Metageographic Pavement

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? The surprisingly crisp nature of several strikes, dating almost a century ago, gave way to more voices of a hidden architecture underfoot when set in drivewaysof distinctive calling cards of artisans of concrete.

H.C. Orth, Deakin Street/Berkeley, CA
Ensor Buell Horeshoe, 1945 on Deakin St. off of Ashby Ave. (Berkeley CA)

Aa if disjecta membra of a fragmentary lost chronicle never read in full, the strikes were local testimonies of local contractors who had paved the sidewalks of a growing city. 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. And in a time of the dread of impending escalation of mortality rates across the nation, it wasn’t only by fancy that the names seemed more and more absurdly to acquire import as elegant if restrained epitaphs at a time when we were all gripped by uncertainty about futures in more alarming ways.

W.O. Nelson, 1931/Avalon Avenue, Berkeley CA

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, 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. My brother reacted to COVID-19 by 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 designed by Frederick Law Olmstead as a site for memory’s repository, where the bodies of the first Civil War dead were buried with considerable pomp at its nucleus.

Whitman praised the public spaces of a garden cemetery movement, like Green-Wood, as sites of introspection. As a journalist, Whitman was so taken with the opening of Green-Wood as a site for reflective thoughts 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. As an early advocate of flâneurie; Whitman took it upon himself to write articles advocating strolls in “that Beautiful Place of Graves” to give “room to the thoughts that would naturally arise there,” in contact with democratic ideals and to affirm a sense of “the passing of blood an air through my lungs,” 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.

Art Concrete Works, Oakland June, 1930 (Prince St., Berkeley CA)

Was concrete in fact an art of memory? Concrete was for sure a promising new way of designing public space, as much as a new basis for the public utilities system in Oakland from 1917 when “Art[ificial] Concrete Wks” of Oakland began to provide cover plates for meter boxes to the Utility District. The local outlet of a Pasadena-based corporation founded in 1910 fabricating cast concrete that would later change its name to Brooks, but was probably an outfit of artisanal concrete that predates the paving of public space. Whitman had extolled the prospect of Greenwood cemetery of three hundred and fifty acres by 1852, by the immigrant artist John Bachman revealed as a panorama filed with concrete and stone 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 Cemetery 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 from Green Wood 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, occasioning the prospectival composite panorama “Greenwood Cemetery, Near New York” of 1852, already dotted with new monuments.

Detail of tinted lithograph of John Bachman, “Bird’s Eye View of Greenwood Cemetery, Near New York” (1852)

My energy wasn’t nearly as sustained, and my search for assembling a similar panoramic remove was not so successful or so dedicated to unity: the fragmentation of these marks seemed a different sort of piecemeal landscape of individual making over time. In an era of isolation and far less crowded streets, the names set in the pavement assumed a simple eloquence of past lives.

G. Musso, 1937. Regent St., Oakland CA

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 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. The bizarre extension of an Italian colonial project that had begun before Italians were even made–and perhaps as an open attempt to give Italy legitimacy and status as a nation that its leaders so desired, on the game board of the global map that was being played on Africa as a continent–colonized a national space with impunity by erasing the independence of the last African nation to map itself, ten years before the Italian invasion of 1935.

The map of the sole remaining independent African nation that this new remapping wiped off the map of the continent all but erased it, and prepared for a bloody century of war.

And meanwhile, on nearby Harmon St., there was a trace of the collective efforts of street paving of new urban communities on the Oakland-Berkeley border, evident in the small traces underfoot of the major role that the Works Project Administration had played in reshaping the East Bay, from Tilden Park to the Temescal Reservoir, and the public spaces of much of Oakland, among its infrastructure projects in Berkeley: indeed, the WPA sidewalk stamps that Mark Brucker spied on 53rd Street, 56th, and 58th streets, adding concrete sidewalks, curbs, and gutters for better drainage to the sidewalks on the way to the Ashby BART, or grace the steps near Sausal Creek.

Botanizing the pavement brought its own rewards. The past public projects that had so redefined the Bay Area from the work of the CCC in Lake Temescal and Tilden Park provided an actual new urban infrastructure for the city, expanding access to much of the East Bay hills, and encouraging exploration of the greener areas of Oakland.

9. 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.


Filed under Bay Area, Berkeley CA, borders, Oakland, urban geography

4 responses to “Metageographic Pavement

  1. Thanks for this wide-ranging meditation on our sidewalks. They’re a palimpsest of East Bay history, a diachronous record in constant turnover, that anyone can start to read once they turn their eyes to their feet.

    • Indeed, it’s hard not to read a story of urban expansion and landcover change. The palimpsest of temporalities is cool to discover. I was amazed to find a Blake and Bilger stamp, as best as I can read of 1909, on my own block. The range of WPA strikes in many neighborhoods from Temescal to Sausal Creek evokes a large effort of local improvement, as well.

  2. Thanks for this wide-ranging meditation on our sidewalks. They’re a palimpsest of East Bay history, a diachronous record in constant turnover, that anyone can start to read once they turn their eyes to their feet.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.