Surface reflections

Northumberland Avenue, Stanmore, NSW. February 2012.

I have just had an article published in the Australasian Journal of Popular Culture called ‘Surface reflections’. It’s about personal inscriptions on the pavement – that is, one-offs written by people who might not dare put graffiti on a wall, but who are driven by some momentary urge or temporary preoccupation to mark the pavement.

I suggest that this kind of graffiti can sometimes reveal the hidden unconscious of a place.

The journal is a print publication and could not include many photographs, so I have made a slide show of all the examples I mention in my article. You can view the slide show here.

Hicks, Megan. 2012. ‘Surface reflections: Personal graffiti on the pavement’, Australasian Journal of Popular Culture, 1(3), 365-382.

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

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.

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.

Rest in peace (2)

Rest in Peace Ruben Hoddy

It’s a big old house divided into a warren of flatettes, in an increasingly desirable inner-west neighbourhood. The last low-rent place in a street where the house next door was the first to hit the one million dollar mark ten years ago. It has its share of excitement – the police, fire brigade or ambulance visit at least once a month, sirens screaming. There’s often shouting – in the house or on the street. There always seems to be rubbish piled out the front. Other people in the street mutter about how they wish ‘those people’ would go. But someone died there last month and someone cared enough to memorialise him on the footpath.

Take your pick

09jjul03-cp1060788-juststanstn-blogThe dance party stencils are getting bigger and bolder. Around the middle of June ads for JUST? at Club 77 were sprayed all over inner-west pavements. Those in the know know where Club 77 is.

Within a few days, Skiver TEK had obliterated the JUST? plectrum at Stanmore Station with their own stencil. I guess they had their reasons. But there are still plenty of those big JUST? stencils around.09jjul03-cp1060807-skiverstanstn

Arrows

 

09jjul03-cp1060801-walkers-blog4Arrow chases are the urban version of Hare and Hounds. Kids chalk arrows on the pavement instead of leaving paper trails, and Hash House Harrier clubs sometimes write esoteric instructions beside their arrows. I spotted the ‘Walkers’ arrow near Stanmore Station.

AF remembers being on a run with his club some years ago in Melbourne when the arrows petered out near a tram stop. Not knowing what else to do the group of sweaty runners got onto the next tram that came along and rode to the end of the line. There they found that the arrow trail had resumed with the instruction ‘ON ON’.

 

Arrow chases probably explain many of the chalk arrows you see in the streets, but others are written on the pavement for the benefit of strollers and shoppers, pointing the way to shops, markets and garage sales. These arrows come in all sizes with all kinds of text and embellishment. The ‘Psst – garage sale’ arrow and a set of others like it were in King Street, South Newtown, last year.

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