Tag Archives: Baedecker Guides

The Built World

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bombed Out Landscapes over Time

When the Germain army declared, in April of 1942, as accelerating violence of global war brought the arrival of the British bombing of German towns, the wartime Nazi government boasted that they would use native maps in the public domain to destroy valued buildings in England with impunity. In blood-curdling claims that prefigure the American threat to violate international law by targeting of historical sights in Iran, the Teutonic boast that ‘We shall go out and bomb every building in Britain marked with three stars in the Baedeker Guide” suggests the terrifying slippage between German superiority in objective tourist maps once tied to educational formation to the superiority of airstrikes from the German Luftwaffe’s arial blitzkrieg that was determined to destroy historical sites, using V-1 flying bombs and V-2 rockets to act as “Vergeltungswaffe” or vengeance weapons, in an air-launched arsenal designed to destroy whatever was celebrated on the map.

The notion of “vengeance weapons” or simply “revenge weapons” were nominally different from other types of war, but were a definitive escalation of military hostilities to the home front. The claim of choosing the targets of strikes by a travel guide was a terrifying metaphor for the transition from the interwar to war-time years, but masks the loaded historical sense of superiority of reducing England to a site of ruins. The Reich would bring, by sheer force, the close to a historical epoch, akin to the ruins that Germans once studied so eagerly of the Roman Empire and Greece, prizing as guides to a lost world whose material traces they hoped to detect, and detect as some sort of prefiguration of the imperial destiny that they claimed as their own during the Third Reich. The London bookseller who mounted his porch of a Highgate residence to observe by binoculars as fire-spotters, scanning the urban landscape for the inevitable signs and sounds of destruction before telephoning the locations to fire brigades who would rush to the scene to mitigate bomb damage of flare-ups in urban neighborhoods, as “London was on fire, burning from four sides,” as a London immigrant bookseller wrote, presenting what he must have seen as a hellish recreation of nightmarish world of violence that was associated with the diabolical regime of Adolf Hitler. The bombing raids of such “revenge bombs” were perhaps a rehearsal of sorts for the openly aggressive carpet bombing of the Siege of Stalingrad, the late August 1942 air raids that left Vasily Grossman without words to describe it–“Everything burned down. Hot walls of buildings, like the bodies of people who have died in the terrible heat and not yet cooled down . . . miraculously standing–amid thousands of vast stone buildings now burnt down or half destroyed.” Grossman described it as a close of a historical age, transforming Stalingrad to an actual landscape of historical ruins, “like Pompeii, caught by destruction in the fullness of life“–in the notebook he kept on entering the city.

As the destruction of these cities fades from collective memory, the online sources of like “Bombsight” that aggregate actual geodata placing the density with which all rockets and bombs dropped on the city in individual time frames offer something like a slider bar to view the violence, without the fire and death, remotely on our screens. But how to describe or take stock of the scale of such devastation, let alone to do so in a map, or to make contemporary maps and accounts to be embodied in an adequate spatial form? For the journalist Grossman, bombs that fell amidst the flames of burning houses over Stalingrad redefined the place as it had been known from maps, and redefined the lived space of the city that were unable to take stock of by a single observer. “It was no longer a matter of individual explosions; all space was now filled by a single dense, protracted sound” of the howls of bombs, air cloudy with white dust and smoke, the characters of his novel search for images of Pompeii, wondering if any one will remember them, the thunder of explosions and crack of anti-aircraft guns marking time against the howl of a bomb that grew in volume, altering one’s sense of time as “howling seconds, each composed of hundreds of infinitely long or entirely distinct fractions of seconds,” erased desire, memories, or “anything except the echoes of this blind iron howl.”

Whether referencing the obliteration of space by the Baedecker guides was a conceit of historical migration of empires or conflated cartographical superiority of touristic guides with the precision of aerial bombardment suggests the crossing of categories of bombarding civilian populations. The obliteration of clearly demarcated lines haunted Stalingrad’s bombardment included modern incendiary bombs, for Grossman, as tens of thousands of which small canisters that could tumble out of in containers of thirty-six filled the air with a distinct screeching unlike the whistles of high explosives, a screeching that echoed the screeching of the V-2 bombs that Thomas Pynchon employed as the arresting auditory perception of the mesmerizing opening sentence of Gravity’s Rainbow focusses on the “new sound” then unknown of “A screeching came across the sky” . . . Grossman focussed on the “new sound” bombs made in Stalingrad as unlike the whistle of hunters of high-explosive bombs, but “penetrated every living being [from the] hearts of those about to die [to the] hearts of those who survived–all hearts clenched in tight anguish,” so that “there was no one who did not hear it as they plunged into the city, rendering “building after building joined in a single blaze and whole burning streets fused into a single, living, moving wall . . . as if a new city of fire had appeared over Stalingrad,” introduced by the distinct sounds that follow the arrival of “planes coming from north, west, east and south [that] met over Stalingrad,” whose descent on the scientific “seemed to be the sky itself that was descending–sagging, as if under dark, heavy storm clouds, under the vast weight of metal and explosives.”

To register the new city rendered by daily destruction, lest the earlier city by lost, the London City Council undertook in a valiant act of cartographic preservation during the air attacks from September, 1940, just after the Germans had planned to invade Russia, to 1941, and amplified with the attacks of V-2 rockets by 1944, to ensure a level of destruction more sudden and more terrifying than the incendiary bombing of Stalingrad. The ways that the British Army mapped the destruction that V-2 rockets of terrifying precision were able to carve out of the city of London had been long lost, but the recovery of these map provides an eery echo of the historical models and precedents of civilian targeting of historical sites that haunts the contemporary world. For he scars of ethanol-fueled V-2 rockets that speedily struck wartime London seventy years ago are a good place as any to start to map the systematic bombing of civilian spaces.  As if mapping the liquid-fueled fantasies of destruction of Wernher von Braun, the V-1 and then, subsequently, V-2 bombs silently arrived to create a psychologically searing topography of death that transformed the city, immersing civilians to new topographies of fear.

The contemporary graphic tabulations of damages in recently published Bomb Damage Maps  orient one in chilling ways to the progress and degree of bombing wartime London in purples, violets, oranges, and light blue on London’s familiar plan.  The pastels are disarmingly tranquil if not placid in tenor, but seem to conceal within a Benjamin Moore-like in their variety, which seem to reveal a of destruction wonderfully measured concealment  resistance of a British culture of grim-faced exactitude to the horrific episode of wartime destruction, generations away from the bombardment of images of bombed out landscapes in Beirut, Syria, or so much of the Middle East and Libya today.  If these pencilled sketches seem oddly antiquated and removed, the poignant attempt to come to terms with the radically escalation of destruction in the  devastatingly regular tempo of accelerating bombardment that is known as the London Blitz–even if they cannot capture the panic, commotion, terrified screams or chaos, in the muted pastels in an aerial perspective that affirm the organic city that once existed in a still alive past.  

The images of community that they preserve in a time of the compacting of time and space stand in a bizarre psychological counterpoint to the terror of the Blitz, an attempt to maintain level-headedness perhaps in the methodical taking of stock of the sites that were apparently be turned into Baedekers of a future lost world. The bombs that clustered on London in the Blitz are not only preserved, but collated, in a stunning overpowering overlay that suggests a puncturing of space if not obliteration–in a collation of the sites of all German bombs dropped on London in the Blitz, September 1940-June 1941, courtesy “Bombsight“, embracing a massive repository of spatial information aggregating locations of all bombs dropped on the city.

The data is so overwhelming, of course, that the viewer is vertiginously unable to process the extent of detail it aggregates, in what might be better known as a Cartofail. The multiple maps that were made by the Bomb Damage Maps tend in the reverse: they preserve the underlying street network and sites of all buildings in the city, preserving a palimpsest that survives in the face of aerial bombardment that attempted to efface any sign of human habitation; the result is a valiant basis for the recreation of the future of London in a dark period, and a particularly healthy and plucky form of cartographic resistance, of sorts, running against the collapsing of time and space in a time of total war, by trying to retain and train attention on what exists in the city that can be preserved lest it be forgotten. In the face of total war, it is a resistance of exactitude.

The maps recall those colored glossy stars pasted, in the manner of pins, at the sites of explosions in London, which “cover the available spectrum” from silver to green, gold, red, blue, and  a surprising preponderance in certain areas of violets whose locations seem to coincide with bomb strikes, but are so  suspiciously marked with the names of women, the silver ones labelled “Darlene,” others Alice, Delores, Shirley, Sally, amidst  Carolines, Marias, Annes, Susans and Elizabeths.  The disjunction between names and places map the interior experience of Lt. Slothrop against the city that became a canvass of war, but the placid colorings of the map hues suggest a deeper disjunction between mapmaking and violence.

The maps capture an attempt to take measure of the scale of destruction, from black areas bombed out beyond repair to more lightly damaged areas in yellow, as if to process the unprecedented scale of disaster in the precision of the Ordnance Survey Maps. In ways that seemed to try to contain the violence of the bombs that killed over 9,000 by a coloring the sites that were hit by the daily assessment of bomb damages, Bomb Damage Charts drafted by the London City Council tried to process the daily destruction that took the toll of 9,000 in what Germans portrayed as revenge for allied bombers suggest an English tabulation of the ethanol-fueled violence, called as retribution for allied bombing of German cities, that revealed fingerprints of the fantasy of Wernher von Braun, the rocket scientist who was driven by truly stratospheric aspirations to reach the moon.

waterloo-detail-bombs

And they reflect, as such an attempt to map the devastation Thomas Pynchon so famously began Gravity’s Rainbow by suggesting the sudden arrival of an ethanol-fueled V-2 rocket that struck the zero Greenwich meridian around 1967, by describing a volley of ballistic missiles whose targeted strikes and explosions brought to life something like a new world, and a terrible one that is punctuated in a senseless sequence of devastating strikes.  And as Pynchon famously used the Matthausen testimonies to describe the horrors of the bombs’ production during the war by the remain side, the bomb damage maps would have provided powerful means to elaborate the destruction of the city came to map the fictionalized if troubled ever-idiosyncratic psyche of Tyrone Slothrop.  The rooftop observations of the arrival of V-2’s that arrive, arching short of the land and arriving on London, tracked by a group of Yanks, stationed at the Allied Clearing House, Technical Unites, Northern Germany (ACHTUNG), a paper warren filled with black typewriters that pose as grave markers, removed from the war but close to its violence.

As much as orient one to the destruction of bricks and mortar buildings, they suggest a way to complete the terrifying topographies of the wartime city, as familiar cityscapes suddenly vanished, taking human lives in a chaos difficult to psychologically sustain.  If Stephen Spender described how in “destroyed German towns one often feels haunted by the ghost of a tremendous noise” as it “is impossible not to imagine the rocking explosions, the hammering of the sky upon the earth, which must have caused all this,‟ evoking the inability to grasp or orient oneself to the ineffability of the sensory barrage of modern destruction with particular eloquence.  Pynchon was particularly attentive to transpose the complicated topographies of what were otherwise blank space by recourse to the “old Baedecker trick” not limited to that genre of travel books alone, but pillaging from WPA guides and other maps, in ways that make it more than likely that something like the Bomb Damage Maps provided a similar basis to orient his readers to imagining the new topography of war in which his characters sought to navigate as best they could, and the tourist maps of post-war London which rendered the continued effects of bombed out areas light green offered an effective palimpsest as any to recover the  psychological trauma of the destruction of the psychic network of place and society–

close-up

–itself a mirror image to the German Schadenskarten created to document the parallel six years of trauma inflicted on cities in the Nazi state.

Schadenskarte_Operation_Tigerfish_27.11.1944.png

Schadenskarte des Angriffes am 27. November 1944

1280px-Luftbild_Freiburg_1944.jpgStadtarchiv Freiburg, destruction of Freiburg sometime after or during Summer of 1945

Although the scale of destruction was more targeted and more limited in scale, the hundred and ten hand-colored Bomb Damage maps applied a six color palette to the Ordnance Survey maps in order to register the impact of bombs on the city, ranging from yellow noting mild damage a dire black denoting “total destruction,” which, even if they cannot capture the scale of the 29,890 victims killed in the raids and 50,507 suffering serious injuries, although their over-generous 1:2,500 scale allows one quite effectively to explore parts of the city’s neighborhoods and read the present configuration of individual blocks against the damage of older bombs–whose scale is partly captured in surviving photographs of Debris Survey and Disposal Service crews who explored ruined houses and buildings in plaster-dusted uniforms in the hope of seeking survivors.  The images of police constables Arthur Cross and Fred Tibbs capture the broader effort of repair, reconstruction, and taking stock of a spate of local destruction as it occurred, and the need of the maps as a means to process the rapid arrival of rocket strikes in the not indiscriminate targeting commercial and residential London by unmanned rockets.

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Repair of evening coming of 1941 of Bank Underground Station

Assessing damage of Bank of England and Royal Exchange after London bombing raid of January 11, 1941, which created a crater of 1,800 sq feet–the largest in London

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Filed under London Blitz, military maps, Vietnam War, war crimes, World War II