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Monday, October 7 • 2:00pm - 3:30pm
What Do Maintainers Do?

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Panel Description: Maintenance and repair are essential and take myriad forms in transportation. The talks on this panel will give us in-depth studies of what transport maintainers do all day.

James Risk: "Innovating Maintenance or Maintaining Innovation?: Policy and Practice in the United States Lighthouse Establishment, 1789 - 1852"

In the ninth official act of Congress, the United States federal government assumed responsibility for maintaining the young nation’s lighthouses, buoys, and public piers. Over the next six decades, the United States Lighthouse Establishment contracted with individuals who possessed mechanical ability, but who at the same time lacked formal education in science and the arts. In the course of their daily activities of maintaining the coastal lights, those individuals made improvements to the lighthouse lamps and developed new technologies to aid in lighting the coast. These advancements were made under the guise of maintenance, leading many to overlook the innovative aspect of the improvements. This also led the United States Lighthouse Establishment’s unstated policy of privileging maintenance over innovation. The Lighthouse Establishment’s practice highlights one of the important debates in the history of maintenance and innovation - one does not exist without the other. The relationship between the two is cyclical. In the case of the United States Lighthouse Establishment, maintenance bred innovation which in turn required additional maintenance. Between 1789 and 1852, the Lighthouse Establishment’s administration politicized this debate. The government favored the thrift of the maintainers while more formally educated engineers criticized the administration for its poor maintenance. The engineers attributed the poor maintenance to the administration’s failure to innovate and keep pace with real technological advances in optical science and ultimately used the argument against maintenance to wrestle control of the Lighthouse Establishment away from the Fifth Auditor and the Treasury Department.

Liska Chan: "Making-do in Manhattan’s Chinatown"

Using Manhattan’s Chinatown as a case study, this paper will build on arguments around making-do, first as described by Michel de Certeau in The Practice of Everyday Life as “tactics,” a form of improvisation, expanding it to include Svetlana Boym’s notion of “diasporic intimacy” (Critical Inquiry 24, 1998) as an expression of care, and Shannon Mattern’s Places Journal (November 2018) article, which explores the value of maintenance as an alternative to, or a form of, innovation. It will show that making-do found in Chinatown places values of invention and adaptation above those which are normative and standard, production over that of consumption, informal over formal, and vernacular and personal over that which is designed and mass produced. On Chinatown’s streets one cannot walk 20-feet without encountering evidence of making-do, where readily-available and cheap devices such as tape, hose, string, and wire are utilized to make barriers, shelters, temporary awnings, splash guards, and walls. Making-do does not adhere to the norms of common practices of urban place-making. One notices it because of its contrast to normative forms, yet it is ubiquitous and a defining feature in Chinatown. A paper that closely examines the aesthetics of making-do in Chinatown is an important first step in unpacking not only how it is a distinct and important practice that shapes everyday life in lower Manhattan, but also how this little studied vernacular is a form of maintenance, a potentially subversive act of inventiveness and ownership, a resistance to assimilation, and an expression of key dynamics in immigrant cultures between identity, enfranchisement, and the claiming of urban space.

Andrian Deoancă: "Worker's Skin"

This paper examines repair technicians’ practical, symbolic, and affective interaction with dirtiness at a state-run depot that services locomotives for Romania’s public passenger rail carrier. Since the fall of state-socialism in 1989, the Romanian Railways Company, a monolithic powerhouse of the centrally planned economy, had undergone a process of vertical separation that safeguarded public rail enterprises from privatization, but also sent them in a deep economic slump. This double-edged process of state encompassment and state divestment inflates the importance of mending aging equipment that public enterprises can not afford to replace, and simultaneously renders workers’ bodies vulnerable to processes of material decay. The poor state of the machines, the ruination of the workshops, and the low-tech, manual, nature of their labor bring technicians routinely in physical contact with grimy, viscous, and abject materials that contaminate their skin. Although getting dirty is part of the job and a symbolic centerpiece of their masculinity, technicians talk about dirtiness in a morally charged idiom of “filth” that casts their degraded labor in terms of embodied disgust and social abjection. Informed by twelve months of participant observation in an electrical locomotive shop at the Bucharest Depot, this paper employs “skin” and “filth” as heuristic devices to explore the contradictions of maintenance labor in a post-socialist context of underfunded public services, crumbling infrastructure, and degraded workers’ identity.

David Ballard: "Maintaining while Improving on the Fly: The US Air Traffic Control System"

The National Airspace System (NAS) is a digital and physical infrastructure that provides a setting in which diverse private and public air transport activities can occur simultaneously. The collection of activities enabled by the NAS –the users of the NAS – is sometimes called the National Air Transportation System. This paper will examine some of the challenges and difficulties faced by an air transportation system comprised of increasing numbers of users with diverse levels of capability. These challenges take place in a dynamic environment, one in which total (commercial) air traffic is growing and at times becoming more concentrated at specific high demand airports. Such changes in system use will bring new challenges to those who operate and maintain the aviation infrastructure. This is especially exemplified in the need to increase the digital capabilities of the aircraft using (especially) the high demand airports, with parallel needs to improve airport and air traffic control technologies and capabilities – an exercise sometimes likened to changing an automobile’s tires while it drives down a highway. Achieving an acceptable level of system safety while serving the needs of NAS users and their customers relies on a large cadre of workers and managers who exhibit a wide array of responsibilities, specializations, and skills. These range from air traffic controllers to airport baggage handlers.

James Longhurst: "Meter Maids are Maintainers: A Research Plan for the History of Disputed City Streets"

If we think of urban streets as socio-technical systems meant to be shared between multiple users (i.e., as a commons), then maintenance of those systems includes not just care for the physical infrastructure, but also day-to-day management of the conflicts between those varied users. Without such daily care, the entire system fails; the commons cannot be shared without management. Why then have the human practitioners (including traffic police and majority-female non-police parking attendants) of this necessary maintenance been mocked, belittled and held powerless over the last century? As a historian of urban and environmental policy, I propose a new research project that links the spirit of the Maintainers with work in mobilities studies, active transportation advocacy, and urban planning. The current system of automobility fails to effectively share urban space between competing users without ill-health, massive social inequity, and fatalities. It takes the perspective of the Maintainers to fully understand why this is so.

Abstracts may be edited due to character limits

Monday October 7, 2019 2:00pm - 3:30pm EDT
6ABC (2nd Floor)