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.

Flotsam and jetsam

Photograph presumably – but not necessarily – taken in Paris in May 1968. Original source not known.

Photograph presumably – but not necessarily – taken in Paris in May 1968. Original source not known.

‘Beneath the pavement, the beach’ – it’s the most well-known slogan from the May 1968 uprising in Paris. But what if it is misguided? What if the pavement is the beach?

I think the pavement is a littoral zone with tides of people and their vehicles washing backwards and forwards over it in their daily cycles of movement. Searching for graffiti on the pavement is like scavenging for sea drift on the sand.

Fish + “Sol”, Chippendale (Sydney), 2010.

Fish + “Sol”, Chippendale (Sydney), 2010.

Novelist Tim Winton, the author of Cloudstreet and Breathe, says he is ‘forever the beachcomber’. Passages in his book Land’s Edge  show just how much the search for pavement graffiti resembles beachcombing.

‘A long bare beach, like the sea itself, is capable of many surprises. The unexpected is what I’m after when I go trudging along the firm white sand  […] it’s the possibility of finding something strange that keeps me walking …

‘From the distance every found object is merely a black mark on the sand, and half the pleasure of beachcombing lies in wondering, anticipating the find …

‘Yet however comforting and peaceful beachcombing is, it ends up, like the sea, as disturbing as it is reassuring. In dark moments I believe that walking on a beach at low tide is to be looking for death, or at least anticipating it. You will only find the dead, the spilled and the cast-off […] The beachcomber goes looking for trouble, for everything he finds is a sign of trouble.’

Tributes to graffitist Ontre, hit by a train 2012.

Tributes to graffitist Ontre, hit by a train at Lewisham in 2012.

 

Tim Winton, Land’s Edge, Sydney: Picador, 1998, pp. 98-101.

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.

Etiquette

'Dog-owner polluter', Newtown (Sydney), 2003.

‘Dog-owner polluter’, Newtown (Sydney), 2003.

In the city, life is complicated and boundaries are indistinct. Because people’s lives butt up against each other, behaviour is bound by rules of social etiquette. Feelings of loss and frustration are exacerbated when others overstep boundaries and fail to observe ‘the rules’. When this happens, people look for ways to re-establish their individuality.

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‘Another shitting dog owner’, Enmore (Sydney), 2001.

The lowly pavement – that shared space that belongs to everyone and no one – is sometimes co-opted by people attempting to assert themselves. The anonymous airing of petty grievances on and about the pavement is a satisfying way of alleviating feelings of powerlessness.

'Filthy dog owner', Enmore (Sydney), 2001.

‘Filthy dog owner’, Enmore (Sydney), 2001.

People paint ‘Bread is making birds sick’ on areas where other people feed pigeons; they chalk circles around dog droppings and write ‘Filthy dog owner’.

'Whose dog?', Balmain (Sydney), 2012.

‘Whose dog?’, Balmain (Sydney), 2012.

Their notices are rather like the notes that are left in the kitchens and bathrooms of workplaces and share houses to ‘Wash up after yourself’ and ‘Use the toilet brush’. Someone who ‘breaks the rules’ is rebuked, without the need for face-to-face confrontation. Pavement remonstrations are delivered and received with eyes lowered, and in this way public decorum is maintained.

'Who owns this?', Balmain (Sydney), 2012.

‘Who owns this?’, Balmain (Sydney), 2012.

 

For more about this kind of graffiti see:
Hicks, Megan, 2011, ‘Surface reflections: Personal graffiti on the pavement’, Australasian Journal of Popular Culture 1(3): 365 – 382.

 

Christmas in Sydney Park

Sydney Park, December 2012

Sydney Park, December 2012.

It’s that time of year again – time to say thank you to all those people who have shown an interest in my pavement project. I hope your own projects, whatever they are, bring you satisfaction in the coming year.

Sydney Park in St Peters was formerly a brick pit and brickworks, then a garbage dump, and now it is an expansive park with great sky. Its footpaths have provided me with quite a few graffiti finds. So as my end-of-year gesture, here are a few relics from the archives.

Sydney Park, 2010.

Sydney Park, 2010.

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Sydney Park, 2010.

Princes Highway, St Peters, beside Sydney Park, 1999.

Sydney Park, 1999.

Sydney Park, 2000,

Sydney Park, 2000.

Best wishes to all from Megan.

Weekend at Walcha

Walcha is a small, neat, and sometimes icily cold town on the New England Tableland of New South Wales. A visit there on a cool (but not so cold) weekend in early November gave me the chance to do some sightseeing and inspect the town for notable pavement features. As it turned out my most interesting finds were in Fitzroy Street, the main shopping drag.

The wide footpaths outside the shops are paved with patterned concrete slabs. Very decorative but functional as well as they are deliberately designed to be non-slip.

All around the town there are public artworks and sculptures made from apparently local materials. These include several horizontal installations set into the patterned footpaths. Although they are artistically interesting, I gather that these ‘depictions’ are not appreciated by some older residents because they are not non-slip like the concrete slabs they replace.

Early on Sunday morning a contingent of Council outdoor staff was busy maintaining the roadway. One man was tracing the cracks in the asphalt by scraping out accumulated dirt with a pick.

Another worker came after him, cleaning out the dust with a leaf-blower.

Finally, the redefined cracks were filled with bitumen emulsion, leaving a kind of scribbly black writing on the grey surface of Fitzroy Street.

Being the tidy town that it is, Walcha does not have much in the way of graffiti. In fact there only seems to be one spray-can practitioner, whose few efforts are to be seen on several walls and one footpath.

A quest always enhances the experience of travelling.

 

Old Paris

Asphalt layers, Paris, 1899-1900, by Eugène Atget (From the website of the National Gallery of Art, Washington).

Yesterday a friend and I visited the exhibition Eugene Atget: Old Paris at the Art Gallery of New South Wales. As the small catalogue that comes with your ticket says, Atget relentlessly tracked down the vestiges of ‘Old Paris’ with his tripod-mounted camera. Between 1898 and 1927 he photographed everyday views of shopfronts, signs and street posters, courtyards, interiors, gardens, statues, docks and bridges. Many of these were destined for demolition but some still exist today.

Naturally I was just as interested in the surfaces of the streets as I was in the buildings that lined them, especially when Atget had captured them glistening with rain. Most of those in the photographs were cobbled, the narrow streets and laneways either sloping to drains in the centre, or cambered to kerb and guttering on either side. Not all of those with kerbs had sidewalks wide enough to walk along. In those times the whole width of the street was available to everyone – horse-drawn vehicles and handcarts, peddlers, bicyclists, strollers and shoppers. It was only with the advent of the motor car that pedestrians were irrevocably pushed to the side of the street.

For most of Atget’s career as a photographer, people appeared almost incidentally in his streetscapes. But in the early years he had often made people the subject of his pictures, recording disappearing trades and occupations. One of those early photographs shows  asphalt layers, or ‘bitumiers’, working on their hands and knees with hot asphalt and playing a part in the grand scheme to modernize the streets of Paris. You can read more about this photograph at Atget: The art of documentary photography on the website of the National Gallery of Art, Washington.

The exhibition at the Art Gallery of New South Wales runs until 4 November 2012. The framed photographs in the exhibition are not enlarged but are prints that Atget made directly from his glass negatives, around 22 x 17 cm in size. My friend and I spent four hours scrutinizing and chatting about all of the images. We have compiled a suggested list of equipment that anyone contemplating a visit should take along.

Reading glasses (for close examination of the photographs)

A magnifying glass (ditto)

A map of Paris

A French dictionary (mainly to work out what kind of businesses all those signs were advertising and what the street vendors were selling)

A folding chair or, better still, a wheelchair that you and your companion can take turns in using

A stepladder (for looking at those photographs that are hung a little too high)

Hearts

I spotted this heart – or rather, cardioid shape – on a road in Glebe (Sydney) a week ago. As I drove towards it I thought it must be a very clever piece of hot rubber graffiti, but when I took a closer look I wasn’t too sure. It might be paint or some tarry substance.

Anyway because it’s Spring, the season for romance, I thought I’d go back through the archives and share a few more photographs of love-hearts tattooed on the pavement.

‘I (heart) U BEC’, near Temora in southern New South Wales (Australia).

‘SKR + BKR’, Stanmore (Sydney), 2008.

‘I (heart) you lots anb losts’, Enmore (Sydney), 2010.

A heart on the corner of one man’s Epicenter of Love in Fitzroy (Melbourne), 2011.

Chalk power. Part 2.

Chalked tributes to Canadian politician Jack Layton in August 2011. Randy Risling/ Toronto Star.

In July, when I launched my Pavement Appreciation website, many people emailed to tell me about their own work, suggest references, or alert me to websites and pavement occurrences. My thanks to you all. A number of you told me about recent events where acts of defiance or public memorialization had been accompanied by pavement chalking.

For example, in July Occupy L.A. used the popular Downtown L.A. Art Walk as a stage for their own ‘Chalk Walk’ but things got out of hand the moment the first chalker was arrested.

Some weeks later Los Angeles artist Alex Schaefer deliberately chose to chalk protests against the collusion between banks and the state as an act of civil disobedience, and ended up in handcuffs.

Such events reminded Jacob Miller of the time in 2009 when he was arrested for protesting about the commercialization of higher education by chalking on University of Arizona sidewalks where he was a graduate student.

A quite different event occurred in Nathan Phillips Square, Toronto, after the death of Jack Layton, well-respected and much-liked leader of the left-leaning federal National Democratic Party in August 2011. What began with a single chalked tribute on a wall became a spontaneous outpouring of public grief.

And in an act of memorialization, on 25 March each year in New York volunteers fan out across the city to inscribe in chalk the names and ages of the 146 victims of the infamous 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in front of their former homes.

Chalk power. Part 1.

A pavement artist in Sydney, probably 1940s. (Photograph by S.W. Windrim, reproduced courtesy of the State Library of New South Wales, Call no.BCP 01193)

Most people are familiar with pavement artists. Beggars and buskers have been known to chalk pictures on the ground for money since at least the early 1800s. The history of pavement art is being documented at All my own work! , a site that has been researched by Philip Battle, himself a present-day pavement communicator.

But over the decades chalk has been used not only for earning money, but also for protest.

I have been using Trove to trawl through old Australian newspapers for references to pavement chalking. Although I have found earlier examples, pavement writing seems to have become more prevalent by the mid-20th century during the Great Depression. In July 1931 the Sydney Morning Herald reported that,

‘It would appear that in spite of the depression the chalk vendor is doing quite a brisk business. All over the suburbs there are notices chalked on the footpath about evictions, public meetings, rallies, and speeches’.

It wasn’t only happening in the suburbs. In August 1931 both the Sydney Morning Herald and the Barrier Miner reported that a procession of unemployed men had taken possession of the Town Hall in the mining town of Broken Hill (New South Wales). From the balcony of the Town Hall their leaders made speeches condemning Council alderman and the Town Clerk over the gaoling of a local man for chalking propaganda on a footpath.

The history of pavement writing, if traced through newspapers, is a history of crimes and misdemeanours since most mentions are reports in the ‘Court appearances’ columns.

In another one of the many examples I found, The Argus in Melbourne recorded a notable case in November 1934, where legal minds argued over whether ‘chalk-writing on a footpath’ (in this case a notice for a Communist meeting) could be described as ‘a thing’ within the terms of a by-law that made it an offence to place any ‘placard, board, or any other thing’ on any footway in the form of an advertisement. Although one magistrate accepted the defence lawyer’s argument that ‘chalk-writing could not be described as a tangible “thing”’, three other justices on the bench disagreed and the offender was fined £3 with costs.

In my search of old newspapers I have occasionally come across reports of footpath advertisements and other kinds of chalk writing, but political notices are mentioned much more frequently. This may well have been because police generally only bothered to arrest pavement writers if their messages were anti-government.

Convictions for chalk protests continue to the present day, and I will talk about that in a later blog post.

I have recently started a Facebook page, Pavement Appreciation. I invite you to visit.

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