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 2. Where waters meet.

Saturday 21 March 2020

I have moved a short way upstream for today’s visit to Johnstons Creek. After inspecting the canal where it passes deep under Parramatta Road I am tracing it backwards and find that the next available viewing point is in a Stanmore street cut in half by the canal. A pedestrian bridge joins the two halves. The concrete waterway is flanked by factory walls on one side and backyard gardens on the other, whose overhanging trees hide shady secrets. ‘Call Your Mum’, urges a graffiti message. We set off to find what’s around the corner further upstream.

The streets in this commercial/industrial area are hot and lonely as if it were a Sunday afternoon but we are distracted by a café, open perhaps for one last day. Cautiously practising our new social distancing skills we order then sit out in a courtyard surrounded by closed studios and workshops that barricade us from the canal.

One last push on to Salisbury Road and I find what I’m looking for. This is where Johnstons Creek emerges from beneath its permanent suburban cover.  Surprisingly there’s another large drain that joins it. It’s time to go home and study old maps to find the sources of the creek and this underground tributary. They don’t always form such a lazy trickle. I’m later told that trainee volunteers with the local SES are brought here on ‘flooding hot spot tours’.

This week I was reminded that Sydney’s supreme suburban explorer, Vanessa Berry, has already tracked Johnstons Creek on her Mirror Sydney blog. Different eyes. We will compare notes next time we meet, whenever that might be. ‘Happy New Year Mate’ wishes another graffiti message in blue paint. Anxious strange year is more like it.

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.

The name

I am researching the history of a nineteenth century row of houses in Sydney’s inner west. It’s not my usual kind of writing gig but it has been interesting following the money. Wealth accumulated in good times by an enterprising immigrant from Yorkshire, shared with his son as a business partner, lost when the son’s extravagant ventures are caught out by a national financial depression.  What’s left is a smattering of properties that have been salvaged for heritage listing by repurposing – gentlemen’s residences divided into flatettes, a wool store fitted out as university outpost campus, a private mansion transformed into a Catholic educational institution.  

The buildings are notable for the need these colonial nouveau capitalists had to monogram their possessions. The firm’s name is embossed on the wool store – an understandable commercial imperative. But on the gateposts of the father’s 1860s villa his initials AH are stuccoed in botanical calligraphy so elaborate that they are barely legible.

 

The son’s entwined initials JH in more restrained but authoritative capitals decorate the interior of his opulent 1880s mansion. I can imagine the thrill of self-satisfaction this sleek young mayor experiences as he glimpses the stained glass panel on his way upstairs from the expansive vestibule of his domicile.

 

Fast forward to the late twentieth century and an upsurge of the monogram for marking property – though more likely someone else’s property or else a piece of public infrastructure. Taggers appropriate territory with marks that are generally illegible except to themselves or to cohorts that matter.

 I came across a graffiti supplies website recently, and this comment from a user:  ‘ I wrote the name test when i was in high school. I liked it cause every time i  saw the word test in a context totally unrelated to graff i creamed a little’.

 Here is the thrill of self-affirmation. This graffitist has gone for ordinariness over illegibility for his tag, and finds satisfaction when he sees,  not only the property he has marked,  but every single item where his moniker ‘test’ happens to appear – books, advertisements, notices, school whiteboards. His mind (and his member) believe that all these base are belong to him.

 At least what you don’t really own and have not mortgaged will not send you bankrupt.

Images by meganix, taken in 2017 in Sydney: Stanmore, Circular Quay, Newtown and Strathfield.

Rainbow politics

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“The removal of the Taylor Square rainbow crossing created an even bigger stir than its original installation. To mark its passing, people attached unofficial rainbow flags to poles in Taylor Square and tied rainbow ribbons to safety fences. But performer and activist James Brechney had a fresh idea for an alternate location that somehow captured the zeitgeist.”

My exquisitely objective article on the history of the DIY Rainbow Crossing is now available to read in the Dictionary of Sydney.

Some time ago I wrote a blog post on the symbolism of pedestrian crossings. It’s here.

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(Photos by meganix, taken in Darlinghurst in 2013 and Summer Hill 2015)

Back lanes

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In the inner suburbs of a city that is undergoing renewal and gentrification, some of the last remaining places of grotty charm are the back lanes. This is despite the fact that corrugated iron fences have long since been replaced by roller doors and high brick walls, and showy bougainvilleas hang where once there were vines laden with chokos free for the taking.

In the main street old-style hairdressing salons run by one lady for over fifty years are transformed into dinky diners, but round the back leaky pipes still ooze a permanently green and greasy trickle into the gutter of the rear lane. In side streets, tiny terrace houses are supersized with architect-designed extensions upwards and outwards, but outside the back fence the garbage bins, now made of colour-coded plastic rather than galvanized iron, smell much the same as they always did.

Close to the city centre, civic planners reinvent laneways as pseudo-hipster destinations. Their surfaces are recobbled, their spaces commercialised with coffee cart umbrellas, and their walls redecorated with commissioned art pieces. In suburbs on the urban fringe, some back lanes that were once the rat runs of the dunny man have been spruced up to match the tidy rear ends of new apartment blocks and town houses.

But beyond the reach of the pre-dawn street-washing truck, there are still lanes that resist trendification or homogenisation. Morning strolls down such insalubrious urban remnants reveal evidence of unsanitary night-time activities – broken bottles, a clump of cat fur, a limp condom, a squashed rat, a syringe, a rivulet of piss, a splatter of curry or sweet and sour – fresh or regurgitated, it’s hard to tell the difference.

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 Amongst this pure grunge though, such lanes can also yield up visual surprises and take-away treasures. There are accidental artworks to admire, in the form of paint spills and rubbish stacks. There are unpotted pot plants with concrete root balls, and illegally dumped junk piles to pick through or kick through for additions to your domestic decor. Or you might collect a milk crate for standing on as you pass through on your way to the Mardi Gras parade. And in old industrial precincts, where owners allow their businesses to run down in the hope of getting rich when the area is rezoned for residential development, there is always the possibility of finding a replica of Duchamp’s Bottle Rack.

The side walls of little old factories and those new brick fortifications on residential properties are perfect canvases for real graffiti and spontaneous wall art. Some pieces stay in place for decades, others are subject to constant renewal in keeping with the revolving door of current issues and social media topics.

 What all this means is that within our evolving cities there are still recalcitrant places that resist the facadism of new civic planning and design. Behind the scenes, the messiness of back lanes contributes to the urban/suburban landscape in ways that reflect the actual complexity of human lives.

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(Photos by meganix, taken in Marrickville and Enmore, 2016)

 

The blog ‘Pavement Graffiti’ was created in 2009. In March 2016 I changed its appearance. Posts written before March 2016 did not handle the change well and so may look a little peculiar.

 

 

 

 

 

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.

Playground of memories

Children on a billycart with a trailer in the Melbourne suburb of Mount Waverley, 1961.

Children on a billycart with a trailer in the Melbourne suburb of Mount Waverley, 1961.

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

Traces of leaves

This week I chanced upon Pete McLean’s blogsite Art and About. Pete really does like to get about – in the natural landscape, that is – and his beautiful artworks include wood engravings as well as prints and rubbings from objects he picks up outdoors, such as bits of wood, mushrooms and leaves.

From time to time Pete makes ephemeral artworks in situ, composing handfuls of dried grass on a hillside, for example, or rearranging a drift of snow. But surprisingly he is also interested in the urban pavement and sometimes traces around fallen leaves on the footpath with chalk. For me it is interesting to discover one of those artists whose works you sometimes come across on the pavement without ever knowing who did them, or why.

But the blog post that originally caught my eye was a photograph of what Pete calls ‘concrete fossils, those special places in the suburban landscape where traces of leaves and other life have been recorded in the man made lithosphere’. Pete’s photographs reminded me of some I had taken in Stanmore (Sydney) a few years ago.

Leaf prints in Salisbury Road, Stanmore (Sydney), 2009.

I made a comment on Pete’s site, he replied, and I decided to write this post. But when I returned to his site to check that I had got things right, I found he had already written a post about Pavement Graffiti. Such is the incestuous world of the blogosphere. Thanks Pete and best wishes with your lovely creations.