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

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.

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.

Nabbed on the footpath

Pavement advertising in Sydney has moved on since 1904. In that year bootmaker Joe Gardiner was nabbed by the police for whitewashing advertisements for his shop on the asphalt in Oxford Street near the entrance to Hyde Park. Joe’s fate is recorded in a correspondence file in the City of Sydney archives.

These days the footpath is a billboard, not only for small shops and garage sales, but also for corporations. In recent months NAB (National Australia Bank) has discovered the transgressive frisson of stencilling the pavement. At Sculpture by the Sea in November, advertisements on the Bondi to Tamarama walk made it evident that NAB was a sponsor of the event. On Valentine’s Day in February, city pavements were enlisted in a multiple media campaign announcing that NAB had split up with the other banks (whatever that means). Although these commercially creative works soon faded in the rain, their smeary remains are still visible in some places.

Sculpture by the Sea, Bondi-Tamarama, November 2010. In the background is Lucy Barker's installation 'Sea Cells'.

Defacing the pavement with any kind of marker is still illegal in the City of Sydney but, as I noted in an earlier blog post, perhaps council rangers have given up bothering about graffiti drawn with chalk or quasi-chalk.

Valentine's Day 2011, Newtown Bridge.

 

You can read more about footpath decoration and pavement advertising in two articles I have written:
Hicks, Megan. 2009. Horizontal billboards: The commercialization of the pavement. Continuum: Journal of Media and Cultural Studies 23 (6):765-780.
Hicks, Megan. The decorated footpath. Dictionary of Sydney.

Wacko stencils (Guest spot)

Canberra writer Doug Fry has been travelling in the USA. This is his second guest blog about Pavement Graffiti.

Wacko, the self-described “premiere pop culture emporium of Los Angeles”, is located in the Los Feliz area – a suburb that’s affluent by real world standards, but decidedly middle class in LA terms. The store is part of a trifecta of hipster shopping opportunities on the eastern end of Hollywood Boulevard – just next door is Ozzie Dots, a novelty costume specialist that also carries overpriced second hand clothing. Barely a block away is Goodwill, the USA’s (approximate) equivalent of Salvos/Vinnies-type thrift chains. So, if you need a costume for Halloween when you’re in LA, Ozzie Dots and Goodwill can provide the clothing – Wacko, on the other hand, will provide the accoutrements.

The store sells all manner of trinkets and novelty items (Japanese conceived, Chinese made), along with a decent selection of books – a lot of indie and one-print-run-only titles, along with more ‘mainstream’ books covering everything from the early days of punk to the final days of the Manson Family. Finally, there is a permanent gallery space tucked up the back of the store; when I visited, the gallery was displaying a series of airbrushed paintings that were, as best I could tell, attempting to convey Alice In Wonderland-via-Dante’s Inferno (with LSD as the catalyst, and Dr Freud as executive producer).

I never established why the steps and pavement in front of Wacko have become an apparent mecca for stencilling and graf. Sure, its customer base would undoubtedly include a good many street artists, but what’s the ritual here? Do they celebrate their purchase of a marijuana-themed toilet seat by adding their latest stencil to the sidewalk? Or did someone arbitrarily spray the space one night, and unwittingly spawn a meme? Is this customer-customised livery actively encouraged by store management? And how does the City of LA feel about this communal modification of its grimy pavement?

Tumbarumba tar

The first time we passed through Tumbarumba I loved the place. It had already started snowing higher up the mountains and in Tumbarumba the cold rain tinged the main street with a romantic grey patina. Icy water flowed down the gutters and the café where we ordered soup had books to read and a log fire burning.

This time we visit on New Year’s Eve and I am reminded that the midsummer sun is a great leveller, the glare off the asphalt erasing any architectural features of distinction. The main street of Tumbarumba might belong to any country town, with its mix of verandah post and IGA Supermarket aesthetics, the Lotto posters on the newsagency window, the racks of synthetic Made-in-China clothes standing outside once-glorious retail emporia, the same flies, the same listless teenagers flicking chips at each other as they suck Cokes at plastic tables outside the take-away. The cosy café we remember is closed for the Christmas-New Year period.

What perhaps distinguishes Tumbarumba are the dead, undecorated Christmas trees strapped to every verandah post and traffic sign – an odd civic nod to the festive season. In the heat they give off the nostalgic piney smell of Christmases past.

Sunset in Tumbarumba

And the pavements? The only embellishments I find are yellow stencilled shoe prints – perhaps the remnants of some heritage trail (you can just make out a pair of them in the photograph) – and one-inch square bathroom tiles, some red, some blue, randomly and very sparsely pressed into the concrete footpath.

As we squint at this streetscape a water truck trundles by sprinkling water, not to settle the dust (recent floods here have eliminated dust), but to cool the melting asphalt. Too late for us. We are standing in the shade of the pub awning, gouging tar and stones from the soles of our Crocs, collected mid-afternoon when we stepped out of the car in a side street.

Happy New Year to all.

The decorated footpath

‘Pavements should not be dismissed as simply utilitarian. A close inspection of Sydney footpaths will reveal that they are seldom purely practical, and never plain. There is always some decorative embellishment embedded in the paving or applied to its surface.’ So begins a recent entry in the on-line Dictionary of Sydney. Naturally I find this article interesting, and that’s mainly because I wrote it.

Footpaths are a matter of civic pride. The state of the sidewalks is an indicator of a city’s wealth and progress. For appearances’ sake local governments not only upgrade footpaths in busy areas, often replacing asphalt with synthetic bluestone pavers, but they also commission pavement artworks. This mosaic at Erskineville Station has actual tools from the former Eveleigh Railway Workshops embedded in it.

It is also civic pride and the desire to make an area seem safe and well-managed, that prompts government authorities to outlaw graffiti. In Sydney it is unusual for pavement artists to be allowed to draw directly on the paving. Usually they are required to tape down some sort of plastic backing. This artist outside the Queen Victoria Building is an exception.

Greetings

Many thanks to friends, colleagues and total strangers who have shown interest and given support throughout the year.

And to those who have cricked necks after taking up a bit of pavement spotting yourselves …

HAPPY CRICKNESS !

King Street, South Newtown

Expletive deleted

Cadigal Reserve, Summer Hill

The signs, symbols and graffiti on the ground are all evidence of a territorial battle that is being waged among government authorities, property owners, motorists, cyclists and pedestrians. Now the stencils themselves are getting in on the act. It is clear that this walker has cracked up and has said something sharp to the bicycle. But a zealous graffiti obliterator has painted over his speech balloon and now we’ll never know what it was he said.

These particular stencils are on a pathway in Cadigal Reserve in Summer Hill. The pathway continues along beside Hawthorne Canal, which eventually runs into an arm of Parramatta River. 

The canal has a history of successive waves of pollution. Originally a stream called Long Cove Creek by early European settlers in Sydney, by the late 1800s it was fouled with house slops and the run-off from factories and slaughterhouses. The stink that it gave off was considered to be a health hazard and eventually it was excavated, re-aligned and lined with concrete in 1895 and renamed Hawthorne Canal.

But over the years the stormwater it collects has still been polluted with leaking sewage and dirt, horse manure, oil, chemicals, plastics, heavy metals and garbage washed off the roads and nearby rubbish dumps. And then, some time in 1990s, the canal was subjected to what some people regard as visual pollution – graffiti.

Hawthorne Canal, Summer Hill

Taggers and graffiti artists continue to express themselves on the walls and under the bridges there. Their marks have spread to the pathway beside the canal. Government authorities and a bush regeneration group have done much to improve the banks of the canal in recent years, so it is understandable that they might want to remove ‘unsightly’ graffiti from the asphalt. They can’t win though. More pavement graffiti has appeared since the last applications of grey paint. But I wish I had been there before they covered up that pedestrian’s outburst.

(Some of the information for this post was obtained from Hawthorne Canal – the history of Long Cove Creek, written by Mark Sabolch and published by the Ashfield & District Historical Society in association with the Inner West Environmental Group in 2006)