Metageographic Pavement

16. 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.

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.


Albeit 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.


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.

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