One of the consequences of the pandemic is a far keener sense of the rapaciousness of surveillance capitalism as we both rely on online ordering and virtual space, as we follow rates of infections, mortality, virus variants, and, now vaccination and its limits. Walks during the pandemic often re-explore the neighborhood, navigating it as if it was reading a map of a place I live: an unexpected encounter with a benchmark in the neighborhood, increasingly empty of pedestrians or sounds, begun to reappear. As I walked, in something like strolls and extended errands, I was struck by how mapping tools stared back, from the pavement, in surprising ways, exploring the local in reaction to the heightened and altered sense of awareness to surroundings, brought by the an increasing sense of deprivation of contact during the first year of the pandemic, in search of reflection on morning strolls over the year since the first stay-at-home orders hit the Bay Area. As if revealing a liveliness in its placement, an adjustment in the concrete pavement, that conjured the point-based aspirations of spherical or ellipsoid reference systems, embodied by 240,000 stations marked set in stone over one and a half century. If most recently incarnated in the geodetic system adopted by the National Geodetic Survey, precising longitude, latitude, and height, the markers set in the ground or sunk in rocks once guaranteed a smooth sense of objectivity and assurance of the objectivity and reliability of the mapping of a continuous world.
There was a conscious joke on the tin disk slapped onto the asphalt in front of me. It interrupted the point-based mapping, in its inscribed affidavit promising instructions to make an antipodes sandwich, albeit with a soggy slice of bread on the opposite antipode, the faux benchmark emulated a USGS monument caught my attention one day. While the tin disk is less a “benchmark” struck by USGS, the declaration of the antipodal relation was the sort of monument that might glide from one’s attention, like a water drop of oil-cloth, in the manner Robert Musil in 1927 described how monuments can evade our “perceptual faculties” and repel the attentive observation that they are supposed to attract: in the years after World War I, as memorials arose to individual heroes and soldiers who perished for the nation, beyond great figures of state, the multiplication of commemorations of figures on pedestals betrayed a similar repertoire, Musil knew well as a military man in the army and trained engineer: his caustic suggestion that makers of memorials would do well learn more from mass advertising to grab public attention was not entirely ironic.
But we had found a new memorial for the nation, hard to look at and difficult to scrutinize for meaning, as the tyranny of maps of infections and mortality that in 2020 as monuments of the nation replaced the monument of the Border Wall Donald J. Trump had promised to construct in 2015 and built until now. Was the alternate spatiality, that made fun of the point-based systems of mapping that were the basis for national surveys and, historically, the adjudication of border disputes, punctured by the tongue-in-cheek plaque? The tracking of the coronavirus had almost etched the point-based nature of objective counts of infection and of mortality for upwards of a year, and I laughed to acknowledge the precision of its promise to position sliced bread.
–in ways that seemed a nice interruption of the chaos of a pandemic that over two years left us looking for security in time-series graphs, watching the escalating curves of mortality and infection rates that refuse to flatten, as we squirmed to come up with new means of containing viral spread, and found we were pretty shockingly and disarmingly poor at doing–and even getting good numbers to track in most of the maps that we had been relentlessly producing in dashboards, newspapers, and websites to try to gain a sense of purchase on the spread of infections of COVID-19. Was this only a midlife crisis, or did all memorials not demand an eery sort of “being toward death” that the philosopher Martin Heidegger had analyzed, calling into question the very factors of arbitrariness of infections and the crisis of questions of freedoms so often misunderstood or reflexively returned to in many states, and indeed the question of agency and of self: for the viral spread we were tryint to map map had interrupted the lives of so many in ways that one never might associate with modernity, but were, one had to acknowledge, born of anthropogenic change. One certainly needed to regain bearings on the world.
As if in despair, I had as many turned to birdsong, as a way to find reassurance on what might be called the natural world. There was almost an unforeseen by-product of the pandemic in the somewhat existential search for a new form of orientation, from the play of sunlight on leaves to sudden views of flowers, or even the increased meaning of song lyrics, or appearance of budding magnolias and the seed pods of sweet gums on the curb outside my house: if haunted by melancholy, ther was something like a sea of possible redemption, to exaggerate, in the odd counterplay of reduced traffic, from the new acoustic empty spaces of the pandemic that I tried to fill, as they were filled with birdsong, in reaction to what E.P Derryberry et al have called the new behavioral traits of avian populations in this silent spring of reduced generation of anthropogenic sounds and questions of human agency. Despite the rather precipitous decline of avian populations across a large part of North America, due in great part to anthropogenic change, I was fortunate in Northern California to be at a center where birdsong seemed to fill the empty acoustical space outside my home, and to find a sense of new bearings every morning by their chirps, trills, and song, especially as mating season seemed to heighten among migratory white-crowned sparrows this Spring as they filled the redwood trees and sweet gums in the area, battling for positions in their branches.
If all mapping is a process, the process of mapping mortality and infections of COVID-19 made me seek to map place in new ways, and to do so as a form of something like counter-mapping, focussing not only on birdsong, but the network of actors who had created a sense of certainty in the past, as much for therapeutic balance as to come to terms with the shifting lay of the land in he first year of the pandemic. Even as I watched infections spread far removed from where I lived, or process the high rates of infection and loss of life far away and nearby. If the walks we make are often tracked by GPS, the evidence on the sidewalk of past Berkeley’s offered a set of distancing operations to get through the day. These markers, etched on the sidewalk in strikes that were often dated and signed, seemed more like markers of mortality, another injunction of being toward death, or perhaps they were more of a way of gaining balance and perspective on death as mortality rates were on everyone’s mind, as speaking about Heidegger seemed unnecessary as COVID-19 was so clearly poised to be the leading cause of mortality yet again in the United States, ending and all our shibboleths of modernization distancing death from the world.
My friend Jeff had warned me sagely when I was moving into the neighborhood I now live in Berkeley, I would be often walking into a time warp, into a zone inhabited by ghosts of a Berkeley past. The local Self-Realization Foundation had closed since, as the suspiciously flourishing fish store that ran a healthy trade in pot, but a plethora of community centers and legal advocacy groups remained, with the odd travel agent. And the time warp became more present, as his words hit me in unexpected ways in a few years. Taking stock of the local in West Berkeley, I walked on foot on in what were often surprisingly restricted routes, meditating on their details in moments like walks for coffee, talking routes I knew well but that of course also seemed utterly changed. Balancing the spatialities of local and global was alternately pressing and depressing. Exploring the neighborhood streets that I got to know again on foot with increased regularity, I found myself seeking landmarks and sites of reassurance–and often revery–as a needed form of distraction, and a resting place of sorts, perhaps to calm the sense of distraction that hemmed in indoors, searching for a revery but also of new ways of inhabiting and opening up my own personal sense of space, seeking needed stability,–either while sheltering in place or as all purchase on security and stability was compromised by the pandemic, set off from the natural world., to find some sense of stability a century removed in time. Was this a middle age crisis coinciding with the pandemic?
The sense of an alternative spatiality of the past that opened up on the sidewalk I walked across without paying attention seemed a new side for engaging the local, and indeed an art of the local that was affirmed in the logo nearby, boasting the “art[ificial] concrete wks” that manufactured bespoke blocks from the Oakland Quarry, long used for the paving of roads, for the utilities firm, set on the pavement just two passes from the medallion that first called my attention to the antipodes. .
In one version of the story, with archives and libraries closed, I traveled to outdoors archives of the streets and pavement as if reading of a local necrology of the neighborhood. The strikes of concrete pavers in deserted streets seemed to tap local memories preserved in the pavement as a needed purchase on place about to fade–the 1908 strike placed by C.E. Burnham, now worn down by footsteps of passersby. The displays of these names distilled something like an object lesson of the world, a stripped down concrete experience of the local, or an urban panorama of the past.In another sense, not satisfied and disturbed by the maps of infections, I shifted from the global and national scales of space to the local, finding solace and affirmation where it occurred on sidewalks of the streets where I lived, the surviving strikes amidst much of South Berkeley’s historically cracked pavements.
As Charles Baudelaire had, a century ago, defined the flâneur as most at home in the urban crowd, the alternate multitude on the ground offered an odd sort of company, attuned to urban stimuli, this was almost an urban imaginary of the past whose concreteness was far more tangible amidst what Baudelaire had called “the midst of the fugitive and the infinite,” if the “ebb and flow of movement” on the streets was far more attenuated. As if in a stretch between the imagination and reality, I couldn’t help noticing, these names of these “old Italians,” those who have been dying, as the late Lawrence Ferlinghetti in 1979 described as “dying and dying/day by day . . . for years”–Joseph Catucci of Cassano delle Murge, in the province of Bari; Frank Salamid or his brother Angelo of Monopoli in Puglia; Lino J. Lorenzetti and his fellow Pugliese Nat Lena–peering up from the pavement from over a century ago.
The classification of concrete marks and strikes made such botanizing of the asphalt apt for capturing pandemic melancholy that was concretized in concrete of these older artifacts of the urban environment. There was something akin to a botanizing of the pavement in the search for signatures of the local past, personifying the ability of “botanizing on the asphalt,” not to get lost in the city, but orienting oneself by its signs: the first introduction of pavers’ marks was “art[ificial] stone” and a form of urban artifice, framed by grasses, but where walking suggested new forms of attention that transcended the natural. Walter Benjamin, who grew up in Berlin, but felt himself most at home exploring modernized spaces of Paris that Baudelaire described, a flâneur walking not by orienting oneself by a map, but by losing oneself passionatly but restlessly in protean urban forests of shop fronts, signage, and side-shows that belied old street names.
For Benjamin imagined the ability to sense the built city as attentively as “the wanderer in the manner of a twig cracking and snapping under his feet, or the startling call of a bittern in the distance, or the sudden stillness of a clearing with a lily standing still at its center” but the city hardly remained still: the flâneur felt themselves a giddy heightening of senses achieved by way wandering in its constructed space, attentive to the dress and movements of inhabitants and walkers as an urban observer who was engaged n “botanizing on the asphalt,” a turn of phrase both suggesting the new habitat of the late nineteenth century, of the restlessness of the ethnographer of urban space that linked nature and manmade concrete creation. If the urban space stood still, the flâneur seemed to be testing the permanence and habitability of urban space, as a bohemian, perhaps indulging in narcotics as I depended increasingly on more coffee. The signs suggested a weird uncertainty, and an escape. Were there messages in the imprint of P.M. Henning placed proudly on Hillegass Avenue, or just immobile snapshots of what seemed a less troubled world, akin to archeological ruins?
If Walter Benjamin’s injunction to “lose oneself in the city as one loses oneself in the forest . . . calls for a different sort of schooling,” the pavers of the neighborhood provided a way of familiarizing myself with the global outside the preoccupation of COVID-19, taking refuge as if a local antiquarian with these elegantly framed calling cards that seemed placed in the concrete that became new objects of attention on early morning walks. When Benjamin had famously described the urban flâneur as one “who goes botanizing on the asphalt,” in Walter Benjamin’s famous phrase, he wasn’t talking about pavement, or urban foliage, but scientifically exploring streets whose personal details could only be individually mapped while sheltering in place.
For Benjamin, the flâneurs were a new social type who explored cities as if they “opened out, becoming landscape.” They explored urban geography as a landscape best learned by wandering and during the pandemic, trips to get coffee offered urban odysseys; the strikes of pavers framed by squares or diamonds offered imaginary orientation on the city and an archeology of space, as the birds which had migrated to the city, as if the Sonoma coast’s avian population–save shorebirds–arrived at my stoop, issuing insistent cries and sliding scales from their tiny lungs that seemed a discussion of bird banter that filled the quieter skies, air travel eliminated entirely or reduced, ambient sounds of traffic pausing, and increased pirouetting of birdsong seeming to expand its register. In the early twentieth century Paris, Benjamin sought a science of wandering in the city or getting lost–the art of the flânuer or street-walker whose urban itineraries the poet Charles Baudelaire saw as a signature of modernity, a man who saw the urban crowd as his habitat, as much “as air is for the bird or water for the fish,” whose built environment and its anonymous crowds became both a passion and indeed profession to engage as a spectator of others.
While Benjamin tried to define the basis of these poetic bonds to the nineteenth century Paris whose streets he explored, he pushed on the notion of an urban habitat, declining to separate sciences from the enjoyment of art, and deny “botanists can awaken a feeling for the beauty of landscape;” and in my fixation on that habitat, ephemeral strikes formed a forest of names I ventriloquized, as if to substitute for the absence of passersby. The time-stamped strikes were less as an antiquarian exercise of collection, than an archeology of place, as if redeeming pasts that rose to the surface of the sidewalk for an instant, set apart from surrounding foliage as tactile evidence of a past. Pursuit of the ephemeral drew me to pavers’ marks long passed over without remark, as if they held some sort of meaning about the urban space I seemed less part of that ever before, but wed. If Benjamin had found in Paris confirmation of how Baudelaire had privileged the city as a site of the fleeting, transient, and contingent, in the heightened contingency of the first year of the pandemic, the stability of the stamps on the sidewalk were sites of looking back in time, to earlier spatialities, outside of the tyranny of maps.
Were the signs underfoot something of a benefit squeezed from city walking, as air travel, motor travel, and trains were forestalled, and my attention focused on the local pedestrian space as an untapped pedagogy of idleness, born of a desire to lose one’s self, more than one’s way among the relatively restricted routes of walking, not following a guide, but finding the lives of the pavers who had, around the turn of the century, transformed the ground I’d long walked over without looking much at it or giving it attention?
While the online archives of paving stones provided a basis for adding information to the concrete strikes, as if each walk was a way of finding concreteness in an urban archeology of an old urbanized space, the names seemed more and more absurdly to acquire import as epitaphs at a time when we were all gripped by uncertainty about futures in more alarming ways. I admired the dedication of the San Antonio history teacher who planned a course on local cemeteries’ graves at Palo Alto College that took new wings during COVID-19, as cleaning graves’ headstones led to an ongoing justice project of unearthing lives, now readable at @sanfernando2stories, letting those born in the 1890s and early 1900s speak in a moment of uncertainty, from volunteer soldiers in the Philippine-American War or families of immigrants arrived in the Texas Revolution, or those dead from TB, as a true project of social justice. As Joyce Burnstein’s Epitaph Project, an ongoing dialogue with the epitaphs of the dead to engage selfhood, impermanence, and the writing of collective memory from transient materials, the paving stones seemed a collective meditation on impermanence and permanence in the city. As my brother has reacted to COVID-19 by longer walks in Brooklyn’s Green-Wood Cemetery, strolling among memorials for distance, the opportunities for walking in Oakland’s Mountain View Cemetery, off-limits to the public from March, 2020, save for funerals, raised questions about access to the monumental landscaping that was designed by Frederick Law Olmstead as a site for memory’s repository: an early addition to the garden cemetery movement in the United States, like Green-Wood, as sites of public prominence for national reflection. Walt Whitman, then a journalist, so taken with the opening of Green-Wood as a site for reflective thoughts shortly as it was being laid out as a space of commemoration that he brought groups of schoolchildren to the site he deemed “pleasing yet melancholy,” as if to commune with mortality in an early case of the flâneurie, and probably took it upon himself to write a set of articles advocating strolls among graves in “that Beautiful Place of Graves” as a space for “room to the thoughts that would naturally arise there,” in contact with democratic ideals and to affirm a sense of his own vitality, “the passing of blood an air through my lungs,” and to his heart, as a site for affirming his own vitality. Whitman often visited Greenwood Cemetery from the time the plots for graves were first laid and memorials to public figures of state rose, visiting its space after work, with regularity; the cemetery was a site about which he had often written as a newspaperman, that may have afforded an alternate vision of the unity of the nation. Whitman came up when I talked with my brother about Green-Wood walks a bit, but the names pressed on the concrete sidewalks, if far less sublime, offered a similar space for reflection while sheltering in place.
Concrete was a promising new way of designing public space, as much as a new basis for the public utilities system in Oakland. When the prospect of Greenwood cemetery was presented as an elegant prospect of three hundred and fifty acres by 1852, by the immigrant artist John Bachman revealed as a panorama filed with monuments, Whitman had long praised the site that was “expected to be ready for interments in the course of a few months,” as a model of the new Garden Cemtery movement, a “second ‘Mount Auburn'” whose “consecrated ground . . . led [visitors] into a train of reflections, at once pleasing, yet melancholy.” Long before peopled with neoclassical monuments as a patriotic space of inclusion, the site’s meanders led one on a pastoral site for reflection removed from the scars of enslavement that had disfigured the country and nation as a whole. If the view of the cemetery was one of several of New York’s public space, he designed in elevated perspective, as the views of Paris and Swiss cities he had designed from 1849, it celebrated the city’s evolving form as a built landscape as a new pastoralism in ways that Whitman must have knew would be available to readers, which he had celebrated as an opportunity readily available for all that he lauded as a site of “one of the finest prospects in the vicinity of New York” from which could “be distinctly seen Brooklyn, the bay and harbor of New York, Staten Island, and the Quarantine,” in 1839, for the Universalist Union, offering “profound calm” removed from the urban grid, as the 1852 composite panorama “Greenwood Cemetery, Near New York” reveals.
My energy wasn’t nearly as sustained, and my search for a panoramic remove not so successful. In an era of isolation and far less crowded streets, the names set in the pavement assumed a simple eloquence of past lives.
Luigi Villata had arrived from Piedmont to join his brother Angelo in the pavement trade, laying sidewalks in much of North Oakland in the early 1950s, but G. Musso had lain pavement from the 1920s in Oakland, but did his name gain any added significance after Mussolini had gained authority in the Italian state since 1922? Mussolini openly proclaimed America destined to decline due to the lower birth rate of whites vis a vis blacks, but natalist beliefs were not viewed as un-American, but rather of a piece with segregation enshrined in the Claremont neighborhood when racial covenants restricted ownership of homes to those of “pure caucasian blood; Musso, an established Oakland contractor who often laid polychrome concrete, displayed his pavement stamp as B. Mussolini insisted on the purity of race and Italy’s spazio vitale, as he set sights on an “impero Italiano” in Africa, when home ownership was predominantly restricted in much of Oakland and Berkeley to exclude any “person of any race other than the Caucasian or white race.” Confronting such offensive racial covenants prove traumatic in the Bay Area–and taxing, as the legacy is perpetuated by hard to fill out necessary paperwork at the office of the County Clerk, and if deemed unenforceable in 1948, their legality was not contested until the Civil Rights Act. As renaming spread across the Bay Area, questioning public memorialization with hopes to the purification of public memory, Musso’s signature jumped out-predating Mussolini’s first racial laws to segregate residences of whites and Africans in the “Africa italiana” as he built the first forts in Ethiopian land by 1930 that renewed claims to empire by 1936–eliminating the last independent African country and eventually erasing African independence from the map.
What hidden spatialities of identity were present in the pavers that seemed dated August, 1931? The state geographical institute had enshrined Ethiopia as Abyssinia–enlarging the “spazio vitale” of Italy’s third empire, of course, even if that meant denying the independence of the only independent nation in African continent.
It seems more than necessary to remember the map of the sole remaining independent African nation that this new remapping wiped off the map of the continent and all but erased for a bloody century of war.
1. As our world was fracturing on multiple divides, the textured plaques of immigrants who paved concrete in the early twentieth century offered a textured pedagogy of immediacy, making present on less traveled pathways how the old city grid in almost redemptive ways. The excavation of that grid was a way of orienting myself to the past inhabitants of the region oddly comforting, and not only as a way to explore the nucleus of the urban sprawl.