Surfside Ecotones

Shifting from a vision of blissed-out honeybees flying from hives to a flowering birch tree in gardens of a city whose buildings encode “labor-intensive materiality” in each of their individual bricks, American poet Campbell McGrath conjured a distinctly modern melancholy that turns from wonder at bees bearing pollen from blossoms of cherry trees on their anthers to hexagonal cells to the transience of New York, reduced to an “archipelago of memory,” as buildings of man-made bricks once “barged down the Hudson,” from a hinterland of clay pits, quarries, and factories, disintegrate into the Atlantic, and in an imagined future we are left to imagine their eventual return to silt: “It’s all going under, the entire Eastern Seaboard,” the Miami-based poet prophesied the impending retreat of the city, almost as an afterthought with resignation or awe in early 2020, and imagined how a new map of the nation that emerged as the Atlantic rose. The American Capitol secures more solid grounds in Kansas City and leaves the shores of Washington, DC, leaving “flooded tenements” or houseboats that are “moored to bank pillars along Wall Street.” As the Atlantic rises, few “will mourn for Washington,” and the once densely inhabited seaboard is abandoned, the coast reduced, in this dystopic flight of fancy, leaving the nation forced to shift the capitol to western Missouri in a search for more secure grounds.

The sudden collapse of half of the south tower of Champlain Towers in Surfside, FL, may be less apocalyptic in scope than the eastern seaboard. But it is now impossible to speak of offhand: we are agape mourning residents of the collapsed tower, trapped under the concrete rubble after the sudden pancaking of the southern tower. Without presuming to judge or diagnose the actual causes for the tragic sudden collapse of a twelve story condominium along the shore, the shock of the pancaking of floors of an inhabited condominium raises questions on how the many structural questions that surround Champlain Towers were overlooked. We ask in retrospective whether the certification process is adequate for forty year old concrete weight-bearing structures exposed to far more saltiness and saltwater than they were ever planned to encounter, they also raise questions of the increasingly anthropogenic construction of the coast. While the state of Florida long sold itself to the nation as a beach land–a site of people sprawled on towels soaking up the sun–the fluid nature of the coast as an ecotone bridging land and sea in changeable and changing ways suggests nothing less than the collision course between the increasingly fragile edge-land of the coast with the image of beachfront property that assuredly offers its future residents the health of the shoreline and a view of the sea.

The advertisement in a publication ostensibly dedicated to geographic education offered a map of the state as a map of pleasure, pools, white plaster towers, and folks in bathing suits, picnicking, golfing and playing beachball, as the sun gazed beatifically down on the state’s azure shores: the whole peninsula seemed a beach, or in fact was one, boasting room for all on 1,400 miles of mainland coastline.

“Fabulous Florida,” state advertisement in National Geographic (1952)

Although the realty industry and development business have sold the coastal experience of Florida as access to the shore, that increasingly popular prospect on the tranquil sea, the coast is in fact an ecotone–an intersection of land and sea, and increasingly porous one. We must recognize the coast as an increasingly overbuilt environment, and one poorly mapped as a divide between land and sea. The absence of the shore as a clear line should be more than evident not because of sea-level rise, but the density of shoreline skyscrapers and concrete residences crowding a strip between protected interior wetlands and the shore in southern Florida that is mostly built on former wetlands, but presented as a clear divide between land and see. We have encouraged the construction of a complex of coastal settlement as if it lay on solid ground, in concrete towers that are not impervious to weathering from the ocean air that washes over the shore, as we ignore the coastline’s vulnerability from ocean elements. If the porous nature of land and sea are viewed as problems of the ocean–the adverse effects of agricultural runoff or human waste on ocean currents beset by tidal algal blooms from the late 1970’s–due to agricultural runoff–and apparent in inland lakes, the fragility of the built environments we have made on the shore are not fully mapped for the very consumers sold residences promising ocean views, which are often poorly inspected due to developers’ greed. We have failed to map the coast as an ecotone–or acknowledge the increased permeation of the shore with saltwater, both underground and in the increasingly active weather systems that envelope the shore with saline ocean air, as we imagine the shore to be able to be mapped as a straight line, when it is not.

We continue to map “settlement” and “development” in terms of sold shoreslines, as if they were impermeable and not buffeted themselves. We have long mapped Florida by its beaches, and constructing homes for a market that privileged the elusive and desired promise of a beach view. Despite the allure that the state offers as a sort of mecca of beach settlement, meeting a market by offering vicarious live beach webcams in Florida and refusing, in the 2020 pandemic, to close beaches and beach life that promise an engine of economic activity, or imagine red flags by posing danger signs on the beaches.

Risks are similarly reduced or erased in the practice of coastal development for too long. We long recognized the instability of the shoreline communities, and not only from rising sea-level or surging seas. The lure of the beach continues, denying their actual instability, with the lure of otherworldly qualities as “edges” we imagine ourselves to be exhilarated by, if not released from day-to-day constraints, as a destination promising a new prospect on life.

The long distinction of the state by its beaches–its uncertain edges with the ocean–demand to be mapped and acknowledged as less of the clear line between land and sea than not only a permeable boundary, but of a complex geography vulnerable to both above ground flooding and underground saltwater incursion, sustained exposure to salty air, winds of increased velocity, and an increasing instability of its shores that have long been a site attracting increased settlement. Can one view the ocean surrounding the shores not only as a quiescent blue, but as engaged with the redrawing of the line of the shore itself as a divide long seen as a stable edge of land and sea?

From the increased tensions of hurricanes from the warming oceans, to underground saltwater incursion, to a constant beach erosion and remediation, the beaches we map as lines are coastal environment whose challenges engineers who valued the economy and strength of concrete towers did not imagine. The combination of the influx of salty air, the erosion and replacement of beach “sand”, and increased construction of condominium have created an anthropogenic shore that demands to be examined less as a divide between land and sea than a complex ecotone where salt air, eroding sand, karst, and subsoil weaknesses all intersect, in ways that the mitigation strategies privileging seawalls and pumping stations ignore. As importation of sand for Miami’s “beach” continues, have we lost sight of the increasingly ecotonal organization of Florida’s shores?

Sands from Central Florida Arive with U.S. Army Engineers in January, 2020
Matias Ocner/Miami Herald

The point of this post is to ask how we can best map shifts in the increasingly anthropogenic nature of Miami’s shores to come to terms with the tragedy of Champlain Towers, to seek us to remain less quiescent in the face of the apparent rejiggering of coastal conditions as a result of climate change beyond usual metrics of sea-level rise. For the collapse of Champlain Towers provides an occasion for considering how we map these shores, even if the forensic search for the immediate structural weaknesses that allowed the disaster of Champlain Towers to occur.

Miami Beach has the distinction of the the lowest site in a state with the second-lowest mean elevation in the nation, and ground zero of climate change–but the drama of the recent catastrophic implosion of part of Champlain Towers should have become national news as it suggested the possible fragility of regions of building that are no longer clearly defined as on land or sea, but exist in complex ecotones where the codes of concrete and other building materials may well no longer apply–or, forty years ago, were just not planned to encounter. While we have focussed on the collapse of the towers with panic, watching the suddenly ruptured apartments akin to exposed television sets of everyday Americans’ daily lives, the interruption of the sudden collapse of the towers is hard to process but must be situated in the opening of a new landscape of climate change that blurs the boundary between land and sea, and challenges the updating of building codes for all coastal communities. The old building codes by which coastal and other condominiums were built by developers in the 1970s and 1980s hardly anticipated to being buffeted by salty coastal air, or having their foundations exposed to underground seepage or high-velocity rains: the buildings haven’t budged much, despite some sinking, but demand to be mapped in a coastal ecotone, where their structures bear stress of potential erosion, concrete cracking, and an increased instability underground, all bringing increased dangers and vulnerabilities to the anthropogenic coast in an era of extreme climate change.

Rescue Workers in Surfside Disaster Attempt to Find Survivors in Champlain Tower South

A small beachside community bordering the Atlantic Ocean just north of Miami Beach, on a sandy peninsula surrounded by Biscayne Bay and the Atlantic, the residential community is crowded with several low-rise residential condominiums. While global warming and sea-level rise are supposed to be gradual, the eleven floors of residential apartments–a very modest skyscraper–that collapsed was immediate and crushing, happening as if without warning in the middle of the night. As we count the corpses of the towers residents crushed by its concrete floors, looking at the cutaway views of eerily recognizable collapsed apartments, we can’t help but imagine the contrast between the industry and care with which bees craft their hives of sturdier wax hexagons against the tragedy of the cracked concrete slab that gave way as the towers collapsed, sending multiple floors underground, in a “progressive collapse” as vertically stacked concrete slabs fell on one another, the pancaking multiplying their collective impact with a force beyond the weight of the three million tons of concrete removed from the site.

This post seeks to question if we have a sense of the agency of building on the shifting shores of Surfside and other regions: even if the building codes for working with concrete have changed –and demand changing, in view of the battering even reinforced concrete takes from hurricanes, marine air, flooding, and coastal erosion and seawater incursion near beachfront properties–we need a better mapping of the relation of man-made structures and climate change, and the new coasts that we are inhabiting in era of coastal change, far beyond sea-level rise.

Champlain Towers
Chandan Khanna/AFP

As we hear calls for the evacuation of other forty-year old buildings along the Florida coast, it makes sense to ask what sort of liability and consumer protection exists for homeowners and condominium residents, who seem trapped not only in often improperly constructed structures for an era increasingly vulnerable to climate emergency, but inadequate assurances or guarantees of protection. We count the corpses, without pausing to investigate the dangers of heightened vulnerability of towers trapped in unforeseen dangers building in coastal ecotones. Indeed, with the increased dangers of flooding, both from rains, high tides, storm surges, and rising sea-lelel, the difficulty of relying on gravity for adequate drainage has led to a large investment in pumping systems in the mid-beach and North Miami area. The sudden collapse of the building, which civil engineers have described as a “progressive collapse,” as occurred in lower Manhattan during the destruction of New York’s World Trade Center, the worst fear of an engineer, in which after the apparent cracking of the structural slab of concrete under the towers’ pool, if not other structural damage. The thirteen-story building, located steps from the Atlantic ocean, was part of the spate of condo construction that promised a new way of life in the 1970s, when the forty year-old building was constructed; although we don’t know what contributed to the collapse that was triggered by a structural vulnerability deeper than the spalling and structural deterioration visible on its outside, the distributed liability of the condominium system is clearly unable to cope with whatever deep structural issues led to the south tower’s collapse.

Americans who hold  $3 trillion worth of barrier islands and coastal floodplains, according to Gilbert Gaul’s Geography of Risk, expanding investment in beach communities even as they are exposed to increased risk of flooding–risks that may no longer be so easily distributed and managed among condominium residents alone. And the collapse of the forty year old condominium tower in Surfside led to calls for the evacuation and closure of other nearby residences, older oceanfront residences vaunted for their close proximity to “year-round ocean breezes” and sandy beach where residents can kayak, swim, or enjoy clear waterfront. The promise that was extended by the entire condominium industry along the Florida coast expanded in the 1970s as a scheme of development that was based on the health and convenience of living just steps from the Atlantic Ocean, offering residences that have multiplied coastal construction over time. While the tragic collapse suggests not only the limits of the condominium as a promise of collective shouldering of liabilities, it also reminds us in terrifying ways of the increased liabilities of coastal living in an age of overlapping ecotones, where the relation between shore, ocean spray, saltwater incursion, and are increasingly blurred and difficult to manage in an era of climate change–as residences such as the still unchanged splashpage of Champlain Towers South itself promise easy access to inviting waters that beckon the viewer as they gleam, suggested exclusive access to a placid point of arrival for their residents that developers still promise to attract eager customers.

Although the shore was one of the oldest forms of “commons,” the densely built out coastal communities around north Miami, the illusion of the Atlantic meeting the Caribbean on Miami’s coasts offers a hybrid of private beach views and public access points, encouraging the building of footprints whose foundations extend to the shores, promising private views of the beach to which they are directly facing, piles driven into wetlands and often sandy areas that are increasingly subject to saltwater incursion. The range of condominiums on offer that evoke the sea suggest it is a commodity on offer–“surfside,” “azure,” “on the ocean,” “spiaggia“–as if beckoning residents to seize the private settlement of the coasts, in a burgeoning real estate market of building development has continued since the late 1960s, promising a sort of bucolic resettlement that has multiplied coastal housing developments of considerable size and elevated prices. Is the promise to gain a piece of the commons of the ocean that the real estate developers have long promoted no longer sustainable in the face of the dangers of erosion both of the sandy beaches and the concrete towers that are increasingly vulnerable not only to winds, salt air, and underwater inland flow, but the resettlement of sands from increased projects of coastal construction?

If collapse of the low-rise structure that boasted proximity to the beach may change the condo market, the logic of boasting the benefits of “year-round ocean breezes,” has the erosion of the coast and logic of saltwater incursion in a complex ecotone where salty air, slather flooding, and poor drainage may increasingly challenge the stability of the foundations of the expanding market for coastal condos–and to lead us to question the growing liability of coastal living, rather than investing in seawalls and beach emendation in the face of such a sense of impending coastal collapse, as the investment in concrete towers on coastal properties seem revealed as castles in the sand.

If the architectural plans for the forty-year-old building insured adequate waterproofing of all exposed concrete structures, in an important note in the upper left, the collapse left serious questions about knowledge of the structural vulnerability in the towers, whose abundant cracking had led residents to plan for reinforcement. The danger that Surfside breezes sprayed ocean air increased the absorption of chloride in the concrete over forty years that it cracked, allowing corrosion of the rebar, and greatly weakening the strength of supporting columns that had born loads of the tower’s weight, significantly weakening the reinforced concrete. The towers had been made to the standards of building codes of an earlier era, allowing the possible column failure at the bottom of the towers that engineers have suggested one potential cause for collapse in ways that would have altered their load-bearing capacity–the lack of reinforced concrete at the base, associated with the collapse of other mid-range concrete structures often tied to insufficient support and reinforced concrete structures. The dangers of corrosion of concrete, perhaps compounded by poor waterproofing, of cast in place concrete condominium towers in the 1970s with concrete frames suggest an era of earlier building codes, often of insufficient structuring covering of steel, weaknesses in reinforced concrete one may wonder if the weathering of concrete condominiums could recreate between columns and floors–and potential shearing of columns to the thin flat-plate slabs whose weight they bore, creating a sudden vertical collapse of the interior, with almost no lateral sideways sway.

Courtesy Town of Surfside, FL
Champlain Towers
Chandan Khanna/AFP

Even as we struggle to commemorate those who died in the terrifying collapse of a residential building, where almost a hundred and sixty of whose residents seem to be trapped under the collapsed concrete ruins of twelve floors, we do so with intimations of our collective mortality, that seems more than ever rooted in impending climate disasters that cannot be measured by any single criteria or unique cause. The modest condo seems the sort of residence in which we all might have known someone who lived, and its sudden explosive collapse, without any apparent intervention, raises pressing questions of what sort of compensation or protection might possibly exist for the residents of buildings perched on the ocean’s edge. Six floors of apartments seem to have sunk underground in the sands in which they will remain trapped, in sharp contrast to the bucolic views the condominium once boasted.

Miami Beach Coast/Alamy

While the apparent seepage in the basement, parking garage, and Champlain South that ricocheted over social media do not seem saltwater that seeped through the sandy ground or limestone, but either rainwater or pool water that failed to drain adequately, the concrete towers that crowd the Miami coastline, many have rightly noted, have increasingly taken a sustained atmospheric beating from overlapping ecotones of increased storms, saltwater spray, and the underground incursion of saltwater. If the causality of the sudden collapse twelve stories of concrete was no doubt multiple, the vulnerability to atmospheric change increased the aging of the forty year old structure and accelerated the problems of corrosion that demand to be mapped as a coastal watershed.

The bright red of coasts in the below map seems to evoke a danger sign that is intended to warn viewers about heightened increased consumer risk, from the Gulf Coast to Portland to Florida to the northeast, as sustained exposure to corrosive salt increased risk to over-inhabited coasts, particularly for those renting or owning homes in concrete structures built for solid land but lying in subsiding areas along a sandy beach. Indeed, building codes have since 2010 depended on the gustiness of winds structures would have to endure and not only along the coast, as this visualization of minimum standards across the state–mandating the risks coastal housing needs to endure–a green cross-hatched band marking new regions added to endure 700-year gusts of wind, inland from Miami.

Gusts Required Residences to Endure by Minimum Building Codes since 2010

Florida received a low grade for its infrastructure from the incoming administration of President Biden–he gave the state a “C” rather grudgingly on the nation’s report card as he promoted the American Jobs Plan in April, focussing mostly on the poor condition of highways, bridges, transit lines, internet access, and clean water. The shallow karst of the Biscayne aquifer is a huge threat to the drinking supplies of the 2.5 million residents of Miami-Dade County, but the danger of residences has been minimized, it seems, by an increasingly profitable industry of coastal building and development. While incursion of saltwater inland remains a threat to potable water, the structural challenges of the new As coastal Floridians have been obsessed with working on pumps to empty flooded roads to offshore drains, clearing sewer mains, and moving to higher grounds, the anthropogenic coastal architecture of towering condominiums offering oceanfront views have been forgotten as a a delicate link whose foundations and piles bear the brunt of the ecotonal crossfire of high winds, saltwater, and salty air that contributed to the “abundant cracking” of concrete that is not meant to withstand saltwater breezes, underground incursion, or the danger of coastal sinkholes in the sandy wetlands where they are built.

It is hard to look without wincing at a visualization designed to chart cost effectiveness by which enhanced concrete would mitigate the damage of hurricanes and extreme weather to coastal communities.

The below national map colors much the entire eastern and southeastern seaboard red, as a wake-up call for the national infrastructure. In no other coastal community are so many concrete structures so densely clustered than Florida. If designed and engineered for land, they are buffeted by salty air on both of its shores, from the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic; wind speeds and currents make the coast north of Miami among the saltiest in the world–as high winds can deliver atmospheric salts at a rate of up to 1500 mg/meter, penetrating as afar as one hundred miles inland that will combine with anthropogenic urban pollutants from emissions to construction–creating problems of coastal erosion of building materials, as much as the erosion of beaches and coast ecosystem threatened in Miami by what seems ground zero in sea-level rise, and, as a result, by saltwater incursion, and indeed the atmospheric incursion of salty air–concentrations of chloride that is particularly corrosive to concrete.

And is the exposure of concrete structures across southern Florida to salty air destined to increase with trends of rising sea-levels, already approaching five inches, and projected to deviate even more from the historical rate along the coast, exposing anthropogenic structures from skyscrapers to residences to increased flow of saltwater air?

Dr. Zhaohua Wu, FSU

We are all mourning the collapse of the Surfside FL condominium whose concrete pillars were so cracked and crumbling to expose rusted rebar exposed to salt air. Built on a sandbar’s wetlands, reclaimed as prime property, the town seems suddenly as susceptible to structural risk akin to earthquakes, posing intimations of mortality fit for an era of climate change. The collapse of the southern tower in the early morning of pose questions of liability after the detection of the cracked columns, “spalling” in foundational slabs of cement that allowed structural rebar within to deteriorate with rust that will never sleep. Its collapse poses unavoidable questions of liability for lost lives and unprecedented risk of the failure to respond to concrete cracking, but the ecotonal nature of the Florida shore, whose stability has been understood only by means of a continuing illusion as a clear division between land and sea, as if to paper over the risk of a crumbling shore, where massive reconstruction projects on its porous limestone expose much of the state to building risk of sinkholes and the sudden implosion or subsidence of the sandy shore in a county that was predominantly marshlands, and the inland incursion of salty air that make it one of the densest sites of inland chloride deposition–up to 8.6 kg/ha, or 860 mg/sq meter–and among the most corrosive conditions for the coastal construction of large reinforced concrete buildings facing seaward.

Miami building collapse: What could have caused it? - BBC News

While coastal subsidence may have played a large role in the sudden instability of the foundations that led the flat concrete slab on which the pool to crack, and leak water into the building’s garage in the minutes before it collapsed, the question of liability for the sudden death of Surfside residents must be amply distributed. For the question of liability can be pinned to untimely review process, uncertainty over the distribution of costs for repairs to condominium residents, and the failures of proper waterproofing of concrete as well as a slow pace of upkeep or repairs, the distributed liability raises broad questions of governance of a coastal community. The proposed price of upkeep of facade, inadequate waterproofing, and pool deck of $9.1 million were staggering, but the costs of failure to prevent housing collapse are far higher–and stand to be a fraction of needed repairs for buildings across Miami-Dade County over time.

The abundance of concrete towers in Miami-Dade county alone along the coast poses broad demands of hazard mitigation for which the Surfside tragedy is only the wake-up call: the calls from experts in concrete sustainability at MIT’s Concrete Sustainability Hub (CSHUB) for a reprioritization of preparation for storms from the earliest stages of building design has called fro changes in building codes that respond to the need for increased buffeting of coastal concrete buildings, arguing that buildings should be designed with expectations of increased damage on the East and Gulf coasts that argue mitigation should begin from the redesign of cement by a better understandings of the stresses in eras of climate change that restructuring of residential buidings could greatly improve along the Florida coast–especially the hurricane-prone and salt incursion prone areas of Miami-Dade county both by the design of cement by new technologies and urban texture to allow buildings to sustain increased winds, flooding, and salt damage. Calculated after the flooding of Galveston, TX, the calculation of a “Break Even Mitigation” of investing in structural investment of enhanced concrete was argued to provide “disaster proof” homes, by preventing roof stability and insulation, as well as preventing water entry, and saltwater corrosion in existing structures, engineering concrete that is more disaster resistant fro residential buildings in ways that over time would mitigate meteorological damage to homes to be able to pay for themselves over time; the “Break-Even Mitigation Percent” for residential buildings alone was particularly high, unsurprisingly, along the southern Florida coast.

MIT Concrete Sustainability Hub (CSHub)

1. Although discussion of causes of its untimely collapse has turned on the findings of “spalling,” ‘abundant” cracking and spiderwebs leading to continued cracks in columns and walls that exposed rebar to structural damage has suggested that poor waterproofing exposed its structure to structural damage, engineers remind us that the calamity was multi-causal. Yet it is hard to discount the stresses of shifting ecotones of tides, salty air, and underground seepage, creating structural corrosion that was exacerbated by anthropogenic pollution. The shifting ecotones create clear surprises for a building that seems planned to be built on solid ground, but was open to structural weaknesses not only from corrosion of its structure but to be sinking into the sandy limestone on which it was built–opening questions of risk that the coastal communities of nation must be waking up to with alarm, even as residents of the second tower are not yet evacuated, raising broad questions of homeowner and consumer risk in a real estate market that was until recently fourishing.

The apparent precarity of the pool’s foundations lead us to try to map the collapsed towers in the structural stresses the forty year old building faced in a terrain no longer clearly defined as a separation between land and sea, either due to a failure of waterproofing or hidden instabilities in its foundations. And despite continued uncertainty of identifying the causes for the collapse of the towers, in an attempt to gain purchase on questions of liability, the tower’s collapse seems to reflect a zeitgeist of deep debates about certainty, the anxiety with which we are consuming current debates about origins of its collapse in errors of adequate inspection or engineering may conceal the shaky foundations of a burst of building on an inherently unstable ecotone? While we had been contemplating mortality for the past several years, the sudden collapse. of a coastal tower north of Miami seemed a wake-up call to consider multiple threats to the nation’s infrastructure. Important questions of liability and missed possibilities of prevention will be followed up, but when multiple floors of the south tower of the 1981 condominium that faced the ocean crumbled “as if a bomb went off,” under an almost full moon, we were stunned both by the sudden senseless loss of life, even after a year of contemplating mortality, and the lack of checks or–pardon the expression–safety nets to the nation’s infrastructure.

The risks residents of the coastal condominium faced seemed to lie not only in failures of inspection and engineering, but the ecotonal situation of the overbuilt Florida coast. Residents seemed victims of the difficulties of repairing structural compromises and damage in concrete housing, and a market that encouraged expanding projects of construction out of concrete unsuited to salty air. As much as sea-level rise has been turned to visualize the rising nature of risk of coastal communities that are among the most fastest growing areas of congregation and settlement, as well as home ownership, the liability of the Surfside condominium might be best understood by how risk is inherent in an ecotone of overlapping environments, where the coast is not only poorly understood as a dividing line between land and water, but where risk is dependent on subterranean incursion of saltwater and increasing exposure inland to salt air, absent from maps that peg dangers and risk simply to sea-level rise? The remaining floors of the partly collapsed tower were decided to be dismantled, but the disaster remains terrifyingly emblematic of the risks the built world faces in the face of the manifold pressures of climate change. While we continue to privilege sea-level rise as a basis to map climate change, does the sudden collapse of a building that shook like an earthquake suggest the need to better map the risks of driving piles into sandy limestone or swampy areas of coastal regions exposed to risks of underground seepage that would be open to corrosion by dispersion of salt air.

Florida building collapse video: Surfside, FL condo disaster | Miami Herald

The search for the bodies of residents buried under the rubble of collapsed housing continued for almost a full week, as we peered into the open apartments that were stopped in the course of daily life, as if we were looking at an exploded diagram–rather than a collapsed building, wondering what led its foundations to suddenly give way.

Michael Reeves/Getty Images

As I’ve been increasingly concerned with sand, concrete, and the shifting borders of coastal shores, it seemed almost amazing that Florida was not a a clearer focus of public attention. The striking concentration of salts that oceans deposited along the California coast seemed a battle of attrition with the consolidation and confinement of the shores. Long before Central and Southern Florida were dredged in an attempt to build new housing and real estate, saltwater was already entering the aquifer. As the Florida coast was radically reconfigured by massive projects of coastal canalization to drain lands for settlement, but which rendered the region vulnerable to saltwater, risking not only contaminating potable water aquifers, but creating corrosive conditions for concrete buildings clustered along the shores of Miami-Dade County across Fort Lauderdale, Pompano Beach, as much of Florida’s coast–both in terms of the incursion of saltwater and the flow of salty air, that link the determination of risk to the apparent multiplication of coastal ecotones by which the region is plagued, but are conceptualized often only by sea-level rise. Even as Miami experienced a rise in sea-level some six times the rate of the world in 2011-2015, inundating streets by a foot or two of saltwater from Miami to Ft. Lauderdale was probably a temporary reflection of atmospheric abnormality or a reflection of the incursion of saltwater across the limestone and sand aquifer, lying less than two meters underground. Did underground incursion of saltwater combine with inland flow of salty air in dangers beyond tidal flooding in a “hotspot” of sea-level rise? One might begin to understand Surfside, FL as prone to a confluence of ecotones, both an overlapping of saline incursion and limestone and its concrete superstructure, and the deposit of wet chloride along its buildings’ surfaces and foundations, an ecotonal multiplication of risk to the consumers of buildings that an expanding real estate market offered along its pristine shores.

Approximate Inland Extent of Saltwater Penetration at Base of Biscayne Aquifer, Miami-Dade County, USGS 2018

While the inland expansion of saltwater incursion and penetration has become a new facet of daily life in Miami-Dade County, where saltwater rises from sewers, reversing drainage outflow to the ocean, and permeates the land, flooding streets and leaving a saltwater smell in the air, the underground penetration of saltwater in these former marshlands have been combatted for some time as if a military frontline battle, trying to beat back the water into retreat, while repressing the extent of the areas already “lost” to the sea. If the major consequences of such saltwater intrusion are a decay. and corrosion of underground infrastructure as water and sewage pipelines, rather than the deeply-set building foundations of condominiums that are designed to sustain their loads, the presence of incursion suggests something like a different temporality of the half-life of concrete structures that demands to be examined, less in terms of the damage of saltwater incursion on building integrity, than the immersion of reinforced concrete in a saline environment, by exposing concrete foundations to a wetter and saltier environment than they were built to withstand, and exposing concrete to the saline environment over time.

As much as we have returned to issues of subsidence, saltwater incursion, and other isolated data-points of potential structural weakness in the towers, the pressing question of the temporality of building survival have yet to be integrated–in part as we don’t know the vulnerability or stresses to which the concrete foundations of buildings perched on the seaside are exposed. The very expanse of the inland incursion of saltwater measured in 2011 suggests that the exposure to foundations of at least a decade of saltwater have not been determined, the risks of coastal buildings and inhabitants of the increased displacement of soils as a result of saltwater incursion or coastal construction demands to be assessed. The question of how soils will continue to support coastal structures encouraged by the interest of developers to meet demand for panoramic views of coastal beaches. While the impact of possible instability on coastal condominiums demands to be studied in medium-sized structures, the dangers of ground instability created by increased emendation of beach sand, saltwater incursion, and possible subsidence due to sinkholes. All increase the vulnerabilities of the ecotonal coastline, but only by foregrounding the increased penetration of saltwater, salt air, and soil stability in the increasingly anthropogenic coast can the nature of how ecotonal intersection of land and augment the risks buildings face.

Continue reading

2 Comments

Filed under anthropogenic change, climate emergency, coastal change, coastlines, shores

Facing Extreme Climate Upon Re-Entering the Paris Climate Accords

In an age it is disturbingly familiar for news maps to place us on tenterhooks by grabbing our attention, the existential urgency of the blanket of the continent with icy arctic air was no exception. But if the images of sudden entrance of frigid air shocked most states in the union and lower forty eight, the farther one collapsed the week of freezing cold, the more one could see a clarion call for the re-entrance into the Paris Accords,–as if the visualizers of meteorological disturbances at NOAA, newly liberated, were able to show the dangerous consequences of the tippy polar vortex and uncertain weather in an era of extreme climate change. Bright color ramps foregrounded falling temps in rich magenta or icy blue were almost off the charts, from the uppermost end of the spectrum in their duration–below–or in the low temperatures that were advanced–in maps that push the boundaries of expectations with urgency. As maps of the hours the nation was plunged into subzero trace a purple cold front advanced all the way into the deep south as it spread across the continent from up north, the continent shivered under the icy blues over the mid-February cold spell. As we re-enter global climate accords, and consider what global accords can come to terms with climate change, it seems opportune to consider the alerts that remotely sensed mappings of our changing global climate chart.

The chromatic intensity jarred with the familiar spectrum of meteorological maps to shock the viewer: the map challenged any reader to try to place the arrival of cold air and hours below freezing in a frame of reference, to dismiss the incursion of icy air up to the US-Mexico border as an irregular occurrence, more than a harbinger of premonition of the cascading effects of extreme weather, let alone a warning of the limits of our national infrastructure to adjust to it. If the focus of the NOAA maps of the National Weather Service fulfilled their mandate by focussing on the territoriality of the United States, these images and the news maps made of them communicated a sense of national violation, if not of the injustice of the incursion of such unexpected freezing temperatures and Arctic air, as if it were an unplanned invasion of the lifestyle, expectations, energy policy, and even of the electric grid of the United States, oddly affirming the American exceptionalism of the United States’ territory and climate, as if the meteorological maps that confounded predictions were not a global climactic change.

And in the maps of the fall in national temperatures, as in the header to this post, the news that the nation witnessed a frozen core spread south to the southwest, almost reaching the border, seemed to shift our eyes from a border that was mapped and remapped as permeable to migration, to a map of unpreparedness for climate change, almost echoing the systemic denial of climate change that has been a virtual pillar of the Trump Presidency on the eve when Donald Trump had permanently relocated to Mar a Lago, one of the last areas of the nation that was not hit by the subzero temperature anomalies that spread across north Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, Missouri, New Mexico and Iowa, plunging the many states we though of as “red” during the past election an icy deep blue interior in mid-February down to the Gulf Coast–as if the colors were a national crisis not of our own making for a nation that had obsequiously voted Republican, withdrawn from the Paris Accords, and allowed the warmer temperatures to be located only in the state where Donald Trump was now residing in Mar a Lago.

–that , as the week of arctic air’s arrival wore on, the newspaper of record glossed by a color ramp of low temperatures few residents southern states expected to be plunged into subzero surroundings. The color ramp they chose to chart how gelid air poured set off a cascade of events and disasters nicely demonstrated cascading effects of climate change on the nation, as the shock of low temperatures sucked the national attention away from the border, and begged one to come to terms with the challenge of climate emergencies in global terms. The frozen core of the nation was a wake-up call, re-re-rendering the familiar Red, White and Blue in faded out terms of the distorted levels of cold the nation currently confronts–the increased escalation of which we are projected to face.

Lowest Temperatures in Coutnry, February 12-16/New York Times, February 18, 2021

The entrance of gelid air from a polar vortex poured across much of the midwest in unrelenting fashion. Plunging subzero temps hit the Texas coast that overloaded electric grids and shocked weather maps that seemed out of whack even for mid-February, as even the sunbelt of the southwest turned gelid cold as subzero temperatures arrived over a week, plunging the arctic neckline down into Texas, and almost across the southwestern border.

The shock of this map is its dissonance, of course, from the weather maps that we are used to seeing, the entire nation now, in mid-February, almost blanketed by subzero temperatures of deep blue cold, extending wispy breezes into Utah and Arizona, as well as across Georgia, South Carolina, and Virginia, leaving only SoCal and Florida pleasantly warm. The national composite that forecast a deep freeze running right down the center of the United States and spreading to both coast at northern latitudes gave the nation a frozen core at the end of a hotly tempered election, that seemed a wake-up call to attend to long-term as well as immediate dangers of climate change, but made it difficult to disentangle the global issues from the existential question of millions in Texas and other states who were left without heating faced dangerously cold and unprecedented subzero temperatures, without clues about where to keep warm.

Image

The impact of climate change has rarely been so directly placed on the front burner of national security–climate change deniers have preferred to naturalize polar melting by removing it from human agency so far to attribute shifting temperature to sunspot activity, or invoke longue durée theories of geological time enough to make noted paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould turn over in his grave. Doing so has stoked a devious confusion between local and global, and immediate and long-term, are bound to be increasingly with us in an era of extreme climate change. The sudden entrance into our borders of such gelid air is an effect of global warming. We are loosing our beaches, and cities like Galveston, TX, Atlantic City NJ, Miami Beach FL, Key West, and Hilton Head SC are not alone in falling into the sea to lie mostly underwater in 100 years. As Ron Johnson assured us that “Greenland” derived its name from the green leafy bucolic forests of the continent–“There’s a reason Greenland was called‘ Greenland’–it was actually green at one time [even if] it’s a whole lot whiter now”–as if the truth about deep time was concealed by those overly alarmed ice shelves falling into the Atlantic, shifting ocean salinity with a sudden injection of freshwater that may alter the Gulf Stream, we were invited to contmplate the fierce urgency of now.

Perhaps the whole question of a span of time, as much as the theoretical proposition of global warming, was a concern. For we are as a country already looking forward with apprehension at maps of economic costs of flood damage to residences, amidst the anxiety charged year of COVID-19 pandemic, with multiple variants now on the loose, to prepare for escalating costs of climate change across the country, and not only on the coasts.

If Louisiana and California coastal cities will seem destined to stand the greatest risk of damage or residences, both due to the high valuation of California’s coastal properties, and the danger of hurricane damages across the Gulf Coast, the increased risk that residences alone face bodes serious economic losses across the United States. Yet as risk rises and brings with it escalated insurance rates, we stand to see the cascade of economic losses, of the sort we have not come to terms in imagining the fanciful image of a time when Greenland enjoyed lush forests in the past–a scenario that never happened, inventive etymologies aside–although it may soon host plant life as it looses its permafrost.

Continue reading

Leave a comment

Filed under anthropogenic change, Climate Change, data visualization, Global Warming, weather maps

Metageographical Pavement

While seeking drection during the raging of the pandemic, as if existentially isolated in those days when anxieties ramped up, vulnerability to a virus crossing borders brought a vulnerability and a keen sense of the absence of all infrastructure able to sustain. The danger of introsepection was tempered by alarm, as a shock at the unaccustomed sense of the evanescence omade us turn to distant if suddenly proximate stories of plague past to process the new normal of pandemics. As many, seeking orientation to what was unfolding, exasperated at the overflow of global maps of pandemic spread that were intellectually impossible to balance with one’s fears for those loved, many looked to the classics–Defoe (Journal of a Plague Year), Manzoni (The Betrothed), or Camus (The Plague)–as if in an attempt to find bearings that fit our time of epidemiological disorientation, as I fancied to find an early urban infrastructure encoded in the century-old names stamped into the ground.

For in contrast to the smooth sections of finely grained grey paving, the mixed macadam of earlier eras surprisingly offered a site of dialogue and historical orientation as material culture, a point of dialogue while moving far less to meditate about how we mapped space and place.

If we were tracking the spread of a virus across national borders, moving in global webs of claustrophobic mobility and transportation across borders with a heightened smoothness that was forging transnational linkages of the most deadly sort, eroding the concept or use of national sovereignty over public health, the lines of these early pavers of sidewalks offered a local text whose superficiality seemed oddly comforting to trace and almost profound, meta-geographic markers of an earlier era before gridded space was widely accessible–as if it offered another way of negotiating with the dead. As global traffic slowed, and we sheltered in place, and afternoon or morning somewhat aimless walks became a form of meditation, the sidewalks became a weirdly present interlocutor.

Post-COVID International Airflow (ICAO), 2020

As much as fiction provided a respite from the specter of infection that became existential as it approached our space, blurring boundaries and destabilizing ourselves left us searching for a playbook, pavement provided a needed form of orientation, the work calendar interrupted. The storied names of the pavers of the cement sidewalks on the Berkeley-Oakland bore offered a parallel text to one of loss, as the names of contractors and pavers gained presence as a story of urbanization, and urban inequities, reactivated by the landscapes of loss. The sidewalk stamps and pavers’ strikes that dotted the border between these Bayside cities of a patriarch of one of the family of pavers whose work fed the city’s increased population after the 1906 Earthquake killed over 3,000 and destroyed 28,000 buildings–leaving some 25,000 homeless, growing the East Bay residential centers seemed in the pandemic to gain a commemorative cast as sites of mourning. It seemed that on or about April 18, 1906, the pavement set by men who owned quarries in different parts of the East Bay–Oakland; Rockridge; Berkeley; El Cerrito–set a new infrastructure for residential housing, whose echoes we felt, living on the edges of a real estate market of extreme gentrification.

6440 Regent St., Oakland CA (Spring Construction Co., Berkeley 1905)
John Adler, 1916; 6410 Regent St., Oakland CA

In a season of increasing questions of commemoration, memorialization, and remembrance that were rising across the country, the sense of a hidden topography able to be traced by rose to the sidewalk’s surface. Once seemingly stolid “pavement strikes” set on sidewalks of north Oakland of the post-quake era seemed almost ephemeral, whose status as signs of the old expansion of an residential neighborhood might have seemed monumental–Look upon my works, Ye Mighty, and despair!–seemed suddenly transient signs, an old geography peaking up at intervals amidst transforming real estate markets that have carved up the East Bay over the last twenty years. The post-quake signatures left by pavers from College Avenue–“Paul Schnoor, 1909“–to off Ashby–“Oakland Pavement Co, 1904,” with an inverted “N”–or off Telegraph Avenue–“Burnham Co., 1908“–plotted the booming if not forgotten benchmarks of a past. Was I walking in an old urban topography to escape the present, or looking to these benchmarks with a knowing sense of the lack of stability that they offered, peaking through a landscape of high gentrification as oddly uncomfortable echoes of a distant past?

Walking around my neighborhood with increasing frequency, I began to think of myself as not wandering to coffee shops and errands, but, more purposefully, as we all needed to embrace a sense of purse, doing research in the concrete archives of North Oakland sidewalks, searching for material signs of the past. When Walter Benjamin famously described the flâneur not as a stroller, but as an active critic of modernity, and an act of navigating urban space, in Franz Hessel’s Sapzieren in Berlin, as moving through the last open spaces in the city as the Tiergarten to appreciate “its charming disorder, branches crackling underfoot, the rustling of leaves on neglected narrow paths,” he coined the term for urban walking of “botanizing the pavement;’ the cracked concrete names traced a natural history of Oakland. amidst paths of scattered leaves, graasses, roots, that seemed to tell a hidden history.

6140 Canning St., Oakland CA

Before the moniker “Master 4 Concrete” adorned pavers’ strikes in the 1920, these signatures seemed deeply fragile, yet a remapping of streets I fancied to watch from a distance. Like rare surviving benchmarks of a past Bay Area built on Ohlone land, these century0old names evidence of the reshaping of the settlement of the Bay for Anglo residences, that survived by chance, seemed oddly transient sites. The name of the once venerable patriarch of a family of pavers, whose forename was cut short by the repaving of part of College Avenue, was akin to evidence of the dense artificial stone paving of 1908, on the Oakland-Berkeley border, two years after the Great Earthquake sent tent-camps of refugees to the East Bay, as one of the first forms of urban infrastructure of crushed stone–paved sidewalks!–laid quarried sandstone, basalt, jasper, gravel, and schist over macadam to create a walkable urban space.

6048 College Avenue, Oakland CA

Or is it perhaps to distance our destabilizing sense of not knowing that we find comfort in putting to work these humanist texts to gauge their relations of illness in a epidemic or pandemic, to reactivate their readings of texts that have lain dormant in whatever ways they could? The flattening sense of the pandemic oddly echoed the trumpeting of globalists in the benefits of a flat world, as the virus seemed to move across global cruises, in airplanes and airports, in conference centers, restaurants, trading routes, and motorcycle rallies, unmooring our own sense of controlling space or situating ourselves in a “safe” space. The attempt to gain purchase on space, or on the global space of disease, led me to look at the flatness of space that I negotiated on walks, examining the pavement of Berkeley CA to find orientation in the markers on the pavement, often left as stamps in the concrete by the sidewalk pavers whose lives and urban infrastructure I payed more attention to as a reminder of the incomprehensible loss of life. The stability of these old paving marks suggested a sense of the often overlooked–if not unexamined–traces of urban infrastructure, that expanded from the time that horse-drawn wagons carried gravel from quarries as far as Alameda or El Cerrito to motorized fleets carrying over 300,000 cubic yards of gravel, macadam, and rock around the Bay Area.

These often broken sidewalks seemed grim evidence of the breakdown of our public health framework. While no one much cites Tom Friedman these days, “disease” was one of the few ways in which the world appeared unflat for the journalist who became a booster of globalization: the “un-flat” nature of India and China was, Friedman feared, most apparent in risks of disease, but where he argued the internet offered the closest to salvation of an impending flattening; yet the rise of this new emergent disease arose on account of accelerated modernization of China where the encroaching of urban expansion and growth into the hinterland from where this new pathogen seem to have hailed, per the World Health Organization. And we looked at the maps of infection’s spread from this point in the map to find that the world was indeed rather flat, in the unpredictable pathways it frictionlessly spread among populations by trains, planes, and ships without any barriers among developed countries, in the shock that we suddenly perceived that regarding this pathogen, the world was hardly “un-flat” at all, and the flattening effects of technologies of sequencing of the virus were less pronounced than how the virus moved along or disrupted the “large, complex, global supply chains extending across oceans” that for Friedman were such an unmitigated good that the “unflat” experience of the world was remedied by Bill Gates.

We are, or were, trying to process a topography of death rates but fell back looking for tools to process the effects of the arrival “emergent infectious diseases” as we entertained their origins in the degradation of ecosystems and encroachment of formerly protective boundaries between humans and animals that have increased the risks of pandemic disease as zoonotic diseases have entered densely inhabited cities as if marauding dogs. The incommensurability of all earlier literature with the global pandemic is nicely suggested in Phase Six, the novel Jim Shepherd wrote before the outbreak, whose ominous title is the term that marks the start of a global pandemic–“designating for anyone who might have missed it by this point by this point that a global pandemic was officially underway.”

The novel that tried to tell a global story in compelling local detail before COVID-19 broke, but after Global Public Health reported 90% of epidemiologists foresaw the emergence of a pathogen, not yet identified, would lead to over 150 million deaths, a toll one-and-a-half to three times as great the global influenza pandemic of 1918-20. Shepherd may literalize ’emergent diseases’ of unknown transmission vectors and incubation for the pathogen that emerged from the frozen tundra that was being mined for rare metals, one of the array of cataclysms of global melting with which we have not yet come to terms, whose emergence a pair of CDC epidemiologists compellingly struggle to map in Shepherd’s chilling novel.

As we returned to the influenza pandemic misidentified as the “Spanish” Flu, to seek bearings on the growth of an actual pandemic threat, feeling a vulnerability for which we lacked clear guidelines of response. The recurrence of the dates before the Spanish Flu arrived in San Fransisco that I crossed on some stretches of pavement alone seemed significant as they suggested an apparent lacuna in the marks left on Berkeley sidewalks and across North Oakland’s residential geography. As I stared at the pavement on nearly abandoned streets, scanning the asphalt for signs of understanding, I found the strikes of old contractors or pavers something like an interruption or a punctum, making me pause in my tracks. COVID was forcing us to come to terms with those we lost, in new ways, and as I took breaks for psychological balance, single names seemed like community remembrances of those forgotten in the last century. I had recently moved from one of the leafier areas of north Oakland to an area of far “oranger” hue, at least not of the kelly green canopy I’d been accustomed, and the marks left by pavers were perhaps more evident, as the streets were certainly less populated than they once were.

Tree Equity in Berkeley/ARC GIS//American Forests

As the United States closed its borders in response to the global spread of COVID, and the virus spread across the globe, while we all studied global maps of virus vectors, variants, and mutations to try to track its spread, I walked in neighborhood streets with a combination of apprehension and a need to find solid ground, or tried to affirm the signs of the community where I lived. It was perhaps not by accident that the contractor Richard Schwartz identified the massive growth that the city experienced after the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, as refugees expanded the population of Berkeley and its paved streets by half in a month–growing from 26,000 residents to 38,000 overnight, as Berkeley and Oakland set up large refugee camps and tent cities in response to an unexpected influx of unhoused. As COVID-19 plunged many into poverty, increased gaps in wealth, and dispossessed many, and placed refugees in crisis, I searched the cracked sidewalks of my own city for signs of our relation to a global crisis.

Bancroft Library, UC Berkeley (c) Regents of the University of California

Many then fleeing San Francisco arrived in settlements despite the absence of infrastructure–the largest number displaced arrived in vacant lots open on Adams Point, north of Lake Merritt, if not in the military camps that were set up in San Francisco, if not the “earthquake cottages” on wooden platforms, akin to the “tiny homes” in Oakland and Alameda for unhoused and at risk youth or now via AirBNB. In Berkeley, settlements were quickly established without galvanized steel to accommodate those suddenly unhoused, creating a new landscape of refugees arriving in open lots.

As we processed the pandemic, we were, predictably ever more addicted to comprehending global maps than narratives, as if finding increased justification for social media addiction in refreshing dashboards of hotspots, hoping for bearings on the infections, hospitalizations, and deaths might arrive. We seemed to be tabulating in our heads and reading from the newfound authority of our screens, internalizing geodata of uncertain authority, it was increasingly therapeutic to imagine the pleasure of discovering new geodata on neighborhood sidewalks, making alternative maps that seemed affirming in my mind. Movement curtailed to some extent, the antique pavers’ strikes on the sidewalks seemed akin to dated billboards above a ringroad, each dated name seemed a refreshingly concrete reminder of location and located-ness in the modern pavement set a century ago. As I walked in more confined places than usual around the streets that lay effectively as they did when the earthquake hit and the exodus of refugees to Berkeley occurred, seeking stable ground and hopeful of new residences–at a time when few streets seemed to yet exist or be paved above Claremont Avenue, and few lots were even sold.

Although the exact border between Oakland and Berkeley had changed, and many streets’ names by the Bay, my flâneur-like walks seemed to track or investigate the expansion of residential sidewalks as if to observe the expansion of modern life at a historical distance. I began to walk to navigate that shadow geography of the past, by old marks on the pavement, opening the archive of stamps left on the concrete sidewalks in order to date residential neighborhoods or look for early clues in paving, to sketch something like a metageography of the neighborhood to keep the present at bay.

As he developed and expanded Leaves of Grass at the turn of the last century, Walt Whitman about 1890 evoked the “populous pavement” in his Manhattan. The near abandoned pavements of the north Oakland residence where I seemed to spy a strike from as early as 1906 outside of my door, much abraded by footsteps and time, the triangular stamp of the firm “Blake and Bilger” dated 1907–the year after the arrival of San Franciscan refugees in the East Bay–suddenly triggered a sense of deep time that hanging out with these pavement marks in solitary morning or late afternoon walks seemed therapeutic, a distance point as the name of the population of dead contractors removed me a different time, one where the Bilger Quarry by what is now Pleasant Valley from 1910 offered, as “The Oakland Paving Co.,” more than enough metamorphosed sandstone for macadam and concrete to pave Berkeley’s streets, if that pavement was clearly cracking over time.

2201 Woolsey Street, Berkeley CA

The strikes of pavers that popped from the pavement as discoveries of surviving snapshots of the residential expansion that escalated in the East Bay from around the time of the 1906 San Francisco Earthquake, in a search for residential stability and safety became, mutatis mutandis, sites of bearing and orientation on the pandemic’s escalating trends.

1609 Russell St., above California St., Berkeley CA

The areas of sidewalk paving that seem to start from around California Street in Berkeley seemed to offer teasing traces of the past history of the region, peaking out as an older archeology of place. But the divide that was clearest followed the divide of Shattuck Avenue, where I lived, a divide above which, as an elderly black homeowner who is my neighbor noted, lived not a demographic defined by race–but “racists.” Or was the divide Sacramento Avenue, the closest to the Bay that I saw marks of the veritable paver Paul Schnoor, whose signature on the pavement that dates from 1908 was “Schnoor & Son,” probably from before World War I and predating strikes of the growing business identified on other sidewalks as “Schnoor Bros.,” one of the most common Oakland strikes from 1918 through 1927.

The sharp racial divide of residential housing formed in the Bay Area was an earlier deep demographic fault line in Berkeley, where contractors stamped newly laid pavement in 1922, 1928, 1930, 1931, or even around the same time Benjamin elevated the street-walker to the level of a critic of the corrosive effects of modernity and capitalism in Paris, as much as a chronicler of the present that Baudelaire imagined, a witness to the divides that afflicted modern life, who walks the streets to register modern pains in street signs, crowds, facades, or fashions of dress. What, exactly, was not to criticize? The pavement that seemed so often to be cracked around these contractors’ early strikes stood as a sharp reminder of the fraying social fabric and aspirations undergirding this isolated residential community.

438-40 60th Street, near Howell

Of course, the streets were more empty in the pandemic, but the faces of past divides seemed to open like an archive set in concrete beneath my feet, peaking out at rare intervals. The strikes of pavers seemed akin to sites of geolocation to map the transformation of the Bay Area by the paving of residential roads, premonitions perhaps of the terrifying escalation of real estate prices that have led the population of unhoused to jump in Oakland by almost 50% from 2017 to 2019, the worst in the Bay Area, and encampments to grow in Berkeley by a full 13%.

The set of historical stamps I’d so often overlooked assumed a sense of a forgotten narrative central to the neighborhood’s shaping, long overlooked; they were perhaps snapshots of a history of effective segregation of residential community, that echoed the social stresses that emerged so clearly in the pandemic. I started to photograph them, as if to document this shadow geography of north Oakland, as much as looking into the past, to avoid the present; I was of course trying to map fixed surface or meaning in the ground as so much that unfolding in the maps of rates of infection with which we were all interfacing too often.

I passed dated markers which on increasingly empty streets seemed to regain their role of marking laid sidewalk as they were memorials–many reaching out as witnesses from the very time that Benjamin wrote of the transformation of urban space in Paris’ new social divides of urban spectatorship. Several, I noted, were from the first decade of the century, dates or final digits at times abraded with time or just left off–as if to suggest the rapid business of sidewalk paving contractors faced in Oakland from 1906, one of the earliest imprints I detected from the Blake & Bilger Company of Contractors, who would soon afterwards merged with the Oakland Paving Company, as if to declare the near-monopoly that the quarry then located on Pleasant Valley near 51st Street afforded adequate gravel to pave city streets.

Blake & Bilger Sidewalk Strike/Berkeley CA

The individual stretches of residential pavement in North Oakland and Berkeley, a consequence of the historical sales of residential units which contractors paved and signed with strikes to advertise their wares, gave sidewalks a board-game quality, the different years of whose laying seemed to jump out like snapshots of the past, suggesting a topography of settlement and residential units of the city years before the Earthquake of San Francisco of 1906 and its related fire encouraged settlement across the bay.

2936 Ellsworth Avenue, Berkeley CA

If contractors’ strikes provided clues for the old residential neighborhood, ephemera, miraculously not rubbed out or repaved from gentrification, I smiled at the interruption of strikes of concrete contractors by a geomarker that seemed of the early days of mapping, when we were only beginning to internalize geolocations by our handheld phones. The paving of streets before World War I and the post-war pandemic of the Spanish Flu seemed eerily present in the pavement, staring back at me, as an image of the modernity of Oakland CA, on cracked old residential sidewalk of 60th Street, just above Telegraph,

440 60th Street, Oakland CA

that promised a “Home Stead” in the street, an early imprint left by an Italian-American immigrant paver, Frank Salamid, who legend has it left his career as a barber to pave Oakland’s residential streets after the 1906 Earthquake hit, creating a new market for urban homes. The name “Salamid” now recurs on so many North Oakland streets over a period of forty years, per geographer Andrew Aldren; the stamps of his brother, Angelo, who had emigrated in 1914, were among the first recognizable words my daughter used to recognize. Aldren, who richly charted the traces of contractors like Frank and Angelo Salamid on Oakland streets as “fossils in the city’s hardscape,” long before the Pandemic hit, the evolution of stamps Frank and Angelo’s contracting company left indeed date from 1909, soon after the quake forced the city’s expansion and sale of residential properties, but the snapshot near my preferred coffee shop offered a surprising view of another time, surviving in surprisingly crisply drawn cuts.

460 62nd Street, on Canning Ave., Oakland CA

When I cleared the leaves, it seemed to reveal it was set from 1909, and a nearby stamp around the corner suggested Frank Salamid had begun to ply his craft of concrete masonry by paving some of the sidewalks in the area where Angelo would continue at a later date, when he took over the company and its stamp became a squat diamond.

459-65 63rd Street, Oakland CA

The pandemic period produced a maddening claustrophobia over time, of trying to find diversions and also novelties in increasingly restricted familiar routes, as the sense of discovery was dulled in moving in a time we seemed to have lost direction, and collectively as much as individually demanded better bearings. Was there a meta-geographic meaning in these century old strikes, that might root meaning in a period we were inescapably addicted on our news feeds to daily data vis of infection rates, mortality rates, and hospitalizations, feeling the fraying of the social fabric suddenly intensify?

The pleasures of the truly metageographic conceit that was set on this part of Berkeley’s pavement seemed to interrupt or puncture the deep anxiety with which those other datamaps haunted my mind, as a single geographic point in space became the focus of my attention.

Antipodes Sandwich, Geodata on Prince Street at Halcyon Park

I had to laugh when my daily walk came across the “Antipodes Sandwich” geomarker that had been planted in one spot of concrete–a precise spot of geographic coordinates on a urban cul de sac, if maybe not so precise as would warrant the fanicful proposal of placing a piece of bread to make a sandwich.

Less able to concentrate to narratives, I took short 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, in the forced calm of the cone of social distancing.

As much as reading narratives, we were all trying to put together stories, and the ephemeral markings I walked past on the way to get my morning coffee seemed more pregnant with meaning, the stylized signatures in antique letterings in contractors’s strikes on the modern pavement of the past seemed messages of another time.

Shnoor Bros, College Avenue, Oakland CA

As we scrutinized maps of the progress of the pandemic in the United States, trying to understand the pathways on which it travelled–the circulated air of hotels, airports, airplanes, or hospital wings, and the terrifyingly expanded topography of elder care across the world–the solid pavement offered a comforting concreteness, rooting familiarity in an apparently comforting sense of place.

The old marks not obliterated or scuffed off by the feet of pedestrians seemed reassuring, marks of the first residential sidewalks on the Oakland-Berkeley border constituted a “metageographical pavement” along an unclear differentiation of Berkeley and Oakland, ephemeral markings of an age of industrial production and expansion of the turn of the century, when the first residential sidewalks were lain for individual residences, in a sort of patchwork quilt of sidewalks that distinguish the region from most modern urban pedestrian space.

2031 Prince

Looking at these old signs of another era, I guiltily found inappropriate comfort in a “boring passion for minutia” by displacing attention from the pandemic in new ways. Sophie Atkinson re-read Robert Walser’s solitary pilgrimages with new appreciation in the pandemic–an attachment to walking without destinations–that found timely resonances of a comforting cosmopolitan nature during her extended walks in lockdown London. There was something of a sense of reclaiming the the known environment by these mobile practices of visiting the streets on which one had only recently walked, without any worry of infection or infection’s spread, as if one was steeling oneself by a reactivation of one’s investment in space. Walser, poetic prophet of post-modernity, she walked daily 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 if on a similar sort of pilgrimage, searching for terms to discuss the comfort walks provided, observing and studying “every smallest thing,” an effacing self-surrender helped me to attend to local details of the material detritus of the overpaved world, as a way of remapping boundaries and proving his abilities to leave circumstances of confinement, was balanced with a drive for distancing current complaints–less with an eye to one’s destination, than a practice of re-orientation.

This was not contentment, but almost a policing of boundaries. There seemed something like a hidden network that was suggested by these old markers set in the wet concrete some generations ago–before the Spanish Flu, or before two World Wars, or our own Forever Wars, in the seemingly troweled imprint left four blocks East of my house, where I was first surprised to see evidence of the sidewalk paving that grew to accommodate Berkeley’s new residential neighborhoods where I currently lived, but whose once intentional bucolic remove suddenly seemed in fact quite distant indeed. Et in Arcadia Ego, indeed.

2308 Prince Street, Berkeley CA

Travel beyond the nearby counties effectively curtailed, I walked without any destination, for bearings on the situation. But I gained distance and escape, perversely, by looking, as if with renewed distance, at the strikes that local pavers left on the streets of Berkeley, circa 1909, casting myself in an unproductive flight of pandemic provoked anxiety and fancy at looking at what seemed archeological ruins of a present past. As the cracked common spaces in Oakland and the United States seemed increasingly apparent, I was trying not to aestheticize the broken pavement as ruins, but to find in them a basis for the social fragmentation of the pandemic, if not the frayed social fabric it revealed, as if to try, a bit naively, to map a sense of its deep divides. As the ground seemed to be cracking under our feet each day of the pandemic, the mute voices of these pavers of the past animated by imagining the marks they, long dead, had set in the ground as a distinct signature of modernity–J.E. Nelson, C.J. Lindgren, Esterly Construction Co, dating from at least 1904-12 in Berkeley and Oakland. Many of these names recur through stamps from the 1920s, unsurprisingly, as it began to seem almost a form of observance to notice how these long left signs their lives threaded through the Berkeley community that I now walked.

3330 Bateman Street, Berkeley CA
Blake and Bilger Company, ’09, 3067 Bateman Street, Berkeley CA
C. J. Lindgren, 1907 Prince Street

Was there a sense of familiarity of the pavement as a retreat or respite from the internet searches for information about the pandemic? The stamps following the 1906 Earthquake across the Bay framed the streets in another disaster, but seemed to offer a weirdly satisfying concrete relation to the past. The reveries of this solitary walker turned to an invisible sort of map, an alternate local map, as I sought some signs for needed security that lacked in the daily count of morality and hospitalization in the pavement that promised something like access to an elusive if somehow tangible past.

My favorite as i walked up Prince Street to my neighborhood coffee shop, a struggling site of collectivity, each morning, was the overeager Esterly family’s Construction Corp. seemed to so benefit from a booming business post-quake to not even keep up with the years, circa 1907-08, as the concrete sidewalk pavers filled increasing orders for paving residences in the developing residential areas on the South side–areas where the pavement had miraculously endured, with houses, as the residential communities intensified.

2420 Prince Street/Berkeley, CA

While this mark left by Esterly Consruction Co. is technically left undated, lacking a final digit, the strike and its concrete mix echoes and parallels a nearby stamp on Alcatraz Ave of 1907.

1907
609 Alcatraz Avenue, courtesy Andrew Aldrich, Oakland Underfoot (2010)

As if reading a one-to-one map that lay atop the neighborhood I lived, whose trades were apparent on the ground, I bore down on the micro-geography of the concrete sidewalks near my house, reading the names of pavers traced in the pavement as if ports of access to different ages. For the years that pavers stamped in strikes a century earlier, taking some sort of comfort in the clarity of the dates of their creation, mapping a sense of their coherence as benchmarks of an earlier era in the unstable ground beneath my feet, as if seeking a measure of clarity, a point of bearing on the area I’d been living in Berkeley CA but sought new purchase. The flat statements of these names and dates, dislodged of much context, and telegraphic in meaning, seemed to hint at a deep history of bordering, private property, and the establishment of a single-residence zoning in Berkeley I had never fully taken the time to appreciate–a truly “deep history” that haunted the area where I had comfortably sheltered in place, lying on the surface of the sidewalks where we had never thought to look, the detritus of Oakland’s modern space.

And at the same time as I started to haunt the corners of the internet, to construct an immigration narrative of my own family from Austro-Hungary and the Lower Carpathian region, during the sense of social isolation of the first pandemic year, as a sort of inversion or compensation for social isolation, the meditation on the isolated names pressed on the pavement of a century ago–around the first time that the boats carrying my family docked in New York and Montreal, from 1890s to the 1920s, the streets of Berkeley were paved. On morning and afternoon walks, as if fancifully tracing evidence of a deep history of the neighborhood as if in compensation for social distancing, digging deeper to an elusive past as I walked. If the strikes of pavers were not reflective of the building of houses constructed in this largely residentially zoned area, paving city streets and sidewalks was an important movement of urban modernization, an early urban infrastructure, now invisible, along with the installation of sewer systems, electrical wiring, and gas pipes–the sort of urban infrastructure that was now being so deeply tried. While I often seemed to notice a stamp bearing of an even earlier year–1886!–revealed “1986” after clearing away pine needles; Mason McDuffie planned the first residential developments in Oakland in 1887, but the late 1890’s were rare to see on local pavements. If the driveways made by C.E. Orff or Jepsen in the 1920s and later, remaining some of the few unrepaved sidewalks in the area of Berkeley I had recently moved, an early planned residential neighborhood of the early twentieth century.

I’ve long considered paving as among the earliest of urban infrastructures. In the late nineteenth-century, the norm of dirt streets were replaced by downtown sidewalks made by pressed bituminous concrete, over rocks, surfaces of compound cement concrete–“art[ificial] concrete”–of sand, cement, and aggregate provided a modern form of building the city and urban neighborhood. Unlike in the East Coast where I grew up, the paving of sidewalk remained, as common in the western cities, provided by local property owners, and I could trace the urban plant of the city through the ostensibly ephemeral often anonymous marks left by pavers. I became fascinated with the uniquely dated texture they gave city streets, as if they offered a hidden architecture of urban space.

As if on an archeological dig, I traced signs in the sidewalk while walking absent-mindedly as evidence of the impact of the housing boom after the 1906 San Francisco earthquake on the micro-geography of the pavement, unpacking what seemed hidden history of the local, lying in plain sight underfoot, where they survived, marking the redesign of the residential community in the very years of the destruction of downtown San Francisco in the 1906 Earthquake and Great Fire that sent many across the bay in search of firmer land and residential property.

2108 Essex Street Berkeley CA

I discovered a virtual collective of old librarians, local historians, sidewalk aficionados with iPhones, with interest in filling cel phone memories with images of the evidence of the ground. In an age of increased atomization, the stone signatures seemed an imagined lost community of the area that were compiling the traces of trans-bay migration of a century ago, now a map that might be read as a dispersed set of portals to root oneself in a deeper sense of place and of time, rooted in the scare of the 1906 fire that sent many across the San Francisco Bay and nourished by the hope to segregate new communities, by the rise of covenants among residential communities, evident in post=1910 cities after the Great Migration, but already present in the late nineteenth century, but that flourished in the building of new gates, fences, and policies not limited to concrete, in which local builders like Mason McDuffie had specialized before segregated housing was outlawed, as groups like the Claremont Improvement Club adopted strict covenants that limited home ownership to those of “pure Caucasian blood,” reflecting the adoption of racial hierarchies in censuses from 1850, founding Claremont Park as a pastoral residential community below the Berkeley Hills by 1905, just before the earthquake, advertised in a color brochure complete with map, addressed to an imaginary “San Francisco businessman” as a site for calm repose across the bay, before the earthquake rattled San Francisco homeowners.

If The Oakland Paving Co.’s imprints of 1904 and 1912 near my house–earlier than Oakland sidewalks made from cement from the Upper Rockridge Quarry on Pleasant Valley and Broadway, used from 1910–suggest the value of paving on Berkeley’s expanding residential borders. The tasteful emblem of the inverted triangle on the sidewalks near the submerged Temescal Creek, undergrounded by culvert in north Oakland for elegant private residences off Claremont Ave. or to repave residential Berkeley streets for newly built neighborhoods, a transformation being a case of boundary drawing and social exclusion.

Ayala St. Oaklahd, CA

–or finding the same paver’s craft on Ellsworth Street in Berkeley, closer to my house,–

Some stamps lain by contractors, often specific to the day, seemed to set a basis for a residential neighborhood that seemed to be fraying in the pandemic, but that they seemed to remind me of, as ghosts of the un-remote past. If Lewis Carroll famously described a one-to-one map that had not ever been unfolded–“the grandest idea of all! We actually made a map of the country, on the scale of a mile to the mile!” that “has never been spread out” as farmers objected it would block out the sunlight, a map rolled out where it peaked through from the past; segregation of Berkeley’s neighborhoods began before 1906, promising areas of exclusively “residential character” removed from the “advancing tide” of “flats or shops,” in neighborhoods whose exclusively “residential character” was the result of racially restrictive clauses in property deeds and covenants on which developers like Mason McDuffie relied to boost their investment in neighborhoods’ exclusivity, hiring Frederick Law Olmstead to design the Claremont Hotel and Claremont Park community at a geographic remove from the city. The residential lifestyle allowed children to roam “out of doors! out of doors!” without night clubs or alcohol in prominent places, in East Bay enclaves exclusively for “Caucasian buyers”–not for “any person other than of the Caucasian race,” home ownership policies stipulated, with the result of mapping an exclusive residential neighborhood as early as 1905-1911 in the East Bay, or just before the Earthquake hit.

The shaping of that past neighborhood peaked up from the ground at select spots during the pandemic, revealing another world that rhymed in disturbing ways with inequalities today. If by 1907, West Berkeley was distinguished by streetlights, paved streets, telephones, and factories like soap and glassworks, and an industrial development fueled by the influx refugees from the city, invisible lines became increasingly important to define and defend. The new pavement added before World War I modernized the area of Berkeley and North Oakland for home owners in a new language of real estate and social class. As I seemed to be able to detect the names of a new generation of contractors of the post-quake years–Frank Salamid, J. O. Adler, and others–the rapidity of making a residential area, from below San Pablo Avenue up to College Avenue, seemed to gain focus, which I would not have detected with anything like that attention if time hadn’t paused, or seemed to pause, in pandemic days.

6401 Regent Street/Oakland, CA
1008 Grayson Street, Berkeley CA

Jorge Luis Borges’s Del rigor en la ceincia embraced the conceit soon after World War II, describing, as American military engineers re-drafted national maps by geospatial coordinates that wrapped around the world, described a society that abandoned one-to-one map coexisting with the nation’s territory as it became “cumbersome”, as this large paper map was reduced to tattered fragments in some “western Deserts,” I imagined I found hints and clues that were central to the spatiality of South Berkeley’s Oakland border in the time-stamped impressions preserved in the pavement underfoot, as I embraced a sort of exploration of the surviving evidence as if excavated clues. The turn of the century provided an origins story for the residential community and its divides.

433 63rd Street/Oakland CA

If roads to hell are paved with good intentions, the pavement strikes that stood out as marking space and time paved a space for single-family residences, sections of residential sidewalk paved for individual houses, bearing signatures of the forgotten artisans who converted what was once an empty property lot into a site of residence, leaving a sign of the quality of their work and the promise of future expansion of residences: these very pavers set the ground-plan of home-owners’ neighborhoods, the foundation of a shadow property association of the past. The sense of these strikes as something set by past lives–and defining past neighborhoods–was a microgeography dating from the early twentieth century, even before the Spanish Flu, but seemed to define as set a part a new area of paved sidewalks for single-family residences, that were newly settled after having been sold as, presumably, unpaved lots, probably at the edge of Berkeley, if now along the line of a north Oakland-Berkeley divide. The turn of the century definition of the comforts of home ownership across the Bay from San Francisco, defined as a preserve of private property, was a story that was inscribed in the pavement, if one I rarely took stock of or knew–but the unread evidence stenciled by such strikes revealed a topography of social differences and dividing lines.

Displaying IMG_8163.jpg
2936 Ellsworth; Berkeley CA

The concrete sidewalk offered a tangible sense of the past, at the same time as a refreshingly tangible sense of time. At the same time as I looked up to notice a flower, tree, or park in new ways after weeks of deprivation of contact over the first year of the pandemic, as we continued to shelter in place, but my eyes turned to the ground in hopes for transcendence or finding some sort of different news, as if signs on the ground described possible sites of contact with an earlier world. Was this only being middle aged? Or were there some deeper transactions I might have with the pavement, few other interlocutors being present on the city streets, as if in confirmation that we had entered a new era? As if walking with downcast eyes for unnoticed signs of old benchmarks and pavers’ names, I traced contracting and expanding routes as a pedestrian, looking downward to find meaning. And compelled by the keen awareness of temporality that seems to have affected me most at the start of the Pandemic, wondering what sort of era into which we were entering, and if we would ever leave it, the physical remove of these strikes, many from before the Spanish Flu which so many had seen or tried to see as a precedent for the diffusion of illness across the nation, and across the world, with high mortality rates, seemed to leave me scrambling for dates in hopes for drawing such seemingly futile senses of equivalence–or for reminders of a time before pandemics–as if rediscovering a new material relation to the past.

The Oakland [sic] Paving Co. in Berkeley, CA (1904) Ellsworth Ave., Berkeley CA

As newspapers came to be too exhausting to read and depressing in news, or the dashboards devised by tracking apps devised to convert databases of infections to the palettes of webmaps for ready legibility,–

–even as we had no clear sense of the mechanism or spread of contagion, or the arrival of the first cases of infection in California and the United States. If walks seemed to create a fragile measure of normalcy, tentatively, before electrifying news, the comfort of the tangibility of old traces on concrete seemed a form of security. If Walter Benjamin had famously looked back on the dangers of mechanical reproduction as a premonition of fascist media in the 1930s, after fleeing Nazi Germany to Paris, perhaps the craft-like manual nature of the individual imprints struck from frames and contractors individual signatures from bygone eras of Oakland and Berkeley’s past–strikes that continue to the present, and current dates–offered a reassuring micro geography of meaning.

Benjamin had of course fled Germany seeking signs of reorientation in the course of the flâneur in Paris, habituating himself with the modern sense of the streets as an exotic immersion in the senses. For me, the thin sense of contact that these stones offered in the time of social distancing were a far more muted surpise, but a new form of “botanizing the pavement” abandoned by most other passersby. Moving along empty streets without familiar faces, I read names of the architects of the sidewalk, taking comfort in and searched for names as if I could better acquaint myself with where we were. At times, as I collected them as an alternative therapy, I fantasized it was a taking stock that rectified an imbalance, a micro-reparation of sorts before the increased evidence of the social costs that the pandemic revealed.

Spring Construction Co., Berkeley CA 1905; 310 Benvenue, Berkeley CA

How could such rates of infection be processed, especially as they were woefully incomplete? The epistemic unease at the security of mapping, or objectivity of these data maps that were queried, questioned, and re-examined, contrasted with the pressing urgency of trying to read the multiplying varieties of the novel virus itself, suggesting just how much we were still learning and needed to learn; the conceit of tallying the signs that seemed in full gave my apparently aimless walks a sense of purpose, as a form of reparation for a world out of whack, whose discrepancies of health-care, infection rates, and uneven levels of public trust seemed finally unmasked and on full view. Amidst the pandemic’s increasingly uncertain ground, I started to walk farther than usual from home, and walk with greater intensity of seeking an imagined goal, or justify my new status as something of a flâneur, dedicated to find the first pavers of main arteries like Telegraph Avenue and College Avenue in Berkeley CA from around 1908-9–most often from “Burnham,” or shortly after the Great Fire and Earthquake of 1906, at the same time as outmigration from San Francisco across the Bay had led to Berkeley’s growth, registered by the surviving names of pavers, one sharing the name of a contemporary city planner, Daniel Burnham, who worked in San Francisco and others, as the Spring Construction Co, tied to local monuments as the Claremont Hotel.

Burnham 1908; College Ave., Berkeley CA

–or the overworn escutcheon on Telegraph Avenue, off Alcatraz, apparently lain in 1909.

Alcatraz and Telegraph, 1909

The names echoed the Berkeley-Oakland divide, from the 1905 paving strike of Spring Concrete Co., Berkeley, at the old craftsman house sitting at 3100 Benvenue Avenue., on the outside limit of the Berkeley border, to where the Berkeley-Oakland border emerges on College Avenue, at what is now the home of La Farine bakery, emblazoned by escutcheon strike of an industrious local family of pavers–the Schnoor Bros. who bridge three generations–dated 1924.

The doorway is non-descript, but the strike is evidence of sidewalk paving enshrined steep divides of income, today reflected in differences of infection rates among contiguous Bay Area cities, historically marked, long before their recent gentrification, by an open racial as well as a very steep economic divide. If sidewalk paving began by marketing “‘art’ stone”–artificial stone–by contractors as a modern replacement for brick or wooden boards, the lots that were sold for houses in residential areas shaped by laying wet concrete mix.

443-47 McAuley Street, Oakland CA
6421 Regent Street, Oakland CA

Were these Italian craftsmen keen to take the job as masons to craft the cement with necessary smoothness as they entered the city’s economy, or were they just arriving at the right time? Signing the paved sidewalk was not only the reflection of a craft–“Whenever a skilled person makes something using their hands, that’s craft,” reminds historian of craft Glenn Adamson–but a deep if superficial craft of memory. In staking out of regions for settlement along a clear Berkeley-Oakland divide, these strikes along the border set the terms for a terrain of marking out new residential areas of home ownership. Were these pavers not leaving tokens of their craft as contractors, in defining often Arts & Crafts residences in Berkeley CA, registering the imprint of their own handiwork, or just leaving their mark in the city?

Was one indeed able to map, as I imagined, the arrival of the very sidewalk of Spring Co. Concrete to the quarry John Hopkins Spring acquired on the former Berryman ranch in North Berkeley, site of Spring Construction Company, mined from conglomerate in what is now La Loma Park in North Berkeley, whose was quarried in North Berkeley 1904-9, and after areas near Codornices Park, Cerrito Canyon, that helped pave much of Thousand Oaks, and pavement bearing the Blake & Bilger triangular imprint to the Blake & Bilger quarry on Glen Echo Creek, near the Rockridge shopping center, owned by the Claremont Country Club, today, a site of mining metamorphosed sandstone, later run by the Oakland Paving Co.? Or was it from Blake’s El Cerrito quarry? A micro-geography of East Bay pavements seemed a hidden geography in itself waiting to be unpacked, of the quarrying and fragmenting of the hillsides of the East Bay–leading to an opening of quarries in Diamond Canyon, Hayward, prospecting in Livermore, as the search for sources of limestone, metamorphosed sandstone, quartz chert, and basalt grew in the early twentieth century with a greater demand for dressing the surfaces of sidewalks in locally sourced concrete. The Jepsen Bros. had owned quarries from 1912 to pave driveways and sidewalks that extended from Albany to North Oakland and beyond.

On often directionless walks seeking peacefulness, I looked with unaccustomed intensity at uninhabited streets for a sense of grounding, if not re-assessment, if the search may well have begun as my eyes looked downward as if by default. Walks without a destination led me to seek a perspective in an imagined sort of convalescence–a respite from oppressive data visualizations that were hardly a means to come to terms with the collective obituaries framed in the unfamiliar concept of “cumulative” deaths. I was struck by the somewhat random dates on the sidewalk in my Berkeley neighborhood, where “1911” arrested my eye–before the Spanish Flu pandemic!–or 1909, 1930, or 1936 pavers left inscribed nearby. If as a flâneur of the pandemic, finding and collecting the names of pavers seemed almost a search for transcendence by composing an alternate necrology of the neighborhood, as if a form of dealing with death, as the estimated deaths inexorably rose–even if they were all undercounts. The surety of walking offered an alternate form of tallying, as names of pavers became memorializations of individuals, akin to an imagined meeting, as if gathering information for an imagined alternative report; 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 with perhaps few counterparts, if we often invoked the Influenza Pandemic of 1917-18.

2308 Prince Street; Oakland Paving Co. 1911

The traces of grading the porous pavement were as visible as a laying of concrete that was smoothed out a century ago; just three to four hundred paces eastward, across Telegraph Avenue, the earlier strike peaked out of pavement cracking with more evident signs of time, where the paver seems to have left off a final digit, situating letters or plugs in a grid of sorts to arrange a company logo, that seemed a partner record of the material past.

I was bearing down on the local with a similar intensity on often aimless walks, as if searching for evidence or bearings. 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.

Financial Times, confirmed COVID-19 morality rates in UK and USA, March 2020-March 2021

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, for Walser, offered peacefulness as 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 combat or imagine a future remove from an overwhelming melancholia. In history graduate school, a friend and I had listened to slightly more senior students describe summer research plans of visiting archives with lightly veiled satisfaction, and imagined our intent to exploit the unexamined archives of early modern Oakland, where we lived, echoing how the French historian of the Mediterranean, Fernand Braudel, had described Istanbul’s unstudied archival treasures of Mediterranean trade, in his own search to gain a new perspective on deep time of a longue durée that seemed more than ever sadly out of reach. It almost seems, in retrospect, as if I was discovering the existence of that very archive of lost communities inscribed in the pavement strikes–bearing dates from the 1920s and 1930s, at times a decade after the turn of the century–a material archive of early modern artisans or craftsmen who were technologists of the community that defined the old edges of built space and its boundaries, of an era before pandemics, and before, even, the Influenza pandemic of 1917 to which we reached back for bearings in search for a precedent for reactions to the spread of COVID-19, and how the pandemic was challenging modern notions of transmission, contagion, science and even space.

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 1918-20 pandemic of the “Spanish” Flu entered California, were somehow a distance on our own sense of modernity and the disarming unpreparedness for the pandemic, which seemed as if we were entering a new era, and indeed one of historical rupture. As if a new historical epoch, of an end of confidence of modern control over the spread of disease, whether of the control of inter-species jumps of viruses, and a new range of “zoonotic” diseases, or the mutation of the new viruses that arose, if not from global warming, from

Spring” Construction Co, Berkely CAL. 1905 (2420 Woolsey St., Berkeley CA)

Early pavers’ names are a bit ubiquitous in many of the older residential neighborhoods of Berkeley, CA, where the developers of lots seem to have regularly paved sections of sidewalks for tracts where houses were built, giving them on odd patchwork nature, and resulting in pavements that are often repositories of information of historical development and the segregation of areas.

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 feared to spread globally had been numerous–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 unseen since the avian-born pandemic of 1918-19, harder to map, track, or conceptualize; 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 re-familiarize 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 “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.

3086 Claremont Avenue, Berkeley CA
2340 Ward St., Berkeley CA

The paving of this Oakland-Berkeley area was defined by early residential zoning, restricting local populations to whites and often by income, effectively, and expressed in stipulations of residential home-ownership. 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 ‘Spanish’ Flu, or why no historical ruptures were 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.

Second Wave of “Spanish” Flu Reaches California as it Spreads across America, 1918

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.

Spanish flu

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.

Public Notice for Social Distancing, San Francisco
Continue reading

4 Comments

Filed under Bay Area, Berkeley CA, borders, Oakland, urban geography

Order on the Border: Prologue or Retrospective View?


Border security was the hallmark issue of the Presidency of President Donald J. Trump–as of his candidacy–that proudly foregrounded a specter of racial division. The promise to expand the fences that had been barriers along six hundred and fifty four miles of bollard, chain link fences, and even helicopter landing pads that were military materiel from Vietnam were to be expanded to a continuous wall by the man who, Ayn Rand style, promised he was master architect and builder of a border security system, in hopes to get the costly concrete wall he imagined would be perfect for the border built. He won election in no small part because of the assurance “I’m very good at building things,” first and foremost a wall to Make America Great Again. The President who disrupted conventions of government by provoking a government shutdown in 2019 resisted the prospect he would “give up a concrete wall” in government negotiations, Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney reminded the nation, and in visiting Alamo TX, on the eve of his departure form office, appeared to relish the presence of the slatted wall he wanted–he vowed “a steel fence” back in 2019–and to affirm the centrality of the southwestern border for the nation he was loath to admit he would soon cease to lead, if a true national emergency could not be provoked.

If the visitation of the border provided a recurrent site for Trump to affirm his candidacy, Presidency, and indeed to wield and exercise executive authority by appropriating billions on the construction of a border wall–without even knowing if it is effective–the border wall provided an occasion to affirm a uniquely distorted vision of the state.

Trump’s visit to the US-Mexico Border paid final homage to the achievement of building a border wall that was indeed of concrete and reinforced steel core seemed to create a shrine for an image of the border rooted in white supremacy, and no better site for such a shrine seemed to exist than Alamo TX. The very name of the border city in Texas few had ever heard of before it was designated as a site to salute the completion of four hundred miles of Border Wall near the Rio Grande Valley evoked a society based not only on the state’s funding of border defense, but a nation that was “founded, nurtured, and financed” on White Supremacy, as Ta-Nehisi Coats put it long before the Trump Presidency. In visiting “Alamo,” the outgoing President was not only visiting the border. He was affirming the centrality of the border wall as a monument to his followers, a memorial to border protection that was a dog whistle in its name. For the hybrid constellation of an “Alamo” along the Border Wall elevated the symbolic value of the southwestern border of the United States as if it were a battle-line to fight for the permanence of a color line long fundamental to American democracy, but long denied as a brutality of racist ideology naturalizing a social hierarchy in ways that were enforced by state power.

The Border Wall was an icon of the Trump Presidency, a prop for his public political persona as President of the nation, and a site of illustrating the commitment to the defense of borders, fulfilling the syllogism there are no strong countries without strong borders–or that, per Ronald Reagan, “a country that cannot control its borders is not a nation”–as if the border were going to vanish from the map. And when Trump visited Alamo, eight days before leaving office, in a choreographed speech, he elevated the Border Wall to a spectacle. The visit on the surface sought to reprise a bond with the American people around construction of a Border Wall, and which he was proud at having allocated–or wrangled–$15 billion that the U.S. Congress had never appropriated. Designed to slow migrants and smugglers from crossing the border, but a token of an expanded system of border surveillance from helicopters, river boats, aerostatic blimps whose radar systems are Customs and Border Patrol’s “Eye in the Sky,” and military jeeps, and an archipelago of incarceration in detention facilities that deny migrants rights. But the concrete bastions he visited on the Rio Grande affirmed the spectacle of border defense. “The spectacle proves its arguments simply by going round in circles: by coming back to the start, by repetition,” as Guy Debord argued, “by constant reaffirmation in the only space left where anything can be publicly affirmed,” and the reaffirmation of the spectacle of the border seemed to ahistoricize and perpetuate the border wall as a defensive monument, refusing to obliterate and elide it from national memory, by eliding it with the border defense of Texas, before Texas was a state.

The visit to Alamo provided a fitting stage for the final lap of a “Promises Kept” tour, as it reprised the hostile border as a part of the American imaginary. Trump long claimed. that without borders. or border enforcement, “you don’t have a country,” as if a reinforced border was a needed affirmation of national security and identity and indeed–at least semantically–nationhood. He sought to summon dignity at the border, days after the fiasco of the insurrectionary staging of an assault at the U.S. Capitol, and warn then-President-elect Joe Biden not to destroy the wall lest he undermine immigration policies crucial to the nation, and erode the border to bring “calamity” to national security at the site he had long declared a national security threat. Seeking to both stop time, refocus national attention, and conflate myths of national identity at Alamo, the dog whistle of a defense of security at Alamo TX placed the border wall in the national mythos, to stay the prospect of these sections of concrete wall and levees from being dismantled, to keep alive the story of wall-building that he had long promised to the nation as he left office, casting it as a heroic effort of national defense and construction project that he had presented himself as the Presidential candidate as uniquely suited to create. To visit the completed section of the Border Wall near “Alamo” was to evoke the mythic nature of the crumbling wall of S. Antonio de Behar in San Antonio at the Alamo, the site of resistance of Texan Revolutionaries, still the model for many local militias and white supremacists, and recall the cleavage in society Trump invoked when claiming his impeachment would provoke a “new Civil War,” elevating his own Border Wall to the mythic status of an unsavory part of the collective memory of national defense.

In the final hours of the Trump Presidency, with only four hundred and fifty miles of the border wall built, lest it be reduced to Ozymandian fragments for visitors to look upon his Presidency and despair, Trump visited the poured concrete wall at Alamo, TX, as if to greet the final testament to the achievements of his Presidency and to unveil to the nation completion of the legacy of his Presidency, as if it were a final campaign stop. Visiting a small section of Border Wall mounted on concrete levees around the Rio Grande became an occasion to reprise his commitment to national security, and the culmination of a heroic struggle of border-building and defense of the nation’s territory. The heroic struggle seemed less so, in the shadow of the tragically empty theater of the Capitol Riots, but perhaps it was the memory of his legacy he felt most able to leave: it served to epitomize the difference of “us” from outsiders, in a way that might better play to the nation than the raucous display of angry identities of flag-waving separatists, and set the tone of framing an ongoing future Presidential campaign, praising the Caesar-like monument for which he had secured federal funding, and insisting it would never be buried in the public imagination.

Indeed, among the colorful flags waved with exultation on January 6, 2021 that incarnated a social body excluding the entrance of African Americans or migrants into the nation, from Confederate Flags to III Percenters, angry at any change inclusion in a social contract that had persistently excluded those marked by ancestry and melanin from the state, the prominence of flags waved at the combat around the inaugural stands by MAGA shock forces of militia groups who cast the nation as white treasured the mythic defense of Tejano lands by militia at The Alamo as a foundational historical precedent and basis for “keeping America great,” embracing the image of The Alamo as a war that was fought both for liberties and for racial hierarchy against Mexican troops–an image nurtured not by the state, but by the powerful cultural currency of The Alamo in Hollywood as a proxy for a race war.

Even if the 2020 Presidential campaign was effectively over, the values of white supremacy that had long forged the alliance of pro-Trump separatists and deniers were kept alive by what seemed a hastily engineered visit to the border town of Alamo TX. After an incompetently ineffective summoning of minions to interrupt the counting of electoral votes by Congress, and to create a legacy for his Presidency, visiting Alamo to affirming a border wall as a monument built to keep “undocumented” Mexicans out of the United States, destined to survive even if his Presidency ended: insisting on a specter of the dangers of cross-boundary migration for America, the visit seemed perfect stagecraft for asserting the timelessness of the border wall as a legacy of defending the nation’s borders at a new Alamo, as insistently as AK47s were historically conflated with the role militias to “repel . . . danger” in 1788, and its ratification in 1789 as guaranteeing a “Right to Keep and Bear Arms.”

On his final state visit, six days after the insurrection, Trump seemed to steer national attention from the danger of domestic terrorists ready to assault the U.S. Capitol in combat gear to a racial specter of invading migrants, criminals, rapists, and seekers of asylum, collectively invested with criminal intent. As Trump had long presented the border wall as a site of military engagement–perhaps even of armed forces–the visit to McAllen and Alamo provided a means of continuing to fight the same battle over national identity, but to fight it at the border wall. The President had concluded his presidency by disrupting conventions of governing again, by refusing to recognize the popular vote’s results and inciting a riot that invaded the U.S. Capitol by minions waving flags from the lost campaign, which they insisted was not over, amidst an inverted American flag of distress, which militia groups had been regularly raised in protests about counting votes and ballots with accuracy over the previous months in Wisconsin, Georgia, Michigan, and Arizona, and has been displayed in discontent at the outcome of Presidential elections since 2012.

People rioting on the west side of the Capitol with Trump flags
Pro-Trump Protestors at West Side of U.S. CapitolThomas P. Costello/USA Today via Reuters

The sense of distress of the inverted flag that one protestor held signaled, in no small part, fear of failure to complete a continuous wall of two thousand miles in the desert promised to keep undocumented barbarians out of the nation. And as the center could not hold, days after the riot or insurrectionary attempt to end the certification of the electors, Trump concluded his Presidency in what might be a valedictory visit to the border as a site of materiality, as if to prove that it could hold, if his presidency could not. The intent to mythologize the border as a material statement of state power, and as an imaginary of the nation, was underscored by the visit to Alamo, TX–

Donald Trump Reviews U.S.-Mexico Border Wall at Alamo, TX Tuesday, Jan. 12, 2021
(AP Photo/Alex Brandon
)

–that recast the visit tot he border wall and concrete levee of the Rio Grande River as an occasion of state, and indeed a military event, to identify himself with the commitment of funds reallocated for the military budget to commemorate the construction of four hundred and fifty new miles of brand new wall along the southwestern border. Did President Trump imagine that doing so would enshrine the monumental status of the border wall would be elevated to the image of national defense? Although many had scoffed at his purposeful diversion of military funds to create the wall, which was not allocated funds by the U.S. Congress as Trump had demanded, the visit sought to cement the border wall in a project of military defense, assisted by the striking historical memories of the battle between Texian revolutionaries and the Mexican government in what later became Texas, in a battle that first redefined the US-Mexico border. If the Battle of the Alamo was famously lost by insurgents, it was thel Lost Cause: the often recited memory of the loss as an affront and injunction anticipated nationalism, and would inspire the Texan Revolt that led to the formation of Texas as a Republic; the line of the Rio Grande that Texans compelled the captured General Santa Anna to order the Mexican Army to retreat in 1836 below, nearly ten years before Texas was annexed as a state, created a new “line in the sand,” now drawn far South of The Alamo, and in the border town of what would be Alamo, TX. Indeed, the Texas flag of a militia, with the bronze six caliber “Gonzalez Canon” Spanish munitions seized by Tejano revolutionaries conflated arms, right to enslave, and defense of the national border–reprising the 1835 battle cry of Tejano colonist militia as a defense of ancient liberties with modern militia’s defense of bearing arms, in one of the most popular flags sold online during gun control debates of 2015, and a popular patch for militia.

Flag of Gonzalez Canon at Texas State Capitol

The “line in the sand” demanded no real logic or precedent or land claim. Its cartographic virtue lay in its simplicity: as a line drawn in the sand, traced by the drawn sword of Col. William Travis or by a Texian boot before infantry or soldiers, to incite them to battle, or even as a battle cry, the line required no real justification or legal precedent, or international recognition. This was not a line in the sand, but a wall in the sand, on a concrete pediment, dotted by American flags, lest we forgot who drew it, to sanction the cartoraphy of the border as a state affair, worthy of being the final public or private event of the Trump Presidency, affirming the crudest cartography of all: the line in the sand was invoked as the crudest technology of border cartography, and was the crudest of archeologies of the border, an assertion whose logic demanded no justification, but provided its own triggers of nationalism and national pride, and demanded no justification but could be unilaterally affirmed. A line in the sand could be drawn where the man who drew it, and determined as a line of defense.

As a myth, it demanded no formal explanation as a claim of sovereignty, but was affirmed by a simple signature, in a final signing statement bequeathing the legacy of the Trump era to the nation–a dog whistle, more than anything like a legal act. Was the cartography of the border an appeal to a mythical notion of national distinction, conjured to being to fabricate clear distinctions one wanted to call into being on a map? If this was a symbolic and performative act, the erection of the wall Trump sought to take responsibility and to celebrate, as well as to deny American reliance on immigrant labor, was designed to demean Mexican claims to sovereignty and elevating an oppositional ethnonationalism by building a wall along that line, in implicit reference ot the line drawn in the sand by the ragtag militia of defenders of The Alamo.

President Trump signs border wall plaque on Jan. 12, 2021, in Alamo, Texas
(Border Report Photo/Sandra Sanchez)

Trump seemed to salute the wall to turn his back on the abuse of Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers, and rather to praise their service in to the nation as he toured the border wall on January 12, at the same time as over two million people were on the border, seeking to migrate across it, 60,000 having been returned to Mexico from Texas, to wait for their claims to be processed in camps. For Trump desired to recast the border wall as a historical achievement of Making America Great, turning a shoulder on the institutionalization of family separations, crowded and abusive conditions in ICE detention centers, and overwhelmed immigration courts. “Building a massive wall that spans the entire southern border [of the United States] is not a policy solution,” President Biden would soon proclaim on his first day in office, pausing construction work on the wall and calling for a reassessment of the legality of its construction.

In declaring a “National Emergency Concerning the Southern Boundary of the United States” in February 2019, Trump would diverted billions of dollars to the construction of the border wall, he fiction of the boundary that Trump sought to affirm in his visit, and had demanded in unilaterally fortifying the border as a subject of national defense, in treated as a National Emergency, rested on the need to “protect” American security, demonizing how migrants stand to “put countless Americans in danger.” shedding American blood and taking American jobs in order to redirect $8 billion to the border wall as a boundary that needed to be defended for national interests, without legislative oversight.

The legitimacy of the border was, of course, deeply engrained in our history and tied to our national mythos in ways that Trump was keen to exploit by staging his final signing visit to a section of border wall in a town called Alamo: as a Representative to Congress, Abraham Lincoln, later no stranger to the loss of life to determine national borders, detected the “sheerest deception” on the part of then-President James Polk in blaming the aggressiveness of Mexican soldiers across the Rio Grande as part of a campaign to admit Texas to the Union as state that would expand territories tolerating slaveholding: rebuking the mythic sense of the Rio Grande as a frontier of the nation, the barrier across which Spanish troops were forced to retreat in the aftermath of Tejano insurrectionists motivated by their loss at The Alamo, Lincoln doubted whether unquestioned acceptance of the Rio Grande as a frontier could serve as a basis to declare war: to rebuke charges that Mexican aggressors had crossed the Rio Grande to shed American blood, and rebuking the necessity of a national military reprisals against Mexico as inevitable–given that the determination of the boundary was contested. But the image of the “line in the sand” that gained incredible affective power as a statement of revolutionaries and in the Mexican-American war, provided the crudest of notions of the border’s stability and indeed of the border wall, not needing any precedent in law or in a mutual accord, but oddly naturalized into the landscape, at home within the construct of manifest destiny far more than in the legal record.

The fiction of locating the boundary line of the nation at the Rio Grande was a but a convenient invention, Lincoln had insisted back in the 1848, as it was, while asserted by Texans who looked to military treaties they had dictated for confirmation of their inclinations to take land, able to be manufactured as a sharp-edged mental construct of affirming value. The border of the Rio Grande’s course, Lincoln had observed, was claimed on paper by Texas as a western boundary for reasons of self-interest, but never internationally recognized as binding,–and had indeed never recognized by Congress as a question of American jurisdiction. Rather than accepting the groundless claim of a sitting President that “the soil was ours, on which the first blood was shed” in the Polk administration, eager to avoid a needless war, sending an army to fight with those Mexican resident who themselves never submitted to American sovereignty, Lincoln in 1848 found little in the historical record to accept the Rio Grande as the “boundary” of the nation, based on a unilateral declaration of the State of Texas, let alone as a binding basis for a cause of war between Mexico and the United States based on aggrandizement. Lincoln in 1848 sought to query the grounds for defending a boundary lacking mutual agreement as a boundary to be defended by American military. But the defenders of the Alamo, Travis, Crockett, and Boone, have been celebrated as patriots of Texas, and as defenders of a white tradition in recent years, as the Cenotaph in which their ashes were said to be translated in 1936 were defended by the Texas Freedom force, who in May 2020 urged members to “Defend the Alamo & Cenotaph if the need arises,” seeing the Cenotaph, as the statute of Col. William Barrett Travis, sword’s point touching the ground at his feet as he struck a pose of public oratory, on a plinth on the old Mission grounds, in Travis park, as symbols of national defense to be guarded against vandalism.

When Lincoln distinguished the international boundary line from where states claimed jurisdiction, he questioned the validity of unilateral assertion of a boundary line. Veneration of The Alamo elevated the drawing of the sand as a sacred event, a shrine for the defenders of the fortress, whose ashes in the Cenotaph have created a powerful monument to Anglo defenders, Travis, Crockett, Bowie and Boone, beneath the commitment to “never surrender-never retreat,” recently celebrated by the white supremacist militia as the “This is Texas Freedom Force,” that has urged members to “Defend the Alamo & Cenotaph if the need arises” in late May, 2020, standing guard over the Cenotaph and the statue of Col. William Barrett Travis, commander of Tejano troops who defended The Alamo, holding his sword’s point on the ground as he struck a posture of public oratory on the grounds of the old Mission. While the statue of Travis on a plinth deferred the final results of the stand–the all-out assault assault ordered at dawn by Mexican General Santa Anna left all one hundred and eighty nine defenders of the Mission grounds dead, its facade reduced to war-like visage of ruins–the heroic defense was embodied by the line in the sand, the poweful metaphor of boundary drawing to which the border town Alamo gestured. And although Travis’ statue voted to be relocated from the landscaped park that was once part of the Mission’s grounds, the confederate monument sought to be relocated in 2017, it still stands by The Alamo grounds.

In declaring emergency surrounded by U.S. Border Patrol members, the primary enforcers of the border with ICE, the very men who who become his personal agents since their early endorsement of his candidacy, and who he later visited at Alamo, TX, at the end of his term. Surrounded by the border patrol agents whose number had hovered about 2,000 until 1985, whose number peaked beyond 10,000 by 2000, Trump celebrated a border that circumvented congressional appropriations and the law, provoking a spate of lawsuits from many states and environmental preservation groups, extending the declaration of a state of emergency at the border in February 2020, and again renewing it, as he left office, two days before Joe Biden’s inauguration on January 18, 2021.  President Trump was confident, playing it by the numbers, that lawsuits against the National Emergency only emerged from “blue” states he did not need to win to be reelected, counting on the border imaginary to be preserved.

The visit to Texas was an attempt to bolster that border imaginary, to the site where the greatest “immigration enforcement” efforts against refugee influxes had begun with deployment of a large, flexible, mobile Border Patrol Task Force, then in the INS, in the most severe “border build-up” in memory: “Operation Hold the Line” deployed armed Border Patrol officers along the border, along the McAllen Sector administrating the Rio Grande Valley, as Operation Gatekeeper grew along 194 border checkpoints to construct the first section of border wall on the western border, introducing a militarized border oriented toward stopping or physically halting the passage of unwanted migrants and refugees. If the San Diego initiative of “Operation Gatekeeper” evoked a mock-pastoral metaphor of the “gate” to cast migrants as animals, and mask the violence of migrant deaths–1,200 migrants died trying to cross the border from 1993-96, when it was in force, with the greatest number where Operation Gatekeeper was in force, as many more were detained as criminals. In parallel, “Operation Hold the Line” emphasized the placement of Border Patrol stations along the border, to compensate for perception of no coherent federal vision for the border management, to replace standard practices permitting migrants to cross the border before they were apprehended and deported, mandating continuous presence at the border of Border Patrol. Stationing Border Patrol across the border began in the lower Rio Grande valley, by a model of Border Patrol echoing Tejano defense of the line “drawn in the sand” at the Alamo, was later deployed at El Paso as “Operation Blockade,” staunching all cross-border movement.

The image of the defense of a “border” that existed as a “line in the sand” tapped a mythos of the Texas revolutionaries who defended The Alamo, a site of an old Mexican mission–a stone complex constructed by Spaniards in San Antonio as a Franciscan mission hat had, mutatis mutandi, become a garrison, for all of its Franciscan origins, venerated for its defense by Travis, as a line able to be drawn between the intermingling of Mexican and Anglo cultures, the mixture so intolerable it had to be defined along an edge. In rallying a small group of insurrectionaries hoping to defend The Alamo, and to extend the “rights” to extend plantation systems into Tejano lands, William Travis had drawn the “mother of all lines” in 1836 in the sands before the mission complex, perhaps the archetype of all maps of the southwestern border: in drawing a line before the assembled rag tag insurrectionary Anglo troops he would lead against the approaching Mexican General Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna. The line whose drawing is an archetype in all films about Texas gives narrative prominence to the defense along a line in American film, as if tracing an archetypal cartography as a topic of attention, tension, and crisis, that “visiting Alamo” seemed to seek to reprise for a President who was long in touch with television producers about choreographing his public appearances to present his political persona.

In a different cinematic key, outside the Trump canon of action films, John Sayles’ Lone Star referenced in the taunt of the owner of tire repair store in a border town who traces a line before his store to taunt the Anglo sheriff from across the border who is adamant in his cartographic convictions, “Bird flying south, you think he sees that line? Rattlesnake, javelina–whatever you got!–[once] halfway across that line, they don’t start thinking different. So why should a man?” The crossing by species of the border, especially at the rich and delicate habitat of the Rio Grande, stand in contrast with the lines that the American government has been increasingly insistent to draw, and that Donald Trump convincingly coupled to a display of national identity and a showpiece for Making America Great. Was it a coincidence that it was at The Alamo, according to the cheesy poster publicizing the Technicolor western epic written, directed and produced John Wayne, that the dangerous troops besieging The Alamo held Mexican flags, in what was openly mapped as a military confrontation at a border in terms of a race war, circa 1960, between latino extras and Anglo cowboy combattants, eager to hold their ground?

The image of the tactical defense of the walls of the old Spanish mission, since restored by the U.S. military as a shrine to national combat, has been memorialized in multiple dioramas emulating cinemascope as a historical struggle for identity, created in a recreationist model designed b Thomas Feely, has been recently expanded in a still more detailed diorama to incarnate the threat of Mexican troops flooding the walls of the citadel in San Antonio, showing at its central moment of dramatic tension the amassing of Mexican forces to breach the northern wall to show “how really doomed” its remaining defenders were as they remain to repulse the mass of armed Mexicans, placing 2,000 hand-painted pewter figurines in an dramatization of an action-packed version of this cartographically generational conflict, intended to replace the fifteen by thirteen foot diorama that already exists at the History Shop, just north of The Alamo. While such models are far from Alamo TX, the investment of the dramatic moment of history as an inspirational event–rather than a failed insurrectionary event–was channeled days after the Capitol insurrection, in Washington, DC, seemed to stage a dramatic pseudo-coup replete with its own historical myths, as if to affirm the inspirational value of the defense of the border as a national project.

Did the fantasy of a border that could be held again at The Alamo, or at least at the Rio Grande, create a powerful mental imaginary whose simplicity underlay the cartographic crudeness of the deep history of Trump’s border wall? Operations of controlling the border, as a fixed line, grew to hold an increasingly prominent place in the mental imaginary and mythos of border patrol agents near McAllen, as Border Patrol vehicles were increasingly stationed every hundred yards o the banks of the Rio Grande: as “Operation Blockade” reverted to “Operation Hold the Line” in El Paso, in the mid-1990s, it reflected the extension of the metaphor of a “line in the sand” at The Alamo to the entire border, and a basis for understanding the demand for “operational control over the international land and maritime borders of the United States,” borders that Trump would conflate with the identity of the nation. The expansion of Border Patrol Operations to stop migrant travel across the entire lower Rio Grande was amplified in the 2004 deployment of boats, fencing, and lighting along the banks of the Rio Grande to reduce migrants’ entrance across the border at a cost of $3.5 billion. The dream of instituting a “line in the sand” along the Rio Grande hoped that the invasive construction, amplified noise and lighting disturbed sensitive habitat and breeding behavior “temporarily” without adversity and “little permanent damage,” as if failing to consider the long-term nature of the “grand strategy” as it mutate into a multi-year project from 1997.

Border Patrol operations in the Lower Rio Grande Valley, Texas. Cartography by Eric Leinberger. 
Eric Leinberger/US Border Patrol Operations in Lower Rio Grande against Migrants, 2011

The expansion of both border patrol officers, 20,000 by 2010, mirrored the allocation of $7 million for steel fences across the border, which expanded to Trump’s public requests for $8 billion for a border wall likely to cost as much as $25 billion. The huge sacrifice to the nation of building the border wall existed not only in the squandering of funds, but the legitimizing of a mindset of criminalizing and detaining trans-border migrants–and discounting of migrants’ lives. Migrants detained during the Trump Presidency in holding facilities along the border or in detention centers were willfully administered without humanity or dignity by the Immigration and Customs Enforcement: detention centers were sites of systemic abuse, operating with impunity in a culture of “dehumanizing physical, sexual, and medical abuse,” in the eyes of one observer, left over-crowded as President Trump sought to make them monitory examples to migrants. “Look, this is tough stuff . . . I know we’d see a system that is overcrowded,” adding on Twitter, “Tell them not to come to USA– . . . problem solved!” “Where do these people come from?”

Trump asked with open arms at a pro-border wall rally in February, 2019, anticipating the Presidential challenge of El Paso’s Beto O’Rourke, stirring up anti-immigrant sentiment, but ignoring the daily violence at the archipelago of Detention Centers that were administered by ICE. The project of wall building however became a monument in itself, the logic of whose construction as a monument to the nation consigned to oblivion migrants’ fates by being recast and dignified as a military project, and a military struggle–an elevation of the building of the border wall to a struggle for national identity that was referenced in the reference to defending the border at the celebration of the completion of four-hundred and fifty miles of wall at an American border town called Alamo, where the line in the sand could be firmly drawn by blocks of reinforced concrete with a rebar core–presented as the completion of a promise long made to the nation.

Trump in El Paso: Dueling rallies show border wall support, opposition
MAGA Border Wall Rally at El Paso Texas, 2019

The policy separation of migrant families at the border began in late 2016, before Trump was inaugurated. It was extended without public debate over the policy, however, and dramatically escalated in Trump’s Presidency. If the wall concealed America’s dependence on migrant labor, it also concealed the extent of this rampant abuse of human rights. The systemic family separations at the U.S.-Mexico border expanded despite documentation of its abuse–there are many cases of losing, abusing, and even killing children increasingly detained in centers in southeast Texas–but Trump tolerated and shouldered abuse as he had directed attention to the construction of the border wall that was financed almost two years ago, with the declaration of a National Emergency as Congress refused to apportion $5.6 billion he requested for its construction, but a fifth of his original request, with the assertion that the nation faced “tremendous dangers at the border” that demanded a border wall, seeking to secure the desired funds without the congressional approval by hyperbole, to use funds apportioned for military construction projects to redirect to a border wall he cast as a project for American armed forces as the funds were not forthcoming–but meeting legal challenge as only projects in which American armed forces were engaged didn’t demand congressional apportionment, and as, it was widely noted, border apprehensions were in decline. The steep increase in detentions at the border was cast as evidence of the need to build the wall, as policies of detention and increased numbers of those detained by Immigration and Customs Enforcement created a sense of its increasing need.

But it was as true that the need for a wall as a shared cultural symbol grew to distract populations from the growing gaps of wealth, access to education, health care, and justice in the United States, and the growing wealth gaps between the super-wealthy and the rest diminished before the spectacle of the wall. The National Emergency was declared to secure funding for the border wall, concealing that the securing of the border was neither an emergency or a military operation, but a mythic redrawing of the border.

When President Trump visited Alamo, TX to review the border wall as his last and final public act as United States President, it seemed in a sense the end of an era. It was valedictory in its salute of the Border Guards who had first endorsed him for his Presidential run, and had turned into a sort of personal storm troopers of the executive wing, a set of armed men to attack and detain illegal immigrants as they acted to parol the borders. In visiting the border at Alamo, he seemed to reprise his promise to build an impassible border wall that would protect the United States–or a version of the United States–from the entrance of globalization. And the appeal that Trump had made as a presidential candidate of restoring national integrity and an illusion of American greatness began from the restoration of the values of The Alamo–a timeless a mythic defense of the United States at The Alamo, linking the border wall with a mythic project of national defense, even if the defense of The Alamo during by Texian Revolutionaries was not fought at the walls of the old mission by the American government. The visit to Alamo TX was an affirmation of the values of The Alamo of defending national sovereignty, and dedicating himself to the affirmation of sovereignty, as well as to whip fears of a return to an open borders policy he had tagged President Biden and the Democratic Party.

Was the myth of The Alamo not at the heart of the legend of national grandeur, rooted more in race than in nation? Rather than providing an outpost of the American government, the garrison of The Alamo that is linked with the start of the Texan Reolution was defended by men who have been retrospectively cast by white Americans as the self-annointed ancestors of Texians–they were the precursors and model of the current vigilante groups who have been encouraged to make citizen’s arrests of undocumented migrants. Varied groups, defining themselves as self-designated Patriots, took in upon themselves to seize land that was Mexican–and under Mexican sovereignty–to claim it as part of the United States. The “Come and Take It” flags first flown as a symbol of defiance to Mexican soldiers in 1835 provided a false originalism that flew as it was elevated in the insurrectionary Capitol Riots President Trump had not distanced himself for several weeks; the defiant Confederate flag affirmed Second Amendment rights, and the President’s own rhetoric of “taking back the country,” familiar among militia.

Come And Take It': A Texan Symbol Of Defiance For Sale : NPR

The ease with which Trump described the building of the wall was in 2015 was confirmed by the visit to the border Alamo, by staging a revisionary and selective history of the border wall rooted in national triumphalism and American flags. Trump had convinced the American electorate building a wall across a border of almost 2,000 miles, extending from the Pacific to the Gulf of Mexico, across rugged topography was a piece of cake for someone so practiced in construction was itself a map-trick. Trump in fact possessed little sense of the practicalities of building in such terrain, and barely registered the scale of the problem save its effectiveness of a wall that would render the legal identity of the migrant opaque. Rather than dwell its logistics or practicalities, Trump had promoted the performative promise of constructing a border wall in his campaign–displaying pseudo-maps promising national security–whose simplicity lay in its denial of rights of migrant, a simplicity of evacuating rights by the border wall that was a subject of pleasure, an inspirational image whose financing he presumed that the office of the President would help waive established mechanisms of appropriating necessary funds.

The image of the fantasy wall bounding the nation, concrete punctuated by what seem hexagonal towers of surveillance, was attributed to “The People,” as a new embodiment of the nation, separate from international conventions or law.

What Trump owes his supporters, and now, the country | PBS NewsHour
2016 Presidential Candidate Trump Shows Border Wall Map Allegedly Given by 2015 Rally-Goer in Fayetteville, NC/
Johnathan Drake/Reuters

The fantasy of the border wall that Trump was offered at a political rally for his candidacy was completed at Alamo. The evocative name of continued resistance, and refusal to give up, was evoked by the place-name alone of one town near where the border wall spanned Hidalgo County that popped as a trigger for transmitted memory far more than the other towns the section of border wall passed near Ft. McAllen–‘Mission’, ‘San Juan’, ‘Weslaco’, ‘Mercedes’, and Brownsville, a frequent stop of border visit, and popped out of the map for some time. Plucked from the map, its prominence drowned the fate of migrants or the protected areas the Trump administration sought waivers to cut through from 2017, wrangled by 2018 as regions the wall was only permitted to extend by declaring a National Emergency at the border; Customs and Border Patrol waived environmental regulations in the Lower Rio Grande, as regulations preventing construction of border wall in protected lands were extended to the western regions through 2019. Was the Rio Grande Valley not a model for the waiver of environmental regulations limiting construction that President Trump long sought to wrangle?

Border Wall | Sierra Club
Proposed Levee Wall Constructed in Rio Grande Valley, 2017
Expanded Levees Proposed along Rio Grande Valley
Existing and Proposed Border Wall beside the Rio Grande River and Valley (2017)/Sierra Club

By late August 2019, the problem of extending the border wall and levees along the lower Rio Grande Valley still remained on Trump’s front burner, and the nagging question of how to extend these sections of existing border wall in a defensive line along the windy course of the Rio Grande near McAllen was a thorny question of securing needed exemptions.

As a realtor, Trump was habituated in the construction of hotels and golf courses to move around regulations and obtain special clearances with the ease he might move across the globe’s surface, and as he flouted regulations and Congressional approval by declaring a National Emergency in February, 2019, to circumvent budgetary approval, allowing himself to flout regulations as in the past. As a real estate promoter, Trump had mostly used maps to skirt regulations, gain tax breaks, tax-forgiveness, or debt relief, to generate much vaunted “gross operating products” to “pay as little in taxes as possible.” Tax-avoidance is the major strategy of wealth preservation of the ultra-wealthy, and the range of tax breaks that Trump gained in what constitutes as public assistance benefit all fifteen buildings at the core of his Manhattan real estate empire; circumvention of regulations of appropriation was the only way to achieve the building of the border wall, and was probably what Trump meant, if anything, when he argued that his expertise in building would allow the border wall to be publicly funded, even if he argued that deal-making skills would allow construction of a “big, beautiful wall” that no previous President had been able to deliver–and which demanded a voice outside the corrupt American political class.

Donald J. Trump, left, with Mayor Ed Koch, center and New York Gov. Hugh L. Carey, pointing to a rendering of what would become the Grand Hyatt Hotel, in June 1978. A crucial factor behind the hotel’s construction was 40-year tax break that has cost New York City $360 million to date.
Trump at June, 1978 groundbreaking for Grand Hyatt, Associated Press

The wall was a symbol of the popular mandate on which Trump promised to deliver, providing a monument of public safety no other president had been able to offer. The very narrative of its imminent construction had long offered a performative basis to save the Trump presidency, returned to several times as if it were a promise that was the basis of his alleged popular mandate and a demand for safety only he could meet or discern. If Trump clothed the construction of the wall and its funding in questions of border security, and the needs of economic and criminal security that he argued the lack of a border wall imperiled, arguing for the basis of domestic security to attract the broadest base, as an act of love–“you build a wall around your house not because you hate the people on the outside, but because you love the people on inside” (January, 2019), Tump was selling us a vision of domestic security akin to luxury living at a remove from the city’s sounds and diversity, concealing the economic dependence of the nation on immigration, and the violence of the border security apparatus, more costly, perhaps, if far less beautiful than the “big, beautiful wall” he promised.

Love? The wall emblematized an independence from international protocol or conventions, and human rights requirements, as a “line in the sand,” and was able to be drawn in the sand as the site to build the towering, opaque wall able to blot out what lies across the border, replacing the sovereign state with a model of border defense of earlier eras, eras predating sovereign claims we would recognize, and suggesting a Hobbesian state of nature. Trump saw the wall as, one might argue, a similar part of the landscape, able to blend seamlessly with its surroundings and necessitated by them.

–in a performance of sovereignty, rather than a sovereign discussion with other states: the border wall was long for domestic consumption as a spectacle, if it was argued, and presented, to be , and was involved in a mythos of the nation that was for domestic consumption, displacing claims of sovereignty in the ceremony of defining a dichotomous divide by fiat, on a reality show that was for national broadcast, rather than framed by a language of international law.

Trump staged his final visit to the border at Alamo, TX, seeking to savor the triumphant construction project he now cast as a monument of national achievement of what he had campaigned would be akin to the Eisenhower Highway System, funded by defense appropriations even if they unapproved by congress, but The wall provided a monument to the Trump Presidency, emblazoned with his name or his signature, as if in a gambit to claim that the structure deserved to be named after himself. He visited the poured concrete levees on the Rio Grande as a fruit of his presidency, the only concrete walls left of the entire border wall, which was vertical steel beams filled with concrete to replace fencing, but judged to meet the “operations requirements of the U.S. Border Patrol” in 2019–until, that is, they were found easy to be sawed through by a circular saw. Such “high security fencing” would cost 1.6 billion, but a fraction of the $25 billion Trump desired to allocate for border building, promising at the start of work “not only on some new wall, [but] . . . fixing existing walls and existing acceptable fences” very quickly. He had accelerated the pace of border construction in ways that seemed to be timed to the election, and had probably planned to visit the border wall for a final time in his Presidency, win or lose the election, as a platform of expanding the need for allocating more funding to the wall. When he came to “highlight his administration’s work on the border wall,” the valedictory visit sent the message that he. had done his hardest to keep the barbarians on the edge of the empire on the other side of the border, and sought to transmute into the national memory.

All of this was far from the town of Alamo, and even father from the mythic imaginary of The Alamo that had assumed a sacred importance in many Americans’ collective memory that Trump was eager to transfer to the Border Wall. President Trump’s visit was to a site near McAllen, Texas, rather than The Alamo, but the questions of how they were related quickly rose to the surface of newswire accounts. AP and other news outlets quickly reminded the nation, as the White House had left it unclear, that the city of Alamo TX near the military base was, indeed, not The Alamo in downtown San Antonio. But Trump had long claimed to love the uneducated, and the faithful, and the possible geographic confusion seemed an opportune way to fulfill the mission of the trip to tally achievements by affirming the threat came from south of the border at his term end–and elicit continued fears that the failure to complete border construction projects would not Keep American Great less cross-border flows of population continued to be stopped, as important to the nation as the historic “border conflict” by the so-called “defenders of the Alamo,” who had in fact started an insurrection in Mexican province.

As if visiting an outpost on the border of the empire where he sought to protect barbarians from invading, days after having incited riots that had staged an actual insurrection, at a rally where the President claimed Democrats “threw open our borders and put America last,” reminding them at President Biden would “get rid of the America First policy,” he ceremonially visited the border as if to mythologize it. Trump arrived in full regalia, as if denying his loos, but as if visiting the groundbreaking of a new hotel, accompanied by city officials, as if it were a privileged site of national defense, near the river whose meander had long defined the international boundary between Mexico and the United States, and indeed was a return to the Rio Grande Valley he had already visited to discuss border security in January, 2019, and sought to confront questions of the need to seize privately owned land to do so by eminent domaine. If the border wall was to be tall, daunting, fitted with flood lights, sensors, cameras and an enforcement zone that was a hundred and fifty feed wide was a steep goal, Trump treated government shutdown as a small price for 450-500 miles of border wall on track to be completed by the end of 2020, promoting a border wall whose construction would be completed by March 2021.

It still existed, even if that moment in history would never arrive. And although the story was told of population movement across the border, another story could be told about the disappearance of the boundary that almost seemed imminent by the mid-1990s, even as anti-migrant feelings grew: the expansion of the transboundary cooperation along much of the border that responded to the growth of the border region to almost a billion inhabitants in the 1990s, through which increasing billions of exports moved yearly–$3.3. billion at the San Diego checkpoint alone by 1990–that led Border Mayors Conference to request a transboundary zone allowing free movement to all of twenty five miles, as the increasing economic importance of the boundary brought an increased interest in drawing a boundary able to define the exclusivity of the wealth of an imagined community of Americans from outsiders, as a porous border region seemed less in control of the United States government, and almost a separate nation.

The line between nations that Trump chose to emphasize along the river delta where Alamo TX is located and which Trump visited is one of the sole places along the entire US-Mexico border where steel panels appear, fully mounted on large concrete levees. As one of the rare sites where the concrete wall that Trump promised actually exists, it became an important backdrop to conclude his Presidency in a final photo op, as well as to rehearse a new national imaginary.

The visit to the concrete levees of the Rio Grande Valley that were mounted by concrete-core steel fencing were a display of Presidential authority on a line drawn in the sandy riverbanks far from the Alamo, as newspapers had to remind their readers, but provided a tableaux vivant of sorts, eight days before the end of Trump’s presidency, to defend the necessity of drawing a firm line in the sand.

President Trump Visiting Border Wall at Alamo, TX, January 12, 2021–Alex Brandon/AP

The actual geographic distance between Alamo TX and The Alamo seems to have shrunk symbolically, if the car ride was still three and a half hours: Trump seemed to treat his visist as a retrospective view on the grand project of national redefinition on which he had coasted as he teared up in remembering the “great honor” after working so “long and hard” on the border wall as he found himself “here in the Rio Grande Valley with the courageous men and women of Customs and Border Patrol.” The encomium that he planned to the four hundred and fifty miles of wall built so far was an occasion of deep personal bonding with the built, akin to the ties Trump promoted to many real estate projects of construction over the years, on which he had affected the same deep tie by affixing his name in ways that we had understood as a promotion of his brand as much as a canny extension of self to a distributed global network. He had forged deep bonds to the wall, so it was difficult to decide where the wall ended and the candidate–or the man–began, as the monument he had promised so fulsomely from the declaration of his candidacy became a sign of the nation, a sign of national security, and a sign of the vision of national security that he, Trump, and only he could promise, akin to the visions of luxury lifestyle that he, Trump, could guarantee and promote.

The term that he had served out, and was now coming to a close, became an occasion to express, in mock humility, his gratitude for the very experience of having “gotten to know [the members of the Border Patrol] very well over the last four years,” praising the “incredible . . . really incredible” people at Border Patrol he had promised the wall to be built, and was now there to say he had delivered, and the promised were indeed kept. “We got it exactly as you wanted it–everything!–including your protective plate on top . . . for extra protection,” he noted, the real estate promoter returning as he surveyed the levees, and the reinforced concrete, ignoring the detention centers and the human lives lost in its construction, as well as the habitat destroyed, a concern which he was successful at having dismissed. The delivery of border wall concluded a transactional relation to the Border Patrol, as much as to protect the nation. Looking at the reinforced concrete structure with heavy slats, Trump channeled his identity as a builder that could be cemented with his status as an American President, explaining how it was “steel,” “concrete inside steel–and then its rebar–its rebar–a lot of heavy rebar inside the concrete,” channeling his inner engineer–“as strong as you’re going to get and as strong as you can have . . . . 100% of what you wanted!” The swansong speech promoting the achievement of an “extraordinarily successful building of the wall on the southern border,” of four hundred and fifty miles bookended Trump’s October 2018 speech at Calexico, CA, to commemorate the construction of two hundred miles of a “full wall system” looking suspiciously like a fence.

Gregory Bull, AP/President Trump Approaches Improvised Podium at Calexico, CA (Oct 26, 2018)

The border wall sections that had been commemorated for three years running revealed increments of two hundred miles by rolling out the border as a prop–a talking point, and a monument, more than an accomplishment. As monuments, each roll-out of border wall and affixed with the commemorative plaque crediting construction to President Trump staged a new era of border protection and defense. But the monuments to the militarization of the border wall and exclusion of refugees from the nation was based not on actual precedents, or a map, but gestured to a new national imaginary, and increasingly did so by comparisons to mythic events of the nation, rather than to actual events, migrant surges, or need.

Trump’s speech before the concrete levees in Alamo TX seemed uncoded. He deliver hope and a prayer that the piece of national infrastructure would survive as a personal legacy. But the comparisons he made were deeply coded, from the billing of the wall as a project of national infrastructure to the gesture to celebrating the militarization of the border at a city called Alamo, which effectively placed the border wall on two imaginary maps, neither coinciding with the lay of the land or the geographic situation of the border wall as a project of massive environmental destruction of sensitive habitat, inhumane treatment of detained migrants, and disrespect or acknowledgement of a world of increased displaced persons and refugees. Trump had bizarrely compared to the Eisenhower National Highway System from his campaign of 2015 would survive as a personal legacy for national development and will ensure memories of the success of his Presidency defending national security. When Donald J. Trump had first refurbished a political identity, he not only added a middle initial to his name in the fashion of Eisenhower, but presented “America’s Infrastructure First” as in the mold of Eisenhower, promising a transition that echoed the commander of allied forces in hopes to “implement a bold, visionary plan for a cost-effective system of roads, bridges, tunnels, airports, railroads, ports and waterways, and pipelines in the proud tradition of President Dwight D Eisenhower, who championed the interstate highway system”–as a basis for his credibility and perhaps legitimacy as a President. To be sure, the marquis project of a Border Wall System exhausted the budget and federal funds available. But in the way that Eisenhower mandated the highway system be federally funded as a national defense program in 1954, linking the need for roads to imminent the fears of nuclear attack, as much as for transportation needs, based on his experience in rebuilding Europe, the massive cost of the Eisenhower Highway System–which had unprecedentedly cost the United States $101 billion, far beyond the original federal bond that Congress had approved, provided the only comparable form of expenditure to the border wall that he had proposed. Even as the cost of the border wall had expanded,–and left President Biden noting that stopping the construction Trump had arranged by classifying it as a National Emergency might save the incoming administration $2.6 billion, freeing up needed funds for needed projects of national health, border barriers would have become the most pricey piece of infrastructure in the nation.

If being run by the Army Corps of Engineers, the visit to Alamo TX keeps alive the defense of the border and conjures the streaming of Mexicans over another wall, and the gesture to the improvised insurrection of The Alamo that might be effectively enlisted as a new model of service to an imagined nation. As he looked at the wall, the outgoing mused in his final days in office, unsubtly reminding his audience of the potential sacrifice to the nation of stopping the project, that the current wall was “as strong as you’re going to get and strong as you can have.” His audience new well that all bets were all off about building more wall in the Biden administration, and his words seemed to seek to rile up his long-term allies at Customs and Border Patrol, whose union had been the very first endorsed his presidential candidacy, excited by the priority he gave building a border wall in the first days of his campaign. For this real estate promoter turned salesman of a vision of the nation was most familiar with maps as a basis to evade building codes, zoning restrictions, or municipal regulation, by means of winning exemptions through wand-waving reclassifications that seemed a sort of grand opera of “deal”-making.

For Trump, such canny framing metaphors as a reference to infrastructure and a visit to Alamo helped to frame the project of the wall as one of national defense, requiring a reclassification of budgetary appropriations, and indeed fast-track prioritization as a project of national need. Both Eisenhower’s unprecedented achievement of infrastructure investment and the saber-rattling reference to The Alamo seemed to reframe the project in credible terms for a base, independent from the lay of the land or the practicalities and logistics of the border terrain: both metaphorical gambits removed the wall from the map, and mapped the border wall within a new logic of nation-building. Such reference to the Eisenhower Interstate, a model of expansion of infrastructure that had creeped up on the nation slowly, to become part of its national identity over time, had slowly created the expanse of national highways that fit with doubling of highwasy after World War I in the United States, as, the paved mileage of but 257,000 miles grew over time to almost 522,000, as the plans Eisenhower had laid were solidified as the Federal-Aid Highway Act would pave concrete interstates of 41,000 more miles–and adding 5,000 miles beyond Eisenhower’s mandated 41,000 miles of interstate provided, few have noted, a memorable event in Trump’s life, whose construction was elevated as a powerful model of what passed for public service in Trump’s youth. If Trump had ben celebrating the building of four hundred and fifty miles of wall, Trump framed the innovative nature of his future vision of a nation that was walled, by many more miles, as well as securing an image of the strength and identity of the nation that he had tried to cement. Eisenhower, famously, had mandated the project of the interstates during the Cold War as a project of national defense of the economy, in the event of attack, allowing federal dollars to flow to local projects. Was it only coincidence that Trump entertained audiences at his rallies, as if flying a trial balloon from August, 2105, “Maybe someday they’ll call it the Trump Wall,” he mused early in his candidacy, recognizing the power and unique privileges that the office of Presidency might bring. The fantasy became a near-actuality in his public platform as a candidate when by December of the same year he described the “Trump Wall,” in mid-July 2016, after he left the official campaign trail, promising a project of needed national infrastructure “someday named after me.”

The final days speech delivered with the dateline “Alamo” was hardly valedictory. It affirmed the section completed border wall as a great piece of infrastructure almost a personalized as a gift to the nation’s security. He cast his visit to the wall as forward-looking, for the right audience, as what might be a personal salute to his legacy of border defense, the trademark promise Trump made as an American politician, was not a retrospective but a final epideictic of the promise to Make America Great Again, elevating the conceit of a mythical defense against “illegal aliens” on the southwest border he had personalized as integral to the logic of his Presidency and the prime evidence of Presidential authority. Trump’s Presidency, he wanted to claim, might be remembered as a time of the building of a similar basis of the nation’s strength and architecture, as he sought to secure the centrality and preeminence of concrete wall-building to a vision of the nation. From his speech, one would think the wall had become a testimony to the strength of the nation in the Trump Presidency, and he championed the vision of the nation’s strength that he had long sought to promote, as if to celebrate and acknowledge a change in the topography of the nation and people’s relation to the nation, analogous to the highway system. It hardly mattered the drive to The Alamo was a couple of hundred miles, on Route 35 (three hundred and nineteen miles) or Route 37 (just short of two hundred and forty miles); the symbolic link of the wall to the nation was echoed, despite that quite considerable real world distance, to the map between a place symbolic of saving of a vision of national identity and a mission to defend national lands and liberties.

The link left salient during his speech was perhaps the greatest and most significant take away for the right audience, as it was its figurative intent: even in the light of failure of one battle at The Alamo, the fight was long, ongoing, and would in the end prevail as a new vision of the nation, and in the end, win out as a definition of the border in the national imaginary: if Representative Abraham Lincoln saw little precedent for the border to be drawn on the Rio Grande either in treaties or in law cases that showed recognition of the river as a mutually consented boundary line, save in the conceit of manifest destiny all abolitionists and Republicans disdained locating justifications of the border in God-given right to territorial expanse, Trump appealed to the very manifest destiny for which Lincoln demanded proofs in visiting Alamo–a “line in the sand” grounds to defend a nation, reprised as a myth of national defense in 1836, heroized by John Wayne in technicolor in the 1962 extravaganza Wayne starred, directed, and produced to promote Cold War principles of national defense.

The Alamo,” uncredited poster (1961)

While Trump had increasingly used history both strategically and purposefully as a distortion of bonds that tied the nation and its citizens, the heroic battle that the visit referenced was more likely the film version of The Alamo as a racialized struggle of white defenders against Mexican extras playing invading forces: the film, which itself downplays the location of The Alamo in Mexican Territory, and indeed the status of Texas as a Mexican state that belonged to a nation which prohibited slavery and enslavement, provided an iconic image of division that mapped onto Trump’s intent to divide the nation as he had devoted the summer of 2020 to address a broad and merciless left-wing attack to “wipe out our history,” conscripting numerous iconic images of the nation as props in his attempt to divide the nation by staging iconic patriotic tableaux to evoke a dogmatic use of historical memory.

The skill of wielding historical memory to further divides that was on show for most of 2020–from Trump’s bemoaning of attempts to “demolish our heritage” were long tagged along racial lines, from the defense of memorials and monuments to confederate soldiers, slave-owners, and anti-abolitionists he sought to preserve in our national memory, to the statues of colonizers as Christopher Columbus, who had introduced trade in enslaved peoples, to expand a sense of moral reckoning in response to social justice movements, opposing an official “patriotic” history against those who would “defame” our heritage, not acknowledging the erection of monuments to Confederate soliders belonged to a Jim Crow era designed to glorify segregation and disenfranchisement. Did the gesture of a visit to Alamo not situate the border wall in a context of defending a “line in the sand,” at the site of “Operation Hold the Line”? If this was not rationalized similarly, it was meaningful to members of the Border Patrol he visited there.

Trump Uses Mount Rushmore Speech to Deliver Divisive Culture War Message -  The New York Times
July 4, 2020/Anna Moneymaker, New York Times

The President has long lavished attention on the projected construction of border as if inhabiting the role of the public official, the enabler, and the fixer all at once in the unveiling of an even more majestic and far more grandiose national monument. Without ever conceding the election–and indeed instructing those who supported his candidacy in 2020 to “never give up, never concede,” Trump appropriately visited the border city that was named after a spirit of independence revealed in the refusal of the armed insurgents of 1835 to ever leave the garrison in Tejano lands that they sought. to hold, as if to hold off the advancing Mexicans soldiers that were valorized as creating a needed “barrier of safety to the southwestern frontier” long, long before it was ever described as a border, back in 1836. If that struggle was remembered in its day as a battle waged, as Stephen L. Austin wrote, in a May 4, 1836 letter to Senator L. F. Linn of Missouri, “by the mongrel Spanish-Indian and Negro race, against civilization and the Anglo-American race,” preserving what was enjoined to be “remembered” in public memory as a purification of ethnic and racial contamination.

The preservation of the memory of these insurgents as heroes had led them to be extolled President Trump in a historical pantheon, among public models of American heroism in a fiery State of the Union address of May, 2020 that extolled “our glorious and magnificent inheritance” as an alternative history to that of civil rights. He had praised the “beautiful, beautiful Alamo,” urging that all school children in America continue to learn the names of the “Texas patriots [who] made their last stand at the Alamo–the beautiful, beautiful Alamo,” beside the name of pilgrims who landed at Plymouth Rock as a foundational myth of the nation that confirmed its Manifest Destiny, eulogizing the defenders of the Alamo beside Wyatt Earp, Annie Oakley, and the Pilgrims at Plymouth Rock as Americans who “changed history forever by embracing the eternal truth that everyone is made equal by the hand of Almighty God.” Supported in their seizing of the Alamo-and the lands of Texas–by Trump’s hero, Andrew Jackson, who saw the benefits creating a “slavocracy” extending plantation lands across the South; the New Orleans Bee 1834 lamented the racial degradation Mexico embodied in bemoaning “the unfortunate race of Spaniard, Indian and African, is so blended that the worst qualities of each predominate.”   The visit to Alamo TX, named after the rebels whose leader had solemnly vowed “I shall never surrender and never retreat” seemed quite opportune as Trump sought to re-iterate the notorious vow he took January 6 to never give up and never concede.

The Associated Press

The speech memorialized a refusal to concede or Alamo to make a final performance of border security before the Rio Grande, and to acknowledge the depth of his commitment to boosting border security. The very emblem of the Alamo was among the flags of current militia who had arrived for the January 6 riots, and a powerful emblem of the Texas militia groups who had defended the commemoration of The Alamo as a nationalist cause, verging on white nationalism. In returning to the Rio Grande Valley, Trump announced in the Texas border town of Alamo that the border wall had progressed from a development project as “completion of the promised four hundred and fifty miles of border wall” he exaggerated as either in “construction or pre-construction” at pains to deny he had left the “wall,” the impressive centerpiece of his political promise to America, as scattered unbuilt fragments, after having rallied his candidacy behind the construction of a continuous concrete wall.

The collective struggle was ongoing and undying, in the post-Presidency of Trump, as the project of wall-building, he insisted, would continue in the appeals he had made in his candidacy, American flags draped behind him, to the flags behind him as he spoke at the wall he had guaranteed would be built, and the wall that would be a reason that folks had once sacrificed their lives. It is hard to imagine the huge costs of this project of wall building, and the expanse of an archipelago of detention centers that now existed along the border of the United States. (One might remember that it was in the Austrian border village of Braunau a son was born to the Customs Inspector Aloïs Hitler was born a future Führer.)

Continue reading

Leave a comment

Filed under Alamo, border barriers, border wall, Donald Trump, US-Mexico Border

Mobs and Jobs

We had been waiting for barbarians for some time. The President had, for over six years, mapped the threat of the barbarians advancing from across borders as a security threat. And for those who had begun to accept a protective wall between the United States and Mexico as a function of good government, it made sense to enact the breaching that wall, not a wall between sectors of opposed forces locked in a Cold War, like Russia and the United States once were in Berlin, but a wall that symbolized federal authority and that enacted the will of the people by its construction. And if we imagined that they would arrive from the edges of empire, the edges from where the acting President had been mapping threats of their arrival for five years, imagining the crossing of caravans from south of the border with near anticipation, these barbarians arrived from all over the nation, from outside of the gridlock of Washington, DC, but to the Capitol building, to reclaim it for the people.

Call to Protect Election Integrity

This was direct democracy. But the attempt to breach the wall of government in the moments before Trump’s successor would be formally recognized by the tabulation of electors, weeks after the election had itself occurred, votes tabulated, and the states had ratified their votes, per constitutional practice, as an act of separatism and an act of restoration of a republic. Those attending had been personally invited to restore the imagined of Donald Trump, which they proclaimed by flags of the former President’s former candidacy for the office he no longer held; this wall would be breached, as the walls around the U.S. Capital would be scaled by men in MAGA hats, demanding that they not be disenfranchised and disrespected. Former President Trump had incited them to enter the U.S. Capitol and climbed the inaugural stands that surrounded it, crossing a boundary of the U.S. Government with a rapidity that the Border Wall had never been breached. In the hours after Trump evoked the imminent crossing of the U.S. border by migrants, a danger of which the nation was long warned as imminent, the walls were scaled by the excluded, in an attempt to affirm democracy, that they deemed righteous.

For those who scaled the wall were trying to affirm tyranny.Breaking down barriers, planting American flags atop it, lest U.S. Senators abandoned their oaths and certify the Presidential vote.

A mob swarmed the US Capitol and this is what some said - CNN

If we were stunned by later pictures of the Capitol flooded with a cloud of tear gas and bemused rioters pausing in its galleries that transformed the staid neoclassical architecture to sites of raucous violence–

The Capitol Invaders Enjoyed the Privilege of Not Being Taken Seriously |  The New Yorker
Leah Mills/Reuters

—we have yet to fully map the routes by which eight points of breaching of the U.S. Capitol building were achieved, or the heightened passions that led to the august chambers being demeaned, and, as if in a charivari of an upside-down world of early modernity, or the arrival of farmers into Versailles, the building itself attacked as if it was a representation of the lack of attention of government to local needs–bread prices; the fear of the border’s vulnerability; low wages–and the growth of a widening wealth gap that most Americans experience as greater than ever before.

New York Times

Temperatures among the rioters had risen before calls of trial by combat, as the crowd took new coherence as it followed the map Donald Trump had verbally announced to “walk down Pennsylvania Avenue,” “going to the Capitol,” as if this were the final moment to disrupt the civil process by a range of crowbars, arms, and an escalation of violence. The ecstasy of violence at this wall was democracy on show, direct democracy against the members of the U.S. Congress as they were attacked by the police, entering the Capitol and smoking weed, wanting to chill in the chambers of government and find the allies they knew must be on their side. Indeed, the allies were soon found: many members of the Capitol Police who guarded the legislators as they readied to vote seem to have been eager to have selfies taken with the rioters. Even though the police were tipped that the crowd forming on January 6 had made it clear in preparations that “[the U.S.] Congress was itself the target,” even before the spectre of crowd violence, police officers were requested to refrain from deterring the crowd by stun grenades or aggressive means, even if they were warned that the event of January 6 would be sure to “attract white supremacists, militia members, and others who actively promote violence may lead to a significantly dangerous situation for law enforcement and the general public alike.” 

The men who arrived were akin to the vigilante groups that patrol the United States border, in search of migrants they might apprehend, although here they were taking justice into their own hands to prevent the transition to a new President from formally or even smoothly occurring, in a last gasp of authoritarian reveries. And without any weapons to push back or deter the rioters, the terrifying scene of an invasion of the Capitol was able to unfold on national television and be streamed live, all of a sudden shifting attention from the pro forma tabulation of electors in the U.S. Capitol to the raging mob that was assembled outside. Without riot shields, without stun guns, and virtually unarmed, the Capitol Siege was able to occur with cameras rolling, live-streamed by participants, in an event that would disturb the national media ecology more than anything else that Donald Trump had ever done. It was a swansong, or a fantasy game, or an ecstatic transferral of the energy of a Trump rally to the organs of government themselves. But it was also a call to action, broadcast across the country as it was live-streamed to ensure the transition of power would not be forgotten, or that the time for a true reckoning about American government was at hand, more real than any border disturbance at the southwestern border, but a needed occasion of national purification. It may have been theater, but the rioters were warned: “Bring guns. It’s now or never;” “Overwhelming armed numbers is our only chance.”

Live Videos Uploaded to Parler on January 6, 2021

Vigilantes had patrolled the border for years, animated by an ethos of defense of national borders, and mobilizing within the Customs and Border Patrol to find meaning in the slogan to defend deportations of migrants that “we need strong borders,” and “we have no country if we have no border,” as if he were defending American families, and the “blood” of those families, and celebrating his defense of borders and accusing his opponents of open borders. But the border of the U.S. Capitol was rendered open on the morning of January 6, 2020, as the Congress was about to confirm the electoral votes as barbarians entered, as if invited, into the Capitol, to make their voices heard. After a long, hot summer of mass arrests of “violent mobs” who charged with intent to “desecrate” hallowed federal property, mob tactics were adopted to enter the U.S. Capitol. Despite the escalation of invocation of “national security” as the basis for building the border wall, the border between the Capitol and the approaching protestors who sought to turn back the electoral tally seemed as if it lay wide open. The President had urged his audience to “walk Pennsylvania Avenue,” as if knowing that they would do so full armed, bearing banners with his name emblazoned prominently on them, as the flags from a concluded campaign became battle flags.

The urgent need to securing the border was distilled into the platitude “a nation without borders is not a nation” after the 2020 election. But if the question of shoring up the border became the basis on which Trump was elected, the busload of flag-waving supporters oft he President bcame something of a revanchist id for the former President, as on the eve of his formal exit from office who broke police barriers, doors, and windows of the United States Capitol was not from outside the nation, but bussed in from multiple domestic states. Calling a reprisal of his earlier rallies to question the reported tabulation of the 2020 election, Trump encouraged his base to refuse the certification of the election, rallying the barbarians to the gates to destabilize the democratic process by fighting for him. Whereas the violation of constitutional principles had long been feared to be coming from the security state, the questioning of votes in states that were expected to vote Trump and deemed “red” led many to buy tickets to Washington, for the final paroxysm of a Trump rally, a large contingent of armed men, many in tactical gear, arriving to break the security barriers, doors, and windows of the Capitol itself to ensure that their candidate continue to Keep America Great. Was it any surprise that of the 1,200 Capitol Police working at the site, only about 7% had access to the riot gear they would need to repel them?

The setting seemed an inside job to invite protestors to act out their fantasies of direct democracy, setting a stage for the dangerous faux populism in which Trump revels. Calls for a strongman President emerged in the late morning insurrection of January 6, Trump’s surrogates had been calling for the adoption of martial law in swing states December 18, 2020, on Newsmax, if not seize voting machines to invalidate the results of the election he had lost: the military mode to which protestors adopted was facilitated by the cataclysmic invocation of a fear the Republic would be destroyed, if the Electoral College Vote, tainted with suspicion of foreign intervention, was not suspended by the delaration of martial law. The militarism was improvised, with home-made tools and recycled banners, but the increased normalization of martial law as an alternative outcome electrified the crowd, and placed its members outside normal comportment even at an electrifying rally, offering justification for advancing with newfound energy and purpose with eerily united intention.

Donald Trump has been rumored to be convinced of his program of overturning the election’s results as he promoted the continued “audits” of votes in several states from Arizona, Pennsylvania and Georgia, long crucial electoral puzzle pieces for Trump’s Presidential campaigns, carefully calibrated to manufacture victory. If the focus on “audits” that were unprecedented as able to overturn the election, that have reverberated in the online forums of QAnon and other outlets of a revisiting of the outcome of Election Day. The crowd-sourcing of a final protest that overran the Capitol building, cast in insurrectionary terms as a struggle for governmental control, and rooted in the false populism social media has magnified, perhaps with the acknowledgment only declaring a state of emergency or provoking an insurrection would enable the results of the election ever to be overturned.

The proliferation across the nation of pro-Trump “caravans” promised a direct sense of access to government. They offered to carry protestors to Washington, D.C., to fight the aftermath of the election were a new register of group think, rooted in the fear of an end of a “Trump Era” posed an earthquake of political proportions rarely recognized in full, moblizing multiple caravans before and after the election, in a show of force to prevent Trump from loosing the election, and waving MAGA flags from Michigan to Florida to Oregon to North Carolina, seeking to mobilize swing states by a show of force on the road, honking horns, and sharing images of themselves on social media, often rebroadcast on the Russian funded RT television network as public shows of patriotic gore, reveling in thumbs up.

This time, they were promised to arrive in DC, to participate in the greatest call and response chant ever, an interactive overflowing of communal energy that would crystallize and energize the crowd that assembled on the Ellipse before a moment of massive discharge as they moved down Pennsylvania Avenue into the Senate Chambers, arguing to restore them to their former dignity and to show their disbelief and discontent at the certification of a vote that was declared fraudulent and corrupt.

Busloads of local Trump supporters participated in D.C. protest | News |  northcentralpa.com

The very invitation to Washington, DC was a way of responding to the President’s Call. Did those who boarded busses consciously appropriate the approaching “caravans” in response to which Donald Trump became a National Emergency in November, 2018, and prepared for the National Emergency of February, 2018? Trump had presented the migrant caravan as a specter of globalist proportions as a threat to the nation, whose numbers were fleeing countries who “have not done their jobs” from Guatemala, Honduras, to El Salvador in halting cross-border immigration, nations he blamed for the crisis of refugees of global proportions, but potentially including among them “unknown Middle Easterners” tied to terrorists or affiliated with ISIS.

Trump supporters oddly appropriated the “caravan” as a term of force and extra-ordinary circumstances of crisis that called for collective action. Was the assembly of such “caravans” not communicating a sense of the impunity of moving across space, demonstrating patriotism by flags that almost celebrated separatism from a rule of law? These caravans served to confuse global geography, and created an instrumental crisis of unprecedented proportions as Trump sent the troops to halt an unprecedented 1,000 Central American migrants applying for refugee status in three days. Proclaiming the need for “bringing out the military for a National Emergency” led over 5,000 active-duty troops to arrived at the border lest the “caravans” enter American territory, a specter that seemed only to reaffirm the need for $8 billion for a continuous border wall. The specter of these invading migrant caravans from afar grew as a vulnerability, as the mythic migrants of the Golden Horde known by the hue of their tents: migrant traffic triggered subsequent declarations of national emergencies in Central America, rippled through Guatemala against Hondurans, and triggered fears of compromised border security.

“Oregon for Trump 2020 Labor Day Cruise Rally” in Oregon City, ORE
Michael Arellano/AP

And when they did arrive on the grounds of the U.S. Capitol, the picture was not clear: ten thousand had entered the grounds, and some had scaled the scaffolding set for the inauguration two weeks off; even if the border was fortified by a complex system of defense, informed by threats a border that without adequate defenses would leave the nation facing an existential threat, the grounds of the Capitol were breached to protest the transition of that the Presidential election had determined. Waving confederate flags, the rioters may not have only been inspired by the outlandish claims of fraud and failure of governance in Trump’s speech that morning, but of insurrection. Was the logic of the men who attacked the U.S. Capitol, live streaming the siege as a similarly mediatized event?

The crowd that assembled to hear Donald Trump at the March to Save America Rally were animate with a level of urgency to save the nation that they viewed in danger if Joseph R. Biden’s Presidential victory was certified, and the electoral college victory long announced by the Mainstream Media came to pass. Their world was about to shatter. The recourse to a siege became the only option for an audience of Trump supporters existentially uneasy at the fear of the compromise or end of an old order where Fox News would be the dominant voice reporting White House actions to its 4 million viewers. The action was extreme, but the logic of insurrection was embodied in the confederate flags so many held, trumpeting rights by evoking the logic that the South had a right to separate the union–a “sacred right of insurrection” that excused their disturbance of civil peace. The march promised to be a reiteration of earlier marches for Trump and a reunion of sorts to invade the capitol by actual “caravans” that would arrive from across the country, shunning mask mandates, and posing as Patriots, from Florida to California to Arizona. They announced their imminent arrival to one another exultantly as they made their way to protest the election in Washington, DC, boldly announcing their imminent arrival on social media to the world. “DC Hear We COME!!!!! #StoptheSteal” [sic] above emoji of American flags; when they arrived, they waved the same flags that melded their identity as “Trump supporters” and “Trump’s MAGA Army from across the nation” with defense of an imagined nation, boasting solidarity by brandishing the same flags to again reject the election’s loss.

Washington DC Rally in November 14 2020/Evy Mages, Washingtonian
The Million MAGA March on November 14, 2020. Photograph by Evy Mages.
November 14, 2020/Evy Mages, Washingtonian

This was all staged. While invoking such a “right of insurrection” was not central in the impeachment proceedings House managers presented, and not articulated in President Trump’s speech, the rights to perpetuate a distasteful drama was one that he delighted in amplifying in his final day as U.S. President–and scarcely needed a map to do. Donald Trump loves a drama, and reprised his role as dramaturge in the month long aftermath of the election. The seeds of doubts placed in the vote tally over multiple months had occurred in local audits amidst charges of rigged voting, reprising the power of “rigged” as a rallying cry in 2016, animating his base and motivating believers with the false news that there were 1.8 million dead voters, already registered, who would be casting ballots in 2016.

The decisive votes of such voters were argued to have thrown the election, in terms that the largely white constituency of Trump voters were likely to better know from the odds of betting on a horse or sports game: they were not only registered but, Trump assured Sean Hannity, “some of them absolutely vote,” and the image of zombie voters helped kill the promise of representative government. Wth 2.5 million voters that were cross-registered between states, and voting twice, the uncertainty of legitimacy became a narrative of injustice, crafted to disorient and impassion.

The suspension of anything like a neat conclusion of the Presidential election was already primed for uncertainty and indeterminacy in 2016, so that it was almost in the eye of the beholder: while the numbers may be credible,–they were wielded to disorient, suggesting a desire for massive voter fraud able to be attributed to “bad actors” that seemed a scheme to sow division and uncertain outcomes, exploiting potential animosity in the electorate to defray any conclusion in the Presidential election, as if exploiting divisions among parties in an increasing tribal sense. Despite the increasingly disturbing division of the nation into the ‘red’ and ‘blue’ division of electoral votes from states, by far the greatest shares of the rioters at the U.S. Capitol came not from “red” states, at all, but Trump voters from those large urban areas where the votes swung to Biden in the end by a narrow margin indeed–they were from spaces, or counties, that had perhaps themselves felt or experienced the sense of being robbed and the very swing of pendulum in the reporting of electoral votes that Trump had himself felt so aggrieved: his narrative of a shift in voting patterns made sense to them and echoed their isolation. While rioters hailed assembled a broad extent of America, they were most ratcheted up and angered by Trump’s narrative, and most likely to coalesce on January 6, 2021.

We imagine, thanks to news photography in no small part, that the rioters were embodied by the Angry White Man, affiliated with a local separatist militia-style groups, and feeling they were fulfilling an oath with righteousness:

But the scraped metadata from mobile devices who visited the U.S. Capitol on January 6–far more dense than on previous Wednesdays–that provided a picture that was particularly illuminating of the overlap between social media devices used in the Capitol census block with those posting videos on Parler: if few were from Maine, Montana, and North Dakota, the densely isolated tagged locations from southern Michigan, Florida, North Carolina, Arizona and Atlanta correlate onto a sense of outrage and no doubt betrayal by the final reporting of vote tallies, and commitment to forestall the feared results of the election, particularly dense near the US-Mexico border in southern California.

Arcs traced from the metadata of folks who uploaded videos to Parler from that census block on January 7, 2021 traced the sourcing of the crowd for the March to Save America, the final potlatch after six years of MAGA events, protests, counter-protests and festivities that delivered the rage of the nation during the final certification of the electoral votes after the tabulation of the votes from each state: while each was presented as a threshold of deception by Trump supporters and online news sites–from the false voters who deceived the nation by voting by mail to the counting of votes without adequate oversight or by potentially shady ways to the electors’ selection in each state, this was presented as the final moment to preserve a MAGA culture and retain a news dominance and social media presence in the nation: MAGA bastions as the Proud Boys, the Oath Keepers–long present in anti-government activities from the standoff at the Bundy Ranch, the Three Percenters, and other “Patriot” movements that had been founded in the aftermath of President Barack Obama’s inauguration.

Seeing the end of the Trump Presidency as an era marked by widespread Black Lives Matter and Antifa protests, the anger at an end to the Trump /Presidency was presented as an end to sovereignty and a threat to sovereign defense against a deeply illegitimate Presidential election. The overlap between the local disappointment in the Presidential election’s results intersected with the narrative of an illegal gaming of the ballots that expanded fears promoted of a “rigged” election in 2016, by investing the tabulation of an actual election with deep and pervasive illegitimacy. As the 2016 contest heated, it was notable that Trump’s campaign website appealed in all caps echoing social media to “Help Me Stop Crooked Hillary From Rigging This Election!” by inviting citizen groups more akin to vigilantes monitor irregular voter behavior, he created a logic for political involvement in a coming election. The faux populist movement of the Trump Candidacy would culminate in its aggrieved calls for rectifying injustices done to The Donald into the Biden Presidency, and after the date of inauguration, with the former President issuing, in late February, 2021, Trump proclamatory statements lamenting the “Continuing Political Persecution of President Donald J. Trump” that refused to separate himself from the nation, playing with the tally of votes cast; even if he had decisively lost the election by over seven million votes, Trump let the world and his followers know, of their danger of disenfranchisement. Trump warned, as voting rights were being stripped of African Americans, of how “attacks by Democrats willing to do anything. to stop the almost 75 million people (the most votes, by far, ever gotten by a sitting president) who voted for me in the election,” not being able to remind his readers that this was an election many moreover “feel that I won.”

Was Trump referring to the attempt to stop them from staging a siege of the U.S. Capitol? As they arrived to rally behind the outgoing President who resisted admitting his electoral loss from across America, with a large share from Texas, Florida, Georgia, Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi and southern California, did they realize that the Capitol building where they were taking their protest had been largely constructed by enslaved laborers, rented from their owners enslaved laborers to quarry sandstone and complete the construction, unable to attract skilled construction workers to Washington, DC, to construct a hall that the U.S. Congress would move from Philadelphia in 1800? The assertion of a right to preserve Confederate traditions of dissent, separatism, and grievance in a misguided defense of alleged liberties and rights to defend a status quo ante Trump. Archeologists speak of the “haunting” of a place by evidence of the remains of past civilizations or cities that survive underground–as a “city within the city,” erased by time–and one has to wonder at the ghosts of the enslaved who constructed the U.S. Capitol that the protestors faced with their confederate flags raised. Did they encounter the ghosts of enslaved laborers who cleared land for the building, haul sawed lumber and stone to the site ceded from two slave states, Maryland and Virginia?

Slaves of men paid for their labor had been conscripted into labor from clearing the site for building to carpentry, stonecutting, and bricklaying from 1795 to 1800–only one hundred and twenty two are known, by first names, from slaves of the White House architect, “Tom, Peter, Ben, Harry” whose owner was paid for their labor, or “Negro Dick,” whose owner received five dollars a month–and the enslaved Philip Reid, from the foundry that cast the Statue of Freedom for the dome of the U.S. Capitol in 1855, and devised a pulley and tackle system to raise the allegorical figure to its peak. When Michelle Obama described her husband’s Presidency as an overcoming of this past, was a presumption that electing a woman or a black person would be grounds for electing a U.S. President, who should be elected for their own–as if it disguised the claim of an elite that her candidate could bring he nation redemption.

Perhaps few of the protestors who invaded the U.S. Capitol knew the history of its construction in detail, even if Congress had finally recognized in 2012, ten years previous, and Michelle Obama reminded the nation in 2015, in her call to nominate Hillary Clinton as a Presidential candidate; for many, the line was a dog whistle painting a picture so stock to be evidence of their arrogance and sense of entitled self-righteousness. Were they aware of being used to stage a siege they felt reflected their own populist interests of direct democracy? When flag-wavers descended to sites of ballot counting in 2020, waiving campaign flags, American flags, “Don’t Tread on Me” flags to endorse state-wide audits of paper ballots and absentee ballots to review machine tallies with a skepticism bordering on alarmism. But the destabilizing of confidence, deployed in 2016, extended to alleged irregularities warranting voting machines demanded certification as “fraud-free” that threatened to undermine a democratic process, unleashing a river of groundless skepticism in of an alternative media universe of the filter bubble of FOX news, NewsMax and OANN.

The narrative of a stolen election was crucially deployed by Donald Trump in his speech at March to Save America to dovetail with the energy of protests that contested local ballot tallies that had grown increasingly contested as a demand to reveal a hidden or gamed truth. Such staged assemblies that proliferated at state capitols in the aftermath of the 2020 Presidential election seem almost an amping up of the populist rage that reached a crescendo in the license of crossing police barricades, the steel pipe reviewing stands recently assembled on the Capitol’s west front, to break down doors and windows in invading the U.S. Capitol, and proclaim it the “people’s house.” Breaking down the barriers, and flooding the Capitol, was almost a projection of the fears of migrants storming the nation, but this time the barbarians arrived fully armed, asserting rights–freedom of assembly; freedom to won guns; freedom to form a well-armed militia–that migrants never claimed. Back in 2016, public intellectual and linguist Geoff Nunberg observed ‘rigged’ came to be a “keyword” in the national political discourse, but extended the corruption to the mechanics of vote counting. The exposure of a “rigged” politics undermined civic participation in unprecedented skepticism: ‘rigged’ described the uneven economy, the tax system, and increasingly deferred any outcome of the election and injected the news cycle with faux populism replicated in social media to escalate that “built-in biases, so that losers may feel that the system is rigged against them,” by using a term expressing anger at unfair business practices or fraudulent investment into the arena of politics as only Trump could.

The new charge of incompetence of elected officials and claims of widespread fraudulence disrupted the resolution of any outcome. In the past, Trump feigned honesty when telling rallies “the election is going to be rigged–I’m going to be honest!” By late summer he implied to mainstream media he would not even accept a victory by Hillary Clinton in September, pushing the limits of a candidate’s sense of grievances while acting as if airing grievances as just another victim of fraud, mirroring the charge of a “rigged economy” many felt, and boosting his won support. The 2020 Presidential vote was itself “rigged,” involving dead voters, rigged voting machines, a massive scam of democratic principles discounting rights, demanding protest on the grounds of patriotism, that made the flag-waving demonstrators in the mob feel immune to charges of insurrection as they were waving American flags, many the very flags waved at stage capitol buildings months previous with similar megaphones, to assert American values that were under attack. Crowds protested as patriots in Detroit, Philadelphia, Portland, Las Vegas and Atlanta, bearing similar flags outside of arenas and capitol buildings, asserting liberties and demanding and end to improper practices of tabulating votes. At the end of a Summer of Protests, to which the Capitol Riots are oddly assimilated, the demand to Stop the Steal was cast as a petitioning of justice, designed as if to address the Supreme Court. The extension of doubt preceding the Capitol Riots fanned populist grievances as if they were infringements on constitutional rights, deferring acceptance of electoral results by extending a narrative that had no happy end. The protest rallies that sprang into action as lawsuits proliferated in Pennsylvania, Georgia, and Michigan with recounts demanded in Arizona and Wisconsin to prevent states from “flipping” and electoral votes to be claimed by Joe Biden.

Protestors Contest Ballot Counting in Pennsylvania on steps of State Capitol, November 4, 2020/Gabriella Bhaskar
Continue reading

2 Comments

Filed under American Politics, Capitol Riots, Donald Trump, insurrection, Presidential Elections

Coronavirus Advances

While we are increasingly deadened by data visualizations that track the infectious spread of COVID-19 across the world and country, their logic has often been implicit. As much as tracking real-time data of deaths and “hot-spots” in the world and the nation, we trust the data viz to orient us to the infectious landscape to better gain understanding of viral spread. We seek to grasp nature of the virus’ transmission, and perhaps hope that we can better grasp its spread. We depend on these daily updates to retain a sense of agency in the chaos, but realize that they are provisional, contingent, and selective snapshots, based on testing, and exist at a time delay from the virus’ actual distribution–without much predictive value. We maddeningly realize they are dependent on testing rates and reporting, and only as good as the datasets which they re-present.

On the heels of a 5% statewide positivity rate on December 5, 2020, California was declared in a state of shut down in all its counties. It almost seems that such graphics have started to fail us, as the spread of the virus overflows the boundaries of the map and permeates its space. The choropoleth renders individual counties all but indistinct, the state drowned in widespread infections, with only a few of its less populated regions as refuges. With a flood of purple overflowing the coastal counties, the delta, the Central Valley, and the entire south of the state, was there even any point in mapping the danger of viral spread beyond a state of red alert?

Dec. 5, 2020

While mapping offers little comfort in the era of saturation of heightened risk, the color-codes alert inhabitants to the danger of increased stresses on the public health system–as much as visualization challenges to translate tools of data aggregation to visualize the pandemic., as December 6 rates grew by December 19. As we shift to map a decreasingly multi-colored state by the moderate, substantial and widespread virus, and widespread cases seem to flood the state, the map offers a security of some sort of monitoring of the pandemic’s spatial spread.

The sea of purple is like Spinal Tap going raising the volume “up to eleven,” and are a sign that we are in unexplored territory that won’t be accommodated by a simple color ramp–or, indeed, a familiar cartographic iconography among our current tools of styling space. While we are used to maps embodying meaning, what the colors of the map embody–beyond risk–is unknown. To be sure, at a time when fatalities from the coronavirus in the south of the state have skyrocketed from the middle of the month, hitting records in ways terrible to even contemplate, the field of purple is a deeply human story of loss, as a surge of hospitalizations have flooded the entire healthcare community, and stretched facilities of critical care beyond anything we have known, filling half of intensive care beds in LA County at Christmas. 2020 enough to make it hard to feel any relief in the close of a calendar year, as if that unit still held any meaning, and very grim about 2021: and while the CDC allowed that there may already be a new, more contagious strain, in the nation two days before Christmas, the arrival of the more contagious strain in California and Colorado increased alarm before New Year’s.

San Francisco Chronicle, December 6 2020
SF Chronicle, December 19, 2020

How to get a handle on the novel coronavirus that we have been pressing against COVID-19 dashboards since March to grasp better, and will we able to do so in 2021?

Whatever sense agency the maps impart, it is an agency that is only as good as the compromised sense of agency that we expect in an era of geolocation, on which most maps track reports of infection. Even as we face the rather grim warning that we are waiting for the arrival of a vaccine that, in the Bay Area, rates of immunization face steep obstacles of vaccine distribution due to pragmatics of freezer space required, training of extra health care workers, and monitoring and tracking the two-stage process of vaccination, we will depend for public sanity on maintaining clear communication in maps. The actual tracking of the novel coronavirus doesn’t translate that well to a state-wide model, or a choropleth, although it is the method for public health advisories that makes most sense: we do not have small-scale public health supervision in most of the nation, although they exist at some counties. The stressed Departments of Public Health in areas are without resources to manage COVID-19 outbreaks, public health compliance, or retaliations for public health violations: and the effort to create public health councils to manage compliance and violations of public health orders may be seen by some as an unneeded bureaucracy, but will give local governments resilience in dealing with an expanding epidemic, at the same time as governmental budgets are stressed, and no body of law about COVID violations exists.

Rather than map on a national or state-wide level, we can best gain a sense of how much virus is out there and how it moves through attempts of contact tracing–even if the increasing rates of infection may have gone beyond the effectiveness of contact tracing as a methodology that was not quickly adapted by a federal government the prioritized the rush to a vaccine. The basis for such a map in LA county can reveal the broad networks of contagion, often starting in small indoor gatherings across the region, and moving along networks of spatial mobility across the city and San Fernando Valley, and help embody the disease’s vectors of transmission as we watch mortality tallies on dashboards that give us little sense of agency before rising real-time tolls.

ESRI

If such ESRI maps suggest a masterful data tracing and compilation project, the data is large, but the format a glorification of the hand-drawn maps of transmission that led to a better understanding of the progress of Ebola on the ground in 2014, used by rural clinics in western African countries like Liberia and Rwanda to stop the infectious disease’s transmission and monitor the progress of contagion to limit it–as well as to involve community members in the response to the virus’ deadly spread.

We may have lost an opportunity for the sort of learning experience that would be most critical to mitigate viral spread in the United States, as no similar public educational outreach was adopted–and schools, which might have provided an important network for diffusing health advisories to families, shifted predominantly to distance learning and providing meals, but we became painfully aware of the lack of a health infrastructure across America, as many openly resisted orders to mask or to remain indoors that they saw as unsubstantiated restrictions of liberty, not necessary measures.

Hand-Drawn Public Health Map of Ebola Transmission in Liberia (2014)

We are beyond contact tracing, however, and struggling with a level of contagion that has increased dramatically with far more indoor common spaces and geographic mobility. Yet the broad public health alerts that these “news maps” of viral spread offer readers omits, or perhaps ignores, the terrifying mechanics of its spread, and the indoor spaces in which we know the virus is predominantly acquired. The rise of newly infectious mutated strains of the novel coronavirus was in a sense inevitable, but the rising tension of what this means for the geographical distribution and danger of the coronavirus for our public health system is hard to map to assess its wide distribution, and we take refuge in mitigation strategies we can follow.

Why have we not been more vigilant earlier to adapt the many indoor spaces in which the virus circulates? It bears noting that the spread of virus in the state was undoubtedly intensified by over a hundred deaths and 10,000 cases of infection to spread in the density of a carceral network, which seems an archipelago incubating the spread of viral infections in the state. We only recently mapped the extent of viral spread across nineteen state prisons by late December 2020, tracked by the Los Angeles Times, but often omitted from public health alerts–

Coronavirus Cases Reported in Nineteen California Prisons, Dec. 21, 2020

–and the density of Long-Term Care centers of assisted living across the state, which were so tragically long centers of dangers of viral spread, as the New York Times and Mapbox alerted us as the extreme vulnerabilty of elder residents of nursing homes, skilled nursing facilities, retirement homes, assisted-living facilities, residential care homes who cannot live alone was noted across the world. The data that was not provided in the grey-out states interrupted the spread of infections among those often with chronic medical conditions was not surprising, epidemiologically, but terrifying in its escalation of the medical vulnerability of already compromised and vulnerable populations–and steep challenges that the virus posed.

unlike those greyed out states that fail to release data on deaths linked to COVID-19 infections, congregate on the California coast: while the New York Times depicted point-based data of the over 100,000 COVID-related deaths in nursing homes are a small but significant share of COVID deaths, exposure for populations with extraordinarily high probability of possessing multiple possibilities for co-morbidities is probably only a fraction of infections.

Coronavirus Deaths linked to Nursing Homes in United States, December 4, 2020

We strain to find metrics to map the risk-multipliers that might be integrated into our models for infectious spread. It seems telling to try to pin the new wave of infections in a state like California to increased contact after Thanksgiving–a collective failure of letting up on social distancing in place since March–as the basis for a post-Thanksgiving boom in many regions of the state, using purely the spatial metrics of geolocation that are most easily aggregated from cell phone data in the pointillist tracking of individual infections in aggregate.

New York Times/CueBiq Mobility Data

Based on cell-phone data of geolocation, a proxy for mobility or social clustering that offered a metric to track Americans’ social proximity and geogarphical mobility–including at shopping centers, oceanside walks in open spaces, and even take-out food curbside pickups, as well as outdoor meals and highway travel, few counties curbed aggregation as one might hope–although the fifty foot metric accepts the many outdoor congregations that occurred, well within the Cuebiq metric, wearing or without masks. A magenta California registered pronounced proximity, grosso modo, discounting any mindful innovative strategies in the state.

Increased Spatial Closeness within Fifty Feet/CueBiq/Graphic NBC News, Nigel Chiwaya and Jiachan Wu

It is stunning to have a national metric for voluntary mobility, rough as it is, to measure internalization of social distancing protocols and potential danger of a post-holiday COVID-19 bump. To be sure, we are stunned by geolocation tools to aggregate but risk neglecting the deeper infrastructures that undergird transmission, from forced immobility. While geolocation tools offer opportunities for collective aggregating whose appeal has deep historical antecedents in measuring contagion and anticipating viral transmission by vectors of spatial proximity, geospatial tools create a geolocation loop in visualizations which, however “informative” perpetuate a spatiality that may not clearly overlap with the actual spatiality of viral transmission.

Even if we demanded to map what were the novel coronavirus had “hot-spots” in mid- to late March, as if processing the enormity of the scale we didn’t know how to map, aggregating data without a sense of scale.

March 26, 2020

Across the summer, it seems best to continue to map daily numbers of cases, relying on whatever CDC or hospital data from Hopkins we had, trying to aggregate the effects of the virus that was spreading across the country whose government seemed to provide little economic or medical plan, in maps that tallied the emergence of new cases, as new hotspots appeared across the land, meriting attention difficult to direct.

We are plowing infections and mortality with abandon in a steady diet of data visualizations that purport to grasp disease spread, that were once weighted predominantly to the New York area, even as they spread throughout the nation by the end of March, but remaining in the thousands, at that point, as even that low threshold was one by which we were impressed. The tracking of the local incidence of reported cases seemed to have meaning to grasp the meaning of transmission, with a pinpoint accuracy that was assuring, even if we had no way to understand the contagion or no effective strategy to contain it. But we boasted data visualizations to do so, focussing on the nation as if to contain its spread in antiquatedly national terms, for a global pandemic, not mapping networks of infection but almost struggling to process the data itself.

After all, the John Snow’s cholera maps of John Snow are the modern exemplars foregrounded in data visualization courses as game-changing images as convincingly precise pictures of infection progressing from a water pumps in London neighborhoods is often seen as a gold standard in the social efficacy of the data visualization and information display. The elevation of the pinpoint mapping of cholera mortality in relation to a water pump from which the deadly virus was transmitted in a nineteenth-century London neighborhood:

John Snow, “Cholera Deaths in Soho”

The Snow Map so successfully embodies a convincing image of contagion that it has taken on a life of its own in data vis courses, almost fetishized as a triumphant use of the plotting of data that precisely geolocated mortality statistics allow, and can indeed be transposed onto a map of the land to reveal the clustering of death rates around the infamous Broad St. pump, that created a legible vector of the transmission of diseases in the Soho neighborhood, so convincing to be touted as a monument of the data sciences.

Open-Air Water Pumps Tainted by Cholera measured in John Snow’s Map

Snow is lauded for having effectively showed that, in ways that changed scientific practices of collective observation and public health: rather than being communicated by miasmatic infections that spread to low-lying London from the Thames, mortality rates could gain a legibility in proximity to a pump that transmitted an infectious virus, often presented as a conceptual leap of Copernican proportions (which it was, when contrasted to miasma that emanated from the Thames to low-lying areas–if it anticipated a bacteriological understanding of viral transmission). The association of danger with the water procured on errands from neighborhood pumps however replaced the noxious vapors of a polluted river, as in earlier visualizations of the miasma that lifted the noxious fumes of the polluted Thames river to unfortunate low-lying urban neighborhoods, who were condemned by urban topography to be concentrations of a density of deaths of more striking proportions and scale than had been seen in the collective memory.

Snow made his argument by data visualizations to convince audiences, but he mapped with a theory of contagion. But if Snow’s maps works on how the virus is communicated in outdoor spaces–and how a single site of transmission can provide a single focus for the aggregation of mortality cases, COVID-19 is an infection that is most commonly contracted in indoor spaces, shared airspace, and the recycled unfiltered air of close quarters. And the indoor spaces where COVID-19 appears to be most often transmitted stands at odds with the contraction in outdoor common spaces of the street and service areas of water pumps, that create the clear spacial foci of Snow’s map, and the recent remapping by Leah Meisterlin that seeks to illuminate the urban spaces of the contraction of cholera in a digital visualization as a question of intersecting spatialities.

Current visualization tools compellingly cluster a clear majority of cholera deaths in proximity to a publicly accessible pump where residents drew water where viral pathogens that had colonized its handle. But we lack, at this point, a similarly convincing theory of the transmission of the novel coronavirus SARS-CoV-2.

But the logics of COVID-19’s communication is nowhere so crisp, and difficult to translate to a register that primarily privileges spatial contiguity and proximity–it is not a locally born disease, but a virus that mutates locally across a global space: a pandemic. And although contact-tracing provides a crucial means of trying to track in aggregate who was exposed to infection, we lack any similarly clear theory to metaphorically grasp the contagion–and are increasingly becoming aware of the central role of its mutation to a virus both more infection and that spreads with greater rapidity in confronting the expansive waves of infection in the United States–as if an escalated virulence grew globally in the first months of this rapidly globalized pandemic.

Our dashboards adopted the new versions of web Mercator, perhaps unhelpfully, to offer some security in relation to the nature of viral spread, which, if they served as a way of affirming its truly global scope–

NextStrain

–also suggested that global traffic of the virus demands its own genomic map, as the virus migrates globally, outside strictly spatial indices of global coverage, and that perhaps spatial indices were not the best, in the end, for accounting for a virus that had began to develop clear variants, if not to mutate as scarily as many feared, into a more virulent form.

And it may be that a genomic map that allow the classification of viral strains of genomic variability demand their own map: for as we learn that genomic mutation and variation closely determines and affects etiology, communication of the viral strains offers yet a clearer illustration that globalization articulates any point in terrestrial space to a global network, placing it in increased proximity to arbitrary point not visible in a simple map, but trigger its own world-wide network of markedly different infectiousness or virulence.

NextStrain

From December 4 2019, indeed, we could track emergent variants of the virus best outside of a spatial scale, as much as it reminded us that the very mobility of individuals across space increased the speed and stakes of viral contagion, and the difficulty to contain viral spread, in the interconnected world where viral variation recalled a flight map, set of trade routes, or a map of the flow of financial traffic or even of arms. Mutations were understood to travel worldwide, with a globalism that a spatial map might be the background, but was indeed far removed, as we moved beyond questions of contact tracing to define different sizes of genomic mutation and modifications that we could trace by the scale of mutations, not only the actual places where the virus had arrived.

Was place and space in fact less important in communicating the nature of COVID-19’s increasing virulence?

The maps of genomic variation traced not only the globalization of the virus, but its shifting character, and perhaps etiology across some thirty variants by late April, that show both the global spread of the virus, and the distinct domination of select strains at certain locations, in way that researchers later theorized the ability to “track” mutations with increasing precision. If researchers in Bologna defined six different variants of coronavirus from almost 50,000 genomes that had been mapped globally in laboratory settings to map variants of the virus whose signatures showed little more variability than strains of the flu in June, variations of signatures seemed a manner to map the speed of coronavirus that had traveled globally from by February 202 to the lungs of the late Franco Orlandi, an eighty-three year old retired truck driver from Nembro, Italy, whose family could not place China on a map when, following diagnostic protocol, attendant physicians in Bergamo asked if Orlandi had, by chance, happen to have traveled to China recently.

NextStrain

Despite lack of serious mutation, thankfully, the data science of genomic sequencing of the COVID-19 cases triggered by genomic mutations of SARS-CoV-2 genome of just under 30,000 nucleotides, has experienced over time over 353,000 mutation events, creating a difficult standard for transmission into equivalent hot spots: some hot spots of some mutations are far more “hot” than others, if we have tried to plot infections and mortality onto race, sex, and age, it most strikingly correlates to co-morbidities, if all co-morbidities are themselves also indictors of mortality risk. While the mutations have suggested transmission networks, have the presence of different levels of mutations also constantly altered the landscape of viral transmission?

Global Distribution of Sars-CoV-2 Variants, March 15, 2020/Los Alamos National Laboratory

It makes sense that the viral variant was tracked in Great Britain, the vanguard of genomic sequencing of the novel coronavirus as a result not only of laboratory practices but the embedded nature of research in the National Health Services and the monitoring of public health and health care. Enabled by a robust program of testing, of the some 150,000 coronavirus genomes sequenced globally, England boasts half of all genomic data. Rather than being the site of mutations, Britain was as a result the site where the first viral variant was recognized and documented, allowing Eric Volz and Neil Ferguson of Imperial College London to examined nearly 2,000 genomes of the variant they judged to be roughly 50% more transmissible than other coronavirus variants, magnifying the danger of contagious spread in ways feared to unroll on our dashboards in the coming months. As teams at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine studied the variant in late 2020 in southeast England, they found it to be 56% more transmissible than other variants, and raised fears of further mutations in ways that rendered any map we had even more unstable.

The virus SARS-CoV-2 can be expected to mutate regularly and often. While England boasts about half of all global genomic data on the virus, of the 17 million cases of SARS-CoV-2 infections in the United States, only 51,000 cases of the virus were sequenced–and the failure to prioritize viral sequencing in America has exposed the nation to vulnerabilities. And although California has sequenced 5-10,000 genomes a day of the novel coronavirus samples by December, and Houston’s Methodist Hospital have mapped 15,000 sequences as it watches for new viral variants; an American Task Force on viral variants will be rolled out early in 2021, as the discovery of viral mutations haves spread across five states in the western, eastern, and northwestern United States. While it is not clear that the viral variant or mutations would be less susceptible to polyclonal vaccines, most believe variants would emerge that would evade vaccine-induced immunity.

Continue reading

Leave a comment

Filed under Coronavirus, data aggregation, data maps, data visualization, global pandemic