Walking the streets in my now apparently abandoned neighborhood for an errand after a few weeks of sheltering in place in Oakland, I had the eery experience of navigating and inhabiting empty city. While I knew the pavement, I almost felt no longer familiar with the streets that afternoon. There was the sense that no one knew the state of affairs about reopening, and many were just puzzled about how to proceed: as a few young kids skateboarded up Shattuck Avenue, profiting from the lack of cars, some odd improvised bicyclists were on the sidewalk. The absence of interaction was a weird pause indeed, giving an eery sense of the timelessness of space, as if the time/space fabric by which I had long seen the neighborhood was suddenly out of whack. While no visible destruction had happened or occurred, the disembodied nature of the inhabited world was drained, even as it was filled with sunlight and birds, giving me the eery sense I had had when I looked at the machine-read maps of building footprints, “Every Building in the United States,” whose section situating Bay Area buildings hung on our refrigerator wall, like a scary map of the archeological ruins of a future Baedecker Guide to the ruins of San Francsico.
Had the designers of te interactive webmap of machine-readable imagery Microsoft had assembled intended the eery effect of describing the inhabited world as a ghostly ruin of lived life? The relegation to place-names to a very secondary status in the image of the overbuilt landscape seems to lie on the edges of the black blocks of built space that is was the basis for the AI map distilled from aerial photographs, and parsed as black and white data. If its form seems oddly ghostly, the reduction of the monochrome paper map reveals shades of grey that fade into rare open spaces, where one’s visual attention seems at first drawn, before one returns, with hopes for some sense of recognition, to the built spaces that one knows, and the congestion of black that marks urban agglomerations. The black boxes of settlement reveals the crowding of our coasts, the density of much urban housing and indeed of the area of the East Bay where I live, but is also an eerily image of an inhabited landscape selectively organized to omit any sign of living presence–either of “wilderness” or habitat, but anthropocentrically maps the anthropogenic world as if for posterity. For is not the black boxes of building footprints something like a record of the anthropogenic imprint on the world, by now extended across the globe. The building footprint map derived from AI is a rewriting of the ancient notion of the ecumene–the “habitable” more than “inhabited world”–or οἰκουμένη, which sought to encapsulate the inhabited regions as the ones that entered human comprehension: is it a removal of the humanist object of the map, now mediated through machine learning?
If the ancient geographers discussed the οἰκουμένη as the “habitable world” from the frozen north to the scalding sub-equatorial lands that seemed to “balance” the inhabited regions, as if what merited human attention and contemplation was that region that permitted settlement: the turn to a record of imperial administration in the Roman Empire–and of religious unity in a ‘civilized’ world–introduced the governmentality of the control over the inhabited world, that by the Renaissance had become an enticing image of national incorporation and political ties, that became intellectually articulated in the post-Cold War as a global ecumene of imperial cultural dominance and integration incarnated in European inheritance of political institutions, science, technology, and economic forms as a world system: the association of a global integration whose exponent in historical texts was perhaps William McNeill’s Rise of the West (1963) had withered away by the time of the data-driven map of inhabitation, as we have become increasingly aware of mapping the human impact on the world–an image in which the building footprint map might be placed.
It is hard to discuss intentions in a map that was organized by AI, but the ledger size newsprint that covered almost a full side of the refrigerator, hanging on magnets, assembled a flyover of the ruins of a future world, a snapshot of each and every building in the area. The result is a poor excuse for a “wall-map” of the region of Northern California. It seems more of a memento mori of the prosperity Silicon Valley once enjoyed from a future world, registering the intense economic growth that fueled the housing bubble along the San Francisco Bay, in an unintentional snapshot of the explosion of paved space and housing across the coastal margins of what was once one of the more “edgy” areas of the United States: entertaining the imagined future might have created the perverse pleasure of hanging it in my kitchen, long before COVID-19 struck, a celebratory if slightly morose record of the world in which we once lived.
But the sidewalks were empty and sun intense; storefronts often boarded up. The streets were no longer places for salutation or recognition, even if I greeted a familiar mailman on my way home: as if no time for social niceties remained I walked down the sidewalks and into empty streets, rarely negotiating margins of safety, or distancing with a few folks on foot, noticing with a cringe the large number of homeless who stood out against the stark streets, closed storefronts, and empty stores.
They were, as it were, always there. I had been cutting myself off from the surroundings, as I never thought I would. As I had been sheltering, thoughts going global as I was following updates about the pandemic, this was a stone’s through from my home, so many had none. Looking down Adeline Street, at the still tents of homeless encampments that may have multiplied, I felt new distance gaping between us, as the very streets I had walked down regularly seemed to have been forgotten while sheltering indoors, the stores now empty, their windows recently boarded, few driving in the streets where one might walk without danger. The eery absence of population was a scene from The Last Man, momentarily interrupted by an isolated airplane, the first seen in days, flew overhead: I felt like I was on a filmset, more than where I lived, a tracing of life past.
If we were sheltering, what was place, anyways?, I wondered with the footprint map in mind. Empty streets looked like nothing more than an apocalyptic reimagining of the neighborhood, drained of inhabitants, save the apparently increasing cluster of homeless tents, looking far more embattled, and more survivalist than ever. If the building footprint map was restricted to spaces where people lived and work, the ghostly anthropogenic substrate seemed to have an eery counterpart in the homeless encampments near my house. The survivalism was evident in the homeless settlement that had in recent years overflowed, expanding to fill in the island of trees where how Steve Gillman’s 2011 public sculpture marked the interurban divide. The public sculpture elegantly if snidely punned on the allegedly dismissive pity saying ascribed to an icon of modernity about her native home–“There’s no There there“–as an entertainment for motorists, or BART passengers, as much as a public art for pedestrian passersby–by broadcasting a literary reference in greenery.
The two words marked the Oakland-Berkeley border by two words, now rusted fifteen years later, as relics of an earlier epoch themselves: the homeless encampment blurred both sides of the dividing line between the cities which had long since melded indistinguishably in the increasingly gentrifying area where I had lived for twenty-odd years.
The erasure of a sense of “here” that was promoted by the public sculpture seemed erased in the AI map, that reduced space to built houses, even as the homeless were the only residents in sight as I walked around the tensely empty neighborhood. I’d long appreciated, if a bit begrudgingly, how the Gateway_Project defined the edge of Berkeley CA took Gertrude Stein’s saying and liberalized it in hight-foot tall powder-coated steel letters, where the BART tracks go underground, intended as “a literary and whimsical welcoming to Berkeley,” where they supposedly read not only Stein’s poetry, but where so many poets had lived–and was a “here” worth commemorating by sculptured letters, a new Fons et origo of the Beat Generation, perhaps, or a dynasty of mid-twentieth century poets–Kenneth Rexroth; Czeslaw Milosz; Allen Ginsberg; Gary Snyder; Frank Whalen; Thom Gunn; Robert Hass–by 2002 recognized as a literary patrimony. Designed primarily for passing motorists, as if few could be imagined to walk nearby, the site built to commemorate a “sense of place” had become a cluster of encampments, as if that was the only place that existed at a time when all remained shuttered indoors–if in 2010, just ten years ago, one letter was covered, by a group of Oakland knitters, to transform it to “HERE/HERE,” peacefully protesting the work as barely concealing an agenda of gentrification.
The collective of knitters who had covered the “T” as if to object to the tired trope with which Oakland was long saddled was the result of a. relatively calm tussle, cast as a border war against gentrification. But the global pandemic had subsumed any distinction of “here” and “there” in a new global: the AI map seemed to be indeed a snapshot of the scale of habitation before the pandemic, a ghostly picture of an earlier time.
As I walked through it, at least, the same North Oakland neighborhood was suddenly, if maybe temporary, rendered ghostly: the built landscape that I was inhabiting was the same world, with fewer inhabitants, and less secure attachment to palce–as if the artificial interruption of indoors life shifted my relation to built space, made it harder to navigate, and shifted the security of place, and indeed removed any sense of recognizability from the built landscape, almost to ask what the civilization was that led to the building of all this paved space.
The unmooring from physical presence was like being dropped, I imagined in a flight of fantasy, to that Microsoft map, so akin as a snapshot to the sort of map of archeological ruins future generations might trace as guidelines of orientation to a lost past, when what was the greatest “here” of antiquity–the city of Rome–was etched by nineteenth century archeologists and antiquarians by the physical plant of what once stood on the site of the ancient Roman forum, only perceptible to the eyes of tourists if they had trained themselves on the map to imagine the ghost-like presence of architectural monuments that had once affirmed the place of Rome at the center of the world at a far earlier time.
Where was here, now, on the AI map? Was the tie I was drawing between the map and the uninhabited neighborhood only the depressive meanderings of a middle-aged crisis? Or was it a global one? West Berkeley and North Oakland had been certainly rendered quite a different place, quite suddenly, and not a comfortable one–still inhabited by ghosts. Stripped of my points of reference or familiarity with my neighborhood, a few dispossessed in the sidewalks, of what wasn’t a nice area of town, I was reminded rather urgently of ongoing part of urban life no longer framed by sounds of traffic, public transport, open businesses and pedestrian sounds, that continued while I was indoors. The degree zero of urban life reminded me of the empty landscape of building footprints that, in a detailed satellite overview that recalled nothing more than the outline of an archeological dig of ancient city, as if drained of motion, and filled with apprehension, in a damn eery way. Was this a pause or a new landscape?
I had only recently been navigating the 2018 building footprint map, “Every Building in the United States,” and aout a year ago, hung the section of the houses of the Bay Area onto our refrigerator wall. The creation of Microsoft that was removed as one might imagine from the ancient notion of an “inhabited world,” comprised of building outlines, a distanced description of the world a declination of mapping human settlements, mediated through what seemed the iconography of an archeological map of a removed time, rather than the actual lay of the land–or, better yet, it seemed to exist in two planes more than ever, and both as a historical record of a snapshot of built space across America, and of actuality. The interactive website of the machine-readable result of aerial imagery that invites one to zoom closely not on landscapes, but a black and white rendering of built space, recalled nothing more than a flyover of the ruins of a future world.
The aerial snapshot of each and every building in its current position had a sci-fi aspect of a record of space drained of nature, biodiversity, non-anthropogenic environments, and life–distilling selectively the extent of built spaces across an otherwise quiet and otherwise uninhabited world: as if the perfect document of the anthropocene, this was the built landscape, removed from and detached from a natural world. This was the built landscape of the region, divorced from the lay of the land, as if a perfection of the GPS contents of street view, without any street traffic or greenspace at all. The stark interactive map of 2018 seemed to be newly present to the space I was negotiating in my mind, even more stripped to its bare bones and evacuate of inhabitants.
The vertiginously uninhabited interactive map peered at onscreen allowed one to look at the nation and soon to whatever spot on the map, suddenly panning and focussing into crisp detail, but lacking all sign of inhabitants, save the names on each street or place. The sense of exploring a neighborhood I once knew may have been an accelerated arrival in late middle age. But the spatially empty landscape of building footprints encountered I opened in 2018, “Map of Every Building in the United States,”was filled with a sense of dread and of testing my own geographical knowledge, scanning to familiar neighborhoods and structure, and matching abilities to recognize the flattened forms against the material structures with which they correlate. There is no sense of the amount of chemical waste and diesel pollutants in the nation’s largest port, Long Beach, pictured in the header to this post, where pollution has caused ongoing health problem for residents.Continue reading