Monday, August 12, 2019

More than steel discs that keep us from falling into sewers

     Happy Manhole Cover Monday!
Ushuaia, Argentina (Photo by Neil Steinberg)
Rome, Italy
     What, you aren’t familiar? Let me fill you in.
     One of the wonders of social media is it allows like-minded individuals to find each other. While we focus on the extremes — white supremacists and other assorted nut-jobs who try to inflate their significance by banding together — fanatics aren’t the only kind of person who connects through social media.
     There are, for instance, folks who not only notice the manhole covers most blithely ignore, but admire them, photograph them and then share those photographs. On Twitter. Every Monday.
     “There were two things I was constantly taking pictures of: birds, and random bits of infrastructure,” said Bill Savage, a Northwestern University literature professor. “I was riding my bike north on Halsted and noticed a classic sewer cover, a radial design with a golf ball at the center.”
     ”A few people, including me and Bill, were interested in the infrastructure of the city around us,” added Robert Loerzel, a freelance journalist. “Little things, like manhole covers. The idea of doing it on a Monday was a random moment that happens on Twitter. I had posted some photos — or maybe Bill — on a Monday, and a cartoonist for the New Yorker coined the phrase.”
     ”I love manholes,” said that cartoonist, Julia Suits. “Love the iron, the metal, because I was a sculpture major at the University of Iowa, I worked at Beloit Foundry and loved the idea of sand cast objects. I’m really interested in economy of design. I prefer simple ones, old ones, worn down by buggy wheels, feet, traffic. That’s what my eye’s attracted to.”
     She remembers Manhole Cover Monday beginning like this.

     ”Bill Savage posted the first manhole, and I jumped on that and said, ‘Yeah!’ and retweeted it. We kept going, and I said, “Hey, Manhole Cover Monday.”"
     "A joke by her became a hashtag,” Loerzel said. “Now throughout the week, as I’m walking through the city, I’m keeping an eye out for manhole covers, for a design I haven’t seen before. Not many are new or different. But every once in a while I’ll find something odd and save it up for a Monday. Now other people in other parts of the world are tweeting pictures.”
     From Barcelona to Bolivia, Montreal to Mexico. And those are just from one Monday in July.
     When I’m overseas, I’m on the lookout. I once made a cab stop, in traffic in Rome, so I could leap out and grab a shot of the manhole cover with “SPQR,” the same abbreviation that legionnaires carried into battle 2,000 years ago. In March, I was standing at the bottom of the world, Ushuaia, Argentina. Looking down, I saw a manhole with “Cloacas” — Spanish for “sewers,” but, as any bird lover knows, also the term for the avian excremental cavity. “This’ll rock Manhole Cover Monday,” I thought, snapping a photo.
     ”I feel a connection, especially when they’re historical,” said Loerzel. “Some are very old, referring to government units that no longer exist: In Grant Park, there are covers that say ‘SPC’ — South Parks Commission. Back in the days before there was a Chicago Park District.”

To continue reading, click here.


16 comments:

  1. Replies
    1. Is that it? It did look strange, structurally. Didn't really think about it.

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    2. If you walk around Chicago, you'll see many lids upside down. That's what the sewer dept. calls them, 'lids'. Those six ribs on the Ushuia one are the structural support for it.
      BTW, I love that they cast the word 'cloacas' on the underside of the lid, as 'cloaca' means sewer.
      If you look at the ones in & around here, they're very finely made by one of two foundries in either Michigan or Wisconsin. Go to NYC & they have crudely made ones from India. I once saw a Wall St. Journal article on the Indian made ones & the workers in the foundry were all barefoot!

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    3. East Jordan in Michigan and Neenah in Wisconsin? They both made Chicago lids for decades. Do they still?

      I first heard of the Neenah facility after reading the Daily News coverage of a strike there, in the early Sixties. Picket lines, cops, tear gas, rioting...straight out of the Thirties. East Jordan is way up north, around Traverse City, and there used to be an East Jordan State Forest that looked, felt, and even smelled like the Colorado Rockies...wonderful rock formations, covered by many colors of moss, and acres of huge pines. I think the foundary still exists, but I don't know what became of that lovely natural paradise. Maybe the name has changed since I was there in the late Seventies. It no longer appears on maps.

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    4. I have a collection of photos and prints made from utility covers across the country and I'm based in Chicago. Would love to share with you. www.stormprintcity.com

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    5. Yep! East Jordan Iron Works [EJIW is their mark] & Neenah Foundry make almost all of Chicago's lids.

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  2. Intriguing but a) there's no link for the "click here" this morning; and b) browsing to either www.suntimes.com or chicago.suntimes.com comes up a "Website certificate revoked" message from ESET. So much for starting my Monday morning in the sewers:-\

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    Replies
    1. Sorry. Yeah, I was waiting for the paper to post the story, then forgot and went to sleep. All cleared up now. Sorry for the inconvenience.

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    2. The ST site is blocked in Firefox, but does work in Chrome.

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  3. I hope todays EGD doesn't spur a resurgence in manhole cover theft. Years ago, pre 1950, an uncle and accomplice were found on the family back porch in Rogers Park drinking over the manhole cover they'd stolen. When someone asked the inebriated pair about the plans for their prize and pointed out the potential legal questions, sanity ruled and the disk was rolled back to its hole. If my memory is correct, the accomplice became one of Chicago's most famous attorneys. Love the Chicago Sewers pic, but isn't the Argentina cover upside down in it's hole?

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    1. You're the second person to suggest that, regarding the Argentinian manhole. Must be. I don't think my column could spur a resurgence in anything, although I have heard from a number of readers happy to become acquainted with Yasso bars.

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    2. My sister is currently in the throes of Yasso mania and it's all your fault.

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  4. Great column. Never look at a manhole the same again. Probably real interesting ones in the older parts of the city.

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  5. Did Neenah ever forge covers? Getting picky maybe, but forging is quite different from casting.

    The metallurgist in me has always loved the art of manhole covers. I have my own little survey of different covers here on the campus of Iowa State University.

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    1. Picky, and a victim of what I call the "Two-Definitions Problem." You are thinking of the first definition of forge, which is to heat metal and work it. Doubtful they do that. But there is a second definition, to make something out of metal by stamping it. A possibility. And a third, to make something in general. Which they certainly do at Neenah when bringing manhole covers into being.

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  6. The covers in New Orleans are rather attractive, and there is some issue with people stealing them as well, although apparently less so now than in times past, with tighter airport screening.

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