Metageographical Pavement

17. 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.

Rackstraw Downes, “110th and Broadway, Whelan’s from Sloans’ (1980-81)
Museum of Art, Rhode Island School of Design

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.

Rackstraw Downes, 80th and Broadway (1976-77), oil on canvas Betty Cunningham Gallery

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. 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 the 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 altered 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 Schnoor Bros.’ stamp was quite worn out by footsteps of pedestrians was a negative imprint of a past phantasmagoria in negative, prompted my version of “botanizing on the asphalt,” taking pictures of the strikes on the ground as a new version of how Baudelaire’s artist-flâneur was described not only as a “roving soul in search of a body” but, by the celebrated historian journalist Victor Fournel, an antiquarian of Parisian streets, as a “walking daguerrotype.”

Dana St., Oakland CA

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 founded 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.

Prince St., Berkeley CA
Keystone Const. Co, 1906; Prince Street/Berkeley, CA

The online compendium Oakland Underfoot, whose author had traveled the sidewalks searching for paving stamps with an assiduous cataloguing uncovered less-known lives of pavers hinted at the pleasures of rectifying the lacuna.

At Dana and Prince, an intersection I crossed many times on my way to buy a morning coffee, the temporal perspective offered by the pavement seemed a chance to retain a semblance of normality as I unpacked the lives of names mentioned in passing on the pavement. 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 from UC Berkeley, perhaps working with Anson Blake, who ran San Francisco Quarries as one of the “premier laying pavement for The Oakland Paving Co., from 1904-14, before he ran what became Bilger Quarry, mining the metamophosed sandstone and Franciscan quartz that was crushed for local sidewalks across Oakland: if Bilger became by 1907 “ road builder of Oakland and vicinity”–per James Guinn’s 1907 history of Alameda County–he paved many of the streets in a ten block radius of where I live, as he rose to general manager of The Oakland Paving Co.-paving roads from 1902-to be its President by 1914.

“Blake and Bilger” (c. 1910); Dana St. and Prince St./Berkeley CA

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 attached to these names.

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.

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.–peering up from the ground, even if the pavement had cracked–

Schnoor Bros.; College Avenue and Woolsey St; Berkeley CA

the family of contractors founded by Paul Shnoor, later joined by his sons. 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: A. Salamid seems to have placed an imprint four paces apart on some stretches of sidewalk.

Ensor Buell, Berkeley (194?), Deakin St.

J.Mottino, Canning Avenue and 63nd, Oakland CA

While not so intentionally interactive as art projects that commemorate Berlin’s past, in the depressive 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.

18. 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.

Benchmark at Halcyon Community Park

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, the distinctive curved sides of his best stamps are energetically charted by the website “Oakland Underfoot.”

18. 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.

National Geodetic Survey/Geodetic Control Stations in California
Geodetic Survey Marker California Free Stock Photo - Public Domain Pictures

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.

Rotation of North American and Pacific Plate/geodesy.noaa.gove

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 pleasant pedestrian space by a community garden was, of course, a perfectly bucolic point in space, surrounded by fresh sweet-smelling night ginger and a plum tree, and a trellis of flowering jasminoid vines–that belied objective identification from a purely positivistic point of view as a geodatum at all.

Benchmark on Halcyon Ct. and Prince St., Halcyon Park, Berkeley CA

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. And this was a place removed from the geodetic determination of the US-Mexico Border, that line in the sand that has quite hubristically been tried to be drawn in poured concrete in recent years.


Filed under Bay Area, Berkeley CA, mapping urban divisions, urban geography, urban infrastructure

4 responses to “Metageographical 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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