5. We were balancing the local and the global with renewed acuity, by tracking the rates of infection and hoping for better orientation as the pandemic spread, and what that meant about where where. The bigger picture was insistently disturbing. The increasingly steep divides that exist between rates of infection across the region, a year later, suggest a scary divide uncomfortable to map, whose sharp divides escalate as one pans out, that remind one of steep inequalities of infection rates and public health challenges in the rather sharp inequalities that span from 2700 cases of COVID-19 per 100,000 inhabitants in the zip code where I live to almost double to 5701 per 100,000 nearby, and surpass double at 6941.3, taking the freeway down past San Leandro, encapsulating or condensing a gaping divide of our nation, sharper than that between “blue” states and “red” states as inequalities across the nation emerged insistently enough to make one do more than scratch one’s head, as the pulse of the pandemic seemed to pop out in ways fractured along clear divides in the Bay Area, as in the rest of the world.
As we watched the pandemic unfold on those most stripped-down and essential tools of data visualization, the time-series line graph, to try to chart the magnitude of death, case of infection, and indeed of hospitalization over time. Even if the tallies of such numbers seem called into question, and were eerily disembodied from space, or territoriality, we clung to them in an attempt to register our purchase on the pandemic whose numbers were so hard to aggregate in meaningful ways. From early on, we understoo that increases in income inequality and poor confidence in government institutions correlated closely onto the highest rates of death, and recognized the problems of low trust in government that was being shouted from many state capitols and the US Capitol was itself a dangerous driver of mortality. For the advancing of COVID-19 was a disease of globalization not only in how it was transmitted by routes of global transit, across spatial networks, or in indoor air, but advanced by the increased income inequalities that globalization drove. But these lines were rising with a terrifying rate of doubling that my own lines of navigation on the ground may have been an attempt to distance myself or just keep at bay.
There was, in short, more than enough reason to be looking at the ground, and enough sense of dislocation to make us feel unmoored from any bearings on how so much virus had had such devastating effects-even if we were also caught staring at time-series iine graphs to materialize a sense of bearings in our disorientation. I turned to walks from he start of the pandemic, with a new sense of urgency: I re-explored the neighborhood, re-navigating it as if it a map with its own temporality, as much as a place I live: an unexpected encounter with a benchmark in the neighborhood, picutred in the header to this post, laughing at the sense of stability that it provided as I sought orientation on a street emptied of pedestrians or street sounds.
In an eery intermingling of rural and urban, categories that seemed ever more fluid–the skyrocketing number of sightings in the last Great Backyard Bird Count that the Cornell Ornithology Laboratory noted suggests a wonderful long weekend of citizen science this last February–the expansion of birdsong had no doubt lead many to orient themselves to calls and songs by consulting apps like eBird with far greater readiness. After all, my stoop was sounding increasingly like a bird shop, with calls and songs of finch, scrub jays, white-crowned sparrows, crows, chickadees and towhees crowding the street in what seemed a more contented and far livelier conversation, from persistent “sh-sh-sh-toh-wheet!–wheet!–wheet!” to the sustained fourishes and staccato trills that tapered off bu resumed in the evening around dinner. Berkeley lies low on areas of conservation priorities in northern California, but lies near one of the few areas of the country not affected by a broad-based and rather terrifying image of avian decline based on radar maps of migration in the Pacific and continental United States: but it seemed that the chirping of birds in my yard seemed to stake new claims of territoriality to perches in trees seemed downright exultant. The biosocial bees in the back yard hives, the Spring certainly brought an outpouring of what seemed happily content activity. Is it a coincidence that a striking loss of avifauna in the last fifty five years across speices and biomes in the United States have been by no means limited to grasslands but have included some of the most common species–from finches to sparrows to warblers, swallows and starlings–
–creating a striking widespread loss of populations and biodiversity to occur during my own life, to the tune of 3.2 billion birds, in which my neighborhood was one of the few hotspots of a decade of declining avian migration.
Was the chorus of birdsong and cries that I heard as an aural biosocial embrace as I walked down the street, what I imaged as a triumphant riconquista of avian airspace, defiantly calling, cooing, and performing extended trills of eight to nine beats, as if in amazed response to one another by bravura performances not a response to the huge loss of avian biomass that is difficult to contemplate, created by interrupted migratory routes, light pollution, and other anthropogenic disturbances–disturbed from the routes of migration in the contiguous United States that bode the fearsome possibility of avifaunal collapse, particularly steep in flyways from the Pacific northwest, if less than in the grasslands of the center of midwest where agribusiness has compromised birds’ migratory routes?
Birdsong became mooring of biosociality each morning, whatever the reason, dependent on listening for a sense of the vital in the cacophony of birds that start chirping for several hours. A crowded chorus of birds intersects with my walk to the coffee shop. As more birds migrated by mid-March, it seemed increasing experimentation with songs, calls, and trills of growing range arrived each morning, offering something of an alternative biosociality to inhabit, in preparation for a daily calendar when few face-to-face meetings were scheduled or would occur. The persistent calls, often ending in trills, clucks, and cascading compositions ending with squawks accompanied by the occasional alto moans from mourning doves created a new aural register of place, reminding one of the soundspaces that wooded warblers, sparrows, finches, and larks once created across the country.
Each morning from about six to seven thirty, I tried to make a sound map of the street that replaced the usual rumble. I was unclear if more finches were on my street–it seemed so when I turned onto it, however, hearing the sounds that were almost recognizable that began each morning at about 6:00 am, which replaced real concerrns about the decline of sparrows’ languages in the Bay Area, drowned out by ambient noise that seemed to obliterate once distinct calls and “dialects” of sparrow communities. While acoustic ecologists had monitored since around 2005 the abandoing of distinctions among the distinct dialects in once distinct communities and populations due to anthropogenic noises of transportation and low-frequency rumbles, to the background sounds of airplane flight, the background that had obliterated once distinct flourishes from sparrow calls might be imagined to return.
To be sure, the recent loss of historical dialects of sparrow populations in the Bay Area by the dominant dialect of urban white crowned sparrow notwithstanding, finch populations on Prince St. seemed to benefit from pandemic shifts in ambient noise: they seemed to be insistently adding terminal flourishes with innovative abandon, in bravura finales each morning. The morning trills that seemed to have expanded as my neighborhood grew as a site to explore bird language, from trills repeated three and four times that finished with flourishes, to smaller chirps after nine o’clock, useful to clear my mind from anxieties, as if the important birding areas near the Bay Area had intersected with a less busy or noisy urban ambient, leading to more varied range of song and calls, even despite the declining pathways of bird migration in recent years.
After the first weeks of social distancing that stopped just short of a lockdown that broke the lack of face-to-face that seemed to make birdsong place me into a new sense of social situatedness after months of sheltering in place, remind me of how, for lack of a human contact, Darwin’s belief that birdsong–“the sounds uttered by birds”–were indeed the closest analog to human language, that the “same instinctive cries expressive of [birds’] emotions” was not only more believable. As we reachedi a year into the “stay-at-home order” in the Bay Area, to check the spread of the novel coronavirus, exhausted by zoom and realizing others’ exhaustion at the medium, the analogy seemed all too pressing, that finds confirmation in how the expressive patterning of birdsong that young birds learn from imitation, both neurologically and genetically shared over fifty genes linked to speech and vocal learning that are also dubbed “language genes” or FOXP2: if birdsong lacks the mapping of a lexical network onto the network of vocal imitation and processing, the patterns of expressive communication seemed able to remedy the need for sites neurological activation while sheltering in place, a welcome neurological wake up call.
LIfted the overhead rumble of airplane jets with the sudden erasure of global air traffic from Bay Area skies, the sonic swoons, jackal-like titters, and arching song from the trees restored something akin to an alternative cosmic harmony akin to what Jesuit Athanasius Kircher had described in the seventeenth century ˆMusurgia Universalis as a great art of consonance and dissonance, and a new Harmonia Nascentis Mundi that seemed a needed re-enchantment of place. What were heard as optimistically insistent calls of acoustic experimentation seemed to restart what Kircher so influentially described as the music of the spheres along the proportions of divine creation–sanctus, sanctus, sanctus–at a time when the world was readjusting to being jerked out of whack. Did we benefit in particular from the proximity to birding areas on the Sacramento and range of local watersheds?
–that made me wonder about the expansion of designated birding areas around the Bay Area, and the greater diversification of local song, as the white crowned sparrows in my neighborhood–and in much of the region–had suddenly reached into the recesses of their memory to expand their songs, recalling the recordings of birdsong from seventy years ago, five years after researchers worried about the apparently endemic decline of variety and specificity of the languages of white-crowed sparrows long used to court mates or defend nesting grounds, as acoustic ecologists pondered how the ambient anthropogenic sounds had drowned out birdsong, and blurred the once-famous geographic specificity with which white crowned sparrows combined trills, buzzes, and whistles to a pattern that was able to compete with the urban rumble or new nature of the city, reducing once distinct dialects by sacrificing specificity to retune their songs to the noisiness of urban sprawl and blanketing noise of airplanes, learning a more effective song to mate with far fewer of the terminal flourishes detected in birdsong of the past, in what has been described nationally as a reclamation of “favored frequencies” after the sudden reduction of traffic and vehicles, to create a new “song space” by expanding the virtuosity of their vocal performances, in an optimistic illustration of ecological reslience. Were the songs heard in bird habitats changing across the state?
If Berkeley had always been a sight for coastal warblers in upper treetops, as well as white-crowned sparrows, song sparrows, finches, scrub jays, towhee and chickadees, the sounds of birds in treetops were hard not to imagine as voices of an enhanced biosociality, if not music of the spheres. The Jesuit polymath Athanasius Kircher’s attentive notation of the song of the cuckoo in his 1650 treatise on musical sounds may have influenced Bach to Respighi, to say nothing of Wagner or Messaien, but all rhapsodized birdsong in its company of birds; nature has long attracted, and there was something recognizable in the desire to preserve the sounds of “nature” in artificial means that led some of the first two-minute Edison cylinders were used to record bird song in 1898, for the 16th Congress of the American Ornithologists’ Union in Washington, D.C.,–and first 78 recordings in 1910!
When I was listening to finches in Berkeley, I couldn’t help but wonder if this was indeed different, or a mythic- return of nature’s resilience of the sort that used neoliberal rhetoric to suggest the return of long lost natural conditions on social media, in falsified posts that proliferated to offer some comfort as we social distanced, offering pictures of dolphins were allegedly returning to Venice’s fabled lagoons of Venice, as they reverted to watery habitats, less polluted by Vaporetti and barges, to say nothing of ocean liners, as if migrating back in time: if these fables were enteretained ecological fantasies by optimistic clickbait of “Venetian” dolphins‘ resurgence, or elephants without a care for social distancing in the fields of China’s Yunan province, the immediate cases of roadrunners in Oakland or the coyotes crossing the Golden Gate Bridge, whose traffic levels decreased to a level not seen since seventy years ago, in 1954; as many raised questions about the inevitability of the nature of the reversion ofurban landscapes during_the_COVID-19_shutdown in an alternatively optimistic globalism that cut against the psychic undertow of the pandemic. On a more local level, I did much the same, as a way of grappling at straws.
The false optimism curried as clickbait in those image of exotica offered eye candy deceptively rhapsodic in its staged counterpart to sheltering in place, akin to how I entertained expanded local mating birdsong of finches, towhee, and white-crowned sparrows as a reslience of an unstable social world. While staying indoors, the outside seeming far away the cries of finches were important to continue as most of greenspace I saw was confined to my back yard, as if it provideds the biosociality I had been trying to come to terms with doing without from the spring of 2020, and made me oscillate between a sense of the ephemeral and the .
6. If social distancing left us pondering the effects of the absence of social contact for a year, as increasing conversations bemoaned the lack of human contact and indeed of looking at human bodies, save online, even if birdsong was not a clear grammar, the apparently optimistic calls of song seemed to substitute for the absence of contact, as an expanded range of intonation, tonalities, and calls, punctuated by the primordial calls of ravens, offered pretty credible testimony of vocal repertory of expressive registers, if not linguistic skills. Kircher had studied in Aristotelian fashion the comparative anatomy of the ears of horses, humans, dogs, rodents, pigs, cats, and geese, more than birds, but the ear openings of birds’ auricular feathers allowed a better spatial awareness of the origins of sounds, and a heightened sense of biosociality while we sheltered in place, under the stay-at-home order, the street sounds offered something like a solace that I increasingly valued over zoom or flat-screen TV.
The surrogate of an absent extended social network of the neighborhood was something I started to recognize on the pavement of the ground. Rather than moving with downcast eyes, I was reacquainting myself with place in walks to a shop, to get coffee, or to venture outside, for evidence of a place that I had perhaps missed before, that invested the benchmark placed on the boundary of a local parklet with surprise as a relation of place to the global, or a perspective on the meaning of place–or relation of local and global, taken for granted in pre-pandemic times, looking for bearings amidst increased uncertainty. And the discovery of an improvised marker, reminding me of the grids that wrap around the earth, that had been tracking the progress of global infections, seemed punctured for a moment by the mock benchmark, emulating the over a million geodetic markers in North America–tidal benchmarks noting elevation in reference to a geodetic datum, survey points that act as controls for lat, long, and height, that acted as surveyors’ control points–but conflating the genre with the personal nature of the meaning of place. If the current geodetic datum has antiquated earlier benchmarks, they lie beneath the new networks, traces of past spatialities like the old contractors’ names. Benjamin was no bird-watcher, but the strikes were “object-lessons” affording almost sensory experiences of a changed sense of urban space. And the marker, as much as signal exact terrestrial position, is located at the intersection between two streets, in the pedestrian space of the edge of a park.
Heightened sensitivity to one’s surroundings, perhaps brought by sensory deprivation, was an unforeseen and almost positive by-product of the pandemic, stretching from the play of sunlight on leaves to song lyrics, and extending to budding magnolias or dropping seed pods of sweet gums and their off-red leaves. And at the same time as such spray-painted pavement markers offer ubiquitous reminders of protocols of social distancing in the pandemic, I’ve been reading marks on the pavement for far more permanent or material signs of spaces we inhabit. In an age of global and national maps of the COVID-19 infections, hospitalizations due to the virus, human mortality, and lives lost, the retreat to the local seemed manageable, the faux benchmark that was hardly noticeable became something of a a symbolic center of an imagined geography I retreated, a point of orientation for an imaginary community–and spatiality–that was born in the age of social distancing.
Walking past the marker, and other benchmarks of surer history, raised questions of how these spatialities mapped onto one another, with a quite compelling sense of surprise: in the constant absence of face-to-face interaction, or the lack of embodied discussion of which we are all reminded daily, the spatiality to which that faux benchmark gestured became a source for private reverie, foreign to Thoreaux or Rousseau, to be sure, against the tracking of the spatial advance tracked of coronavirus infections. The place marker was a monument to the precision of coordinates–if the area you are describing would probably take six decimal places, to offer a sense of real position, even if the suboceanic antipode didn’t seem to demand much precision.
Who is to say that this isn’t a better use of mapping tools, after all? In the several square blocks of south Berkeley CA I found myself over the first year that COVID-19 spread globally, where I’ve lived on and off for almost thirty years, those stretches of sidewalk that had not in need of replacement from cracking or house construction offered a memory theater of some sort of, imprints of pavers a register of signatures of contractors whose marks, at a moment of heightened mortality, gained greater commemorative functions as a sort of public memory in public space, calling attention to themselves to punctuate walks in a pleasant material interruption of the past that I had long overlooked. And as ways of commemorating and accounting for escalating fatalities seemed somehow stuck in the craw of the nation, blanketed by the denial of a state of emergency or even viral communicability, the names pavers stenciled in the sidewalk underfoot gained a poignancy as commemorations–sites registering the temporal flow that seemed to be pouring across the world now like a crimson tide.
Reading the century old concrete strikes on the public property of the streets seemed a sense of marking territory or taking back public space, in a very local way, as our sense of the public spaces open to us had corroded and grown frayed. Across the street from that benchmark noting antipodal relation to the Indian Ocean, the strike of a paver jumped out at me to register a deep temporal flow from over a century earlier, and the first era of the paving of sidewalks in the Bay Area, not long after Nat Lena began his craft, and early twentieth century pavers like J.A. Marshall–who set among the earliest surviving strike on a sidewalk in Berkeley, CA–began what must have been a booming trade to pave public sidewalks, adding concrete outside the gated 1889 Victorian at Fulton and Blake.
Strikes on the sidewalks increasingly offered fresh ways to look at neighborhood whose streets where I spent more time, and a way of getting bearings on its built space: even this marker stared back at me, with a sense not of nostalgia, but of presence, of a past inhabiting the present’s own augmented sense of mortality, measuring these strikes as if they contained a mystical properties in a truly early modern sense as touchstones for exploring the city in my early morning walks in a newly empty city-space. Was the upright elegance of the font of thin capitals a distinguished font designed to define the exclusivity of single family residences on Prince Street?
The “Oakland Paving Co.” was founded in 1902, exploiting the availability of local quarries to provide pavement for Berkeley and Oakland when concrete had become a boom industry, profiting from a local Rockridge Quarry that lay off Broadway and 51st St. to provide paved sidewalks in Berkeley that only grew after the devastation of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, pancaking many residences and prompting fearful migration East Bay.
Perhaps an echo of that catastrophe was in a sense legible in the imprints of pavers who had laid “art stone” on the ground or plank roads on Prince Street a century ago, as the survival of these strikes on what might be some of the less traveled streets still crisply stood out on the ground, that paralleled the pavement of once open space–and providing what indeed seemed to fit the demand for “art[ificial] stone” to dignify its pedestrian space.
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. Benjamin’s “botanizing on the asphalt,” a turn of phrase both suggesting the new habitat of the late nineteenth century, as an ethnographer of urban space that linked nature and manmade concrete creation.
From 1906, newly laid grid of the city of Berkeley had beckoned settlement in its multiple tracts from local realtors, to meet demand for resettlement that expanded after the 1906 San Francisco Earthquake shocked the Bay Area, at a time when the East Bay was more distinguished by unpaved open space, and far, far less sprawl to wander.
Looking with attention at the ground, finding myself a flâneur in an area I knew well, the streets started to speak back, as if with voices of the past gained a surprising testimonial vitality about which I almost grew passionate. The stamps offered a sense of transport at a time when we could no longer travel far, and lived with preoccupation. There was something comforting in re-reading the neighborhood, its sense of place and relation to space, that I could internalize in the somewhat tentative walks that led me to look for new bearings, and saw much more of and with different eyes than I had in the past, as if looking for new bearings to orient myself to the lay of the land, and to look back at its inhabitants about a century earlier in time. If New Yorkers feel like those acknowledged to be true New Yorkers not only knew the buildings or coffee shops of the neighborhood but what stores they had replaced, and what stores were replaced by them, stretching ten or twenty years past, to describe and rank their levels of familiarity with a built space, knowing who paved the streets’ sidewalks n the younger city of Berkeley seemed to offer an index of the intensity of familiarity with place at which I aimed: these men, if many dropped the helpful habit of naming the date of laying concrete over what I imagined a bit romantically was a dirt road until then, provided guideposts to the region which had mostly all fell below the radar in previous years.
Or perhaps there was something elemental as a system of orientation to these names, that made up for the absent crowd of passersby on the streets. More than the shifting names of university buildings, public schools, and even cities, recently enacted based on a hopeful if misguided decision to cut ties to the past, the names embedded in the pavement seemed signatures of oddly fragile testimony about the past.
Hand-pressed mementos of past pavers and contractors were less confrères, than memento mori in days of social isolation as the progress of the pandemic grew for almost a year, and we awaited for better signs of global orientation before uncertain tallies of infection all summer long, despairing of purchase on the pandemic, often by taking stock of how little we knew, the return to local signs for bearing were not only the result of downcast eyes. As much as an obsessive antiquarianisms, the strikes promised an alternative orientation to the meaning of place from the men who laid the street underfoot. The rise of the horse-shoe print of W. Ensor from the 1920s suggest a strike that evoked the horses of an era of traffic before the introduction of “art[ificial] stone” replaced the wooden planks of the 1880s. the It is hard not to be struck by distinctive horse-shoe imprint of local paver Ensor H. Buel, master contractor and builder, whose trademark strike, appearing soon after the introduction of trademarks, the distinctive signature of the contractor who built it and it remains a surviving mark of their craft–
Etched in what had been the once modernist medium of concrete, the often worn stamps of J.A. Marshall, perhaps the John Marshall who in 1905 was a “cementwkr” Berkeley’s directory, left his escutcheon as a calling card that gained epitaphic quality, as a trace of the everyday as I fled the outside noise and pandemic fears: what some describe as “fossils in concrete” triggered a sense of musing on the everyday and marking of place rooted as much as anything else in a search for historical redemption beneath my feet, including an imagined network of modest community Italian-American immigrant pavers whose concrete sections have survived a century.
If strikes were potential warrantees in case of liability, the promotion of the craft reflected a pride in craft that made them appear testimonies to their contribution to the spaces in which I moved with less surety. It must have been a sort of validation of pride, as well, and a sense of locating one’s signature in a place, of personal importance: the marks of past occupants seemed like fragile memories of a past. The pandemic increasingly brought a sense of reckoning not only with mismanagement, but a tragic loss of public memory, exceeding the loss of individual souls. I read at a removed obituaries in lists of the dead that were printed in the early days of the pandemic in northern Italy, in what seemed expanded section-sized obituaries obligatory and entrancing to read to affirm a common humanity, as if to try to process the scale of persona devastation, as an expanded version of the “Those We Lost” section that the Times had, as I remember it, pioneered in the days of 9/11, and that I remember reading on busses as I moved around Manhattan, months after the three terrorist attacks by exploding airplanes into sites including the Twin Towers. The scale was far larger, and global, and even harder to comprehend and mark, as the scope of the levels of infection, hospitalization and mortality that all seemed alternate proxies for intense loss.
Amidst a heightened sense of contingency grew over a long winter, I read dead pavers’ concretized calling cards in new ways as a telling archeology of a past lying underfoot seemed to rise to the surface in curiously passionate ways. The paving of Berkeley streets might be bracketed by dual catastrophes of another era-the 1906 San Francisco earthquake having prompted to increased settling of the city of the city across the bay, bringing a boom in paving, already facilitated by cheap cement to make concrete; concrete industries and cement work expanded as a craft allied with architecture, after the 1923 Berkeley fire, not only for reasons of identifying builders in case of liabilities, but driven by a search for building materials impervious to fiery holocausts that expanded the profile of concrete contractors among the architects with whom they were already allied, if more as laborers than artisans. Twin changes that shaped the modern life of concrete streets and the paving industry–attracting workers–provided a basis to frame the genealogies of these pavers–and the ornate signs contractors left on the ground, not only to guarantee the security of pavement in case of accident but perhaps to align their craft with builders and architects.
The medium of “artificial stone” gained popularity from the 1890s in alternative to the granite slab sidewalks of major east coast cities, as the cost of cement from 1900 to 1905 dramatically decreased, was marketed as “art[ificial] stone” in more ways than one, it seemed, as storied architects like Bernard Maybeck and later Julia Morgan and John Galen Howard adopted concrete as their craft, as earlier architects had used limestone for its facility, elevating the concrete arts to a building craft one might sign. The popularity among pavers’ strikes of a device like the escutcheon suggested a sense of pride in shielding the ground by laying wet pavement, as the family of contractors who had become the Schnoor Bros. one reverie went–Paul Schnoor had laid pavement from 1908, in Berkeley, and was an old hand whose family business expanded as Bay Area pedestrians grew in number.
7. There was a cool sort of redemption in cathecting with these signs. I suppose I turned to the paving signs with a new sense of time’s passage. As birdsong of chickadee and warbler had warbler increased their range and pitch, filling up the absence of traffic and the background static of traffic sounds ornithologists identify with a distinct broadening of birdsong range from the first months of the pandemic, white crowned and yellow crowned sparrows roosting in the nearby bushes sign with fewer distractions from ambient noises, making it seem that I livd in a bird store as they bravely doubled their range and lowered pitch. As if analogously to how the birds re-explored and settled semi-urban and urban space with surprising rapidity, drawn by the drop in industrial noise and car sounds, the still of the pandemic provided an opportune occasion, I suppose, to focus a bit obsessively on pavers’ imprints gave me a new sense of navigating built space with far fewer actual pedestrians about.
The change in the ambient sounds of neighborhoods across the Bay Area, noted for its extended commutes and building expansion, has made it a sort of paradise for birds and for birdsong, encouraging amateur ornithologists to look at their back yards to practice citizen science with renewed vigor: road runners have popped up on Facebook as well as many requests for identifying birds seen outside one’s house. Ornithologists have confirm the arrival of birdsong in urbanized areas in the pandemic in ways that have a counterpart in much musing of how we will inhabit and work in space and place in a far-off future. And as birdsong seemed to restart of dropped discussions about place and space, benchmarks seemed to offer to take up a discussion we had lost. This was a collective experience of the pandemic, which in 2020 had staged a collective experiment of sorts in active listening and recognition of a shifting frequency and range of birdsong, as Steven Lovatt noted, as the pleasurable byproduct of lockdown, able to “short-circuit time” as one recognized the sound in life-affirming ways. I reading paving stones as a text underfoot, in those areas where strikes weren’t entirely effaced by a century of pedestrian traffic, rain, or repaving, and lost, as testimonies of forgotten building trades rose to the surface of public memory.
The enhanced attention to the solitude of song seemed a rejiggering of relation to place, as if the presence of birdsong offered an unearthed language that made Charles Darwin’s theory that the melodic structure of birdsong, perhaps attributable to “mere happiness,” was nothing less than the most evident analogy for the expressive structures that gained lexical qualities of indication, description, and volition in language, I became more attentive to a “forgotten aspect of the grammar of reality” other languages of place, even drawn to identify the sounds of birds perched in the branches of the two sweet gums outside my front stoop, not only as sparrows, by by their trills, calls, and plumage. Darwin’s sense of the communicative nature of birdsong seemed alive in the apparent expanded range encouraged by a drive to vocal learning in the trees, the renewal of this phonological syntax expanded one’s sense of place, as if bearing new information about the opportunities that a partial lockdown opened up.
There was a sense of the observation of the workings of the mind, and the markings of space, or of watching oneself with alertness as a reader of reality. And the marker that is in the header to this post, when I seemed to discover it, provided the impetus for reflecting on the changed spatiality of the pandemic; I stumble across them, pause, and see them as evidence of an earlier spatiality, as if buried in time, but traced on the pavement as a form of mapping geographic information of an earlier time. Over a year, it came to be imagined as the center of the new neighborhood I was in, or at least a new place to gain bearings, a sign of the affirmation of a part of the neighborhood I never saw and that captured a sense of a community even with far fewer folks on the streets, or chance conversations. It’s as if there is a rich archeology of spatial knowledge written on the ground, as if the isolation of social distancing left me more sensitive to seeing voices on the ground, as much as pounding the pavement o my neighborhood. Perhaps this is somehow a search for escape, or momentary transcendence of the existential condition of sheltering in place, or more likely the guiding trope is the reveries of the solitary walker, finding transcendence not only in the natural world, but in apprehension of traces of older cartographic regimes and markers, as something like a puncturing the regime of social distancing.
But the sign of what seemed a forgotten group of bench marks on the pavement of the street near by house seemed similar to ghosts in the neighborhood that popped out with newfound and unexpected clarity as lost but legible registers of the past. For a map-reader who has excavated traces of the past preserved in maps, it was striking to find them in the ground beneath my feet, as if the names and lives of the men who had set their names into the pavement with strikes scattered across the city might be a map of traces of lived space. This is not only the evocation of a community with comfort. Roman Mars described how the mundane imprints of sidewalk stamps as “a fun kind of x-ray vision” into the community, from the markers of the acknowledgement of disabilities rights activists in Berkeley, or, perhaps, the immigrant communities of pavers whose firms set concrete sidewalks across Berkeley and Oakland, many of whom were indeed trained by contractors who had arrived in the Bay Area or San Francisco with nothing–men like the Italian immigrant, Nat Lena, the contractor who came to the United States in the early 1900s, arriving in San Francisco with a few dollars in his pocket, at whose concrete business many future pavers honed their craft, from Lino J. Lorenzetti of Puglia, who set up shop in Alameda in the 1950s, after learning with Nat, as did Angelo Sposetto, George Jardine, and Aldo (A.J.) Ferraro, who set up their shingles in Alameda in the 1950s, as the island was being repaved, all of whom set their names on the public property of the sidewalks as the final touch as they left the pavement to set. from the austere diamond drawn around the stamp “A. Salamid” to the blocky punches that served as a logo for “J. Mottino” at a later unknown date–
–to Oakland’s “Rosas Bros” in recent years,–
–but I treasured the precise dating of strikes of older pavers, often set in a more rocky concrete of a removed past.
There was a sense voices rose from the pavement in the streets that were rarely traveled, where the names not yet worn away by pedestrian traffic in the older neighborhood I had recently moved still lay traced on the ground. I encountered older elegant imprints left by “H.C. Orth” of the Cement Contractors Ass’n from the 1920s–later “Orth & Braun, Berkeley,” and the early strikes of Schnoor, before he was joined by his sons. Did there seem the possibility of redemption in reading these names, as if respectfully scanning so many epitaphs?
Pavement strikes placed the work of the individual in the world, and allows one to trace a palimpsest of sorts, archeological evidence present but overlooked of generations of builders, often set off in rectangles, half-circles, circles, lines or elegantly arched text, if not the preferred devices of an escutcheon or oval, reveals an illuminating online key of the stamps contractors placed on local sidewalks–at least in Oakland. Is the device of an escutcheon emulating a coat of arms a worthy sign of investing meaning in the apparently routine thankless paver. The precious surviving strikes we have to be grateful to survive and not to have been repaved over time, even as they were worn down by pedestrians’ feet? Escutcheons seem to ahve been preferred by old pavers, whose work shielded the ground, if the emblem of V. DiZillo seems a stop sign of sorts as it catches my eye on Dana Street.
The same paver had left a considerably crisper mark, some five years earlier, perhaps, in paved sidewalk in Oakland off the Sausal Creek by Grand Avenue–
The stamped names oriented me to the neighborhood, as I watched birds re-familiarize themselves with hedges and overhead routes, and lower ambient noise. Many were the Old Italians of whom sung Lawrence Ferlinghetti, in a poem I read during the pandemic, dryly narrating a chronicle in which “For years the old Italians have been dying all over America:/ . . . the ones with old pocket watches,/ the ones with gnarled hands and wild eyebrows/the ones with the baggy pants, both belts & suspenders/the grappa drinkers with teeth like corn/the Piemontesi the Genovesi the Siciliani smelling of garlic and pepperoni,” those “who loved Mussolini/ the old fascists/the ones who loved Garibaldi/the old anarchists reading L’umanità Nova,/ the ones who loved Sacco and Vanzetti.”
–among other trace of what librarian Lincoln Cushing argued superimpose on the physical plant a sea of “ethnic surnames echo the immigrant waves of the past.” There was a weird dissonance, I suppose, between the past of their construction and the present, as if the motley crew of Californians constituted the quarantine bubble in which I was isolating outdoors, consulting them for a needed perspective on the current crisis of public health, as well as a sense of tracking the former inhabitants of the region, locals who had laid pavement before I was born, less as guides but bearings, and perhaps men whose works and lives were worth remembering.
Such stamps act as tracers of careers over time, like the contractor Ensor H. Buell, who partnered with architect Bernard Maybeck, who, in after 1923, relied on local contractors to expand the architectural uses of concrete as a medium in from the turn of the century, from buildings like the pillars of the First Universalist Church (1910) to the concrete fireplaces after the massive fires destroyed much of Berkeley’s elegant residential neighborhood in 1923 from chaparral and grasslands to destroy 600 homes across fifty blocks that led to a new market for concrete.
The fire sounded a death toll for the mania for residences from cedar in the “Arts and Crafts” movement: the forest of chimneys left in its wake perhaps prompted re-evaluation of concrete, already a modernist building form, as a worthy medium for roof trusses, after loss of homes by Maybeck’s many clients as well as himself: Buell and Maybeck pioneered “concrete houses” in what he called “bubblestone,” working with contractors to adapt concrete as a medium able to withstand conflagrations in response to demands for fireproof construction.
The permanence that concrete promised seemed a fit to contemplate in a time raising questions about what would endure. Did the local rise of concrete artisans create a new surety of staking out independent contractors’ crafts, using translucent glass blocks, and several buildings which Buell himself built in West Berkeley?
The current spread of the pandemic marked time in a similar caesura, but looking at the ground more than stamping the pavement provided a suitable way to The stamps offered snapshots of the urban planning as an organism. I’d long treasured the stenciled names as a form of graffito bearing hidden messages of past generations and a sort of open source memory, as if the surnames belonged to forgotten pavers, a durable if neglected repository sitting before our eyes on the pavement, offer mark a form of public memory long-neglected. An informal survey based on city walking during the pandemic suggests an expansion of the stamped signatures of contractor-craftsmen led me to posit a First Era of Sidewalk Paving from the turn of the century, after which stamps stylistically expanded in the 1920s to the Elmwood and West Berkeley, as well as downtown.
The less legible nature of many worn marks over time seemed to suggest a sense of the passage of time.
Such early morning reveries on the way to the coffee shop interrupted my walk as I returned to what had been a prompt for early reading exercise for my daughter, but had gained now meaning as access to a past geography. The stenciled strikes my have been laid as a form of security against liability, that paralleled introduction of trademark law in late nineteenth-century California, the names crowd-sourced a transitory cartography as a forgotten form of registering space that was an antiquated spatial literacy, as much as mere antiquarianism.
8. If scarcely akin to buried memories of a removed past in a city like Berlin–not nearly so traumatic as the more intentionally placed stolperstein whose commemorative plaques interrupt Berlin’s pavements to mark residences of Jews or other deported in over three thousand “stumbling stones” (Stolpersteine), those brass plates set in the pavement in Berlin to arrest passersby by the name and date of death of victims of extermination–even if the analogy is troubled. The point was that they, too, made me pause. If these plates were made as anti-monuments, in respond to the invisibility of many monuments acquire–the sense of being “conspicuously inconspicuous,” as Robert Musil put it, in a short piece on “Monuments” of 1927, where he puzzled, before the postwar proliferation of monuments and commemorations, how they repel rather than attract attention, despite their intent, almost eluding our faculties, that are almost place themselves out of our perceptual attention–“there is nothing in this world so invisible as a monument” which is left to serve as distance markers, these long invisible names of the victims of the Holocaust that the stolpersteine command attention was similar. The manner that they interrupt the attention of passersby from the ground, demanding some attention and significance, break up the pavement’s monotony. While Musil was writing in the act of pondering the ability of people to understand the events through which they live, the act of these stoperstein are an attempt to turn back and refuse a collective amnesia.
The placement of those marker redressed an intentional attempt to obliterate the place occupied by deported victims of the state, to strive come to terms with the past at a difficult moment in time: the placement of those stones within the fabric of the city’s paving stones was a belated acknowledgement of their absence, as stumbling stones for perhaps less dramatically buried but similarly lost memories. If those stones interrupt the pavement as if to rise as if from cruelly and tragically repressed collective memory of Berlin to take their place as remnants for current residents, these brass markers seek to give past voices gained poignancy as an interruption of lives, not find the fate of figural monuments consigned to “a sea of oblivion,” and acknowledge their absence from the fabric where they lived and worked, and where their lives were horrifically interrupted, interrupt the city walker.
If there is far less politicized sense of intentional memorialization in these pavers, a sense grew, over the year, that these pavement markers spoke to me, in ways monuments rarely do. Were the dates on these paving stones not similar snapshots of the builders who had signed their work popped out at me from the pavement so inconspicuously? The stolpersteine were placed in the pavement, in permanent brass plates, set apart from the cobbestones of a street or sidewalk, but were an acknowledgement that something paved over and forgotten was a part of the landscape. The hidden work of the pavers emerged from the ground, marking an alternate basis for imagining the spatial relations framed in California, from the 1928 geodetic survey, and the laying out of Berkeley’s streets: both interrupted my walks with a sight of melancholy reflection that made me think outside the current spatialities of infection, and the the historical formation of a sense of place, marked out in the streets.
The once inconspicuous of markers seemed to stare back at me from the past, now melancholy testimonies of a sense of security fixed in a now remote past. While staying far more “at place” than I had in the previous fifty odd years, the mystical aspect of walking in a city was a form of actively engaging with place–whether stopping at such benchmarks or pavers, or observing the eery intermingling of urban and rural that increased birdsong afforded, trying to take stock of the place we were all in. This was the inverse of how theorist Michel de Certeau meditated on the human geography of city from the Observation Deck of the old World Trade Center that revealed a topography of the city without people: looking at the distant undulating grid, de Certeau realized the people who walk in the city bring it to life, overlooking the undulating ground surface of Manhattan from the Observation Deck of the old World Trade Center, watching the “wave of verticals” as neighborhoods form Greenwich Village to Midtown to Central Park to Harlem were “immobilized” in space, and he was “lifted out of the city’s grasp” in an eerily unfamiliar way. I had stood in the same place before, pressed against thick plate glass looking out to a dizzying expanse provoking alienation and acrophobia from a long gone aery of the WTC Observation Deck, whose God’s eye view was so uncannily removed from urban space. This marker made me consider the absurdity of placing myself by exact geospatial position.