King Street, Newtown, 14 April 2013

Rainbow crossing outside Goulds Book Arcade, King Street, Newtown, 14 April 2013

And this is the vindication part. ‘Pavement graffiti’ may seem like an obscure and even unworthy subject on which to base a PhD and many people just don’t get it. But in the very week that I finish writing the thesis, along comes this hotly debated story to demonstrate that PAVEMENT MARKS MATTER. (It’s also left me wondering whether I should open up the thesis again and add an epilogue about rainbow crossings.)

 

Pavement pedantry

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‘The path of least resistance’, King Street, Newtown (Sydney), 2012

Here’s another one of those pedantic vocabulary posts. We’ve already done ‘sgraffito/ graffiti’ and ‘palimpsest’. Now it’s time to do ‘pavement’ because I got another email this week querying why I use that term.  In Australia, says my correspondent, we more commonly use the term ‘footpath’.  Trouble is, dear correspondent, that this blog – and indeed my whole Pavement graffiti project – is meant for an international audience, and in any case I’m obsessed with graffiti not only on places where people walk, but also on the hard surfaces where they normally drive, ride, skate and park.

It’s a tricky problem of vocabulary that I have never properly resolved. But here is how I justified using the term ‘pavement’ in my thesis. It comes with a lengthy footnote:

“By ‘pavement’ I mean hard, paved surfaces in public places. These include roads (or ‘carriageways’ in older terminology), footpaths (‘footways’ in older Australian terminology, ‘sidewalks’ in America), public squares and parking lots. Their paving materials range from cobblestones and flagstones to tarmacadam, asphalt and concrete.

Footnote: The term ‘pavement’ can be problematic in that usage varies across English-speaking countries. Respondents to my blog, Pavement graffiti, have pointed out that people in Britain usually think of the pavement as a paved footway; in Australia this seems to be the more generally accepted meaning as well, although the term ‘footpath’ is more widely used. In American English the term ‘pavement’ is used for ‘the durable surface material laid down on an area intended to sustain vehicular or foot traffic, such as a road or walkway’ (see the entry for Road surface in Wikipedia, accessed 3 March 2013).

The Oxford English Dictionary’s list of definitions of ‘pavement’ covers all these uses. Condensed, the OED’s meanings (excluding the specialised mining and zoological uses), are: a paved surface or hard covering laid on the ground (used chiefly in technical contexts); paving or similar surfacing (used as a mass noun); the paved or metalled part of a road or other public thoroughfare or the roadway (used chiefly in North America and in Engineering); a paved footpath alongside a street or road (but the preferred term in North America is ‘sidewalk’) (see the entry for pavement in OED Online, Oxford University Press, accessed 20 March 2013).

“In my extensive reading of current as well as older references – mainly from Australia, but also from Britain and USA – I have seen the term ‘pavement’ variously used by both engineers and laypeople to refer to the paved surfaces of roads, of footpaths alone, and of roads and footpaths. For my project I have chosen to use ‘pavement’ in this last, broad sense because it is the only term available that can collectively refer to all the different kinds of hard surface laid down on the ground for ease of passage, whether by wheels, feet or hooves.”

Does that help?

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‘New ashphelt’, Broadway (Sydney), 2013.