We were increasingly existentially isolated in those days of the pandemic, as the anxieties ramped up around a virus crossing borders came to offer evidence of a health care infrastructure unable to defend us or to be extended across the nation. There was long the danger of turning inward, to protect oneself, but also a shock at the unaccustomed sense of the evanescence of life, that made us turn to Defoe, Manzoni, or Camus for bearings on a topography of death rates that we were not accustomed to process in any way. While I was less able to concentrate to narratives, I preferred to immerse myself in short stories, interruptions of the problems of processing rising tallies. And if one pandemic drive was a compulsion to follow rates of infections, mortality, virus variants, and, now vaccination rates, to try to make order of world whose disorder seems more prominent than ever, I took breaks in small fiction, while going on walks, without any destination, to seek some bearings on the situation.
Perhaps walking led me to seek a perspective in an imagined sort of convalescence–a respite from the oppressive data visualizations that were hardly a means to come to terms with the collective obituaries framed in the foreign or unfamiliar concept of cumulative deaths. And as I returned to the somewhat random dates on the sidewalk outside my house, from the “1911” that arrested my eye–before the Spanish Flu pandemic!–to the stamps of 1930, 1936 that pavers left nearby. If I started to think of myself as a flâneur of the pandemic, as if finding and collecting the names of pavers might constitute an alternate necrology of the neighborhood, emerging onto the street a form of dealing with death, as the numbers of estimated deaths rose regularly–even if they were all undercounts–walking became a form of tallying, as each encounter with the name of a paver, akin to an imagined meeting, as if gathering information for an imagined report about the neighborhood itself; my income low, and indeed dubious, there seemed to be some ready temporary comfort in the small enchantments of the sidewalk to balanced with the global tragedy.
I found inappropriate comfort in a “boring passion for minutia” by displacing attention. Sophie Atkinson described how the pandemic helped her appreciate Robert Walser’s The Walk–and his attachment to walking without destinations–fitting for her extended walks in lockdown London–in search of an unexpected suddenly “significant phenomena, valuable to see and to feel,” by which “the lore of the country and the lore of nature are revealed,” as Walser had it in searching for terms to discuss the comfort of his walks, observing and studying “every smallest thing,” in an effacing self-surrender to attend to local details, as distancing one’s current complaints–less with an eye to one’s destination. For turning to the local detail as a site of something like transcendence became a way of distancing a global disaster, or holding it at bay–and a profession of tracking a local topography of mortality as well. If Walser’s walking led to the melancholic realization that “I was a poor prisoner between heaven and earth, and that all men were miserably imprisoned in this way,” after his flights of fancy, the dates and names on the ground provided some sort of grounding that I needed to process mortality rates and the shifting maps of infection rates.
For all the rapid creation of charts of mortality rates that were painstaking crafted by epidemiologists and journalists in line charts that projected different possible counts, our expectations for certain data were frustrated as if looking into the abyss of mortality: the very fact that only a bit more than half of global deaths are registered–six in ten, the ballpark figure of the World Health Organization tells us, if 98% in Europe and 91% in America; the death toll of the novel coronavirus in Wuhan is guesstimated to be up to ten times as great as the reported 4,848 in the capital of the Hubei province, or as much as half a million, if reported global deaths pushed beyond four point two million, dizzying numbers if incomplete.
The complexity of crafting a simple line graph of confirmed deaths and those due to complications of COVID-19 had us contemplating line graphs as specters of human mortality, whose complicated crafting don’t conceal so much as reveal the limits of certainty, and made me search not for global but grounds for transcendence underfoot. And in the days of social distancing, on walks that seemed perhaps aimless, but tried to find a sense of balance before the rising curves, following traces of the past set in the pavement seemed a sort of escape from the rising numbers, if not a destination. Daily walking was a rediscovery, as the trips from the house where I lived became less important for their points of arrival, pressing against the boundaries of the present condition, less in flight from something, than a type of convalescence from watching disparate rates of mortality and hospitalization rise, as my attention attended to something else.
If figures of infections, hospitalization, and mortality death haunted the air, solitary walking became a response to a restlessness–in the morning or late afternoon–and I was readily accepting the sense of the walks as haunted, or with added melancholy, in ways that seemed states of distraction and something of a befriending of loneliness, if not what past as sociability. Walking, Robert Walser put it, not with peacefulness but in a way of seeking out being arrested by coming across the individual name, and the odd specificity of the date at which the pavement was lain, smoothed and left to set. Walter Benjamin felt that the walks the author devotedly took must be understood as with a spirit of discovery as a form of convalescence, “newly sensitized to the outside world,” there was perhaps a search for collective convalescence in the undue attentiveness birdsong, flowers, pavers’ names, as if struggling to emerge from a dominant melancholia.
I gathered names on the ground as if points of orientation, finding stamps and strikes of pavers whose names were set in the pavement with century ago an alternate register of mortality. The dizzying sense of temporal distance offered a perspective a century ago–before the 1918 pandemic of the Spanish Flu arrived in California, were somehow a distance on our own sense of modernity and the disarming unpreparedness for the pandemic, which I read as if I were uncovering an often unread archive paved beneath my feet in the micro-geography of my neighborhood, in images with only retrospective senses of clarity, as we tried to come to terms with the historic nature of the pandemic’s spread. Strikes left by early pavers–“Burnham-1908;” “F. Stolte-1930;” “P. Barelle-1938;” “J. Anderson 1936”–of names and dates presented as epigraphic evidence beneath my feet akin to levels of time, v snapshots of a stratigraphy of the Berkeley-Oakland neighborhood I lived, “Burnham” resonantly echoing that of a contemporary urban planner, as I gathered evidence about the area I wandered, as if it were a profession.
For if earlier years of the possible pandemics that almost spread globally had been numerous–the near-misses of the fear of H1N1 expanding globally in 2009, of MERS in 2013, Ebola in 2014, and Zika in 2016–the coronavirus spread in ways we had only seen since the avian-born Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918-19, and was far harder to map, track, or conceptualize over space, as visualizing the virus became a cottage industry and a collective rush to create the best visualizations possible. As I tried to retreat from the spread of infections and hospitalization, and indeed the growing uncertainty of both tallies, the dates beneath by feet on the pavements along the Oakland-Berkeley border provided a form of retreat, pavement punctuated by dates that seemed–1909; 1923; 1938; 1930–to mark a sense of the anonymous architects of this urban border. With less of a sense of transport and reverie than Walser, if with a similar dedication to what he called, only partly facetiously, his berüf–“without walking, I would be dead, and my profession would be destroyed”–the sense of opening oneself to “thinking, pondering, drilling, digging, speculating, investigating, researching, and walking” gained a sense of investigating the quite deep history of breaks in neighborhoods in the micro-geography that I started to examine as etched in concrete. Whoever “walks only half-attentive, with only half his spirit . . . is worth nothing,” Walser said of the dedication he assumed, while walking, attentive to houses, advertisements, social transactions, as if to refamiliarize himself with the world as a therapy–to “take fresh bearings,” with a degree of industry, as a “Field Marshall, surveying all circumstances, and drawing all contingencies and reverses into that net of his,” in a calculus of metropolitan space, if with far fewer social transactions–but in fact mostly to “maintain contact with the living world,” lest we be shut at home, before the virtual remove of Zoom.
The paving of the street that defined the edge of the exclusive Oakland neighborhood formerly a farm until 1905–set aside for an upscale residential community–had been paved by the local quarry in 1912. The date gave me new bearings on the present, that gained a spiritual side, as well as a form of taking bearings: Walser found a microcosm of the world and lovely homes, “walking and contemplating nature,” richer than what Walter Benjamin cast as f”botanizing the pavement,” albeit a lovely phrase–for me, the collection of older marks on the pavement began as a curiosity, but turned to navigating historical levels inscribed in a surface as lines of exclusion and inclusion that the earliest dated pavers’ strikes bore witness, and made up for the few numbers of people on the street, in what seemed among the earlier surviving sidewalks that were paved in the this neighborhood.
The paving of this Oakland-Berkeley area was The border was increasingly legible in the local maps of mortality and COVID-19 infections. Putting into relief my sense of the fuzzy border of gentrification, one could not be struck by the discrepancy of increased infections-as, later, increased vaccination rates–between Berkeley and Oakland. The barrier seem, in my own neighborhood, loosely defined, but defined different expectations and experiences of the virus, poorly understood if only read by that odious term, concealing so much, of “comorbidities.” As we discussed how much the novel coronavirus was indeed a sort of rupture, or how significant COVID-19 was both epidemiologically and, at a deeper level, historically–wondering if the possible narrative of an endpoint of escalating infections would be a return to “normal,” or if “normal” really made sense as a place to return–the architecture of this local municipal border seemed to make sense as something I sought. to decipher in what might be called, perhaps uncharitably, an episode of pandemic flânerie, or a search for a space for reflection and a hope for distance that city walking might offer to cope.
Did it make sense to look retrospectively at the spread of the Spanish Flu, and to ask what sort of break in time it created by its spread? The maps offered a chilling reminder of the difficulty of stopping its spread to populated areas, across the nation, that was oddly comforting in the progression of pandemics over space if haunted by rising curves of mortality. And as we watched our own time-series graphs of the temporal progression of rates of death and mortality, questioning the undercounts, role of co-morbidities, and trying to peak under the hood of the data visualizations to grasp its spread, the dizzying global scale of infection rates, hospitalization rates, and mortality rates gave us all on the fly crash-courses in demography and epidemiology which we had to admit our grasp was pretty unclear. The learning curve was so daunting, if so basic, that it seemed for a historian more important to gain distance in the past, and preceding pandemics.
As we tried to map the progress of the coronavirus, its origins, and contraction in different rates, we turned with security to the clearest form of visualizing the pandemic, the time-tested time-series line graph, that basic tool of visualization most fit for something so daunting as mortality, which had been a basis for tallying the estimated total of the fifty million killed in the 1918-19 Spanish Flu pandemic, a tally of mortality we would later approach. While the 1918-19 pandemic was a removed event, the curves of mortality on time-series graphs tracked a sense of the compression of deaths to a linearity of time; rates were tallied weekly of the avian-born pandemic in an eerily identical graphic space of data visualization, which was echoed in the similar kinship of tools adopted to contain its spread–masks, hand washing, quarantine–as tracking the progression of time across the old x-axis and the rates of hard to comprehend escalating deaths along the y-axis distanced them with a helpful sense of anonymity.
As much as we were braced by how the progress of the pandemic revealed vulnerabilities of public health systems, the pandemic had posed stress test of the global information network–both in charting and sharing information about infections and identification of the coronavirus genome, and in educating the public about its treatment, and locating access to accurate sources of information.
The difficult to process nature of arranging these humblest of graphs in terms of total cases of COVID-19–a basic tally, but one hard to say was accurate; new cases per day, a metric that seemed to suggest how much of a handle we had on the pandemic’s spread; confirmed cases per million; or the rates of infection in different nations, that oddly removed the spread of mortality as if we were viewing the challenge of combatting the virus as a spectator sport.
Due to the official public denial of its danger or threat in the United States, and in the proliferation of online newsletters, uneven public tracking of infection rates by the CDC, multiple sources of ostensibly authoritative advice from whether it was healthy to exercise outdoors given the dangers of droplet dispersal from others, needs for frequent hand washing or gel disinfectant, and dangers of pubic space grew. We moved through space differently, in the Bay Area, projecting to different degrees a cone of six feet distance, internalizing distance as a social good as we sought to remeasure our relation to a fractured social body.
And it was fit that in the time of social distancing, I started looking at the pavement in new ways, and scrutinized on morning walks the clues stamped in paving of the East Bay sidewalks that seemed to parallel the exponential growth of residential housing in the city, about a century ago–before the Spanish Flu arrived!–as a tangible heritage. If the spate of growth of Berkeley occurred after the great fire of the 1906 Earthquake, the contractors who let their names on the pavement near my house–“1930,” “1938,” “”1939,” “1912” in a staccato of strikes on sidewalks near my house–an illusory sense of stability set in the shifting landscape of mortality as if detected underfoot. I looked at these almost epitaphic registers often combining names and dates in a grim way, as if they measured a sense of individual presence in confrontation with the huge sway of time-series graphs–a micro-geography that kept making me wonder how much of a new or changing temporality the pandemic would create, and what sort of geography shaped the neighborhood I lived in which I was not so keenly aware.
The geography of social distancing during the pandemic cannot be fully rendered, so existential is the psychic effects of the curtailment of face-to-face contact. Even if we have used tracking of locations to determine the extent of travel that folks with cell phones and androids allow themselves, the effects of distancing were interior, as much as they can be mapped in graphs or state-by-state choropleths. The enforcement of public health decisions of distancing or masking were met by uncertainty. And as the pandemic assumed global form and contours, I bore down in new ways on the microgeography of my neighborhood, looking for meaning and scrutinizing social relations hoping for a hint of of redemption, on morning walks; as I tried to negotiate what seemed a threshold of a new temporality of space and disease, with few precedents, avoiding dystopic narratives, the need to confront isolation was balanced by a need to try to map what seemed a deep historical change.
As we sought out ways of measuring the effects and consequences that would play out of the pandemic’s spread, the local seemed the best way to preserve meaning, and to look for grounding, amidst newsletters promised to offer concision and trust in the sea of COVID-19 information, as COVID Tracking Project helped to fill the gap of accurate counts of infections, where the government had failed. And was we searched for on-the-ground accounts of living through the biggest public health crises of our new millennium, we looked for ways of existentially processing unprecedented levels of death for which we lacked mental tools to grasp.
I looked at the monuments on the ground. The previous year had forced, after four years of Donald Trump’s currying of white grievance, removal of confederate monuments from the south, just short of a hundred of which have been removed that have defined America and stood for just short of a century—
–I noticed the spread of pavers’ imprints from a century previous in my neighborhood sidewalks, as if for the first time, viewing them as lost names of the immigrants who had laid cement across the East Bay in the expansion of Berkeley and Oakland from 1906, and of evidence of the fracture lines that led the East Bay to emerge as one of the first residential areas with clear regulations of racial division of residential neighborhoods that still haunts Berkeley.
The lopsided spread of COVID-19 infection rates maps revealed regularly made us reprocess the landscape yet again, and made me feel secure retreating to the historical landscape of another era in the names that monumentalize in accidental fashion the residential rezoning of the East Bay about a hundred years ago, as if I felt more at home entering this other landscape. While I entered this historical landscape, previously documented in visual detail and broader scope by Lincoln Cushing for the Berkeley Historical Plaque Project, the ominous function of historical memorialization that they seemed to map opened up a sense of the inequalities that underlay my own neighborhood in ways I only slowly realized were deeply disquieting–as I turned to the lives of the pavers themselves for comfort, before processing the urban divisions that they preserved from the expansion of Berkeley by real estate promoters as a safe and comfortable enclave in years before and following the San Francisco Earthquake of 1906. Entering Berkeley in the neighborhood where I live orients motorists to a different image of inclusion acknowledging its location in Ohlone Territory–
-but the image of inclusion that I tried to assemble while walking through the apparently tranquil setting of well-being in the course of the pandemic made me sensitive to the fracture lines that were written on the ground, as the sidewalks became a sort of interlocutor for a sense of stability as the devastating virus moved across the globe.
If the images of heightened inequalities and allegedly invisible dividing lines were long submerged and accepted, the dividing lines that sharply rose to prominence in the pandemic, as if we had ever needed reminding, seemed already there, sketched in the pavement, and in the basic building blocks of the city’s residences. Why read further than underfoot? Oddly, the era of social distancing in Northern California provided a time and space to turn meditative on the dividing lines that structured urban space, and the ways the pavement provided a permanent residue and reminder of dividing lines of social distancing that had long characterized its settlement a century previous.
As we tried to remap the spread of viral spread, the presence of these marks seemed a hidden history, and a sign of lives of the contractors who first paved the old neighborhood over a century or so ago–and a site to retreat from the uncertainty of the pandemic on those moments when we walked outside. The strikes of Burnham & Co. I noted on Prince near Claremont, on College Avenue, and Telegraph Avenue from the years immediately following the 1906 disaster suggested a sort of bookending of local and global disasters, and an endurance of concrete.
The imprint of this unknown Burnham reminded me of Daniel Burnham, already in 1906 a celebrated for having “made himself across the United States authority of city building”, his plans for urban design adopted in Cleveland (1903), Washington (1902), and Manila (1905), and was envisioning the rebuilding of a broader Bay Area after the earthquake, organized around diagonals and radiating intersections. “Scarcely before the ashes of old San Francisco had cooled, the enthusiastic disciples of Greater San Francisco were carting them off to the ash heaps and filing requests for building permits” in what was over a century ago a broad project of extra-urban rebuilding, as Burnham’s monumental image of the city faded with time. Daniel Burnham had released an optimistic and idealistically monumental new plan for San Francisco several months before the great earthquake leveled much of the downtown, for widening the city’s streets with arterials, when the C. B. Burnham Construction Company was already grading pavements for new residents across the bay.
The destruction of the city of San Francisco’s downtown, abundantly documented in panoramic images of the destruction of urban concrete, created a dystopic alternative that prompted many to move across the Bay, and a burgeon of urban repaving of residential communities that sought to welcome residents with promises of home ownership on more secure and stable ground, quickly amplified by promising reassurances of residential zoning.
The image of the stranded isolated cupola of City Hall, only its cupola intact, was an eery reminder of the tremor’s impact on a built environment that was on the cusp of expansion: the 1906 earthquake had destroyed the largest civic structure built west of Chicago, the hinge for much of the American West, which fell in the window of ten seconds, after it was constructed less than ten year ago, in a laborious process of over twenty-five years, its cornerstone laid in 1879: the immediate unravelling of the carefully constructed seat of municipal government, whose original ruins have themselves been discovered recently by urban archeologists that was known only in maps suggested the shifting temporality of modernity, of immediate destruction that would later be associated with bombing raids and wartime photography. But the shifting temporality of destruction suggested something akin to the new temporalities of infection over a broader area of space by the new communicable disease that spread in droplets in the air, and led me turn, away from the painful maps of global and national contagion to which we were glued, to the microgeography of the city streets, as if to reconstruct some sense of continuity with the past, less dominated by the awing globalization of COVID-19.
1. The mapping of the globalization of a viral spread was hard to be measured, or visualized, before its pathways of infection were understood, refracted in rates of reported infections, racial disparities of hospitalization, and divergent responses to viral outbreak. The breaks in health care and health revealed inequalities and stresses in a community already keenly insecure about health security, as if a reassuring carpet ripped out from below; we tried to answer the question of what held us together, or would held us together in the pandemic days, unclear how to map its huge public health threat. And amidst the odd suspension of time, interruption of work schedule, concern for elders, and reduced interaction with public space, we strove to locate new and trustworthy information sources, sensing a stress test on our information infrastructure, perhaps soon to be proven the weakest link in confronting the pandemic.
We read dumbfounded about the dangers of a possibly anthropogenic virus escaping the laboratory where it was made, and infecting others,, there was a sense that I found better security, and more fixity of information, in the walking breaks that I took on attempts to process the onslaught of information and disembodied data from afar, focussing on the pasts inscribed in the asphalt archive outside my house, and which I traced along the paths I took from the home we sheltered and a nearby open air coffee shop in short outdoor interludes, trying to process and to juggle the global and local landscapes of COVID-19.
As I walked with uncertain aim, I looked often down at the ground with heightened scrutiny and attention at the marks set in asphalt a century ago, as if these names on the concrete marked a sign of the area’s historical inhabitation that I was tempted to fall into, as if for an escape, returning to the names stamped in century-old strikes of individual pavers whose names acquired an odd resonance of testimony of past lives, as if the pavement were not only an archive, but a membrane to a past that I seemed on walks through Berkeley to meditate upon as if the often barely legible names of imprints in asphalt appeared ghostly markers and intimations of mortality, even more as they were set in cracked pavement, suddenly appearing as cryptic signatures from a lost, foreign, and departed world.
As I walked across the increasingly empty streets with new regularity during the long months of the COVID pandemic, hoping to find distance and a sense of space, I often measured my progress by names of contractors on the city sidewalks. The strikes on the thin layer of asphalt covering East Bay streets served as a sort of grounding, a chorus of a historical past, an archive that doubled as traces of the community that once animated the area where social rifts were evident in disparities in rates of infection in an era of increased health insecurity.
And as hard to imagine were the disparities of infection, the woeful medical conditions of those incarcerated exposed them to four times higher as many cases of infection per thousand. It was of course almost tempting to look at the pavement to recede into a more comforting past, but also comforting to focus on the survival of past memories on the poured concrete. As the residential bonds in Oakland and across the county frayed, I began to find traces in the concrete of the history of deep divisions, and imagined I was reading a lot in the markers of a sense of lost meanings that were, even if often obscured, inscribed in the the street, uncovering old spatialities marked was a sort of “botanizing the asphalt” to root me to the place I lived, recognizing a history of exclusion traced from the 1920s, amidst fears and fissures of the recent pandemic.
There was a modern geomarker of this sense of separation that I found while looking at the ground that I had rarely notice, but suddenly seemed a marker of another social divide that popped out to the streetwalker in a time of social distancing when we all began to contemplate inequalities that were long buried, as it were, underground, as if they had percolated to the surface of consciousness. If looking at the ground seemed a sense of taking measure, and of restoring a sense of needed normalcy, I realized as I came across the faux benchmark set on College Avenue to mark the transformation of South Berkeley to North Oakland, all but invisible, in often overlooked ways that as a simple geomarker served as a nice reminder of a normalcy that seemed suddenly in abeyance, as if it had ever existed.
Although many of the names of different pavers overlapped on this now hardly fixed border, flâneur like walks across Berkeley each morning made me seek a sense of palpability of the past in these old worn strikes, as if to get a new bearing on the world that was removed from its divisions. As we all sought better grounding with the earth uncertain beneath our feet, the traces of past imprints on the concrete assumed a weighty sense of place, and seemed to show a city that was inhabited as if by the ghosts of old contractors, not to be overly poetic, in a self-selected archive of the sidewalks.
To be sure, the names stamped on the pavement in this area that seemed defined by older buildings were perhaps a preserve of old imprints, ranging from the strikes that emulated scrollwork, escutcheons, and inverted triangles or crisp diamonds, of a first generations of sidewalk pavers from the turn of the last century, who seemed to advertise the modernity of paved sidewalks, to the circumspect surnames of men like “G.N. Noble,” “J.E. Morgan,” “J. H. Fitzmaurice,” or the common mark “Griset”–less adorned signatures seemingly belonging to taciturn artisans whose craft less easy to associate with elegance or modernity of earlier eras. The innovation of affording a house with new sidewalks worn off, these men perhaps often repaved broken sidewalk.
But the sense of a historical depth these signs in the asphalt offered seemed something akin to clues of an old neighborhood that arose along policed lines, and seemed a counterbalance to the disparities of health access, insurance, or even adequate data among urban populations that were increasingly hit by the tragedy of infections of COVID-19, from which there seemed little refuge from confronting, and, in those days, even much hope of stability. These small explorative itineraries promised a sense of stability, as if by mapping that world again on foot. Such strikes of pavers were absent on most of the larger traffic corridors of Berkeley like Martin Luther King or San Pablo, and foreign to the old town of Ocean View below, but seemed striking evidence of the areas most dense for single-family housing around my home, evidence of the old policies of racial exclusion created by realtors who had sought to keep Berkeley as s unique “white” preserve free from African American dance halls, Chinese immigrants, or often those without “pure Caucasian blood”–by exclusionary zoning laws that led to a suburban paradise, zoned for single family residences. Were these markers on the ground not effective markers and evidence of exclusivity of the street sidewalks that were paved, as much as I wanted to see them as pride of the artisans and contractors of the past?
2. As social fractures grew on multiple divides, the often unnoticed inscriptions paved concrete dating from the early twentieth century made present on less traveled pathways the divides of the old city grid. The excavation of that grid was a way of orienting myself to the past inhabitants of the region oddly comforting, and not only as a way to explore the nucleus of the urban sprawl. These markers seemed like unrecognized monuments of sorts, both of dividing lines in the city organized by property lines and markets in the first half of the twentieth century, and the cleavages in home ownership by which it was defined. The sudden stoppage of the cities’ edges of broken streets is the nucleus of the current grid, whose groundplan has hardly been changed, if Oakland now runs far, far past Foothill Boulevard.
In the years following the 1906 earthquake and fire across the bay, in San Francisco, that sent so many residents running for shelter, a powerful graphic testimony of the paving of an increased number of streets still survives in the strikes of different contractors’ firms and across the Oakland-Berkeley border that suggested the expansion of an increasingly exclusive city across the bay–often remaining surprisingly crisply defined after all this time, seeming to proclaim with dated optimism the innovative art of pouring pavement over the streets of exclusive neighborhoods.
Many stamps were far more akin to underfoot ephemera, bearing the wear of pedestrian passage over time, some even lacking the years of their original imprint, or being, it seemed, replaced by a metal marker.
As I walked daily in the residential area of the Berkeley-Oakland border, despite the presence of contractors listing Oakland or Berkeley, a few Berkeley contractors in Oakland (Burnham) and of The Oakland Paving Co. in Berkeley, or Blake & Birger Co in Berkeley, most–but not all–of the squat triangular stamps of A. Salamid, son of the concrete contractor Frank, from Monopoli in southern Italy, were struck on land squarely in Oakland–if the border was vague. The stamps were perhaps the surviving traces of a broad project stretching from 1906 to the 1930s, parallel to the definition of neighborhoods of single-family houses, a sharp contrast to as dizzying data sheets of infections and fatalities, but that seemed data too, if not precise data-points, seemed they marks that might map or rescue individual voices from the past as records of a past spatiality. Either the boundary between Berkeley and Oakland had itself shifted, over the years, perhaps, or, far more likely, realtors had developed ties to private contractors independently of location, and what I took as a public space was paved only as it was privately owned, leaving traces that reminded one of the early history of home buying in the micro-geography of the East Bay, often in oddly preserved sidewalk marks situated and sandwiched between the shifting plant of neighborhood streets.
Were the residential sidewalks on which I walked paved in Berkeley and Oakland before single-family residences in the start of the last century to carve appealing enclaves of single family residences by drawing exclusionary lines?
My eyes were often downturned. Walks during the pandemic I re-explored the residential neighborhood, navigating streets as if reading a map of a place I live for the first time: the inscribed names of old pavers popped out with new significance as records of past spatialities–and of mortalities–as if there was a necrology engraved whose superficial reading uncovered an era of the past, when the first residential codes were created in Berkeley from the start of the twentieth century, hoping to exclude populations by distinct zoning for residential housing that were designed to exclude non-whites and any of “mixed” ancestry.
Moving in a neighborhood streets increasingly empty of pedestrians or car sounds, earlier versions of neighborhood seemed to peak out from the stones of pavers that real estate companies set in the East Bay, read not using maps, by surprisingly early evidence of habitation a century ago which I’d never considered. What was a rather straightforward insertion of an old-school calling card for contractors, perhaps placed for questions of liability or as a statement of their skill, in the uninhabited streets now seemed almost archeological discoveries that conveyed mortality not present before. The pavement I was increasingly pounding conjured underfoot lives of earlier contracters, generations of engineers and craftsmen, the builders of public spaces in the East Bay to welcome the huge nubmer of homes sold in the aftermath of the 1906 San Francisco Fire and Earthquake that had devastated the downtown and made many residents eager to relocate across the bay: the increased mobility in the Bay Area of the early twentieth century raised fears of the transformation of Berkeley’s character, but also of the promotion of a new residential community, in ways that brought an abrupt increase of density to the area around the old state university. Iif the pandemic suggested a stoppage of time, from the first days of shelter-in-place policies, or lockdown, the name of the paver almost effaced by pedestrians gained an unexpected pathos, offering material bearings to a past world a century earlier–as if that calling card begged me to define my historical relation to a place; I’d long taken such strikes for granted, perhaps the progress of the pandemic made me realize i was taking for granted my own health.
In 1909, sidewalks in the city were still emerging from tracts, if we look at a cartogaphic time machine of a local map from the era, as Prince Street began to emerge between the Woolsey Tract, Newburry Tract (sic) and Harmon Tract, and Berkeley still part of the Oakland Township, in George F. Cram’s 1908 Map of the City of Oakland, creeks not undergrounded, and many sidewalks only recently paved by men who probably wanted to advertise their wares for the incoming homeowners.
The poignancy of stamps demanded attention as fragments of buried pasts, now rising to the surface. If we were entering a new era, with worries about future assemblies and the fate of common spaces across the country, the sidewalk was something of a register of the past, and a register of past spatialities, across the neighborhood, that I–long after considering GPS and global projections for some time as shifts of spatial regimes–seemed to offer evidence particularly poignant of human actors and lives, where I started to search for clues of distraction, signs of interest, and rootedness. Akin to an unexpected encounter with an apparent USGS benchmark–unofficial, but one which stared me back as in the header to this overly meditative post, made this flâneur’s exploration of sidewalks something like an archeology of past spatial regimes, in an attempt to get better bearings on where we were.
3. As health insecurity, geographic mobility, and infection rates were tracked globally, and different viral strains presented a global problem difficult to digest, reaffirming the local seemed to be a glimpse of fragmented microhistories etched in the concrete pavement beneath my feet, in weeks when I spent many previous evenings drowning in statistical pictures of a pandemic that revealed deep fractures and divides, illuminating huge disparities in health access and cost that fragmented the nation in new ways, and became increasingly hard to find coherence I wanted to read. And the apparently anodyne traces in the sidewalk of the paving of neighborhood sidewalk in the old residences of the new Berkeley neighborhood to which I had moved provided a weird interlocutor of the deep history of an area long zoned for single family housing, designed to marginalize non-white and poorer families outside its own boundary lines, legislating the zoning of more affluent single-family housing and residential areas from 1916 with only implicit references to race, ethnicity, or wealth, creating neighborhoods realtors boasted to be hard-wired with legal “protection against an invasion of Negroes and Asiatics” in what would be a workaround for fear of mobility. The invisible walls that the adoption of strict codes of residential zoning for exclusive single-family homes in Berkeley to persist, in an uncomfortable legacy of realty agents, rapacious developers, and landlords created a longstanding barrier to creating public housing projects in California as their exclusionary tactics became a national model, leading it to be praised by Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover when he set as a universal goal of home ownership the right to live in a Berkeley-style single-family zone that omitted members of color, as if it were a universal right.
Was it possible that the private reveries I took in what I took to be public space, I wondered, tied to a historical landscape of single-family residences, long ago created by realtors and real estate promoters in the East Bay, that had created almost a model of the the single-family home that would be idealized in the United States into the late twentieth century, in its expansive suburbia that was engineered as a utopia of single-family residences, all too often by excluding people of color and non-whites who were cast as “invaders” of residential space? Was the persistence of residential zoning as a program of “white resistance” underwritten by eugenics inscribed in the names of individual pavers, often immigrants, the low level technicians of realtors whose names survive outside of single-family homes, the men who who prepared sidewalks for neighborhoods zoned residential or for single-family housing? While the racist origins were left inexplicit and deeply uncomfortable to recognize, the fracturing of land in my neighborhood of neighborhood zoning echoe dissparities of an uneven landscape of health care costs, and unequal access to health care?
These were a reflection, in large part, of the first laws of residential zoning, work around solutions for rapacious realtors who sought to keep a rustic era of Berkeley in place, and to exclude undesirable arrival within the state and retain “the same social and racial groups” before the Home Owners Loan Corporation’s maps of suburbanization underwritten by the Federal Government set rates for mortgages, an improvised “plan for protecting property values” by zoning for residences, ostensibly to prevent “the evils of uncontrolled development,” but that did double duty by excluding outsiders, and maintaining continuity within a market dominated by realtors who by 1947 openly agitated to introduce restrictive covenants of property sales limiting home ownership to “members of the Caucasian race.”
Was this not another form of social distancing? The stamps seemed to reveal, as markers of an archeology that might have more meaning from a point in the future, a form of social distancing that was almost an obsession for realtors and inhabitants of the Bay Area-a desired form of social distancing that long predated the pandemic, but was somehow reemerging for me in the ground in the current age of social distancing. Was social distancing not a trope of some sort in our own organization of space, as much as a strategy to limit the pandemic’s spread?
As I walked in a neighborhood close to regions long zoned for residential housing, I was struck by how mapping tools stared back, from the pavement, in surprising ways, exploring the local in reaction to the heightened and altered sense of awareness to surroundings. If I found, as if fleeing from the question of food insecurity and rates of infection, in more existential ways to whatever I might see, as if looking for peacefulness under a rock–an intensity that led me to notice a flower, tree, or park in new ways was encouraged by a sense of deprivation of contact during the first year of the pandemic, the uninhabited streets seemed something like a ghost town.
Meditative morning strolls during stay-at-home orders hit the Bay Area provided a form of needed reflection. The inhabitation of the flâneur’s role as an urban spectator of pavement filled a drive for grounding, and assessment, that turned as if by default to the actual ground. And walking with downcast eyes one morning, I delighted not four blocks from my house, almost laughing as I noticed a curious placement of a joking benchmark–clearly not placed by the USGS, but imitating its authority, in ways that seemed something like a breath of relief as it burst the tension that increasingly felt before the deep red graphics that mapped the current dispersion of confirmed coronavirus infections, hospitalizations, and deaths, as the viral spread of maps of the virus’ spread came to dominate the range of maps we daily read, and to place us before maps in particularly disempowering ways. As insecurities grew unlike what we’d experienced, I looked for stability in odd places in the unnoticed signs of old benchmarks and pavers’ names seemed partial texts. As my own travels contracted to a radius of a few miles most days, the ground seemed the best place to find meaning, as newspapers grew exhausting to read for their depressing news.
The faux benchmark managed to maintain a sense of brio and absurdity in described geospatial position that managed to separate geodesy from the distributions of deaths, and to remind me of the propositional or fictional nature of all maps–and wonder about who ever had placed cryptic geomarkers the size of coffee lids in plain sight. While hardly suggesting a real datapoint as a marker, its whimsy had an unexpected appeal I was proud of noticing.
As if revealing a liveliness in its placement, an adjustment in the concrete pavement, that conjured the point-based aspirations of spherical or ellipsoid reference systems, embodied by 240,000 stations marked set in stone over one and a half century. If most recently incarnated in the geodetic system adopted by the National Geodetic Survey, precise longitude, latitude, and height, the markers set in the ground or sunk in rocks once guaranteed a smooth sense of objectivity and assurance of the objectivity and reliability of the mapping of a continuous world–precisely those values that the Pandemic put up for grabs! There was clearly a conscious joke on the tin disk slapped onto the asphalt in front of me. It interrupted the point-based mapping, inscribed with instructions to make an antipodes sandwich, albeit with a soggy slice of bread on the opposite antipode, more to a passing pedestrian than to a surveyor–an unofficial record of place.
Prescriptive instructions is rarely what one might expect from a enchmark. But the many benchmarks sunken or situated in the ground across the Bay Area were intended to provide sighting points for surveyors to take the bearings on the lay of the land for home owners and realtors, even if the lay of the land was what was uncertain now, and since no certainty could be afforded by a survey, the ironic tone of address was actually welcome.
these maps were intended to help determine property lines, and to subdivide lots in the early property markets of the East Bay–suggesting how much property maps provided a basis by which real estate markets had long shaped the region. For if property and realty have dictated the artificial landscaping of the Bay Area by projecting a landscape of single-family residences that shaped what was intended as a semi-urban enclave in Berkeley and vicinity–San Leandro; El Sobrante; Walnut Creek; Piedmont; Danville–that struggled to stay out of the category. While I imagined this was the project of the East Bay suburbs for some time, Orinda seemed to spin out of the Bay Area as a white project itself.
Enabled or classification of suburbia, the fantasy landscape of single-family residences was one of social and racial exclusion traced by survey lines, and in fact etched on the pavements that realtors acted as brokers on real estate boards, even before Duncan McDuffie promoted a landscape of racial and ethnic divisions of exclusivity and desirability of building lots in ways that still haunt the history of housing in Berkeley, and the East Bay as a whole–where over 85% of the land is zoned and subdivided for residential housing, creating an artificial bastion that pretends it is not a planned community, as realtors exploited a land-use division that proved particularly attractive and rewarding to exploit from before World War I, but which residential zoning became a quick fix to create enduring protections for “good” neighhborhoods, excluding non-caucasians: as an older home-owner I met one morning after we got coffee at the same shop reminded me, the line was firmly drawn around downtown Berkeley’s Shattuck Avenue, the dotted line below, south of which the black community lived, and above it “where the racists lived.”
Described as an ethnic preserve safe from “invaders,” the racialized landscape of singe-residence zoning in Berkeley became a template for a nation from the 1920s, a proof of product of the design of tacit but powerful barriers and divides in space, that the area of the Oakland-Berkeley landscape I’d lived for the past decade, rediscovering traces of the eager repaving of the asphalt outside individual lots by pavers like Burnham & Co. or The Oakland Paving Co, seeking to reconstruct a utopia of desired landscapes of private residences less vulnerable to “outsiders.” The spate of early paving immediately following a burst of urban growth in the demand that escalated after the 1906 San Fransisco Earthquake, seemed to seek solid ground on the old land first settled by the Chochenyo/Huchiun band.
In a sea of overpriced properties, a landscape of residential exclusivity defined a new utopian model for the nation. The model, promoted by then-Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover as the model to which the nation was entitled, became a surrogate bucolic community designed by property lines and rules. Berkeley was a high-income residential neighborhood placed cheek by jowl the industrializing rail entrepôt of Oakland, and viewed outsiders as dangerously foreign to this enclave of business owners and professionals, surrounded by apparently natural borders of rivers, parks, and open space to preserve itself as an enclave, even after it was shocked by the huge influx of displaced San Franciscans who arrived in numbers after the 1906 earthquake and fire to migrate across the bay and double the local population in 1906-8and bring an influx of demand for homes with the result that by 1916, or just before the Spanish Flue arrived west, the dominant logic of real estate was the single family home, comprising 90% of the local build landscape in ways that created a profitable template that realtors sought to secure–and that now dominates the over-zoned real estate bubble across multiple enclaves that have come to dominate and define land-use across much of the entire East Bay.
The logic of land development is only recently beginning to redress as an “ugly history” and a legacy of racial disenfranchisement that was a model that predated the collapse of an urban housing boom of the 1920s, when the Federal Housing Administration created the needed housing insurance program to bolster the value of properties, and fluid real estate market, by extending exclusive protections to middle class home-owners by a strikingly similar three-tier ranked system that pointed excluded low-income areas from similar mortgage guarantees, creating among Oakland’s diverse inhabitants that have fragmented the city along property lines in the maps of the Home Ownership Loan Association that are still evident today. The status of the faux benchmark imitating USGS monument was not an official marker, of course. But it caught my attention one day as a formal sort of joke, placed on the ground over the streets I had so often walked, without being noticed. The disk is less a “benchmark” struck by USGS, but it reminded me of the declaration of a monument that might glide from one’s attention, like a water drop of oil-cloth, in the manner Robert Musil in 1927 described how monuments can evade our “perceptual faculties” and repel the attentive observation that they are supposed to attract from passersby: in the years after World War I, as memorials arose to individual heroes and soldiers who perished for the nation, beyond great figures of state, the arch Austrian felt the multiplication of commemorations of figures on pedestals was a poor repertoire, Musil felt as a military man and engineer. Musil’s quite caustic suggestion was removed, but in the aftermath of World War I, a new age of monuments, he argued makers of memorials would do well learn more from mass advertising to grab public attention was not entirely ironic, but grappled with public memory and memorialization, as many were finding a new language for placing public memory in urban space. But somehow, the benchmark grabbed my attention as a needed sense of levity in a pavement that seemed increasingly grey.
Musil’s appeal to ancient Roman statuary suggested the diminished nature of a language of public monuments as forms of remembering–or invitations to remember “with” what they commemorated. If commemoration raised the question of how one would bring into the remembrance of the viewer, I had started to look at the city sidewalks as forms of memory in the period of sheltering in place. Were not some of the first monuments in the Berkeley neighborhood I was increasingly exploring on foot during months of “sheltering in place” indeed not advertisements of their own. We had found a new memorial for the nation, hard to look at and difficult to scrutinize for meaning, as the tyranny of maps of infections and mortality that in 2020 as monuments of the nation replaced the monument of the Border Wall once President Donald J. Trump had promised to construct in 2015 as a common monument. Amidst the trust placed in new universal maps–maps that essentialized and universalized the long-adjudicated border between Mexico and the United States; maps tracking infections of coronavirus were queried for their statistical accuracy by the Covid Tracking Project and others, but set a drum beat of late Trumpian time.
4. Amidst dismaying universals, the preservation of the particular seemed almost redemptive, as flower fragrance, a fragment of song, or a volley of bird calls was a relief from obsessive anxiety. There seemed little or less space for the pedestrian; my apparent discovery of a set of faux geodetic benchmarks as the one in the header in this post that were placed around Berkeley that seemed to confirm the walkability of a pedestrian space amidst competing visualizations of the global progress of COVID-19 seemed in a small way an act of resistance, a re-navigation of habitable space. I couldn’t find any official tabulation of these geomarkers, but they stood in such sharp counterpoint to the marked overmapping that grappled with the escalating fear of contagion, transmission, and safety or security during the pandemic’ seemed to drown space, and leave limited space for movement, outside our back yards or rural trails, when possible, the optimism of that sense of a global mapping was called into question if not punctured in playful ways by the mock benchmark, never noticed underfoot, that someone had placed in the pavement some three to four blocks from my house, that made me pause as a mock monument.
It was a playful monument to what seemed a alternate spatiality, that made fun of the point-based systems of mapping that were the basis for national surveys and, historically, the adjudication of border disputes, whose comprehensive aims seemed punctured by the tongue-in-cheek plaque. The tracking of the coronavirus had almost etched the point-based nature of objective counts of infection and of mortality for upwards of a year, and I laughed to acknowledge the precision of its promise to position sliced bread. As we sought legibility in maps of inequalities in health care, uneven enforcement of protocols of containing infections, and even poor testing for infections, with limited success, the promise of legibility was playfully engaged by the benchmark I’d never noticed in particularly welcome ways–
–as the pandemic seemed to displace all past spatial anxieties of the nation about immigration, terrorism, or perils outside our borders, and dramatically revealed the existence of sharp health inequalities–and injustice. The maps and important dashboards that searched for orientation to the chaos of a pandemic that left us looking for security in time-series graphs, watching the escalating curves of mortality and infection rates that refuse to flatten, as we squirmed to come up with new means of containing viral spread, only to find we were pretty shockingly and disarmingly poor at doing all along. Getting good numbers to track in most of the maps in the needed dashboards, newspapers, and websites to try to steer a course among the spread of infections of COVID-19. Was this only a midlife crisis, or did all memorials not demand an eery sort of “being toward death” that the philosopher Martin Heidegger had analyzed, calling into question the very factors of arbitrariness of infections and the crisis of questions of freedoms so often misunderstood or reflexively returned to in many states, and indeed the question of agency and of self: for the viral spread we were trying to map had interrupted the lives of so many in ways that one never might associate with modernity, but were, one had to acknowledge, born of anthropogenic change. One certainly needed to regain bearings on the world. One might thrown Heidegger to the side and go to the skepticism with which Wittgenstein harshly critiqued how a persistent “craving for generality” had been reborn in the age of globalization, filled with a “contemptuous attitude towards the particular case” one might do well to embrace.
I made an effort to try to explore the city streets in detail, following itineraries for bearings as a flâneur of post-pandemic space of increasing distance, I noticed in my weekly step counts.
As much as searching for the authentic, the pavement stared back to puncture the hubris of that universalism, playfully suggesting the vainglory of a unified universal space, and turned those dramas back to a human story. While the local GeoMarker was helpfully undated, a walk to the further bakery, a mile and a half or so to the East, I conveniently found a terminus ante quem of sorts, or passed by a strikingly similar marker, made by the same sort of local geographer, that memorialized a site of considerable importance to all parents in Berkeley, as it remembered place that was the first site for the short-lived local program of alerting pedestrians to oncoming traffic at intersections, by placing a personal flag that street-crossers might carry, in order to alert oncoming vehicles, 2001-4, to carry to the other side of the street: not only for luftmensch associated with the university town, as if flâneurs after the fact, but was also for schoolchildren.
Berkeley’s ill-fated Pedestrian Flag Program hoped to eliminate pedestrian accidents closed long after many flags went missing, and they proved less than viable, after, sadly, a flag-carrying pedestrian was struck. The geomarker preserved a deeply local memory hard not to consider apt at the intersection where afternoon sun was glinted into my eyes, as I’d apprehensively crossed. The local memorialists at work had made their points, suggesting the optimistic program of self-governance by which Berkeley had long run.
The faux benchmark was a rather celebratory marker of the survival of pedestrian space. Most importantly, perhaps, it made me turn to search for similar GeoMarkers, in hopes to discover a lost world of walking that was left for pedestrians on other sidewalks of the pedestrian spaces of Berkeley. I’d heard from a fellow walker that he’d seen another, down near Tenth St., and as I went walking in greater extent, I kept my eyes fixed on the ground. I was most of all happy he noticed it, and while he couldn’t remember its location.
The pandemic prompted a sense of uncovering a hidden spatial architecture, parallel to that of Berkeley but lying there underfoot all the time-an architecture that reminded me of the cartographic roman a clef urban fantasia, China Miévilles’ The City and the City; I had uncovered an urban topography lying on the surface but out of sight for most, including, until this point, myself, that my increasing itineraries led me to uncover, lying on the concrete surface of the sidewalk, instead of the street, that offered a sort of running commentary on the building and occupancy of Berkeley.
The local Berkeley reference to Malvina Reynolds, who was inspired to write a lament of the landscape of houses of “Ticky Tacky [that] all look just the same” about the increased social conformity of San Francisco tract housing, Little Boxes (1962), the local folk singer’s critical reflection on architectural conformity of South San Francisco; it quickly became a recognized anthem emblematic of unease at the lack of invention about lifestyles in postwar America more broadly, after being quickly taken up and popularized by her friend Pete Seeger, who recognized its balladic power as a deep allegory for the conformity of lifestyles, adding to it several verses himself. If Reynolds was a social observer, struck by the housing formations she saw while she and her husband drove through San Francisco so acutely to ask her husband to drive them to La Honda as she wrote a song inspired by the sight of tract housing that would “convey to people things that they already knew that didn’t know they knew or hadn’t thought about,” in the words of her daughter, but hadn’t put into words, she would be surprised to see the words transposed to Berkeley of course slyly transposed the dangers of an advance of social conformity Reynolds saw in South San Francisco to the East Bay.
Reynolds’ lines on tract housing, situated at the busy intersection of Milvia St. and University Ave., reminded me–“There’s a beige one–and a grey one/And a brown one and a khaki one“–of the shadow cartography the markers seemed to be creating by signing to pedestrians. The faux geomarkers oriented pedestrians at a slant to the built geography of Berkeley, as if ironic and knowing comments on it. And as I walked, I found the strikes of local pavers on the sidewalks of south Berkeley oriented me to a shadow geography of built space. I unintentionally and then intentionally read more in th ecourse of itineraries across South Berkeley and North Oakland, seeing the expansion of calling cards of masters of concrete stamped on the sidewalk in strikes as material records of the rapid growth of a new paved spatiality in the 1910s and 1920s in my neighborhood, no more evident than in the many inset meter boxes stamped by “Art[isanal] Concrete” patented from around 1914, and which have spread over most all of Oakland and Berkeley, iconic monuments to a local supplier that was only recently replaced.
Morning trips to the coffee shop led to a weird sense of empathy with these names stamped in concrete, as lives that were lost, as we were losing lives across the nation in ways that we lost the ability to tally or count, let alone process. Struggling to come to terms with data visualizations in an age of increased social isolation, we were to an extent all grasping at straws. And while the names of contractors who seem to have provided the first streets of the region with sidewalks had long registered in my subconscious as a curiosity of the region, these oddly dispersed names, often matched with dates, were increasingly read not as part of the landscape, but somehow evidence of a receded past, and of past lives, in ways that I never imagined, even as a trained historian: the nine imprints–or strikes–that mirror housing lots signed by “G.R. Noble, Contractor” along a block of Hillegass Avenue of older houses along which I regularly walked along had long suggested he had worked with a realtor who had sold the lots for new residents: if not nearly as stylized as some, or linked to a date, the contractor who had identified himself suddenly became a sign of mortality, as the names and dates that swung back to my attention in a melancholy key–“Villata-1931”; “J. Catucci — 1916”; “J. B. Castellotti 1921”–suggested signatures of a post-World War I expansion of paved sidewalks and housing lots. The strikes without years stood out–L. J. Lorenzetti; T. J. Garvey; “Ed” Doty; W. O. Nelson–as if orphans, refusing to slide into their surroundings but springing from the streets of my north Oakland neighborhood as epitaphs of a bygone age of sidewalk paving and settlement of the East Bay. While they probably never had similar significance as mortal records, it was almost inescapable that these marks from a century ago marked out a lost age, that suddenly seemed to reach out to me as I looked with my eyes downward cast at the ground.
Was I just looking at the pavement too long, using my phone to preserve what seemed time-stamped snapshots of some sort of memorial elegance, or was this a weird form of middle-aged mourning for a lost past lying at my feet? The strikes set by these pavers a century or so as markers of guarantees of quality and professional calling cards gained a sense of palpability as epitaphs of past lives. They seemed able to indicate as never before a sense of loss, as well as offering a window into the past of the paving of driveways and sidewalks of older houses when many sidewalks had not been uniformly paved.
My friend Jeff, who I’d taken to talk about Kafka and Modiano with during the pandemic, had warned me sagely when I moved into the neighborhood I would be often walking into a time warp, to a zone inhabited by ghosts of a Berkeley past. The local Self-Realization Foundation was in fact shuttered during the pandemic, and the front of the aquarium store thankfully become legit and an increasingly essential business, amidst scattered community centers and legal advocacy groups. But the time warp became more real, as his words hit me in unexpected ways in a few years, as the streets grew more emptied, the names on the sidewalk gained resonance, and the sounds changed as urban traffic receded from local space. A very worn early strike set by Blake and Bilger–faint but barely legibly dated 1909, two digits in a distinctive triangle’s center–barely visible with abrading, surfaced on the sidewalk on Prince Street.
Was I looking for these signs stenciled into the pavement because my eyes were downcast, or because I wanted to find a trace for another sort of community lying before my eyes? As archeologists talk about place as “haunted” by earlier records of habitation, and spatialities of settlement, the past seemed oddly comforting and dear to hold close, even if it was hardly legible with time. To be sure, the city was haunted by a specter of racial covenants and despite a long term effort to desegregate neighborhoods framed as residential to preserve clear lines of racial division.
5. The itineraries began in search of nature. Most every morning, I woke to walk early, usually by habit listening to birdsongs for orientation more than GPS. In the pandemic, it seemed, sparrows, chickadees, and scrub jays seemed to be finding refuge in the trees, to find reassurance on what might be called the natural world was in place. The change in avian song, beyond crows and mournning doves, was intense. Was it an unforeseen by-product of the pandemic in response to the existential search for a new form of orientation? I was more attentive to the local, from the play of sunlight on leaves to trees, flowers, the increased meaning of song lyrics, or appearance of budding magnolias and the seed pods of sweet gums outside my house: if haunted by melancholy, the promise of possible redemption of birdsong began with reduced traffic, in the new acoustic silences of pandemic coastal California, filled with birdsong, as a welcome habitat opened in reaction to how ecoscientists had recently detected. Were there newly acquired behavioral traits of avian populations in this silent spring of such a reduced anthropogenic sound?
Despite the rather precipitous decline of avian populations across a large part of North America, due in great part to anthropogenic change, I was fortunate in Northern California to be at a center where the small lungs of sparrows, towhees, and finches seemed to fill the air with early morning birdsong, sending my wife and I for better and better binoculars, in an attempt to investigate the sweet gums, redwoods, and shrubbery that created some spotty tree-cover for them to sing. They seemed, in the absence of urban rumble, to fill suddenly far emptier acoustical space outside my home, providing bearings each morning in chirps, trills, and song, as they reclaimed space or started mating cries, as migratory white-crowned sparrows arrived this Spring, battling for positions in their branches and somewhat proudly regaining their calls. For although a declined range in the variety of historic calls found a morning chorus of sparrowsong replaced by a new dialect in San Francisco, amidst the rumble of anthropogenic sounds.
Derryberry et al. have painted with broad brushstroked increased virtuosity and embellishment of local birdsong in the pandemic, mapping one of those unseen bright spots, together with declining emissions, as the grim months of the pandemic froze time–despite the very grim picture of sharp declines of avifauna across much of the North American continent extending over the past fifty years, with scary consequences for ecological habitats.
WHereas Kim Todd had called attention in Bay Nature some time ago to the decline of historic dialects of sparrow song in San Fransisco due to anthropogenic sound, with a powerful map of sonic space of Golden Gate park by the skilled cartgrapher Molly Roy, as if a counterpart to the very efflorescence of urban birdsong during the pandemic. The new avian populations that Derryberry et al. registered in their re-examination of birdsong in the newly opened sonic spaces of their “silent spring” of 2020 foregrounded the urban populations of white-crowned sparrows who had filled the shorelines of nearby developed spaces that included a selection of healthy trees, like my own neighborhood, and seemed a neat confirmation of what I was so busy mapping on my Merlin app as I rediscovered my Life LIst.
If all mapping is a process of reorientation to spaces, the process of mapping mortality and infections of COVID-19 made me seek to map place in new ways, and to do so as a form of something like counter-mapping, focussing not only on birdsong, but the network of actors who had created a sense of certainty in the past, as much for therapeutic balance as to come to terms with the shifting lay of the land in he first year of the pandemic. Even as I watched infections spread far removed from where I lived, or process the high rates of infection and loss of life far away and nearby. If the walks we make are often tracked by GPS, the evidence on the sidewalk of past Berkeley’s offered a set of distancing operations to get through the day. These markers, etched on the sidewalk in strikes that were often dated and signed, seemed more like markers of mortality, another injunction of being toward death, or perhaps they were more of a way of gaining balance and perspective on death as mortality rates were on everyone’s mind, as speaking about Heidegger seemed unnecessary as COVID-19 was so clearly poised to be the leading cause of mortality yet again in the United States, ending and all our shibboleths of modernization distancing death from the world.
6. If Berkeley is almost an ecotone between the paved space of sidewalks that encourage city walking and the wooded areas where birds sung, on solitary walks I turned to legibility for a better purchase on space, and to the strikes scattered over the ground that I had also barely noticed in the past. If Jeff had warned me I would find myself in a zone inhabited by ghosts of a Berkeley past, the sense of walking along a time warp became more real during the pandemic, as his words hit me in unexpected ways in a few years. And during the pandemic, the past seemed only all that more exciting to luxuriate in and take bearings on, as if for a clue as to where we were.
I turned to the mute legends of concrete pavers as if to take stock of the local in Berkeley, even as grim news grew. I walked on foot on in what were often surprisingly restricted routes, meditating on their details in moments like walks for coffee, talking routes I knew well but that of course also seemed utterly changed. If the sense of urban isolation might have been reflected in the “nameless crowd” of city streets, I was most always alone, now, and as if in compensation was noticing with an eery keenness the presence of names that popped out of the ground, reminding me of paving over the pas century. Balancing spatialities of local and global was both pressing and depressing. Exploring the neighborhood streets that I got to know again on foot with increased regularity.
In doing so, I found myself seeking landmarks and sites of reassurance–and often revery–as a needed form of distraction, and a resting place of sorts, perhaps to calm the sense of distraction that hemmed in indoors, searching for a revery but also of new ways of inhabiting and opening up my own personal safe space. Perhaps even the simple act of respectful reading offered needed stability,–either while sheltering in place or as all purchase on security and stability was compromised by the pandemic, set off from the natural world, as if to find a sense of greater stability a century removed in time in mute names. Was this a middle age crisis coinciding with the pandemic? The names found right there in pavement were an insistence of the value of the individual, etched in concrete, if not a forgotten monument of sorts to the individual life and the environment in which I walked, reading words stamped on the ground from a century distant as if traces of a past that one wouldn’t want to forget, but suddenly seemed preciously emerging from the ground with completely unexpected clarity as a hidden landscape.
While the earliest strike from The Oakland Paving Co. that I’ve seen in the neighborhood was a few blocks to the north, on Ward St., from 1901, a decade earlier,–years before the first surviving ledger book–in a gravelly section of a street paved largely in the 1930s and 1940s, in Berkeley, on Ward Street, just below Telegraph Avenue.
The early stamp of similar design suggest an intense paving of sidewalks from the turn of the century that I seemed to discover on these walks that had me looking more closely at the pavement than I’d probably ever done, as if finding clues and traces of earlier eras under rocks on the ground. But it seemed, looking at the pavement, as if the neighborhood streets could be themselves oddly transient, if most of the concrete sidewalks were of a later date. With some concrete pavers crowded by grass margins, I supposed the area was paved at the turn of the century.
The cement from the Oakland Quarry that was used by the The Oakland Paving Company was a bit misplaced in Berkeley, but the entrepreneurs of concrete who had begun with the paving of roads seem to have been tied to the activity of early property development, and the bid for lots on the Oakland-Berkeley border where I live–and have lived for a chunk of time, without looking at the physical archive of such pavement strikes much, seem to be a relic not only of property development but promotion at a time when the lots were first up for sale, and many of the earliest local houses built. Was it only because of the angle of the afternoon sun that this seemed to pop into relief?
The separate addition of the date in a distinct block was even more evident in a strike up on Claremont Avenue, site of more pedestrian traffic, and more unstable ground, near another coffee shop I passed one late afternoon.
Not far away, and considerably more abraded with time due to pedestrian traffic, the worn stamp of an earlier paver on Telegraph Avenue confirmed the burst in the early laying of pavement, at the turn of the century–possibly W.O Nelson, given its distinctive 1905 escutcheon–less legible and far more worn by foot traffic. They seemed time-stamped memorials, as ephemeral as photos, more transient than ever before, as I catalogued pavers of the past in the longer contemplative walks I took while sheltering in place. Could this have been struck by J.A. Marshall, who was working in Berkeley in 1905, but whose strikes often omit a date?
The clearer strike of strikingly identical form, from a full twenty-five years later, seemed to suggest a sense of an unknown timeline, not fully excavated, perhaps, but lying at my feet.
If the records of property maps were not my forte, the abundance of online records of old lots once for sale “on easy terms,” courtesy Calisphere, historicized what was now a tight real estate market of gentrification, and created a sense of the boom of building that lots in such a neighborhood of newly paved streets claimed, boosted by the Key Route of Electric Railroad that would run to San Francisco, with a Country Club of its own. The progress of sidewalk paving seemed offered “free to purchasers,” as new traffic in paving grew piecemeal for new residents.
While I didn’t navigate far on the ground, the intense activity of the pavers in laying sidewalks in a space that was almost more comfortable to occupy.
Berkeley was hardly built as an automotive town, and the uneven street quality of much of the city is evident in the relative absence of street repairs in many areas–aside from its main arteries–that meant that many of the streets in the older area I lived were of uneven quality, often, until recently, marked as “poor” (yellow) or “very poor” (red), and often unable to bear much weight, as they were laid directly over uneven ground.
The paving of sidewalks seemed indeed tied to this uncertain history of the physical plant. The pronounced presence of such older sidewalks might suggest the differences of sidewalks’ presence in some of the unpaved (and more rural) areas of Berkeley and Oakland, whose municipal dividing line is now difficult to judge on street-level, but must have once revealed unequal pavements and street qualities, still evident in some streets. Was the oldest such strike–worn if still legible–set in pavement near Piedmont Ave., beside a large mansion-like lot, flamboyant if constructed a bit prior to Arts & Crafts? The paving of these lands in the uplands as residential spaces staked an exclusive area of inhabitation at a remove from any indigenous presence in the land.
7. By the 1880s, the presence of indigenous in the Bay Area and East Bay had been reduced considerably, if limited from the villages on San Leandro Creek, the Lisjan villages, Ohlone population already reduced by 90% by 1852–
–but as late as 1909, not only did up to four hundred shell mounds and midden ringed water bodies known as the San Pablo and San Francisco Bays, that archaeologist R.C. Nelson hurried to map shell-mounds not yet overbuilt–some of which were ten meters. in diameter–while distinguishing those already disappeared by overbuilding by empty circles, partially present mounds by half circles, one in Berkeley, and surviving so as to preserve a map of their contracting distribution as property values and subdivisions across the East Bay grew. While the ability of California indigenous inhabitants who had once crowded the East Bay–Ohlone, who had built cities atop shell mounds near the bay, now only evident in ruins of sites formerly sacred for their inhabitants and Verona, declared extinct by 1925–had all but erased indigenous presence: the ability to bring suit to pursue rights of self-determination only recognized in 1927, was not won much later, in 1944–the extinction of local villages confirmed by their paving over, the creation of a memorial Shellmound St. at the site of a shopping center where Temescal Creek empties to the Bay.
The largest mound located in Emeryville, of truly daunting proportions, was destroyed in 1924, as many streets in my neighborhood were being paved. The “modern” cosynchronous calculus of the steam-shoveling of structures dating thousands of years old–some to the era of the pyramids–at the end of Temescal Creek and the quarrying of stone further up the creek, helped ensure paved roads in Oakland’s and the paving of Oakland and Berkeley’s residential streets: the mound and older West Berkeley Shellmound that dated back 3700 years were not mapped in the 1775 survey of foundation of the San Francisco mission, probably as they were abandoned, but by 1908 ten strata were excavated, before by the 1920s the mound was cut away by steam shovel, opening cross-sections examined for bodies–some seven hundred were uncovered–and artifacts, amid oyster, clam, and mussels and bones of sea otter, fish and birds amidst many artifacts–long after it had been abandoned, all but ignored as the settlement of lots across the Bay Area grew.
The massive transformation of earthworks from the 1924 cleared the area as Berkeley streets expanded.
The introduction of concrete building materials to the east bay streets would have been profound. Imagining that I was cataloguing and uncovering an alternative spatiality of the past that opened up on the sidewalk I walked across without paying attention seemed a new side for engaging the local. The new art was affirmed in the logo nearby, boasting the “art[isinal] concrete wks” manufacturing bespoke blocks from the Oakland Quarry, long used for paving roads, two passes from the medallion that first called my attention to the antipodes. “Art Concrete”–Artisanal? Artificial?–was a southern California firm specialized in precast concrete, based in Pasadena, which provided meter boxes for utilities from its Oakland works, which only later changed its name after acquiring a competitor, Brooks. But it seemed an apt metaphor or legend for the botanizing of the concrete asphalt pavement.
Having gained a patent from 1914, the numerous meter boxes bearing the legend, the header for Andrew Alden’s lively blog, “Oakland Underfoot,” I entered a world of hidden traces of a lost spatiality I had long overlooked, rooted in racial marginalization but organized spatial reconstruction by the logic of single family residences and homes.
In one version of the story, with archives and libraries closed, I traveled to outdoors archives of the streets and pavement as if reading of a local necrology of the neighborhood. The strikes of concrete pavers in deserted streets seemed to tap local memories preserved in the pavement as a needed purchase on place about to fade–the 1908 strike placed by C.E. Burnham, now worn down by footsteps of passersby. The displays of these names distilled something like an object lesson of the world, a stripped down concrete experience of the local, or an urban panorama of the past.In another sense, not satisfied and disturbed by the maps of infections, I shifted from the global and national scales of space to the local, finding solace and affirmation where it occurred on sidewalks of the streets where I lived, the surviving strikes amidst much of South Berkeley’s historically cracked pavements.
As Charles Baudelaire had, a century ago, defined the flâneur as most at home in the urban crowd, the alternate multitude on the ground offered an odd sort of company, attuned to urban stimuli, this was almost an urban imaginary of the past whose concreteness was far more tangible amidst what Baudelaire had called “the midst of the fugitive and the infinite,” if the “ebb and flow of movement” on the streets was far more attenuated. As if in a stretch between the imagination and reality, I couldn’t help noticing, these names of these “old Italians,” those who have been dying, as the late flâneur Lawrence Ferlinghetti in 1979 described as “dying and dying/day by day . . . for years”–Joseph Catucci of Cassano delle Murge, in the province of Bari; Frank Salamid or his brother Angelo of Monopoli in Puglia; Lino J. Lorenzetti and his fellow Pugliese Nat Lena–peering up from the pavement from over a century ago–as if they offered a source of stabilty.
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. Walter Benjamin, who if he grew up in Berlin, exploring its hidden streets and sex trade at night, felt himself most at home exploring modernized spaces of Paris that Baudelaire described, a flâneur walking not by orienting oneself by a map, but by losing oneself passionately but restlessly in protean urban forests of shop fronts, signage, and side-shows that belied old street names. The odd commemoration of Ramsden Blake, his name affixed on a metal plates onto the concrete, almost seemed as if homeowners had inserted these ovals after a repair had led them to remove concrete with Blake’s strike.
Over on 66th Street, just a few blocks into Oakland, featured improvised forms of commemoration, undated sidewalk cyphers harder to notice, as if lives far more easily forgotten, perhaps as a consequence of lying across the border.
Around the same time as Walter Benjamin was describing the joys of walking around Paris, as if trying to achieve transcendence of the built space of Paris, in deriving a sense of eternity from the transitory–l’éternel du transitoire” per Baudelaire–the spread of paved space elicited a bid to stake claims to the eternal from the strikes with which they placed what now seem ephemeral calling cards on the stretches of sidewalk that modernized Oakland, which my own newly acquired sense of mobility seemed as if it might be able to unlock as the sidewalks offered one of those “shared collective spaces where consciousness and unconsciousness, past and present, meet.”
A later snapshot of a strike of P.M. Henning from the month previous turned up the next day on Hillegass.
8. Walter Benjamin took his own flight from reality by urging us to hone our senses to city streets as “the wanderer in the manner of a twig cracking and snapping under his feet, or startled by a bittern’s call or the sudden stillness of a clearing with a lily standing still, even if the city hardly remained still: now the city stayed still, and these marks seemed to speak. For Benjamin, the flâneur felt a giddy heightening of senses achieved by way wandering in its constructed space, attentive to the dress and movements of inhabitants and walkers as an urban observer by “botanizing on the asphalt,” a felicitous turn of phrase, difficult to translate, suggesting the built city of the late nineteenth century, and restlessness of the ethnographer of urban space that linked nature and manmade concrete. It was made more tragic, and melancholy, of course, as Benjamin, desperately awaiting the possibility of transit papers to leave France to cross the Pyrenees, took his life, despairing at being forced to return to France; Benjamin was seeking transit papers for leaving Europe, far from his pleasure of walking in city streets, having entered the spectral world that his friend novelist Anna Seghers called “the ongoing situation that consulates describe as ‘transitory,’ but that we know in everyday language as ‘the present,'” in her novel Transit, caught between officials demanding papers of passage, far from the former pleasures of moving on foot. Is there not a proliferation of such spaces of suspended passage, waiting for official languages to intersect with one’s present, today?
Anna Seghers, Benjamin’s comrade and a life-long Marxist, evoked the desperation of assembling transit visas in wartime Marseilles, to leave a continent closing down, but might have described the unseemly expansion of worlds of refugee and tragically expanding spaces of waiting not far away, between official permission and everyday limbo–spaces between a lived landscape and official maps. Seghers buried a reference to the tragic desperation of the one-time flâneur’s suicide at the foothill town below the Pyrenees obliquely, as the narrator reflects on a rumor circulating that “a man shot himself in a hotel in Portbau on the other side of the Spanish border, because authorities were going so send him back to France in the morning,” finding himself trapped as he travelled on a smuggling route. The mention of the suicide didn’t linger on tragedy, but from a distance remembered the terrible loneliness a looming geopoltical boundary held for the one-time flâneur. Without naming Benjamin’s identity or the nature of the bombed out town where he took his life, emptied of many of the left writing inhabitants who had fled to France, the rumor of the suicide in the foothill city Benjamin took in 1940, foregoing a transit he hoped for never found, led Seghers to evoke her friend’s final moments sparingly, imagining the unexpressed terror at being compelled to return to “this country in which we are still stuck must have seemed hellish and unlivable” for one with “such enormous hopes for his journey’s destination that going back should have seemed so unbearable.” The place that seems a port of sorts and decisive moment of Benjamin’s final days captures the frustrations of navigating modern space for a refugee who had left Marseilles for Mexico, on a boat including André Breton, Victor Serge, and Claude Lévi-Strauss, a crowd where Benjamin might have found compelling company: Segher’s unnamed protagonist, awaiting transit papers, leading him to reflect that “you hear about people who prefer death to losing their freedom,” wondering what liberty death might offer, as if recalling Benjamin’s ecstatic urban reveries, asking himself “was that man really free now?“
The past is if anything inscrutable, but i found a subaltern space to escape anxieties in the pavement underfoot. If urban space stood still, the flâneur seemed to be testing the permanence and habitability of urban space, as a bohemian, perhaps indulging in narcotics as I depended increasingly on more coffee. The signs suggested a weird uncertainty, and an escape. Were there messages in the imprint of the contractor P.M. Henning, placed proudly on Hillegass Avenue, or just immobile snapshots of what seemed a less troubled world, akin to archeological ruins?
Not far from Henning’s rectangular strike, on what must have been a less walked street, the surviving mark of a slightly earlier paver seemed to speak from the cracked pavement from a century’s remove.
If urbanist Walter Benjamin argued that to “lose oneself in the city as one loses oneself in the forest . . . calls for a different sort of schooling,” pavers of the neighborhood provided a way of familiarizing myself with the global outside the preoccupation of COVID-19, taking refuge as if a local antiquarian with these elegantly framed calling cards that seemed placed in the concrete that became new objects of attention on early morning walks. When Benjamin had famously described the urban flâneur as one “who goes botanizing on the asphalt,” in Benjamin’s chiastic revery, he wasn’t talking about pavement, or urban foliage, but scientifically exploring streets whose personal details could only be individually mapped while sheltering in place. For the flâneur of the era of COVID-19 was obsessed by a different sort of uneasiness, trying to find stability in the fugitive fragrances of flowers, in mid-spring, the unexpected volleys of sparrow’s birdsong, or other fugitively seized moments of escape from the general discomfort and unease of the pandemic’s course. Looking at the scrubby grasses that survived among cracked pavement was a different form of schooling than epidemiology for sure, a form of “botanizing the asphalt” of unexpected sense.
For Benjamin, the flâneurs were a new social type who explored cities as if they “opened out, becoming landscape.” They explored urban geography as a landscape best learned by wandering and during the pandemic, trips to get coffee offered urban odysseys; the strikes of pavers framed by squares or diamonds offered imaginary orientation on the city and an archeology of space, as the birds which had migrated to the city, as if the Sonoma coast’s avian population–save shorebirds–arrived at my stoop, issuing insistent cries and sliding scales from their tiny lungs that seemed a discussion of bird banter that filled the quieter skies, air travel eliminated entirely or reduced, ambient sounds of traffic pausing, and increased pirouetting of birdsong seeming to expand its register. In the early twentieth century Paris, Benjamin sought a science of wandering in the city or getting lost–the art of the flânuer or street-walker whose urban itineraries the poet Charles Baudelaire saw as a signature of modernity, a man who saw the urban crowd as his habitat, as much “as air is for the bird or water for the fish,” whose built environment and its anonymous crowds became both a passion and indeed profession to engage as a spectator of others.