6. The lost sense of spatial certainty and stability within these simple, retro disks seemed a security of tabulation, even as the order of magnitude of the deaths during the pandemic’s one year point offered a grim reminder of different but continued exponential rates of growing mortalities on a scale we lack can’t process. They often only register cognitive failure to grasp the gaps of our models and the actualities of contagious transmission, loss of life, growing mortality rates. We tried to segregate rates of death by states, but those categories, if they seemed to align meaningfully with state policies, were buckets or containers of questionable value to parse infections or deaths in reassuring or helpful ways.
Yet we kept looking for meanings in these time-series line graphs, as if we were not able to get enough of them as an ability to gain purchase on the infections, and the exponential rise of infections by nations since early 2020, as if that rise showed any success in mitigation, as we tried to visualize “flattening the line.”
Did we find ourselves in a better position, as the pandemic seemed to infect fewer bodies by late March, 2021, and we struggled o steady our judgement on the time
Although the fluid Berkeley-Oakland area I’ve leaved has become increasingly fluid, the marks of contractors are distinct–the boundary can be distinguished by the provenance of contractors in concrete stamps, often dated, which suggested a lost but legible text–and raised questions about the endurance of memory, and seemed fit places to seek enduring memories of the past, as if in a way to catch up with the present when we didn’t know what would endure. Although they marked a past far less traumatic and difficult to confront, they became a cryptic spatial geography in the abandoned streets of the pandemic, more a distraction from current anxieties about the present, oddly familiar sites of recognition of continuity with a past, they seemed optimistically to mark the elevation and appreciation of a forgotten culture of concrete contracting that potentially sprang from a search for permanence, and marked the particular place of Berkeley in a broader panorama of historical time, stretching back to the newsreels of the 1923 fire.
I watched from afar how traces of Berlin’s former inhabitants had been recuperated collectively as a sort of shadow geography that aimed to help residents collectively respond to problems of the need to confront the past, in the far more fraught tortured process of historical coming t terms with a past, captured in the creation of the torturous compound, Vergangenheitsbewältigung —as the traces of the storefront of long-gone Jewish cafes were revealed by restorers in the quarter where Jewish refugees from Central European pogroms had resettled, the geographic marker popped out as if to provoke a more personal, less traumatic, reflection on the situation of places, and their cleansing of the past. But if the placement of those stumbling stones was in part a reaction tot he processing of refugees in modern Germany, and all memorials were about the past, there was something powerful about those pavers as a world we have lost. Berkeley was built, after all, on unceded Ohlone land of Chochenyo-speaking Ohlone people, if locations of shell mounds are still actively debated.
The sense of that lost world became somehow far more acute in the pandemic; the mute authority of designating and marking place in the pandemic sent me down a rabbit hole of place-making, commemoration, and the convergence of the ludic and the mission of the radical cartographer looking for the overlooked. The existence of those old pavers gained resonance as an emergence of the past in the present, almost akin to Attie Shimon’s active resuscitation of past Jewish-owned businesses that were given life again in his melancholy luminescent projection of evidence of the forgotten storefronts which Shimon projected at the sites they once inhabited, provoking reflection,u suing pre-Holocaust neighborhoods that throw light on the absences of present memory.
Albiet in far less jarring or grievous dramatic fashion, the twinning of realities in the projection of historical epochs echoed the resonance that a set of faux USGS benchmarks provided of alternate spatialities, their dissonance rising to the surface in ways that seemed provoked by the pandemic. If the pandemic has provided a disarming moment to take purchase on national spatialities as we chart the spread of the virus and of its different strands, or even the strains that have defined new topologies of infection, the overload of geographic information was pleasantly undermined in two faux geographic benchmarks in adjacent Berkeley neighborhoods I’ve lived over the past forty years. The puncturing of terrifying topologies of COVID-19 were welcome signs of a resistance to mapping that I appreciated, if I had never noticed before, in a period where we’re deluged with maps of mortality, hospitalization, voting patterns, allegedly “political” polarization and social divides.
For if we’re increasingly haunted by spatialities of divides, borders, and boundary lines in recent years–to which I’ver returned in this blog to offer points of reflection–the marker on the ground made me think not only of past events, and commemoration of place, but on being haunted by spatialities, by geolocation and different sorts of geo-information, and the relation between the invisible nets of points of geographic disaggregation contrast to the more material traces of reflection on the ground, and the palimpsest of information that it offers. While I had passed many of these pavers’ signatures countless times in the past, the silence of the neighborhood and perhaps middle age had conspired to make me sense the remoteness of these markers. I almost felt a bit the way that Robert Musil describes the lack of attention to moments of commemoration–as these markers on the pavement seemed a bit of a way Robert Musil described the limited attention of the passerby to memorials or memorial plaques, that you sense “as you would a tree, or part of the scenery,” and almost “elude our perceptive faculties” as they fail to attract attention in the very way they are attended to achieve.
Suddenly, the marks of anonymous pavers, whose identity I had not considered, became part of the fabric of the neighborhood. Perhaps since I grew up watching the painting of a patchwork of pavement, patching, and asphalt surfaces of different periods assembled as if they were palimpsestic signs of place, in the paintings of the plein air painting of Rackstraw Downes; Downes’ detailed landscapes re-imagined Manhattan’s Upper West Side as Delft, street crossings mingled with shadows cast by trees and geometry of arcing lampposts in a record of an urban phantasmagoria as fleeting and fixed in time as Delft interiors or the Amsterdam port overshadowed by clouds. For these were also records, as it were, of the open-ness of public space, and the sense of an early morning light of the start of the day as opening up a kaleidoscope of the lives of several urban inhabitants, mailing a letter, shopping for food, hailing a cab on a street-corner, as they began their daily navigation of a city’s public space.
These snapshots of walking through urban space were a poetics of the unnoticed, quite familiar and close to heart. The urban panorama was a new landscape for the flânuer, for Benjamin, and the sense of an urban landscape that these images captured suggest the flânuer’s liminal relation to the modern city’s built geography.
For Rackstraw Downes’ work, as much as a form of painting, painted a new way of seeing the city that I inhabited, both with a broader canvas that my eyes could take in, but also a sensitivity to the scope and monumentality of the street scene that status took stock of a deep history of how place was achieved–and a new moment in something of a meta-melancholy that made one think of the transformation of melancholy over time.
For as tableaux that suggest a remove from urban life, and an attempt to find new ways of orienting oneself to the ordinary, the constellation of pavers’ strikes, even more than road marks, seemed a constellation of the past where personal and impersonal met in an incomplete improvised survey of the streets, easier to face than to think any attempt to logically take stock of the scale of the infections’ spread. Like a modern Atget, or, perhaps, the photographers such as who had created the pictorial archive for the flâneur worthy of the umbrella-bearing pedestrians who crowded sidewalks in the late nineteenth century, far more Caillebot than teh clean skylines of the oils of Vermeer; he perhaps channeled more Walker Evans than painting, capturing the apparent ecstasy revealed by a chance street encounter by a photographic sleight-of-hand, mediating Baudelaire, as if compositions that the street populations offered. Downes alters a Baudelairean transcendence in moment of the flâneur’s chance encounters in an itinerary across the urban phantasmagoria, by raising an eery question of composition by how urban canyons seemed to drown the subjectivity of urban inhabitants. If it is the transitoriness of the fleeting moment–in the early morning sunlight; after the rain with the streets slicked black–that was a vivid model for the urban poet, able to transcend the personal, the flânerie of the apartment window viewer captured an urban melancholy, the loneliness of the urban phantasmagoria drowning the individual observer in all its dazzling array. Worn crosswalks register traces of past inhabitants, rich with a sense of temporality, perhaps sidewalks seemed sensitive registers as worthy of cherishing as testimonies of human creation, and as signs of making as much as loss. The stamp of Schnoor Bros. worn out by footsteps of pedestrians was a negative imprint of a past phantasmagoria in negative, prompted my “botanizing on asphalt.”
It was an affliction that I sort of came to cherish. The search for meaning in these sidewalk strikes offered away to read and navigate a circumscribed relation to space investing the streetscene with a mortality as I hoped for transcendence. Paving stamps of often anonymous Greeks, Italians, and Latino contractors offered melancholy evidence foregrounding their sense of craft and workmanship.
There was a neighborhood necrology waiting to be read in the dated stamps of successive generations of immigrant pavers that stamped a palimpsest of immigration to the Bay Area on my stomping grounds–J. Catucci, Gen. Con. 1916; A. Salamid, son of the southern Italian immigrant, Frank, who had moved to the East Bay to pave its sidewalks from 1909, which his son would later run; as Paul Schnoor expanded to P Schnoor & Sons in 1922, before Schnoor Bros. paved not only much of the South Berkeley hills and west Berkeley streets would provided Albany concrete sidewalks in the 1920s, or the Lorenzetti of the 1920s and DeZillos of the 1930s–to the much more recent family of contractors, the Rosas Brothers, 2010 510-634-1077,” as well as others who listed their phone numbers as much as contractor ID ro union affiliation. I started to study a new form of concrete poetry. If these men seem to have competed with the American Brotherhood of Cement Workers, a powerful organization of labor force founded in 1903-4, by the San Francisco Building Trades Council, the local offshoots of paving space gained prominence as a way of viewing built space and orienting one to it as pedestrian traffic declined.
The marks of past occupants seemed like fragile memories of a past. The pandemic increasingly brought a sense of reckoning not only with mismanagment, 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. If the Rackstraw Downes’ panorama were personal registers of streetscenes of a past Manhattan, the layered nature of the impressions I sought out as markers of imagined orientation on the solitary walks I was taking regularly at the start of the day or its close seemed a way of reaching out to a tactile past, as if to prevent it from being lost.
The online compendium Oakland Underfoot, whose author had traveled the sidewalks searching for paving stamps with an assiduous cataloguing what would be the less known lives of pavers helped me understand the pleasures of rectification at Dana and Prince, and intersection I crossed many times on my way to buy a morning coffee, to retain a semblance of normality. While waiting to secure his entry into Medical school, I learned, Frank Bilger developed a way of earning funds having graduated with a degree in pharmacology for The Oakland Paving Co., an interest that led him to run Bilger Quarry, mining the metamophosed sandstone and Franciscan quartz that was crushed for local sidewalks to pave many of the streets in a ten block radius of where I live, rising from a collector to become its general manager and President, suggesting the social mobility paving had provided.
The reading of these stenciled names of the past provided an alternative form of commemoration, oddly at ends with the mania of renaming that questioned our public values we wanted to continue to profess. Was there an ur-meaning that I could still secure in the lives of these
7. Since many sidewalk marks that are actually “time-stamped” as parts of a moment, to allow the dating their aging and degree of acceptable deterioration over time; their survival seemed a point of pride. If not registered as recognized public art of local history, the earliest noted stamp of J.A. Marshall of 1899 who installed “art[ificial] stone” over gravel, brick or dirt roads, were an “art” form, evidencing the lost handiwork of master finishers or East Bay locals–Local 594 in Berkeley. While the stamps in the more elevated areas I am walking bear signed by decisively more Anglo group of pavers–J. Lindstrom; J.H. Fitzmaurice; H.O. Wilson; and the industrious Schnoor Bros.–the family of contractors founded by Paul Shnoor, later joined by his sons.
The signatures of sidewalk stamps offered x-ray vision of individual biography and a neglected geo-information of earlier pasts, a spatially situated archive set in the concrete beneath my feet: Fitzmaurice used at different times, Berkeley librarian Cushing notes, some four differently stylized stamps, preserved in Cushing’s photographic archive, so valuable to orienting anyone to the proliferation of a lively history of local paving stamps, most that developed after the 1906 earthquake brought an increased demand for housing and street paving into the town.
If the 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: A. Salamid seems to have placed an imprint four paces apart on some stretches of sidewalk.
While not so intentionally healing and interactive as art projects projecting Jewish-owned storefronts that commemorate the lost past, in the jointly depressive and keen sensibility of the pandemic, it popped out without the benefit of projection, perhaps due to sensory deprivation. I imagined recognizing traces of how an unknown radical cartographer left signs I had never noticed, looking blankly ahead, as I noted a marker placed in the pavement for no particular reason at all, uncovering what seemed archeological traces of waves of immigration to the area, rich with a sense of making of place, that invested it with meaning.
To be sure, the heightened attentiveness of reading place and of increasing evidence of the exultation of individual birdcalls comes from far less ambient noise–no airplanes, no construction, limited home improvement and far less traffic and other passers-by. But if the exuberant sparrows and chickadees were an odd counterpoint to a grim period, the focussed attention on the reminders of what was to me a lost art project of somewhat absurdist meta-geography focussed on the streetwalker in ways I hadn’t had time to identify myself as before, or was less committed to devote up to even a few hours each day, not only walking but looking for ways to orient myself to place.
I wouldn’t suggest that the bench mark I found on a walk recently was an outright falsification or fraudulent, but I had never really considered the bench mark being an art form, that played with one’s sense of being mapped from above, in ways were as welcome, when I noticed it, as an interruption of the sustained sense of being set in one place. The sense of discovery made it better, as I seem to have finally noticed what was lying there on Prince Street all along, inviting me to remap my position in the world, as much as the flight of historical imagination that were provoked by the less openly geo-tagged strikes signaling the handiwork of pavers like H.C. Orth, whose best stamps were energetically charted by the website “Oakland Underfoot” in an age of cameras on personal phones.
8. It seemed about time. The marker was a send-up of the use of geographical markers at a time when they were by nature obsolete–we didn’t survey much any more as a public good, and had our bearings in maps that were in the devices in our pockets. The national geodetic survey manages about 240,00 active stations: national engineering of low-distortion projections extend from the sea-level datum of 1929, in California, based on the North American datum of 1927, noting either longitude and latitude bearings or orthometric heights.
The forthcoming 2022 revision of the “ground truth” of low distortion projections, of less distortion than the transverse Mercator used in GPS, the bench marks provided a basis for spatial reference in successive geographic datum to judge Low-Distortion Projections for surveyors and mappers. And as we still try to create Low-Distortion Projections (LDP’s) that are able to bridge the spatial positions depicted in GIS and real-world distance that will minimize the linear distortions that creep into maps, to create better matches for distances observed at elevation, the modernization of the state-plane system to best align with natural topography; if bench marks that dot Oakland and the Bay Area run along the fault lines that intersect and cross in the Bay Area, the movement of tectonic plates have led geodesists to use different grids with reference points to distinguish tectonic plates, reconcile demands for a stable geodetic reference systems with state-wide shifts due to continental drift.
The system of reference opened up from the ground up as I looked at the faux bench mark. The marker’s legend enjambed a precise global address with an absurd proposition especially apt in an age when we were increasingly addicted to maps to gain some sense of stability as the spread of the pandemic melded into social justice riots of an inclusivity and scale we hadn’t seen, full of indignation and a need to retake the streets, and the parsing of political preferences that left us wondering if we were bifurcated in two camps. Did it puncture the authority of marking fixed borders increasingly seen as an edge to the nation, increasingly mapped and militarized as a frontier of military conflict, or a separate sovereign space?
The peculiar stability of this humorous marker seemed a way to reconcile local and global in an age of uncertainty. It was, to be sure, a welcome escape from the current catastrophe, and the maps of infection and case rates we were following from the Covid Tracking Project, in newspapers, and updating online, trying to come with the arrival of an incomprehensible uptick in deaths, and trying to come to terms with new viral strains in ways that challenged our clarity and focus.