Monday, November 26, 2007

The Grateness of Sewers

A world without sewers is not only stinking and vile, it's a disease-ridden world that kills children and just about everyone else unfortunate to have to live in it. Sewers are a small thing most of us never give any thought to. Why should we? Sewers are underground, out of sight, out of mind. Like most of our beautiful Modernity, most people take sewers for granted. That in itself is a blessing of Modernity. To live without thinking about the blessings we have, it's a goodness in life.

Some people do know about our sewers, those who have to enter them and fix them when they're broken. To enter the dark realm of sewers one need an ingress, and there we have something our Modernity also provides us in abundance: a physical beauty reified by the happy mind, in this case, artwork in the form of manhole covers. Sewers are a beauty of Man's mind, a wonder of thinking and care for people. Sewers, if I may indulge in some seeming flight of rhapsodic hyperbole, sewers are expressions of love. One must love Humanity to care enough about it to make sewers for the benefit of strangers. And for those who enter in, some people make the covers that cover the holes into art. Those of us who walk in cities and see lovely manhole covers smile and are made better for it.

Ode to Karl Shapiro

I am struck by the beauty of manhole covers.
Addicted to their cryptic charms.
I have brushed away sand and debris
To reveal stamped symbols.

I have kneeled at steel rims,
To record autumn images:
Waxed dark crayons, across white paper
Taped to cold, notched-whelked lids.

I have seen steam rising
From cold wintry grates.
Glimpsed rusty iron peeping through
Snowy track and icy treds.

Summer's steaming Con Ed irons
Burned my hands: melted my crayons.

Rubbings, photos, prints and sculptures
Honor these urban artifacts:
Preserving their beauty
Never outdated.

- Bobbi Mastrangelo

What a wonderful thing to write a poem about manhole covers. What a wonderful person to think of it. A bit of blurb from sewer history org:

Artist Bobbi Mastrangelo of Poinciana, Florida, celebrates the beauty of manhole and utility covers in her inventive and beautifully textured multimedia pieces.

Recording the disappearing legacy of intricate cast iron manhole covers is an important element of her work. "When streets and sidewalks are repaved, the older lids are often replaced with modern, standardized covers. Because of our anti-pollution laws, many of our foundries closed. We now import many more covers from India and Brazil. Most of these designs are universal and plain. As I traversed the streets of Manhattan, I noticed the contrast in designs, shapes and purposes of the covers. Some of the oldest castings boasted intricate, artistic designs created by real craftsmen. After a while I realized that some of my artworks record the amazing patterns of older covers. So in essence, these are historic documentations."

You might be at this point asking yourself who makes manhole covers. Who are these men who work in iron foundries to make for those of us who notice works of art? You likely won't be surprised to learn that the men who make many of our manhole covers work in conditions straight out of nineteenth century England, like pages out of Friedrich Engels' Conditions of the Working Class in England. A horror story? You bet. That these men are proud of the work they do and of themselves is little consolation for the conditions of their lives. In the lives of the men below they will likely never see any noticable improvement in their working conditions. Their lives will likely always be hard. But things will improve, if not for the men below then for their children and for their grandchildren till it comes to the point no one but the most eccentric even notices the work of the grandfathers who made the manhole covers they walk over on the way to the office. Progress? It is sewers. It is the life of a man who takes pride in doing his job making metal for a city, sweating and burning and carrying on with joy. And the pain? Yes, there is always pain. Sacrifice? Sometimes so.

When I next walk on a sewer cover I will stop for a second and thank the men who made it, and I'll look at their children healthy and strong and happy, and I'll be happy. What a great world we have in our beautiful Modernity!
Truepeers sent this to me. I hope you can read it and grasp the wonder of these men rather than indulge in anti-American foolery.

New York manhole covers, forged barefoot in India
By Heather Timmons and J. Adam Huggins The New York Times
Monday, November 26, 2007

Eight thousand miles from New York, barefoot, shirtless, whip-thin men rippled with muscle were forging prosaic pieces of the urban jigsaw puzzle: manhole covers.

Seemingly impervious to the heat from the metal, the workers at one of West Bengal's many foundries relied on strength and bare hands rather than machinery. Safety precautions were barely in evidence; just a few pairs of eye goggles were seen in use on a recent visit. The foundry, Shakti Industries in Haora, produces manhole covers for Con Edison and New York City's Department of Environmental Protection, as well as for departments in New Orleans and Syracuse.

The scene was as spectacular as it was anachronistic: flames, sweat and liquid iron mixing in the smoke like something from the Middle Ages. That's what attracted the interest of a photographer who often works for The New York Times — images that practically radiate heat and illustrate where New York's manhole covers are born.

When officials at Con Edison — which buys a quarter of its manhole covers, roughly 2,750 a year, from India — were shown the pictures by the photographer, they said they were surprised.

"We were disturbed by the photos," said Michael S. Clendenin, director of media relations with Con Edison. "We take worker safety very seriously," he said.

Now, the utility said, it is rewriting international contracts to include safety requirements. Contracts will now require overseas manufacturers to "take appropriate actions to provide a safe and healthy workplace," and to follow local and federal guidelines in India, Clendenin said.

At Shakti, street grates, manhole covers and other castings were scattered across the dusty yard. Inside, men wearing sandals and shorts carried coke and iron ore piled high in baskets on their heads up stairs to the furnace feeding room.

On the ground floor, other men, often shoeless and stripped to the waist, waited with giant ladles, ready to catch the molten metal that came pouring out of the furnace. A few women were working, but most of the heavy lifting appeared to be left to the men.

The temperature outside the factory yard was more than 100 degrees on a September visit. Several feet from where the metal was being poured, the area felt like an oven, and the workers were slick with sweat.

Often, sparks flew from pots of the molten metal. In one instance they ignited a worker's lungi, a skirtlike cloth wrap that is common men's wear in India. He quickly, reflexively, doused the flames by rubbing the burning part of the cloth against the rest of it with his hand, then continued to cart the metal to a nearby mold.

Once the metal solidified and cooled, workers removed the manhole cover casting from the mold and then, in the last step in the production process, ground and polished the rough edges. Finally, the men stacked the covers and bolted them together for shipping.

"We can't maintain the luxury of Europe and the United States, with all the boots and all that," said Sunil Modi, director of Shakti Industries. He said, however, that the foundry never had accidents. He was concerned about the attention, afraid that contracts would be pulled and jobs lost.

New York City's Department of Environmental Protection gets most of its sewer manhole covers from India. When asked in an e-mail message about the department's source of covers, Mark Daly, director of communications for the Department of Citywide Administrative Services, said that state law requires the city to buy the lowest-priced products available that fit its specifications.

Daly said the law forbids the city from excluding companies based on where a product is manufactured.

Municipalities and utility companies often buy their manhole covers through middlemen who contract with foreign foundries; New York City buys the sewer covers through a company in Flushing, Queens.

Con Edison said it did not plan to cancel any of its contracts with Shakti after seeing the photographs, though it has been phasing out Indian-made manhole covers for several years because of changes in design specifications.

Manhole covers manufactured in India can be anywhere from 20 to 60 percent cheaper than those made in the United States, said Alfred Spada, the editor and publisher of Modern Casting magazine and the spokesman for the American Foundry Society. Workers at foundries in India are paid the equivalent of a few dollars a day, while foundry workers in the United States earn about $25 an hour.

The men making New York City's manhole covers seemed proud of their work and pleased to be photographed doing it. The production manager at the Shakti Industries factory, A. Ahmed, was enthusiastic about the photographer's visit, and gave a full tour of the facilities, stopping to measure the temperature of the molten metal — some 1,400 degrees Centigrade, or more than 2,500 degrees Fahrenheit.

India's 1948 Factory Safety Act addresses cleanliness, ventilation, waste treatment, overtime pay and fresh drinking water, but the only protective gear it specifies is safety goggles.

Modi said that his factory followed basic safety regulations and that workers should not be barefoot. "It must have been a very hot day" when the photos were taken, he said.

Some labor activists in India say that injuries are far higher than figures show. "Many accidents are not being reported," said H. Mahadevan, the deputy general secretary for the All-India Trade Union Congress.

Safety, overall, is "not taken as a serious concern by employers or trade unions," Mahadevan added.

A. K. Anand, the director of the Institute of Indian Foundrymen in New Delhi, a trade association, said in a phone interview that foundry workers were "not supposed to be working barefoot," but he could not answer questions about what safety equipment they should be wearing.

At the Shakti Industries foundry, "there are no accidents, never ever. Period," Modi said. "By God's will, it's all fine."

When I next walk on a sewer cover I will stop for a second and thank the men who made it, and I'll look at their children healthy and strong and happy, and I'll be happy. What a great world we have in our beautiful Modernity!

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