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.

Destruction and adaptation

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In Sydney’s Angel Place, Michael Thomas Hill wants us to experience longing for nature long since lost and destroyed. His ‘Forgotten Songs’ installation charms us with its hanging bird cages and piped calls of native birds. But the sting is on the roadway where brass plaques inform us that the birds we are listening to “once sang in central Sydney, before Europeans settled and gradually forced them away”. The list of bird names inscribed there is like a wartime honour roll that we should follow along the laneway, lest we forget. The name label for the Regent Honeyeater is coincidentally positioned beside a manhole cover that, if opened up, would reveal the Tank Stream coursing beneath the lane in its modern-day guise as a stormwater pipe. Not only have trees been felled, Hill is reminding us, but the natural features of the landscape have been obliterated by the pavement itself.

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But be careful what you want us to wish for, Michael. Regret the loss of charming songbirds and what do we get instead? Squadrons of honking ibis – swampland birds that have flown back from the countryside to learn the art of city living. Street smart and urban savvy, these scavengers revel in consumerism’s cast-offs.

 

Inner city ibis, Surry Hills, Sydney (All photos by meganix)

Inner city ibis, Surry Hills, Sydney (All photos by meganix)

Michael Thomas Hill’s ‘Forgotten songs’ installation belongs to a class of text-laden public artworks on the pavement that reproach us for wrongdoings past and present. I have written about these in an article called ‘Words of regret’ in Issue 3 of Sturgeon magazine, which has just hit the stands.

 

Your typical pedestrian

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My WordPress avatar is a pedestrian traversing the asphalt. Despite a continuous battering by passing traffic, you can see that my pedestrian still has a burning heart, thanks to an implant by the 90s band Junglepunks.

Pedestrian and Junglepunks stencils, Broadway (Sydney), 1999

Pedestrian and Junglepunks, Broadway (Sydney), 1999

I have met many such pavement people since I began my graffiti project way back in 1999, but I seem to have only mentioned them once on this blog site. A desire to revisit them has been prompted by some of the photographs in a new little book by Phil Smith, Enchanted things, where he writes:

‘The pedestrian figures here were all intended by some designer as generic representations; yet to the glad eye they display their eccentricities, amputations, stretch marks, wrinkles, prostheses and rearrangements. They serves as memento mutabis (“remember you will change”), a reminder of your body as unfinished business, inscribed into its path and subject to all that passes along it, a history made on the hoof.’

In this photo-essay Phil, an ambulant academic at Plymouth University, UK, urges us to undertake an ‘experimental pilgrimage without destinations’ where disfigured pedestrian figures are just a small sample of the absurd, ironic and accidental artworks in the urban landscape that, if we take the trouble to notice them, will rearrange our attitude to the world.

My Sydney pavement pedestrians serve to confirm that walking in the builtscape is no simple matter.  They don’t need Phil to tell them they should LOOK, LOOK RIGHT, LOOK LEFT. But even if they have an opinion about what they see, they are made to shut up. It is sometimes permissible for them to manifest their gender or age status, but more often than not they are stripped to their naked genderlessness, a mere shadow of their supposed selves.

Although exposed to assault from all sides, they can hardly complain they weren’t warned. Even so, when cautioned to THINK BEFORE YOU CROSS and STEP SAFELY they generally decide to make a dash for it. Some do so with a defiant display of insouciance but others are so terrified by the traffic they jump right out of their shoes.

Pedestrian whose comments have been censored, Summer Hill, 2010

Pedestrian whose comments have been censored, Summer Hill, 2010

Wise walkers, Stanmore, 2000

Wise walkers, Stanmore, 2000

Unwise street crosser, Newtown, 1999

Unwise street crosser, Newtown, 1999

Left and right shoes left behind, Newtown, 2000

Left and right shoes left behind, Newtown, 2000

The more purposeful striders who stick to the footpath find they are obliged to share their way with cyclists and sometimes even elephants. Hidden trenches and falling manhole covers are additional hazards.

Casualties are high and many pavements are haunted by the remains of hapless pedestrians, last seen in healthy condition maybe twenty years ago, now reduced to making ghostly appearances from between the cracks in the asphalt.

Pathway parade, College and Liverpool Streets, Sydney, 2011

Pathway parade, College and Liverpool Streets, Sydney, 2011

 

Pedestrian in trench, Newtown, 1999

Pedestrian in trench, Newtown, 1999

Pedestrian under manhole cover, Chatswood, 2007

Pedestrian under manhole cover, Chatswood, 2007

Traces of a pedestrian, Berry, NSW, 2007

Traces of a pedestrian, Berry, NSW, 2007

 

Like my flat mates, I find it hard to keep up with Phil’s ambulant ruminations. Nevertheless, the next item on my reading list is another recent book by him, larger in size and no doubt equally challenging.  It’s called On walking … and stalking Sebald and its cover features an array of pedestrian figures. How could I resist?

 

Smith, Phil, 2014, Enchanted things: signposts to a new nomadism, Axminster: Triarchy Press.

Smith, Phil, 2014, On walking … and stalking Sebald: a guide to going beyond wandering around looking at stuff, Axminster: Triarchy Press.

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’.

Cemetery

On the outskirts of the city proper, the Cimetière du Père-Lachaise is apparently the most visited cemetery in Paris. Amongst its crowded terraces of new and old graves lie the remains of many notable people. At the office visitors can help themselves to a free map of ‘sépultures parmi les plus demandées’ (some of the most asked-for graves).

Even though there are many examples of pavement graffiti in the gritty streets of the surrounding 20th arrondisement I did not find any in the cemetery itself. Nevertheless there is still much to interest the pavement and/or graffiti aficionado here, not least of which was a heavy duty manhole cover whose cast-iron pattern resembled the cobblestone pathway in which it was set.

Père-Lachaise Cemetery

Jim Morrison’s grave was not hard to find, with its gathering of sightseers paying homage behind a metal crowd barrier and a guard keeping a watchful eye on their behaviour. A nearby tree was covered in graffiti, some of it scraped into the trunk and roots, some of it written on the bark in felt-tipped pen.

Jim Morrison’s grave: the barrier, the guard, the tourists, the tree (the grave itself is out of sight in this picture)

On the other hand, the grave of artist Modigliani was more difficult to find, set back several rows from the intersection of two avenues in a Jewish part of the cemetery. Amedeo Modigliani’s art is characterised by beautiful figures with elongated faces and bodies. He was the archetypal bohemian, his dissolute way of life leading to an early death in 1920 at the age of 35.

At this site there was graffiti written on the gravestone itself, but just small inscriptions, most of them blurred by the weather and indecipherable – a tiny Modigliani-style face scratched into the stone, remnants of red writing, something in blue felt-tipped pen, another in white-out. I find it interesting that Modigliani still apparently engages young people – is it his art or his lifestyle?

The grave of Amedeo Modigliani and his lover Jeanne Hébuterne

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

Look fight

Look! There’s a fight going on down the street. That’s what this sign seems to be saying. And it’s true. There’s a constant struggle for territory going on in the streets and almost every sign, symbol, graphic and graffiti marked on the roads and sidewalks is evidence of this struggle.

I made a video (actually, a photo compilation) on this topic last year. Called Street Writing, it’s been published in the on-line Interdisciplinary Themes Journal. Turn your sound on while you watch.

Hicks, Megan. 2010. Street fighting. Interdisciplinary Themes Journal, 1(1).

The ‘Look fight’ photograph was taken several years ago in Harris Street, Ultimo (Sydney). I’m delighted to say it’s been added as a guest photo on the ‘Submissions’ page of one of my favourite websites, Misplaced Manhole Covers.

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.

Garden borders

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A thoughtful graffitist provided a decorative fence for this little garden of asthma weed near Piss Alley in Enmore. To see another tiny nurtured garden, check out Darlinghurst Nights.

Elsewhere in Enmore, pavement degeneration around a cast iron alignment pin has created a niche for a weedlet garden. Many thanks to PC for his enthusiastic explanation of alignment pins, which indicate where the surveyed kerb line is. For me, official pavement embellishments such as hydrants, manhole covers, and the various kinds of alignment posts, pins and stones, can be enjoyed for their aesthetic qualities or read like an archive of urban development.99sep14sc-alignmentpin-blog1