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.

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.

Greetings

 

13u-ncP1040124_Gingerbread

The Festive Season is upon us and, in response, the blizzard of pavement markings in Sydney’s central business district has taken on an appropriately merry appearance, with designs based on traditional Christmas colours.

A recent article in the Sydney Morning Herald about ‘Sydney street scribbles’ goes some way to translating what these symbols indicate about the pipes and cables buried beneath the pavement. However, here is my alternative translation of the photograph above, taken on the corner of George and Bathurst Streets.

It is a double manhole or service cover, cleverly decorated to represent a Gingerbread House covered in snowy frosting. There are fairy lights draped on the roof and hanging by the window and front door. The chimney, in the shape of a Christmas stocking, also has fairy lights. These are focussed on a point in the sky (E9-1) which may be interpreted either as the star in the EAST, or the route Santa’s sleigh will take on Christmas EVE.

The ELVES who live in the manhole gingerbread house have festooned it with codified greetings to Sydneysiders as they go about their daily work. E1, for example, stands for EXPRESSIONS of cheer to each and every one of you; E4 means EVERY good wish for the New Year. F10 is an interesting one. It reads FORGIVE us for any TENsion or aesthetic discomfort we may have caused by making such an unholy mess of Sydney’s bluestone footpaths.

There goes another parking space

How hotly motorists defend parking spaces as cities become more and more congested with cars. Loss of street parking is one of the major objections to the creation of cycle paths like the one in Bourke Street in Sydney’s inner city.

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Parking space lost for cycleway. One of a series of stencils applied to the pavement in June 2009, this one is outside the Bourke Street Bakery. Despite objections construction of the cycleway went ahead anyway. Photo: meganix.

So the citizens of the city of Leicester in the UK must have had mixed feelings when a team of archaeologists started digging up a council car park a year ago. How many parking spaces were lost in that exercise? But today’s exciting news is that the remains discovered have been positively identified as those of medieval king Richard III, seriously maligned in Shakespeare’s eponymous play, and the last king of England to die in battle.

The skeleton of Richard III, with its twisted spine, which was discovered at the Grey Friars excavation site in Leicester. Photo: University of Leicester/Reuters, accessed via the Sydney Morning Herald website.

The skeleton of Richard III, with its twisted spine, which was discovered at the Grey Friars excavation site in Leicester. Photo: University of Leicester/Reuters, accessed via the Sydney Morning Herald website.

Asphalt paving is like a tombstone, not only over the remains of the famous like King Richard, but over the bodies of ordinary folk and indigenous people whose life and death resting places were overtaken by the establishment and expansion of cities. It is something I talk about in my article City of epitaphs  in Culture Unbound 1: 453-467 (2009).

The unassuming council car park in Leicester where the monarch’s remains were found. Photo: Getty, accessed via the Sydney Morning Herald website.

The unassuming council car park in Leicester where the monarch’s remains were found. Photo: Getty, accessed via the Sydney Morning Herald website.

Tunnels

Piss Alley, Enmore/Newtown (Sydney), 2010

There is light at the end of the tunnel, I’ve rounded the turn, I’m on the final leg, the end is in sight, I’ve entered the home straight. I’ve also just about reached the end of my tether.  But huzzah! There is a definite possibility that I will finish this PhD project. I just have to polish the Pavement Appreciation website for you to have a look at, re-write a few chapters of the thesis, knock the bibliography into shape … well, it might take a couple more months yet, but I’m nearly there.

To celebrate this moment of optimism I am posting some of my pictures of graffiti on the floor of tunnels. I also have a few photos of wonderfully inventive graffiti on tunnel walls, made without the benefit of spray-can or paintbrush, but maybe I’ll save them for another time.

Graffiti Tunnel, Waterloo Station, London, 2010

 

Pedestrian underpass at Petersham Station (Sydney), 2009

 

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’.

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

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

Manhole covers (2)

I’ve looked at manholes from both sides now, from down and up, and still somehow…

On 18 April I was lucky enough go on an underground tour of the Tank Stream. The Historic Houses Trust runs these tours twice a year in conjunction with Sydney Water and they are so popular that you have to enter a ballot to get a ticket. You don’t go far – just 50 metres upstream from the ladder where you descend into the underground tunnel. The Tank Stream was the original source of fresh water that determined the location of Sydney Town, but during the two centuries since then it has evolved from stream to open sewer, to closed-in sewer, and currently it is a stormwater drain.  

Harrington Lane, near Hunter Street, Sydney

Sloshing along in borrowed gumboots, instead of looking down, as I usually do when I’m spotting pavement graffiti, this time I was looking up to see what manhole covers look like on the underside. Afterwards a Sydney Water worker helped me identify which covers we had walked beneath.

Manhole covers

Cavendish Street, Enmore

Admiration of manhole covers became a popular pastime in the 1990s.  Mimi and Robert Melnick’s 1974 Manhole covers of Los Angeles has become a collectors item, but their 1994 book Manhole covers and Jacopo Pavesi and Roberta Pietrobelli’s 2001 book Street covers brought cast-iron style to the coffee table. The minor mania for manhole covers has culminated in book titles ranging from Designs underfoot: the art of manhole covers in New York City to Quilting with manhole covers: a treasure trove of unique designs from the streets of Japan.

In picture books the manhole covers are brushed up for the camera, but like Japanese artist Genpei, I prefer the look of them in their natural state, with cigarettes and Smarties and tsubo gardens of moss, grass or weeds nestling in their grooves.

Road resurfaced, Cleveland Street, Chippendale

 

My very favourites are the pretend manhole covers that mark the place of the real thing when a road is being resurfaced.

I also love the website Misplaced Manhole Covers.