Category Archives: Bay Area

Metageographical Pavement

One of the consequences of the pandemic is a far keener sense of the rapaciousness of surveillance capitalism as we both rely on online ordering and increasingly devote time to web-searches that come to haunt us in quick succession. But if we are tracked in our daily motions, step counts, and position, I was struck by how mapping tools stared back, from the pavement, in suddenly surprising ways, offering welcome reflection on my stroll. Walks during the pandemic often re-expolore the neighborhood, navigating it as if it was reading a map of a place I live: an unexpected encounter with a benchmark in the neighborhood, increasingly empty of pedestrians or sounds, begun to reappear. A heightened sensitivity to one’s surroundings, perhaps brought by sensory deprivation, was an unforeseen and almost positive by-product of the pandemic, stretching from the play of sunlight on leaves to song lyrics, and extending to budding magnolias or dropping seed pods of sweet gums and their off-red leaves.  

At the same time as such spray-painted pavement markers offer ubiquitous reminders of protocols of social distancing in the pandemic, I’ve been reading marks on the pavement for far more permanent or material signs of spaces we inhabit. In an age of global and national maps of the COVID-19 infections, hospitalizations due to the virus, human mortality, and lives lost, the retreat to the local seemed manageable, and the fantastic faux benchmark in my neighborhood became the fitting center of an imagined geography, the bearing point for an imaginary community–and spatiality–born in the age of social distancing, and raised questions of how they mapped onto one another.

And in the region of south Berkeley CA where I found myself over the first year that COVID-19 spread globally, the stretches of sidewalk that had not been replaced or seen construction offered a memory theater of some sort of, imprints of pavers a register of signatures of contractors whose marks, at a moment of heightened mortality, gained greater commemorative functions as a sort of public memory in public space, calling attention to themselves to punctuate walks in a pleasant material interruption of the past that I had long overlooked. And as ways of commemorating and accounting for escalating fatalities seemed somehow stuck in the craw of the nation, blanketed by the denial of a state of emergency or even viral communicability, the names stenciled in the sidewalk gained a poignancy as commemorations to be recognized, whose sight suggested sites of registering temporal flow in which a straightforward form of old-school calling cards for contractors and pavers gained unexpected pathos in the pandemic, as the lives of the engineers of pavement underfoot gave a new sort of poignancy as if in counterpart to the birdsong from the trees.

Perhaps a heightened sense of contingency that has only grown all winter long, here is a keen sense as I navigate the neighborhood I am confronting signs of an archeology of the past that is rising from the ground, previously unnoticed and out of sight. As the songs of birds had returned to the streets, filling up the absence of traffic and the background static of traffic sounds in ways ornithologists have identified with a distinct broadening of birdsong range from the first months of the pandemic, as white crowned sparrows of the sort that roost in the nearby bushes have led to song without the interruption of high frequency ambient noises to navigate registers of both doubled range of communication and lower pitch, the arrival of less urbanized birdsong in urbanized areas in the pandemic seemed to restart a dropped discussion about place and space, benchmarks seemed to offer to take up a discussion we had lost. This was a collective experience of the pandemic, which in 2020 had staged a collective experiment of sorts in active listening and recognition of a shifting frequency and range of birdsong, as Steven Lovatt noted, as the pleasurable byproduct of lockdown, able to “short-circuit time” as one recognized the sound in life-affirming ways. I reading paving stones as a text underfoot, in those areas where they weren’t effaced by pedestrian traffic or repaving.

The enhanced attention to the solitude of song seemed a rejiggering of relation to place, as if the presence of birdsong offered an unearthed language that made Charles Darwin’s theory that the melodic structure of birdsong, perhaps attributable to “mere happiness,” was nothing less than the most evident analogy for the expressive structures that gained lexical qualities of indication, description, and volition in language, I became more attentive to a “forgotten aspect of the grammar of reality” other languages of place, even drawn to identify the sounds of birds perched in the branches of the two sweet gums outside my front stoop, not only as sparrows, by by their trills, calls, and plumage. Darwin’s sense of the communicative nature of birdsong seemed alive in the apparent expanded range encouraged by a drive to vocal learning in the trees, the renewal of this phonological syntax expanded one’s sense of place, as if bearing new information about the opportunities that a partial lockdown opened up.

There was a sense of the observation of the workings of the mind, and the markings of space, or of watching oneself with alertness as a reader of reality. And the marker that is in the header to this post, when I seemed to discover it, provided the impetus for reflecting on the changed spatiality of the pandemic; I stumble across them, pause, and see them as evidence of an earlier spatiality, as if buried in time, but traced on the pavement as a form of mapping geographic information of an earlier time. Over a year, it came to be imagined as the center of the new neighborhood I was in, or at least a new place to gain bearings, a sign of the affirmation of a part of the neighborhood I never saw and that captured a sense of a community even with far fewer folks on the streets, or chance conversations. It’s as if there is a rich archeology of spatial knowledge written on the ground, as if the isolation of social distancing left me more sensitive to seeing voices on the ground, as much as pounding the pavement o my neighborhood. Perhaps this is somehow a search for escape, or momentary transcendence of the existential condition of sheltering in place, or more likely the guiding trope is the reveries of the solitary walker, finding transcendence not only in the natural world, but of the apprehension of traces of older cartographic regimes and markers, as something like a puncturing the regime of social distancing.

But the sign of what seemed a forgotten group of bench marks on the pavement of the street near by house seemed similar to ghosts in the neighborhood that popped out with newfound and unexpected clarity as lost but legible registers of the past. This is not only the evocation of a community with comfort. Roman Mars described how the mundane imprints of sidewalk stamps as “a fun kind of x-ray vision” into the community, from the markers of the acknowledgement of disabilities rights activists in Berkeley, or, perhaps, the immigrant communities of pavers whose firms set concrete sidewalks across Berkeley and Oakland, from the austere diamond drawn around the stamp “A. Salamid” to the blocky punches that served as a logo for “J. Mottino” at a later date–

–to Oakland’s “Rosas Bros” to the older elegant imprints left by “H.C. Orth” from the 1920s. The traces on the ground seemed to expand as an all too present palimpsest of sorts, present but overlooked, in the pavement–as the horse-shoe like that was used as an imprint in pavement set by Ensor H. Buel, prominent Berkeley master contractor and builder in concrete, whose trademark imprint seems a reference to the horses whose traffic predated concrete pavement, or what was termed “art stone” when it was introduced in the city to replace wooden planks or dirt walkways in the 1880s, and as such, soon after the introduction of trademarks, bore the signature of the contractor who built it and it remains a surviving mark of their craft, as traces of what Lincoln Cushing hinted superimpose on the physical plant a sea of “ethnic surnames echo the immigrant waves of the past.”

Such stamps act as tracers of careers over time, like the contractor Ensor H. Buell, who partnered with architect Bernard Maybeck, who, in after 1923, relied on local contractors to expand the architectural uses of concrete as a medium in from the turn of the century, from buildings like the pillars of the First Universalist Church (1910) to the concrete fireplaces after the massive fires destroyed much of Berkeley’s elegant residential neighborhood in 1923 from chaparral and grasslands to destroy 600 homes across fifty blocks and sounded a death toll for the mania for residences from cedar in the “Arts and Crafts” movement: the eerily forest of chimneys left in its wake may have prompted re-evaluation of concrete, already a modernist building form, as an alternative architectural medium for roof trusses, after Maybeck’s many clients and he himself lost his own home in the fire: he pioneered “concrete houses” in a medium he called “bubblestone,” experimentating with contractors on concrete as a creative medium able to withstand conflagrations–as a response to demand for fireproof construction.

1923 Berkeley Fire.jpg

Concrete seemed a fit medium to contemplate in a time of historical change, and a question about what would endure in the future. Did the local rise of concrete artisans create a new surety of staking out independent contractors’ crafts, using translucent glass blocks, and several buildings which Buell himself built in West Berkeley?

Berkeley Concrete Form Company Bulletin, 101 July, 1947

The current spread of the pandemic marked time in a similar caesura, but looking at the ground more than stamping the pavement provided a suitable way to The stamps offered snapshots of the urban planning as an organism. I’d long treasured the stenciled names as a form of graffito bearing hidden messages of past generations and a sort of open source memory, as if the surnames belonged to forgotten pavers, a durable if neglected repository sitting before our eyes on the pavement, offer mark a form of public memory long-neglected. An informal survey based on city walking during the pandemic suggests an expansion of the stamped signatures of contractor-craftsmen led me to posit a First Era of Sidewalk Paving from the turn of the century, after which stamps stylistically expanded in the 1920s to the Elmwood and West Berkeley, as well as downtown.

They offered a site for early morning reveries as I was on the way to the coffee shop, or a distraction as I walked the neighborhood with my daughter, as an early reading exercise gained meaning as a past geography. If of far less legal consequence, stenciled names appeared a rudimentary crowd-sourced cartography on the ground, a forgotten form of registering space that was an oddly familiar as a spatial literacy. If scarcely akin to the struggles of recuperating lost and buried memories of a removed past–to be sure not nearly so traumatic as the more intentional sidewalk commemorative plaques that interrupt Berlin pavements at residences of Jews or other deported in over three thousand “stumbling stones” (Stolpersteine), marking former residences.

Image result for stolpersteine
Image result for stolpersteine

The placement of those marker redressed an intentional attempt to obliterate the place occupied by deported victims of the state, to strive come to terms with the past, the names offered stumbling stones of sorts for less buried but similarly lost memories. If those stones rose as if from the repressed collective memory of Berlin to take their place as remnants for current residents, these past voices gained greater poignancy. Were the dates on these paving stones not similar snapshots of the builders who had dated the stenciled names, often forgotten, that spopped from the pavement.

1. Although the fluid Berkeley-Oakland area I’ve leaved has become increasingly fluid, the marks of contractors are distinct–the boundary can be distinguished by the provenance of contractors in concrete stamps, often dated, which suggested a lost but legible text–and raised questions about the endurance of memory, and seemed fit places to seek enduring memories of the past, as if in a way to catch up with the present when we didn’t know what would endure. Although they marked a past far less traumatic and difficult to confront, they became a cryptic spatial geography in the abandoned streets of the pandemic, more a distraction from current anxieties about the present, oddly familiar sites of recognition of continuity with a past, they seemed optimistically to mark the elevation and appreciation of a forgotten culture of concrete contracting that potentially sprang from a search for permanence, and marked the particular place of Berkeley in a broader panorama of historical time, stretching back to the newsreels of the 1923 fire.

I watched from afar how traces of Berlin’s former inhabitants had been recuperated collectively as a sort of shadow geography that aimed to help residents collectively respond to problems of the need to confront the past, in the far more fraught tortured process of historical coming t terms with a past, captured in the creation of the torturous compound, Vergangenheitsbewältigung —as the traces of the storefront of long-gone Jewish cafes were revealed by restorers in the quarter where Jewish refugees from Central European pogroms had resettled, the geographic marker popped out as if to provoke a more personal, less traumatic, reflection on the situation of places, and their cleansing of the past. But if the placement of those stumbling stones was in part a reaction tot he processing of refugees in modern Germany, and all memorials were about the past, there was something powerful about those pavers as a world we have lost. Berkeley was built, after all, on unceded Ohlone land of Chochenyo-speaking Ohlone people, if locations of shell mounds are still actively debated. The sense of that lost world became somehow far more acute in the pandemic; the mute authority of designating and marking place in the pandemic sent me down a rabbit hole of place-making, commemoration, and the convergence of the ludic and the mission of the radical cartographer looking for the overlooked.

They reminded me of the emergence of the past in the present, akin to Attie Shimon’s melancholy luminescent projection of evidence of the forgotten marginalized into the places they once inhabited, that began from visual records of pre-Holocaust neighborhoods to engage the present through the ephemera of the past.


Albiet in far less jarring or grievous dramatic fashion, the twinning of realities in the projection of historical epochs echoed the resonance that a set of faux USGS benchmarks provided of alternate spatialities, their dissonance rising to the surface in ways that seemed provoked by the pandemic. If the pandemic has provided a disarming moment to take purchase on national spatialities as we chart the spread of the virus and of its different strands, or even the strains that have defined new topologies of infection, the overload of geographic information was pleasantly undermined in two faux geographic benchmarks in adjacent Berkeley neighborhoods I’ve lived over the past forty years. The puncturing of terrifying topologies of COVID-19 were welcome signs of a resistance to mapping that I appreciated, if I had never noticed before, in a period where we’re deluged with maps of mortality, hospitalization, voting patterns, allegedly “political” polarization and social divides.

For if we’re increasingly haunted by spatialities of divides, borders, and boundary lines in recent years–to which I’ver returned in this blog to offer points of reflection–the marker on the ground made me think not only of past events, and commemoration of place, but on being haunted by spatialities, by geolocation and different sorts of geo-information, and the relation between the invisible nets of points of geographic disaggregation contrast to the more material traces of reflection on the ground, and the palimpsest of information that it offers. Perhaps since I grew up in an urban neighborhood whose patchwork of pavement, patching, and asphalt surfaces of different periods used to seem to me to be the palimpsestic signs of familiarity of place, in the paintings of the plein air painting of artist Rackstraw Downes, which imagined the Upper Manhattan pavement as if it was Delft, where sidewalk crossings intermingle with the shadows cast by trees and lamp posts as if to preserve a fleeting record of space.

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

The worn painted crosswalks on pavement rich with a sense of temporality, perhaps sidewalks seemed sensitive registers as worthy of cherishing as testimonies of human creation. The paving stamps of often anonymous Greeks, Italians, and Latino contractors who foregrounded their craft and workmanship offered an often dated palimpsest of successive generations of immigration tot he Bay Area in crisply stenciled form–J. Catucci, Gen. Con. 1916; A. Salamid; Rosas Brothers, 2010 510-634-1077″–were discovered happenstance as a new form of concrete poetry. Many of these stamps that are actually “time-stamped” as parts of a moment, no doubt to allow the dating their aging and degree of acceptable deterioration over time; their survival seemed a point of pride. If not registered as recognized public art of local history, the earliest noted stamp of J.A. Marshall of 1899 who installed “art[ificial] stone” over gravel, brick or dirt roads, were an “art” form, evidencing the lost handiwork of master finishers or East Bay locals–Local 594 in Berkeley. While the stamps in the more elevated areas I am walking bear signed by decisively more Anglo group of pavers–J. Lindstrom; J.H. Fitzmaurice; H.O. Wilson; and the industrious Schnoor Bros.–the family of contractors founded by Paul Shnoor, later joined by his sons. The signatures of sidewalk stamps offered x-ray vision of individual biography and a neglected geo-information of earlier pasts, a spatially situated archive set in the concrete beneath my feet: Fitzmaurice used at different times in his career, Berkeley librarian Cushing notes, some four differently stylized stamps, preserved in Cushing’s photographic archive, so valuable to orienting anyone to the proliferation of a lively history of local paving stamps.

If the tracks lain in pavement were potential warrantees in case of liability, the promotion of the craft reflected a pride in craft that made them appear testimonies to their contribution to the spaces in which I moved with less surety.

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

While not so intentionally healing and interactive as art projects projecting Jewish-owned storefronts that commemorate the lost past, in the jointly depressive and keen sensibility of the pandemic, it popped out without the benefit of projection, perhaps due to sensory deprivation. I imagined recognizing traces of how an unknown radical cartographer left signs I had never noticed, looking blankly ahead, as I noted a marker placed in the pavement for no particular reason at all. To be sure, the heightened attentiveness that comes from far less ambient noise–no airplanes, no construction, limited home improvement and far less traffic and other passers-by–focussed attention on the reminders of what was to me a lost art project of somewhat absurdist meta-geography focussed on the streetwalker in ways I hadn’t had time to identify myself as before, or was less committed to devote up to even a few hours each day.

While staying far more “at place” than I had in the previous fifty odd years, the mystical aspect of walking in a city as actively engaging with place. This was the inverse of how theorist Michel de Certeau meditated on the human geography of city from the Observation Deck of the old World Trade Center that revealed a topography of the city without people: looking at the distant undulating grid, de Certeau realized the people who walk in the city bring it to life, overlooking the undulating ground surface of Manhattan from the Observation Deck of the old World Trade Center, watching the “wave of verticals” as neighborhoods form Greenwich Village to Midtown to Central Park to Harlem were “immobilized” in space, and he was “lifted out of the city’s grasp” in an eerily unfamiliar way. I had stood in the same place before, pressed against thick plate glass looking out to a dizzying expanse provoking alienation and acrophobia from a long gone aery of the WTC Observation Deck, whose God’s eye view was so uncannily removed from urban space. This marker made me consider the absurdity of placing myself by exact geospatial position.

I wouldn’t suggest that the bench mark I found on a walk recently was an outright falsification or fraudulent, but I had never really considered the bench mark being an art form, that played with one’s sense of being mapped from above, in ways were as welcome, when I noticed it, as an interruption of the sustained sense of being set in one place. The sense of discovery made it better, as I seem to have finally noticed what was lying there on Prince Street all along, inviting me to remap my position in the world, as much as the flight of historical imagination that were provoked by the less openly geo-tagged stamps of pavers like H.C. Orth, whose best stamps have been excavated by websites as “Oakland Underfoot” in an age we carry cell phones in our pockets.

It seemed about time. The marker was a send-up of the use of geographical markers at a time when they were by nature obsolete–we didn’t survey much any more as a public good, and had our bearings in maps that were in the devices in our pockets. The national geodetic survey manages about 240,00 active stations: national engineering of low-distortion projections extend from the sea-level datum of 1929, based on the North American datum of 1927, through the forthcoming 2022 revision of the “ground truth” of low distortion projections, of less distortion than the transverse Mercator used in GPS, the bench marks provided a basis for spatial reference in successive geographic datum to judge Low-Distortion Projections for surveyors and mappers. And as we still try to create Low-Distortion Projections (LDP’s) that are able to bridge the spatial positions depicted in GIS and real-world distance that will minimize the linear distortions that creep into maps, to create better matches for distances observed at elevation, the modernization of the state-plane system to best align with natural topography; if bench marks that dot Oakland and the Bay Area run along the fault lines that intersect and cross in the Bay Area, the movement of tectonic plates have led geodesists to use different grids with reference points to distinguish tectonic plates, reconcile the needed stability of geodetic reference systems with the instability of the continental drift.

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

The system of reference opened up from the ground up as I looked at the faux bench mark. The marker’s legend enjambed a precise global address with an absurd proposition especially apt in an age when we were increasingly addicted to maps to gain some sense of stability as the spread of the pandemic melded into social justice riots of an inclusivity and scale we hadn’t seen, full of indignation and a need to retake the streets, and the parsing of political preferences that left us wondering if we were bifurcated in two camps. Did it puncture the authority of marking fixed borders increasingly seen as an edge to the nation, increasingly mapped and militarized as a frontier of military conflict, or a separate sovereign space?

2. Concrete markers offered a sticking sort of memory traces on the US-Mexico Border, long before Donald Trump started talking about the need for a steel-core concrete walls exposed to weather were the haunting basis of the border wall. The grids of rebar that are the basis for much of the concrete places in the open were never constructed along most of the expansive border President Trump was famously loath to compromise, and the dream of building a concrete wall that led him to tour the Rio Grande There was a sense that the fault-lines and divides we have made through maps peeled apart from the global sense that the marker gave to geospatial position, by asking the viewer to embrace that random point on the globe with two pieces of bread. Perhaps the jokiness of the inscription pried apart the coexistence of different eras of marking space primed me to consider how our forms of marking as ways of making public information legible in our landscape, haunted by the spatial addresses of geospatial location. For the mundane bench mark before me played with the notion of hexadecimal spatial addresses in ways that seemed to look up to the grids that were increasingly wrapped around and superimposed upon the earth with surreal absurdity.

Proposed Steel Bollard Fencing at US-Mexico Border, Proposed in Government Shutdown of 2019

Bench marks on the southwestern border had long created legibility in the landscape, rendering geospatial coordinates legible on the international divide. One senses the excitement of these claims to legibility in the effort to meld maps and life in the markers that the United States Geographic Survey sets into the ground that mark a datum of elevation or azimuthal mark, for coastal surveys or early networks of surveying: nowhere more than in the set of markers set up on our southern border to mark the border after the 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, discussed in my last post, to inscribe in the sand an affirmation Mexico transferred sovereign claims to California Alta, Colorado, New Mexico, Nevada and much of Arizona; surveyors set cairns in the uninhabited regions for no observer in particular, “in consideration of the extension acquired by the boundaries of the United States” that had been recently expanded as the federal government bought new land from where El Paso meets the Rio Grande river due west, for the bargain basement price of $15 million that was basically dictated to the Mexican government at the conclusion to the war.

20190120 - Map - BASIC.jpg

They left as markers stone undressed mounds, without mortar, to “perpetuate the evidence of the boundary” on the 31°20′ parallel and the 31°47′ parallel, to persuade viewers of the authority of the new national map: this was a collective attempt at boundary-drawing that led stones to be amassed at regular reminders, attempting to immerse anyone on the ground with the authority of the map beyond the triumphalism of the fourteen foot high Border Monument #1 seemed set on unclaimed paradisal lands, as if determined by a process of divine reason.

The point bore the clear message, made more legible to visitors by the painting in of its legend, making its cartographic function legible by proclaiming the “staring point” of a border scarcely apparent in the terrain.

The astronomers located the exact coordinates the Guadalupe Hidalgo treaty had agreed upon, because not only was the 2,000+ miles of the border agreed to be impossible to manage by human observers, but such sentinels of stone provided the only sensible way to let the people who crossed it–without GPS or maps–to know where they were as they moved across what were almost entirely uninhabited mountain ranges. Although these early markers were replaced by obelisks by the 1890s, the current attempts to replace these markers that left the boundary present in the landscape, but left borders “open,” had been treated as a way to bait racist groups of border guards and vigilantes, by being sacralized as a bulwark of alleged invulnerability, as if the “open” borders were a sellout of the nation, and a reassurance of the sacred nature of America’s geopolitical sovereign identity in ways obelisks stationed at regularly spaced intervals–or earlier border markers–had failed to provide.

The piles of undressed rocks were forms of governance, and an improvised antecedent of the boundary wall. Their pastoral presence was evidence in the landscape that a “true line shall be the record to which all disputes . . . shall be referred,” established to link the land to the map. In 1851, teams of astronomers, cartographers, mountaineers, and artists, often veterans of the US-Mexico War assembled undressed cairns, only later replaced by permanent obelisks standing every four miles in a single line of sight, making visible the arbitrary line visible by “tracing upon the ground” in the landscape to “perpetuate the evidences of the location of the boundary” on six hundred and fifty eight miles along the 31°20′ parallel and the meridian connecting it to the 31°47′ from El Paso to San Diego. The Chief of the American Boundary Commission, Col. J. W. Barlow, remembered “steadily . . . over much desert and some valleys that would be fertile if there was any way of storing water . . . over many mountain ranges,” to stabilize the boundary between both nations, chief of the American Boundary Commission, adding “a great deal of the country was rough and wild.”

The resurveying teams of 1891-94 sought to demarcate a spatial difference in more monumental terms, to correct past mistakes and ensure none were swept under sands or obliterated to view, placing sequentially numbered neoclassical obelisks that must have been ordered from quarries where the determined boundary lay. The obelisks that invested the border with legality seemed almost cenotaphs of the burial of the cross-border migrations over space.

Border Monument 185 (+32° 10′ 10.96″, -113° 45′ 4.86″) near the Reserva de Biosfera El Pinacate y Gran Desierto/Library of Congress
Border Monument no. 258, now located at the center of Friendship Park, Tijuana

–or hiring laborers to erect new monuments from masonry, all photographed for posterity.

Border Monument No. 40. International Boundary & Water Commission re-marked boundary between United States and Mexico west of Rio Grande, 1891-1896

After an initial use of marble to create neoclassical monumental markers, the poured concrete obelisks provide a reminder of the past efforts to lend stability to the border that the walker of the border, David Taylor, encountered and documented in an extended photographic essay. The monumental boundary markers of the 1890s stand today stoically beside far more brutalist border wall that transform the dots of a map earlier markers to a continuous line: La Mojonera, the first obelisk of Italian marble was set with fanfare above the Pacific, the first of what were only fifty-two border monuments, arrived by ship from New York. The laborious expansion to two hundred and fifty-eight monuments that lay in a single line of sight extend from the west bank of the Rio Grande near El Paso at exact coordinates, as two surveyors and a team of astronomers and artists covered almost 690 miles in two years, making sure that the obelisks lay in clar visibility of one another as if to render the land as visible as a map: Border Monument #1, overlooking the Pacific, now became Border Monument #258, overlooking the Pacific, but most of the two hundred and seventy-five were lugged with effort and expense as legible evidence as if dots on a border line. These markers serving to map space parallel the concrete markers of pavers I see in Berkeley, as a poignant echo of past efforts to define a fixed relation to space.

The aesthetics of permanence that developed in Berkeley as a form of fireproofing by Bernard Maybeck was a new architecture of the border and a monumental architecture of border commemoration. While Maybeck was meeting with contractors to familiarize himself with the medium, some seven thousand pounds of concrete were poured over a million pounds of rebar in San Francisco, to create a new arts museum on Lands End in San Francisco, the Legion of Honor, after the French Pavilion at the Panama Pacific International Exhibition, but Maybeck expanded his own architectural tools to a medium championed by modernists, but before the brutalist concrete bollards, obelisks marked the US-Mexico international border line.

David Taylor, Border Monument 210: 32 degrees 42.352 minutes northlatitude, 114 degrees 54.596 minutes west longitude, from  Monuments: 276 Views of the United States-Mexico Border

David Taylor, Border Monument No. 207. N 32°43.082’ W -114°43.890’ Los Algodonoes, Baja California. West of Andrade Port of Entry.
David Taylor, Border Monument No. 250. N 32°33.720’ W -116°42.983’ Cañon el Padre.

Photographer David Taylor grew increasingly entranced by the sequence of monuments, now set against bollard fencing and as a vain attempt to make the boundary line impermeable as it might be imagined on a map, “captivated by them,” as a network of inanimate informants about “our changing national identity.” They offer a poetic testimony to the long open nature of the border, and a contrast to the image of security in the fantasy of restoring complete border security. Taylor’s eloquent photographs capture the overlapping spatialities of the border at the moments where they intersect, revealing an archeology of the border space in quite poetic terms as an observer who observes the archeological layering that still exists along the border, at sites where the border fence that asserts a clear divide of nations seems more of a palimpsest of the border spaces that have existed over the same terrain.

The overlap of these senses of the border markers, as they were poised to be erased by the continuity of a border wall, were photographically captured by David Taylor during the doubling of border wall built on the southwestern border, and on the eve of the expansion of the border in national debate, and the United States government built over 600 miles of new pedestrian fencing and border barriers: as the border was increasingly structurally reinforced and the size of United Stated Border Patrol doubled, Taylor’s series of photographs remapped border from the position of the border walker, as the border was redefined by seismic sensors to track pedestrian cross-border passage. Taylor walked in the project Working the Line moves from El Paso/Juarez to San Diego/Tijuana, provided not only an artistic account of border monuments in their locations, but lift the finality of the present by showing intersecting spatialities, one peeking through the other, of the 276 geodetically fixed obelisks, set from 1891-95 to mark the international boundary as if to make locally legible a globally recognized line; setting these obelisks, often along desert terrain or on mountain ranges, secured a sense of the border that could not move or be moved, more permanently legible than the cairns that might erode with time or be destroyed; at the same time as Albrecht Penck was proposing an International Map of the World as a model of global concord and shared mapping standards, and as Frederick Jackson Turner bemoaned the closing of the frontier, the obelisks marked national space on the ground set definite bearings. Turner interpreted the finding in the 1890 US Census that the “unsettled area has been so broken into isolated bodies of settlement [in the nation] that there can hardly be said to be a frontier,” lamenting the closing of the frontier as a site and resource of national renewal; the marble obelisks that punctuated the international boundary treat the border as settled and fixed in global space on a legible map.

Taylor’s walks cast these obelisks in an almost almost pastoral landscape, against the spatiality that map an enforced border fence as a a tactical line of military defense. There is an undeniable sense of tragedy in the border obelisks Taylor encounters: while Turner felt the frontier a crucial liminal space for democracy and a “gate of escape from the bondage of the past” and the dangers of social hierarchy and cultural decadence on the European continent during the 1890s, the stability of a border no longer open to pedestrian passage convey a sense of deep tragedy and loss. But those old obelisks first attempted to trace a legible line in the landscape of international boundary for all passersby who came across them, the rigidity of the installation of “barrier fence”–the immediate antecedent of calls for a Border Wall–suggest the explicitly militarized borders that had already begun to replace them, imagined as a tactical barrier to the “potential illegal alien” (PIA) who might be apprehended by the border patrol agent (BPA) in adequate time to make the request, given the needed detection and tracking coverage by which the “alien” might be tracked and apprehended by agents before s/he reaches the “vanishing point” of no return. The ability of geotrack locations of a “IA” or “PIA” coming from the south of the border became a calculus for border agents to prevent migrants from moving through open gaps, the “illegality” of whose crossing the border was presumed by the Department of Homeland Security.

3. Geodetic markers corresponded to a new geospatial notion of legibility, but are strewn across the state as far more minor monuments. As the obelisks made the border manifestly present in the landscape, the survey markers the USGS has since planted in the ground, over a million at set points on the peaks of mountains, sites of elevation and surveying, are an entrancing if opaque signifiers in the past bench marks of property lines, city planning, or earlier attempts at transcontinental triangulation, spatial address with alphanumeric codes: they promise and promote the public utility of the legibility of the land, as did the border markers that often began by including bilingual inscriptions. The legibility of the surface of the lower forty-eight still depends on attempts to reconcile the dangers of linear distortion of projections on distances at uneven elevations–either low-lying regions near the Great Lakes, for example, or the elevated areas expanding cities like Denver, where discrepancies between coordinates and natural topography might create underestimates of property.

The new spatial addresses offer alphanumeric codes overlain on the Universal Transverse Mercator better to orient ourselves along a uniform grid, superimposed over boundary lines of state sovereignty or county lines.

The degree of linear distortions that existed at the border, in Pima County, was low, but must have been a question of concern for the Border Patrol officers who patrolled the region.

Most bench marks were antequated mooring points for collective webs of security that seemed to belong to another era. Bench marks of local heights offer evidence of past spatialities one runs into by chance, set in pavement as relics or reminders of past collective efforts of measurement. In California and the Bay Area, many attempt to track the lines of fault lines that run beneath the ground –including under many California cities, known for registering occasional seismologic tremors that are intrusive (and alarmingly unwanted) reminders of our location beside fault lines. More a million such markers exist across America as relics of an earlier age when geographical datum was not readily registered by GPS, a spatiality inscribed in fixed points of elevation in the ground–and sought to prohibit their removing them from the stone in which they were set prominently displayed for what was once a hefty fine, as they would undo their accuracy as surveying points.

The city of Berkeley is not especially dense in surveying points, but a large number of classical horizontal bench marks exit near the shore, as well as downtown, with many designations of height, that were useful in city planning and property development, that NOAA allows us to scan.

National Geodetic Survey Data Explorer/NOAA

–and far denser horizontal bench marks on the old Army base of Alameda, built on landfill, which rapidly developed as a site for residences, as well as horizontal and elevation markers in downtown Oakland.

National Geodetic Survey Data Explorer/NOAA

It is hard to date the placement of USGS markers set up by the early Bureau of Land Management, but the bench marks that were sent in pavement or concrete monuments provided a needed surveying datum for construction, as well as staking property claims and mapping the west, and while many relate to the first coastal survey of 1836-78, interrupted by the Civil War but completed just before it broke out, the completion of the project of transcontinental triangulation expanded needs for such claims to the west. They are relics of a national form of mapping, but an invitation to local triangulation: these markers offer an interactive infrastructure for future development as a spatially distributed encyclopedia of orthometric heights.

Geocaching > Benchmark Hunting > Benchmark Details

Traveling the Angeles Crest Highway – Maven's Photoblog
San Gabriel Mountains, 6861.43 Feet above Sea-Level along San Andreas Fault

The geodetic markers set into the land as benchmarks of orientation recall points of surveying, but are the remaining residue of a dream of inscribing a one-to-one relation to a map, recalling Borges’ fantasy of a map coequal to the territory, inscribing locations on the ground as fixed points, predating Geographical Positioning Systems. They created a network over the terrain, preceding GPS, in the postwar period, with the adoption of he Universal Transverse Mercator projection (UTM), as benchmarks in a broader geographic system. The products of a pointillist geographical imagination of establishing a sense of geospatial security for surveyors, they moor the stability of the maps still made by surveying, and enjoy a renaissance in the age of geocaching.

The shift in the sense of mappability is suggested in the rich terrain for geocaching that the USGS bequeathed Bay Area residents, especially in the East Bay.

National Geodetic Survey Data Explorer/NOAA

Or excavate the hidden early history of laying out San Francisco, from the comfort of one’s cel phone, and the readings of the height of Knob Hill.

Geodetic mapping were modernized through a wide range of constituents by GPS in alternative surveying techniques from the mid-1990s, to share new benchmarks of a height modernization for future mapping, carting and navigation, that that made the old markers true relics of a land-based precision of the past.

4. The ground is hardly stable beneath our feet where we live in the Berkeley, if the sense of that instability had seemed to grow quite suddenly. In San Francisco and the Bay Area, the geodesic markers are, we increasingly realize, shifting in elevation on the ground underneath our feet. Despite the huge effort that went into the placement of those bench marks in the previous century, the bench marks have a half-life that the folks who placed them in concrete monuments did not foresee: plate tectonics of the California coast spaceborne geodesy allows have created a disturbing picture of shifting elevations across the region, as sediment contracts in drought; subsidence of low-lying region coastal lands reveals vertical land motion (VLM) is as much as several centimeters/year, independently of land movement of fault lines of the converging Pacific and North American tectonic plates.

Aquifer depletion can create subsidence of up to tens of centimeters per year, far beyond the ‘slow subsidence’ California experiences, droughts create considerable subsidence with sediment contraction on California’s coast–here measured in VLM of up to 2.5 mm upwards, or subsidence of the same interval.

Subsiding Cities in Coastal California, =2.5 mm to -2.5 mm: The San Francisco Bay Area, 2007-2018

In California as a whole, the sinking of a mere two centimeters annually may seem less striking, but in a population center of such low elevation, it is alarming. The picture of California is alarming, and something of a serious counterweight or undertow to the huge pull of coastward migration in the past fifty to sixty years.

Coastal Land Subsidence in California in Rates of Vertical Land Movement, 2007-18

We can now integrate a remarkably large dataset of vertical uplift in the western United States, to image the vertical velocity of uplift across the western United States, here focussing on the Sierras, that are important to investigate in relation to climate change and anthropogenic activities to get bearings on a changing world–to briefly move way from the shoreline, and place its vertical movement in a broader context of geodetic change.

Vertical Velocity Uplift in Sierra Nevada, Nevada Geodetic Laboratory/ JGR Solid Earth, 2016

The markers on the ground in the Bay Area are tokens of a residue of optimistic push for collective projects of the past, affixed as a memory in bronze disks or medallions, of eight to ten cm. diameter; they remind me of the slightly smaller antiquated media the MiniDisk, even if they are not encased in crystal but set in stone or pavement. From the 1880s these benchmarks for surveying proliferated as benchmarks for a network of national mapping, including a triangle on summits of mountain peaks, remainders of a spatiality we have lost, and also a form of my focus and absorption of discarded geographic information, as if a sort of refuge from the vacuuming up of geolocation data. As much as celebrating my own visibility as a flâneur of urban space, the markers were a sort of rejoinder to the “cyber-flânerie” of online worlds, these old geodetic markers seem to retain an old use-value in their own visibility has led me to fetishize them as a traces of a counter-spatiality that needs to be redeemed.

The markers provided something of a n evocation of local pasts and past spatialities for the city walker and flaneur, as well as a timely reminder, at a difficult time, that in Berkeley, CA, that the external world only exists in the mind of the beholder, as much as their eye. Reading the ground was taking a time-dive of sorts; this was an always open library, scattered, off the shelves distributed for collective consultation on the ground and across public lands.

The seventeen markers of the Hayward fault line that run through Oakland CA make one wonder why the fault is named Hayward, but is also a bit of a hidden landmark in the urban ground, on which we could trace outdoor walks along fault lines–a nice place for a picnic in the pandemic that promised outdoor science lessons for greater familiarity with the hidden topography of seismic risk.

Survey Marker on the Hayward Falut/Oakland Geology

The sense of these networks thrown atop the landscape, but that existed within our collective consciousness, seem to have cousins in the markers, about the same size–half the diameter of a compact disk, to use a similarly antiquated medium as a metaphor–that remind folks in Berkeley of the underground network they would do well to visualize and understand by which curbside waste drains from local points to the bay, in hopes to encourage awareness of the link between built space and environment of all urban residents.

If the shift to emulate geographic benchmarks was a visible change in the East Bay’s strategy to stave off the local entrance of the amazingly high estimate of oil residents 11,000 gallons of oil Bay Area residents send to the San Fransisco Bay daily–a guesstimate twenty times greater than the estimated 5 gallons/minute a leak of from an underwater pipeline off Richmond’s Long Wharf that spread a sheen over San Pablo Bay of up to 750 gallons of diesel fuel and water that spurted from a small hole for one and a half hours directly into the Bay, making the shoreline community smelling like a gasoline station.

SF Baykeeper

Attempt to instill consciousness of oil drains at a local level in the East Bay seemed a Sisyphean struggle.

But the shift to bechmark-like curbside disks that replaced spraypaint as a public education about pollutants, inviting us to trace clearer interconnections between road drainage and coastal pollution of nearby waters:

5. I had first noticed a set of faux bench marks while walking on a suddenly far less busy street. These pseudo-waypoints were not as part of networks of spatiality otherwise unseen, as fault lines or survey points, but days of social distancing made them seem voices of past inhabitants, written into the pavement I barely noticed in other years. If placed in the manner of a survey marker, their meta vein was a geographic joke, as if a hint at a past generation of geographers who lived in the same space, who planted the marker on the edge of the modest mini-park that a community devoted weekends to redesigning an empty parcel on weekends?

My enhanced attention to the urban environment grew as the silences of the pandemic transform my walks into explorations of birdsong as Prince Street in the early morning from about 6:15 when they start to rouse to 8:50, when swallows, crows, and sparrows exult in the absence of the sound of driving and construction to rouse themselves collectively. The chorus of calls and occasional song is a side-benefit of the eeery absence of traffic. Cries from magnolias and other trees seemed a soundtrack liberated from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, as birds are increasingly bravely swooping across the street–the sounds seem or suddenly transported the residents of the laboratory to my doorstep, an invitation to identify yellow-rumped warblers, California towhee, song sparrows, and finches beyond the cacophonous highly social corvids whose recent crowding the Bay Area bird population may have pushed out more melodious mourning doves and even kites. Renewed immersion in an aural sea of birdsong prompts me to consider new forms of inter-connection–birds had indeed become increasingly more vocal and entered new aural registers as ambient noises reduced; I was an unintended beneficiary of a new range of their register of trills, perhaps squabbling over open airspace as they mapped the return of long-unheard aural spaces of listening not only in residential neighborhoods.

Halcyon Commons, Berkeley CA/(c)Nancy Carleton

It performed the reverse operation of being lifted out of the city de Certeau so eloquently described in the  aperçu that began his reflection on city walking, but played perfectly with a problem of geographic comprehension: the disk disguised as a USGS marker announcing being at a precise geographic location, and suddenly throwing one up into a UTM projection–if hardly in the manner of a topographical place-mark.

The winking steel disc pressed into the pavement playfully declared itself the site to create an Earth sandwich, ludically describing itself as a global point designating whatever you made of it. The marker offered instructions to its reader that seemed from another age as well, echoing the Whole Earth movement of the early 1970s, by asking you react in antipodal relation to a spot southeast of Madagascar, or asking you consider this place on the curb of an improvised neighborhood park in a global context. If the curb was poured for the mini-park circa 1998–four years after the unveiling of the “navigational utility” of GPS–it cannily channeled Stuart Brand’s “Whole Earth” thought, and seemed to predate the hexadecimal coordinates. As much as offering bearings, it relished the vertiginous sense of global interconnection GPS promised to reorganize geographical knowledge–and one’s individual experience of the global map–around inter-related individual points as a public utility, and the common man, rather than a strategic tool of military specialists.

But how to date cement? The forward facing marking of a place that had no real significance appeared a sly cartographic joke, hard to date, but questioning the utility of GPS coordinates by enjambing them with an early modern spatiality as much as a postmodern instrument of geodetic accuracy. I laughed aloud. As I envisioned how soggy bread at the bottom of the Indian Ocean could create this ambitious “Earth sandwich,” geography seemed the ultimate mind game of displacement: the metageographic conceit threw me for a pleasant loop, as I recalled the optimism of the paperback “bibles” Brand published between 1968 and 1972, promising an uplifting comprehensiveness that Steve Jobs saw as an unlikely antecedent of the internet.

The seemed a residue of the globalism of the folio-sized softcover volume that curated a database, collating a cornucopia of DIY information, made with typewriters, scissors, and polaroids as a sort of luddite samizdat for dissidents of box stores or the business world. Steve Jobs remembered their amazing appearance “before personal computers and desktop publishing,” as prefiguring the promise of personal computers: Jobs called the volume the “bible of my generation,” a series concluding with the injunction “Stay Hungry. Stay Foolish.”

The faux benchmark seemed just such an act of wide-eyed resistance with immediacy, an optimism one might expect to find in a neighborhood mini-park named “Halcyon Commons” that suggested a somewhat utopian vision of a radical geographic past. The issues of the Catalog–my late father was a proud owner; I spent hours trying to guess what I might mail order anything from its pages long before having a checking account–hardly prepared me for the distance of observation, but it seemed to jump out of the ground in the pandemic with welcome disorientation akin to looking through the wrong end of a telescope.

Juxtaposing the global space of terrestrial coordinates with the mundane sandwich was the point of the marker. A USGS marker asked one to relate to the world, from where you are–“be here, now“–as much as abstract your geographic position; seeing the “sandwich” marker made my day, if it slipped from my mind. My next encounter with one of these pavement markers occurred months later into the pandemic.

But it made me wonder if I was living in the former neighborhood of radical cartographers, intent to inscribe the pavement with faux USGS topographical markers of the sort one found usually on mountain tops or in the nearby state parks, but in urban life, and made you reconsider your position as a street walker in more of a global context. Who planted these things? I was tempted to scoff at Berkeley performance art, or a distributed art practice piece, but hoped to mine the Berkeley-Oakland border by a radical geocaching, imagining kinship with a radical cartographer set markers in pavements for passersby who noticed to engage, as I met another marker just a few weeks later, that I almost missed, that promised an interest in reorienting my relation to the world.

More pasted onto a paved surface than set in the cement that had been recently poured, the marker was even more absurdist, declarative, and philosophical in tone, if it was clearly the same in its poetic address, situated in another section of pavement, not lying far off, if more clearly affixed to the ground in what almost looks like tufa. I appreciated its absurdist direct address, hungry for meaning; its message actually seemed to have gained additional resonances in the pandemic in what would have been unforeseeable ways.

“Reorientation” openly absurdly invited we shift our perspective on the world, but not by geolocation but something like its inverse: telling you that you are lost–rather than where you were–played with the whole notion of orientation, in a lovely pre-GPS way, dispensing with coordinates and asking you where you made that wrong turn that got you there, and encouraging you to wander in the city, rather than follow its straight lines, or if you were able to go back to where you came from, to leave this corner, because this simply isn’t where you ever expected to be, and if you shouldn’t have turned left on Telegraph Avenue, instead of right.

The absurdism of the direct address more indebted to Samuel Beckett than Mercator was welcome; in the pandemic, the marker spoke across time in what seemed as good a sense of orientation we have all started to feel. These were waystations that punctured any sense of confidence or assurance, acknowledging accident and happenstance of remaking one’s relation to space by improvising how one inhabited the paths that have perhaps become overly familiar to many of us, not necessarily trudging along downcast, but feeling a bit less interactive with the spaces where we live. It was so refreshing for a moment that the mapped talk back, and I relished that it did so in an openly destabilizing manner, rather than provide a promised point of reorientation at all. “Just return to exactly where you began to restart your journey again.” If only we could.

The kinship that all this made me feel was to a group of radical cartographers mapping new ways to inhabit the space I’d been living for longer than I’d like to admit. There was an archeological pleasure of unnoticed waypoints jumping out and finding a community lying before me in the ground. The public-facing waypoints–and I am sure there must be more, and became a bit desperate to find a third in the name of triangulation if not a fourth and fifth, if only in order to become part of the radical cartographer community, placed me in time and space on the Berkeley-Oakland border. These imaginary waypoints to a different sort of future than had been mapped seemed an invitation of sorts to join a project of radical cartography–a commitment to staying both hungry and foolish and resisting any sense of satiety and confidence that the world was fully mapped–lest we grow too removed from the neighborhoods and the world in which we live.

Or was the whole affair just a local adoption of a dated if recent piece of performance art? While I delighted in the juxtaposition of global and local, the marker by Halcyon Park followed how performance artist Ze Frank enjoined users to explore interactive platforms to make an antipodes sandwich over a decade back. The online performance artist sent many folks to the online mapping tool “find my the opposite,” as a path to connect to someone living in the antipodean relation to one’s position, on May 16, 2006, to use two bread slices to make an antipodean sandwich of global embrace: placing pieces of bread at an opposite one global position spark the rage for “antipodean sandwiches” as an interactive offline game, not in Berkeley.

Ze’s request to the spirited followers called “sports racers” had since 2006 prompted hundreds of “earth sandwiches” that traced lines of global embrace with entertaining abandon between Madrid and Auckland or Fiji and Mali. to “promote awesomeness” by a free online tool. Geoawesomeness, anyone?

As a luddite hack to processes globalization, Ze invited his viewers to follow a pleasurably crude platform to place themselves in a global context, in a GoogleMaps sort of hack. If Google Maps was launched for desktop as an interface to help people “get from point A to point B,” Ze’s 2006 hack was a mash-up giving new relevance to an early modern spatial conceit of antipodes that spawned a host of interactive imitators inviting users to place themselves on a global map, but by trying to making contact with someone in antipodal relation to them–in places that mapped antipodally onto solid land. It prompted a host of cartographic imitators online by 2020, search engines that had probably experienced a mini-boom in an era of social distancing. If the Tang dynasty Chinese called block-printed playing cards that were first block printed c. 1070 paper dice as they sought to find a term for these new games of chance, the hexadecimal coordinates GPS and Google put into the hands of map users allowed anyone with wifi and a tablet to use their phone hookups potential opportunity to contact someone at a specific antipodal point, or imagine them sticking their own heads into the ground in a virtual cartographic space.

As American audiences confronted the harsh fact they were in antipodean relation to the Indian Ocean, using two pieces of bread to make an “earth sandwich” seemed to come to terms with globalization with apparent DIY brio, and a bit of ingenuity while taking their eyes off the map. To be sure, the remapping of coordinates in peninsular Malaysia are currently moving with the Sunda tectonic plate, meaning, among other things, that the geodetic reference system demands some quick recalculation if existing bench marks are to be used for earth sandwiches. But it is good to know that these things happen, and that geodetic infrastructrues need remapping, even if this means potential difficulties for motorists, airplane pilots, and airplane passengers who depend in a globalized world on GPS. On a more personal note, my web-searches for “Antipodean Sandwich” disappointingly suggested the waypoint a radical cartographer had placed in the pavement near my house was but the diminished echo of something streaming globally. I could still smile while passing it.

However, given the dense accumulation of survey markers strewn around the East Bay, and the University of California, one was also a bit surprised that there was less of an attempt to stare back at the map.

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Filed under Bay Area, Globalized GPS, GPS, Urban Space, USGS

The Built World

Walking the streets in my now apparently abandoned neighborhood for an errand after a few weeks of sheltering in place in Oakland, I had the eery experience of navigating and inhabiting empty city. While I knew the pavement, I almost felt no longer familiar with the streets that afternoon. There was the sense that no one knew the state of affairs about reopening, and many were just puzzled about how to proceed: as a few young kids skateboarded up Shattuck Avenue, profiting from the lack of cars, some odd improvised bicyclists were on the sidewalk. The absence of interaction was a weird pause indeed, giving an eery sense of the timelessness of space, as if the time/space fabric by which I had long seen the neighborhood was suddenly out of whack. While no visible destruction had happened or occurred, the disembodied nature of the inhabited world was drained, even as it was filled with sunlight and birds, giving me the eery sense I had had when I looked at the machine-read maps of building footprints, “Every Building in the United States,” whose section situating Bay Area buildings hung on our refrigerator wall, like a scary map of the archeological ruins of a future Baedecker Guide to the ruins of San Francsico.

Had the designers of te interactive webmap of machine-readable imagery Microsoft had assembled intended the eery effect of describing the inhabited world as a ghostly ruin of lived life? The relegation to place-names to a very secondary status in the image of the overbuilt landscape seems to lie on the edges of the black blocks of built space that is was the basis for the AI map distilled from aerial photographs, and parsed as black and white data. If its form seems oddly ghostly, the reduction of the monochrome paper map reveals shades of grey that fade into rare open spaces, where one’s visual attention seems at first drawn, before one returns, with hopes for some sense of recognition, to the built spaces that one knows, and the congestion of black that marks urban agglomerations. The black boxes of settlement reveals the crowding of our coasts, the density of much urban housing and indeed of the area of the East Bay where I live, but is also an eerily image of an inhabited landscape selectively organized to omit any sign of living presence–either of “wilderness” or habitat, but anthropocentrically maps the anthropogenic world as if for posterity. For is not the black boxes of building footprints something like a record of the anthropogenic imprint on the world, by now extended across the globe. The building footprint map derived from AI is a rewriting of the ancient notion of the ecumene–the “habitable” more than “inhabited world”–or οἰκουμένη, which sought to encapsulate the inhabited regions as the ones that entered human comprehension: is it a removal of the humanist object of the map, now mediated through machine learning?

If the ancient geographers discussed the οἰκουμένη as the “habitable world” from the frozen north to the scalding sub-equatorial lands that seemed to “balance” the inhabited regions, as if what merited human attention and contemplation was that region that permitted settlement: the turn to a record of imperial administration in the Roman Empire–and of religious unity in a ‘civilized’ world–introduced the governmentality of the control over the inhabited world, that by the Renaissance had become an enticing image of national incorporation and political ties, that became intellectually articulated in the post-Cold War as a global ecumene of imperial cultural dominance and integration incarnated in European inheritance of political institutions, science, technology, and economic forms as a world system: the association of a global integration whose exponent in historical texts was perhaps William McNeill’s Rise of the West (1963) had withered away by the time of the data-driven map of inhabitation, as we have become increasingly aware of mapping the human impact on the world–an image in which the building footprint map might be placed.

It is hard to discuss intentions in a map that was organized by AI, but the ledger size newsprint that covered almost a full side of the refrigerator, hanging on magnets, assembled a flyover of the ruins of a future world, a snapshot of each and every building in the area. The result is a poor excuse for a “wall-map” of the region of Northern California. It seems more of a memento mori of the prosperity Silicon Valley once enjoyed from a future world, registering the intense economic growth that fueled the housing bubble along the San Francisco Bay, in an unintentional snapshot of the explosion of paved space and housing across the coastal margins of what was once one of the more “edgy” areas of the United States: entertaining the imagined future might have created the perverse pleasure of hanging it in my kitchen, long before COVID-19 struck, a celebratory if slightly morose record of the world in which we once lived.

But the sidewalks were empty and sun intense; storefronts often boarded up. The streets were no longer places for salutation or recognition, even if I greeted a familiar mailman on my way home: as if no time for social niceties remained I walked down the sidewalks and into empty streets, rarely negotiating margins of safety, or distancing with a few folks on foot, noticing with a cringe the large number of homeless who stood out against the stark streets, closed storefronts, and empty stores.

They were, as it were, always there. I had been cutting myself off from the surroundings, as I never thought I would. As I had been sheltering, thoughts going global as I was following updates about the pandemic, this was a stone’s through from my home, so many had none. Looking down Adeline Street, at the still tents of homeless encampments that may have multiplied, I felt new distance gaping between us, as the very streets I had walked down regularly seemed to have been forgotten while sheltering indoors, the stores now empty, their windows recently boarded, few driving in the streets where one might walk without danger. The eery absence of population was a scene from The Last Man, momentarily interrupted by an isolated airplane, the first seen in days, flew overhead: I felt like I was on a filmset, more than where I lived, a tracing of life past.

If we were sheltering, what was place, anyways?, I wondered with the footprint map in mind. Empty streets looked like nothing more than an apocalyptic reimagining of the neighborhood, drained of inhabitants, save the apparently increasing cluster of homeless tents, looking far more embattled, and more survivalist than ever. If the building footprint map was restricted to spaces where people lived and work, the ghostly anthropogenic substrate seemed to have an eery counterpart in the homeless encampments near my house. The survivalism was evident in the homeless settlement that had in recent years overflowed, expanding to fill in the island of trees where how Steve Gillman’s 2011 public sculpture marked the interurban divide. The public sculpture elegantly if snidely punned on the allegedly dismissive pity saying ascribed to an icon of modernity about her native home–“There’s no There there“–as an entertainment for motorists, or BART passengers, as much as a public art for pedestrian passersby–by broadcasting a literary reference in greenery.

The two words marked the Oakland-Berkeley border by two words, now rusted fifteen years later, as relics of an earlier epoch themselves: the homeless encampment blurred both sides of the dividing line between the cities which had long since melded indistinguishably in the increasingly gentrifying area where I had lived for twenty-odd years.

The erasure of a sense of “here” that was promoted by the public sculpture seemed erased in the AI map, that reduced space to built houses, even as the homeless were the only residents in sight as I walked around the tensely empty neighborhood. I’d long appreciated, if a bit begrudgingly, how the Gateway_Project defined the edge of Berkeley CA took Gertrude Stein’s saying and liberalized it in hight-foot tall powder-coated steel letters, where the BART tracks go underground, intended as “a literary and whimsical welcoming to Berkeley,” where they supposedly read not only Stein’s poetry, but where so many poets had lived–and was a “here” worth commemorating by sculptured letters, a new Fons et origo of the Beat Generation, perhaps, or a dynasty of mid-twentieth century poets–Kenneth Rexroth; Czeslaw Milosz; Allen Ginsberg; Gary Snyder; Frank Whalen; Thom Gunn; Robert Hass–by 2002 recognized as a literary patrimony. Designed primarily for passing motorists, as if few could be imagined to walk nearby, the site built to commemorate a “sense of place” had become a cluster of encampments, as if that was the only place that existed at a time when all remained shuttered indoors–if in 2010, just ten years ago, one letter was covered, by a group of Oakland knitters, to transform it to “HERE/HERE,” peacefully protesting the work as barely concealing an agenda of gentrification.

Jill Posener, on Jill Rants and Raves/June 1, 2010

The collective of knitters who had covered the “T” as if to object to the tired trope with which Oakland was long saddled was the result of a. relatively calm tussle, cast as a border war against gentrification. But the global pandemic had subsumed any distinction of “here” and “there” in a new global: the AI map seemed to be indeed a snapshot of the scale of habitation before the pandemic, a ghostly picture of an earlier time.

As I walked through it, at least, the same North Oakland neighborhood was suddenly, if maybe temporary, rendered ghostly: the built landscape that I was inhabiting was the same world, with fewer inhabitants, and less secure attachment to palce–as if the artificial interruption of indoors life shifted my relation to built space, made it harder to navigate, and shifted the security of place, and indeed removed any sense of recognizability from the built landscape, almost to ask what the civilization was that led to the building of all this paved space.

The unmooring from physical presence was like being dropped, I imagined in a flight of fantasy, to that Microsoft map, so akin as a snapshot to the sort of map of archeological ruins future generations might trace as guidelines of orientation to a lost past, when what was the greatest “here” of antiquity–the city of Rome–was etched by nineteenth century archeologists and antiquarians by the physical plant of what once stood on the site of the ancient Roman forum, only perceptible to the eyes of tourists if they had trained themselves on the map to imagine the ghost-like presence of architectural monuments that had once affirmed the place of Rome at the center of the world at a far earlier time.

Where was here, now, on the AI map? Was the tie I was drawing between the map and the uninhabited neighborhood only the depressive meanderings of a middle-aged crisis? Or was it a global one? West Berkeley and North Oakland had been certainly rendered quite a different place, quite suddenly, and not a comfortable one–still inhabited by ghosts. Stripped of my points of reference or familiarity with my neighborhood, a few dispossessed in the sidewalks, of what wasn’t a nice area of town, I was reminded rather urgently of ongoing part of urban life no longer framed by sounds of traffic, public transport, open businesses and pedestrian sounds, that continued while I was indoors. The degree zero of urban life reminded me of the empty landscape of building footprints that, in a detailed satellite overview that recalled nothing more than the outline of an archeological dig of ancient city, as if drained of motion, and filled with apprehension, in a damn eery way. Was this a pause or a new landscape?

I had only recently been navigating the 2018 building footprint map, “Every Building in the United States,” and aout a year ago, hung the section of the houses of the Bay Area onto our refrigerator wall. The creation of Microsoft that was removed as one might imagine from the ancient notion of an “inhabited world,” comprised of building outlines, a distanced description of the world a declination of mapping human settlements, mediated through what seemed the iconography of an archeological map of a removed time, rather than the actual lay of the land–or, better yet, it seemed to exist in two planes more than ever, and both as a historical record of a snapshot of built space across America, and of actuality. The interactive website of the machine-readable result of aerial imagery that invites one to zoom closely not on landscapes, but a black and white rendering of built space, recalled nothing more than a flyover of the ruins of a future world.

The aerial snapshot of each and every building in its current position had a sci-fi aspect of a record of space drained of nature, biodiversity, non-anthropogenic environments, and life–distilling selectively the extent of built spaces across an otherwise quiet and otherwise uninhabited world: as if the perfect document of the anthropocene, this was the built landscape, removed from and detached from a natural world. This was the built landscape of the region, divorced from the lay of the land, as if a perfection of the GPS contents of street view, without any street traffic or greenspace at all. The stark interactive map of 2018 seemed to be newly present to the space I was negotiating in my mind, even more stripped to its bare bones and evacuate of inhabitants.

The vertiginously uninhabited interactive map peered at onscreen allowed one to look at the nation and soon to whatever spot on the map, suddenly panning and focussing into crisp detail, but lacking all sign of inhabitants, save the names on each street or place. The sense of exploring a neighborhood I once knew may have been an accelerated arrival in late middle age. But the spatially empty landscape of building footprints encountered I opened in 2018, “Map of Every Building in the United States,”was filled with a sense of dread and of testing my own geographical knowledge, scanning to familiar neighborhoods and structure, and matching abilities to recognize the flattened forms against the material structures with which they correlate.  There is no sense of the amount of chemical waste and diesel pollutants in the nation’s largest port, Long Beach, pictured in the header to this post, where pollution has caused ongoing health problem for residents.  

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Filed under Bay Area, data visualization, interactive maps, satellite surveillance, virtual space

Fruitvale Station

When I took public transit to a legal clinic near Fruitvale Station in hopes for help to contest an eviction notice my family and I had received this past January, I felt a growing sense of entering a new social topography that I didn’t often see–and not only because it was the first time I had experienced eviction or anticipated a legal confrontation with my landlord.  The oppositional landscape of the gentrifying city was immediate, but was most vividly concretized by seeing the altered transit map in the car I took to a legal aid office–where the name for the station I was headed was covered by a decal (in a glorious act of cartographic resistance) that renamed the station after Oscar Grant, who had been shot on its platform after taking part in New Years Eve celebration in 2009, by a white BART officer.  

The decal placed on the urban transit map  in the header to this post served to reorient the viewer to an urban landscape that had been changed by cycles of gentrification, many of which had propelled so many residents to the urban periphery in Oakland. Indeed, the city has created a new sense of the suburbanization of many neighborhoods erasing the presence of former inhabitants, it seems to engage the social geography of the city, and the guerilla-style renaming of the station served as more than a marker and a reminder of a past that resisted urban exclusion, or resisted the dynamics of urban change in a city where I suddenly noticed my own precareity on the way to my appointment with legal aid.

There was some comfort in the decal affixed to the wall of the car. It created a chasm in the landscape in that BART car, in some way echoing the huge urban rioting and unrest following the killing of a twenty-two year old in the city–rioting that recalled the uprisings in urban America after the assassination of Martin Luther King. Jr., when the army was called in to northwest Washington, DC to avert social catastrophe. The memory was still so hard to negotiate that only a decade after the event did BART’s Board of Directors name a road near the station after Oscar Grant, an alley between 33rd and 35th avenues, to mark that unnecessary death.  Rather selfishly, or out of fear, I was not thinking about the tragedy of his killing so much as the shifting landscape of Oakland and my relation to it.

The changes of rapid gentrification are beginning to be mapped by the Anti-Eviction Project, whose maps chart trace the residues of renters’ place in Oakland’s housing market.  The decal oriented me to the changing urban landscape of Oakland, and served as a reminder of the precareity of urban residents as cycles of gentrification forced many living near Fruitvale Station itself, to relocate, recording something like a residue of displacement, that echoed the adoption of a tree as the new urban icon, suggesting a suburbanization of much of urban space, known now for farmers markets and the “unseeing” of many of its earlier residents, and erased much of its urban past–and indeed erased their faces.

A sense of presence was announced with clear resistance in that sticker, commemorating the shooting of Grant, a young twenty-two year old whose shooting provoked a level of rioting and looting that was reminiscent of the rioting in America cities after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr, catastrophic disruptions that led to the army to restore security, was, to be sure, a protest against racial inequality and overt racism of the BART officer.  But the sense of instability that it registered in the transit map arrested me as a new site of orientation on a rapidly disappearing past, and as it somehow became an anchor or point of stability that orient me in the changing urban space, increasingly fluid and unsure, where I’d received an eviction notice in 2018.

The effect of cycles of gentrification–if not its engines–are evident in maps of the unlawful detainers served in the city in the past decade, and instability of the urban landscape that this has created.  Visualizations of massive displacement of renters in the Bay Area chart escalating evictions in amped up real estate markets.  The result is  suggests of the changing nature of the commons or of public space over the past decade, as Oakland emerged as a prime site of private residence and rapacious landlords, and the city became something of a microcosm of the heightened pressures that the Bay Area experienced.  The contracting commons is hardly able to be captured in point data.  But a map of unlawful detainers issued across the city suggests  the nature of the earth change, a swarm of ladybugs or less prosaic leeches feeding on the city’s neighborhoods, and ingesting its vitality:  the arrival of predators that occasion such unlawful detainers suggest that the economy of home ownership nourish a form of master-slave relations.  For across neighborhoods of radically different income levels, the shifting populations that have filled housing markets are mirrored by an ethnically shifting neighborhood, and a lowering of economic diversity.    Even in the cordoned off area of North Oakland where I lived, the invasion of unlawful detainers had been felt not only from afar, but within what was a formerly African American neighborhood where home sales approached and far surpassed $1,200,000 for a two bedroom.


ladybug crowd.png

The extraordinary density appeared to track the outbreak of an epidemic or urban virus, the embodiment of the affliction of the city by landlord evictions mapped from 2005-15 seeming to be spread in strikingly uniform manner from North Oakland, where I lived, to Fruitvale in an evil effervescence or infestation of increasing gentrification and displacement of long-term residents.

Alameda Evictions

Over the previous years, I had only watched largely through maps at how evictions had transformed much of the East Bay–an area already fractured with strong social divisions–and the Bay Area at large.  But the foreclosure landscape that had transformed the Bay Area was something I hadn’t seen at first hand, but had suddenly become disorienting after receiving a 60-day notice to vacate the premises of what was my family home for almost fifteen years.

Unlawful Detainer Notices Filed, 2005-15

The surprise news had left us facing a legal landscape little familiar, but increasingly ready to reach out to social services with which we’d had no familiarity, and to face a landscape of landlord evictions that has been the byproduct of rising property values across the East Bay.  And so the ride to the social services non-profits that are congregated around Fruitvale Station, a community that has long been of special resilience, seemed the only hope we had of legal redress.  And the remapping of that station–where I headed on public transit–by renaming the station in gesture to a decade-old event piercingly revealed the unstable ground of social justice in Oakland, and made me feel better than since we were first served notice.  The alternate embodiment of that map, created by a decal, seemed a powerful gesture of resistance as BART approached Fruitvale Station, and I reflexively looked from the map to the panel that hung above the BART platform a few times.

east bay

Although my dispute with my landlord was resolved, if quite contentiously, the sixty-day move-out notice concretized the economic pressures that have rewritten Oakland communities, and the deep disparities between landlords and renters–and the increasingly adversarial roles of landlords and predatory buyers of buildings in the face of the promise of greater rents– reminded one of the possibilities of legal contestation or assertion of renters’ rights for many in a city where I’d been tensely aware how rents had increased immensely and property revaluations was actively pressing populations on something of forced migration to far flung suburbia from Modesto to Visalia to Fresno to southern California.  Arriving at Fruitvale Station to avail myself of public services was entering, if temporarily, into the unknown landscape of the disenfranchised.

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Filed under Bay Area, counter-map, mapping BART, mapping place, Oakland