I’ve spent some time in New York and noticed its iconic steaming manholes. I thought every major American city had the same manhole and valve covers, perhaps produced by the same company, like some niche monopoly in a strange and unique industrial market.
One day in August 2011 I discovered this imagined monotony doesn’t exist. I was walking by the Hynes Convention Center MBTA stop and noticed what seemed to me a beautifully textured manhole cover. I posted it on Instagram. That week I couldn’t help but notice more manholes, each one different from the next. I made it a hobby to photograph them. I started noticing all the unique valve covers as well. I learned that many pipes lay underneath us, with their only evidence an amount of metal peeping through concrete on a sidewalk or street.
The main differences between manhole covers and valve covers are size and the manner in which the cover is opened. Manhole covers have pick holes into which a tool can be inserted to lift the cover. The covers pictured here, from Brighton, require a sort of wrench to twist open the bolt that seals them.
The beauty is in the layers of history visible – some from human impact, some from nature: paint, oxidation, layers of cement or tar, and erosion. The archaeologist in me tries to guess how many years have passed since the cover has been opened or even noticed.
Stephanie Hatch keeps her eyes on the streets of Boston.