Nostalgia

Pavement artist, Stanmore (Sydney), 2009

Not only do I write a ‘Pavement graffiti’ blog, but I will soon be launching a website called ‘Pavement appreciation’. This is all connected with a postgraduate research project I have undertaken on ‘Reading the pavement’.  If it all sounds like some sort of obsession then I’m afraid it is. I was recently forced to speculate that I must have had a revelatory encounter with asphalt as a small child.

This is not as silly as it sounds. The surfaces of roadways and footpaths are such an ordinary part of our everyday lives that we tend to ignore them through familiarity. But we could probably all look back to memorable moments that involved asphalt or concrete pavements and the marks upon them – scabby knees and other gravel-rash injuries, arrow chases through suburban streets, jumping over the cracks in the footpath so as not to be eaten by bears, sweaty handball games on courts painted on the school playground, mastering the art of drawing a hopscotch the right size and shape. Some Sydney people will remember being puzzled as a child at seeing ‘Eternity’ chalked on the pavement in the city.

When Marcel Proust (À la recherche du temps perdu) describes impressions in the present that revive similar sensations from the past he mentions not only the taste of the madeleine, but the unevenness of the paving-stones. Occasionally you find childhood recollections of the pavement in the works of other writers as well. Clive James, for example, in his Unreliable Memoirs describes daredevil feats in his pram-wheeled billycart and the ‘slide of the back wheels which got me round the corner unscathed, leaving black smoking trails of burnt rubber’. And in her essay Earthworm Small, Barbara Hanrahan tells how her family moved to a better part of Adelaide in the 1950s, but ‘I kept on wanting the old suburb. Cracked asphalt, corrugated iron stamped with the trademark of a royal crown, lavatory creeper and morning glory …’.

I wrote about some of my experiences with chalk and pavement in a journal article a few years ago (Eternal City). This nostalgia carries over into my present project, but that is not necessarily a bad thing. I am vindicated by British academic Elizabeth Wilson, who writes in her article Looking backward: nostalgia and the city, ‘Although the practice of academic research is meant to be an objective activity, one part of the ‘postmodernisation’ of such work has been a greater recognition of our subjective investment in it. The anthropologist and psychoanalyst, George Devereux, once wrote that all research is autobiographical, and this seems particularly clear in recent writings about urban space and cities’.

Hopscotch, Carlton (Melbourne), 2008

Mouse

Some things written in drying concrete probably don’t deserve to be preserved – trivial thoughts impetuously scribbled. But other inscriptions are sincere and loaded with meaning. When someone declares their love in the concrete, what are they thinking? Do they mean that their love will go on forever? Or do they simply want create a permanent memento of this romantic moment in their lives? Or are they casting a spell in the hope that the object of their love will reciprocate?

Observant pavement-watchers can sometimes follow the progress of a love story over a period of time.

This wet concrete inscription was photographed on the night it was made in June 2008.

'I heart Mouse', Liberty Street, Enmore, June 2008

This stencil appeared not so far away three years later.

'Marry me Mouse', Enmore Road, Enmore, August 2011

I wonder if they are related?

Newtown

 

'I have a dream' Square, King Street, Newtown, 2008

 

A while ago I came across this description:

King Street, Newtown is always more or less busy, but on Saturday night it is seen at its best and brightest.  Fancy a double line, more than a mile long, of brilliantly lighted shops; and “side-walks” so inconveniently crowded that it is often a matter of some difficulty to push one’s way through the throng of people on business and on pleasure bent.

The description seems fairly accurate to me, although it does not mention the vehicles that crawl up and down King Street on a Saturday night while their occupants ogle the crowds on the footpath. But that would be because this passage comes from an article in the June 1889 issue of the Sydney Illustrated News. King Street has been a commercial success for more than 150 years while the demographics of Newtown have ebbed and flowed.

Readers of this blog will have noticed that many of the pavement graffiti examples that I mention were photographed in Newtown. There are two main reasons for this – I live close by; and Newtown is a hub of graffiti activity. In fact, it was small esoteric stencils on the footpaths of Newtown that sparked my interest and prompted me to start my collection of pavement graffiti photographs in 1999.

Stencil publicising The Blair Witch Project movie, King Street, Newtown, 1999

Newtown was incorporated as a municipality in 1862. Cast iron roof-water outlets set into the kerb In King Street still bear the letters NMC, even though Newtown Municipal Council ceased to exist in 1949. These days part of Newtown is included in the City of Sydney, while the remainder falls within the Marrickville local government area.

Roof water outlet to gutter with embossed letters ‘NMC’, King Street, Newtown, 1999

I have discovered that this kind of information and much more is available on the Newtown Project website, which has been created by the City of Sydney Archives and various volunteers to bring together historical information about the Municipality of Newtown. The information ranges from Council Minutes to the history of the street-art group Unmitigated Audacity, whose works included the I Have a Dream mural. There is a self-guided walking tour and plus lots of early photos of Newtown streets, buildings and people – and  contemporary photos as well. Definitely worth a look.

Wilson Street

When I posted a photograph of an embellished ‘bicycle route’ stencil in Little Eveleigh Street , near Wilson Street, back in March 2010, I suggested that the bike rider with a giant penis was not simply a joke but an expression of tension between local residents and the ‘greenies’ who cycle through on the way to and from the city.

It seems I was not wrong. The battle between cyclists and locals has escalated in this neighbourhood. In August 2010 I posted another photo from Wilson Street, this time a verbal blast: Eco-cycle rapists. This week on a walk through Darlington I found another angry notice, still readable even though it has been hashed over:  Attention bike Nazis no entry!

Wilson Street is a long back street stretching from Redfern Station to Newtown Station, and passing through Darlington and MacDonaldtown on the inner-city fringes of Sydney. It has been undergoing change for some years. Its corner shops have become art studios; Sydney University threatens to engulf it as it devours real estate to the north; and along the street’s southern side the former Eveleigh Railway Workshops – which would have provided employment for many residents of the little terrace houses in years gone by – have been turned into a theatre and arts centre. ‘Gentrification’ is the name of the street drama that is being performed here daily.

Whenever I visit Wilson Street it never fails to provide me with material for my pavement graffiti collection. This week, not far from the warning to cyclists, I noticed a worn little stencil in the middle of the road: Save the shark. According to other bloggers it’s been there a few years.

Near the ‘CarriageWorks’ cultural centre, some fairly recent wet concrete scratchings include an Aboriginal flag. In the background of this photo you can see the Skippy Girls painted on the corrugated iron fence.

Elephants on parade

Shared path, College Street at Whitlam Square, Sydney, 2011

 

The relationships between cyclists, motorists and pedestrians are fraught and while some people are pleased with the new cycle lanes and shared pathways being installed by the City of Sydney, others are not. So it’s nice to see that some people have managed to keep their sense of humour.  Congrats  to the anonymous stenciller for this embellishment of a sign on the corner of College and Liverpool Streets, and thanks to the good sports in the Cycling Strategy department at the City of Sydney for drawing it to my attention.

And while pondering the similarities (if any) between an elephant’s thick skin and the wrinkled greyness of the asphalt, I thought I’d dig out a couple more pavement pachyderms from my archives.

Elefant Traks music label, King Street, Newtown, 1999

Asphalt elephant, Queens Parade, Wolllongong, 2003

Names set in concrete

In some of Sydney’s older municipalities the names of streets and parks were once set into the concrete footpaths. Reminders of a time when people got about on foot more regularly than they do now, some of these still exist around the suburbs. On this footpath in Chatswood, for example, the name ‘Lawrence Street’ appears to have been pressed into the concrete while it was wet.

Other examples are more elaborate. In parts of the former Municipality of Petersham (that is, Petersham, Lewisham and Stanmore) the name is embedded in the paving slab in contrasting red concrete. When one of these slabs gets broken you can sometimes see the wire formwork that holds the lettering in place.

Although many have been broken or mutilated over the years, local councils have begun to recognise the heritage value of these concrete names. The Marrickville Heritage Study of 1984-86, for example, lists street names on footpaths and kerbing as interesting examples of the type of works undertaken in the old Municipality of Petersham, adding that the remaining examples help to define the character of the area.

Despite the recent interest in preserving them, I have had some difficulty in obtaining specific information about how and when these pavement embellishments were originally made. However I did find from the Haberfield Conservation Study, prepared for Ashfield Council in 1988, that ‘blue and white enamel street name signs and red cement lettering of street name signs let into the footpath were … distinctive features’ of the model suburb of Haberfield developed by entrepreneur Richard Stanton between the years 1901 and 1922.

It seems likely that the Petersham street names came somewhat later. Now incorporated into the Marrickville local government area, the Municipality of Petersham was established in 1871. In 1929 its Council took out large loans to commence a program of paving its roads with concrete and replacing its asphalt footpaths with concrete at the same time.  These types of works became a major part of a program to provide employment for men during the Great Depression of 1930-1937.

By 1948 Allan M. Shepherd’s book The Story of Petersham was able to boast that “today only a very small proportion of the total length of all the footpath paving of the Municipality is not of concrete” and that “there are no unmade roads, lanes or footpaths, and every thoroughfare is in good condition”. Shepherd’s book does not mention the concrete street names specifically, but it is safe to assume that the making of these was included in that great concreting project of the 1930s.

For several years I have been monitoring a badly cracked ‘Liberty Street’ name in the footpath on the corner of Cavendish Street, Stanmore. In May 2010 I thought its days were numbered when I saw sprayed marks on the footpath indicating that Marrickville Council was going to construct a pram ramp on the kerb.

However some months later I found that the rectangle of old concrete bearing the name had been saved, although it was surrounded by incongruously white modern concrete and a straight cut had been made in it so that it could conform to the slope of the ramp.

Maps

At this point in my Pavement Graffiti project I’m thinking about maps – the formal and the informal, the fanciful and the accidental.

Two lovely books that I ordered arrived on my doorstep this week. The first is Kris Harzinski’s From here to there:  a curious collection from the Hand Drawn Map Association. It contains the kind of mud maps that people draw for one another on the back of an envelope or on a page torn from a notebook. Harzinski is just as interested in the story behind the map as he is in the map itself. But he doesn’t use the term ‘mud map’. It was only while researching this blog post that I realised that this term, which I use from time to time, is Australian in origin.

The second book is The map as art: contemporary artists explore cartography by Katharine Harmon. There are 360 works reproduced here. Described on the back cover blurb as ‘a collection of visionary topographies and imaginary geographies’, these artworks are executed in many different media. Two I particularly liked featured map-like marks on the ground: Nina Katchdourian’s Moss Maps are ‘scrambled atlases’ of lichen on granite rocks; the Rock Maps of eight-year old artist Theodore Lamb are photographs of cracks in rocks.

Lamb’s Rock Maps remind me of photographs I have taken of cracks in asphalt. They show up best after rain and this ‘map’, taken in Stanmore (Sydney), even includes a sky-coloured lake.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Last year I photographed a wonderful map drawn by a boy on the footpath outside his house in Rozelle. His play world grew each day.

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’.

Feet

I’m sitting in a specialty shoe shop trying on different pairs and moaning about my crook feet. The shoe fitter says that it’s all because of the hard surfaces we walk on and goes on to tell me a slightly garbled story about this tribe of people in Africa who still go everywhere barefoot. I am inclined to think that people who habitually walk barefoot are not confined to Africa but I don’t say so. He’s doing his best to make me comfortable.

It is an annoying irony that I should have a fixation about photographing pavements and the writing on them, and yet I often have trouble walking any distance at all. In fact, when I took photographs of the Olympic marathon line remnants on Sydney Harbour Bridge, I was in a wheelchair. My daughter valiantly pushed me because I didn’t want a recent foot operation to prevent me taking part in the 75th Anniversary
Bridge Walk in 2007.

Wilson Street, Newtown, June 2008

Anyway, today’s photograph is dedicated to two distinct lots of people: those who always walk barefoot, wherever in the world they are; and the workers who maintain our roads and footpaths (and who sometimes have a joke when they are marking potholes that need repairing).

Buffing

Here is one from the archives. Taken around 2004, it shows a graffiti removal contractor washing away a large painted message from a street in Stanmore (Sydney). It had read ‘Kylie is a dog’. The contractor told me he had been engaged by Marrickville Council and he supposed someone must have complained about it. By contrast, a hand-painted advertisement for the band ‘Vaticide’, done just a few metres up the road at around the same time, was left there for years and even got retouched at one stage.

Marrickville Council has a ‘moderate’ attitude to graffiti and limited resources to do anything about it anyway. With stuff written on the ground, unless it is in a high profile public place, rangers generally leave it wear itself away except if they find it particularly offensive of if someone complains about it.

Still, marking public surfaces, including roads and footpaths, is technically illegal in most places. One poor Brisbane citizen found this out just recently when he was prosecuted for trying to cover over a penis that had been painted on the road by someone else. The news item in the Courier Mail said that because he pleaded guilty he was only required to pay $100 of the clean-up bill plus a $300 fine!

Also in the What Is The World Coming To Department, here is another news item, this time from Melbourne. It caught my eye because it is about life in the street, although it doesn’t have anything to do with graffiti. ABC News reported that a man was arrested for taking a vacuum cleaner from a hard rubbish collection. Police said that stealing from a nature strip is considered theft of council property.

Where I come from, riffling through other people’s throw-out piles is called Neighbourhood Recycling.

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