Tag Archives: GIS

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
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Cartographies of COVID-19: Our Unclear Path Forward

A pandemic is by its nature both local and global by definition–and begins from a local outbreak. But if the only way to gain orientation to a pandemic is by accurate local counts, the problem of balancing–or toggling between–the local and global has become staggeringly pronounced in the case of COVID-19, as if the point-based cartography that we use to track the disease has the better of us, and upper hand, with the absence of accurate local counts. The lack of clear data that came from Wuhan in the days that followed the outbreak of the virus revealed worrisome problems of transparency. The difficulty that the Chinese government had in getting a clear bearing on the zoonotic virus raised problems of even trying to map its rise, to which all data visualizations since seem to respond: as local officials were loathe to shoulder responsibility, the tally of infected in Hubei Province jumped, astoundingly, forcing the government to recognize the ease of its transmission among humans, was far more virulent than believed. But at this point, looking back in the mirror provides little sense of orientation to the multiplication of dispersed local outbreaks of coronavirus that we are increasingly challenged to map in relation to ourselves.

The sudden uptick of cases reveals a reticence in tallying the infected out of fears of reprisals for apparent incompetence, an institutional blame-shifting triggering mechanisms of concealment that has led American meat-packing plants to hide numbers of infected workers, and numbers of tests for infection to be far lower than official records suggest: the absence of ability to control the spread of SARS-CoV-2 led us to proliferate maps in hopes to grasp its rapid doubling, uncomfortable at the world they began to show, apprehensive at how to come to terms with the rapidity of local outbreaks of confirmed cases with sufficient granularity, and enough continuities, hoping to track contagion as hopes of containment were beginning to fade in the new aggregates that were increasingly evident.

New York Times

The warning of the virus’ spread was raised by Li Wenliang on December 30 from Wuhan, inter-agency shifting of blame and responsibility in Wuhan– a reflexive institutional blame-shifting by “throwing woks”–abruptly ceased with summons of Shanghai Mayor Ying Yong, he who lured Elon Musk to Shanghai, to restore order: as a new hospital was built, tallies of new cases of coronavirus in Hubei astronomically grew by nine from 1,638 to 14,840, shocking the world–a figure was in keeping with the nearly 1,400 people dead in the country, but suggesting a viral load of unprecedented proportions. Americans apprehensively watched the disease afflicting passengers of cruise liners as if it would arrive ashore, its virulence was in fact already of pandemic proportions: yet American disinformation here took over, as we were told to stick our heads in the sand, ostrich-like, as fears were overblown, and tried to keep calm. And then, the tables were turned, as the United States President described, or suggested, a national policy of intentional undercounts, and limited testing, lest the counts discovered tank his popularity–the stock market value of Trump, International, or, rather, Trump-in-Office, Trump-as-Chief-Executive, whose new season might be canceled due to low ratings. And although the virus began in China, how the United States increasingly came to be the outlier in the numbers of infection confirmed weekly suggested a national story of mismanagement, as the narrative we told ourselves of American exceptionalism before illness seemed to have boomeranged, with the three-day averages of confirmed infections skyrocketing, and setting us apart from the very nations we compare ourselves to, but whose health-care policy we increasingly realize we are distinct from.

Americans were soothed by deceptive common-sense talk. But the results of a lack of investment in public health are all too evident, if our maps are . Robert Redfield, a virologist who served as the public spokesperson of reassurance who had long sustained false theories about retroviruses causing HIV and AIDS, argued that even if the fourteen confirmed cases of the novel coronavirus were monitored and traced, “the virus more exploded . . beyond public health capacity,” he seemed to forget he had not developed that capacity. Virology is of course Dr. Redfield’s area of expertise, but he won his political post in no small part by being practiced in massaging truth statements for political ends. During AIDS outbreak, the last major plague in the United States, he had advocated unproven drugs billed as HIV vaccines and encouraged quarantine, abstinence, and stripping the medical licenses of HIV-infected medical workers, more than accelerating cures; Redfield took time to blame the Obama administration for implementing clinical tests, to please his patron. Bt he obscured the level of infections that in truth were not known, blinding the nation to a cartography of COVID by not advancing adequate levels of testing, that returned us to the simple equation of the dog days of AIDS, only able to make us yell, yet again, this time with Larry Kramer, stalwart resistor of the silencing of AIDS by the failure to use on-trial medicine–

–at the utter deception with which we met the pandemic. Dr. Redfield must have met his commission to radiate calm by assuring Americans in late February. As he assured us only fourteen cases had been diagnosed in the United States, the number meant little, as any virologist should kmow; while hindsight is a benefit that obscures us from the need to life life forwards, we suspect urban hotspots were already laden with infected individuals by March 1, a silent ticking bomb of urban outbreaks already infecting 28,000 as it spread broadly its “hotspots”–New York, Chicago, San Francisco, Seattle, Boston and Chicago–all of massively different density, without tests being able to affirm the scale of its spread.

There was no map. And then, all of a sudden, the globalization of coronavirus hit home; any place in the world could be related to any other place, as rates of infection bloomed globally in geographically disjointed hotspots, spatially removed from one another, even as a standard for uniform testing lacked. And there was no sense of an art of dying, as the amazingly rapid contraction and worsening of illnesses left many without a script, and many more silent before a dizzying multiplication of statistics of mortality in the face of COVID-19, several weeks later.

Every other map of COVID-19’s spread seems an attempt to persuade the viewer of its accuracy and totality, in retrospect, even as we have no clear sense of the total figures of infection-or even of the paths infection takes. We are mystified by the geography and spatial dynamics of the virus’ travel, but realize the severe communicability of a virus whose load is stored in the naso-laryngeal passages, and can be communicated by airborne drops. Is distancing the best way we can constrain the geographic spread of infection? Can statistics demonstrate the success of curtailing its spread?

It was a hidden agenda in the maps of news agencies and to register the accurate levels of infection, promising the sorts of transparency that had been clouded in much of January. And while we watch the progress of the pandemic on screens, there is a sense of truth-telling, as a result, of revealing the scope of the virus’ actual spread that compensates for the lack of clarity we once had. But it is also increasingly difficult to orient ourselves to the GPS-enabled scales of its spread, for we still are looking at pretty limited and almost superficial data, in the sense we have trouble plotting it in a narrative context, or find a reaction more than shock. The virus is easy in ways to personify as a threat–it wants us outside; it comes from afar; it pervades public spaces and hospital grounds; it demands vigilant hand-washing and sanitizing–but the very numbest are elusive. While we try to track reported cases, hoping that these limited datasets will provide orientation, we have been lumping numbers of tests that might be apples and oranges, and have not found a consistent manner of testing. Deaths are difficult to attribute, for some, since there are different sites where the virus might settle in our bodies.

Even while not really following the pathways of its transmission, and the microscopic scale of the progress of the pathogen in bodies. And if we rely on or expect data visualizations will present information in readily graspable terms, we rarely come to question the logics that underly them, and the logics are limited given the poor levels of global testing for COVID-19. It is frustrating that our GPS maps, which we seem able to map the world, can map numbers of surrogates for viral spread, but we have yet to find a way to read the numbers in a clear narrative, but are floored by the apparently miasmatic spread of such a highly contagious disease that makes us feel, as historian of science Lorraine Daston put it, that we are in “ground zero of empiricism,” as if we are now all in the seventeenth century, not only in being vulnerable to a disease far less dangerous or deadly than Yersina pestis, but without explanatory and diagnostic tools.

This was, to be sure, a past plague come to life, requiring new garb of masks, face-shields, and protective gear for health workers–

–as the cloaks, leather gloves, staffs and masks that made up early modern protective gear returned to fashion, as if in a time warp, in new form.

We find a leveling between folk remedies and modern medicine, as we live collectively in what she calls a “ground-zero moment of empiricism”–if one in which we are deluged by data, but short in knowing what is data, as we are lacking in explanatory models. This is a bit unfair, as we still can profit from autopsies, and have been able to contain spread by hand-washing–but the images of a single magic bullet, or antiviral cure, are far, far away in time. But there is no longer any familiarity with an art of dying, although we found we encountered death with an unforeseen and unpleasant rapidity: we moved from hopes for awaiting immunity or antivirals to a basic need for some consolation of our mortality. There was no possibility of transcendence in a crisis of mortality of dimensions and scope that seem outside the modern era.

And it is ironic that distancing is the best mode to prevent infection–and many deaths may have been enabled by quicker decisions to adopt practices of distancing that could manage viral spread, Trump seemed not to notice that the very globalization he had resisted, and swung against with all his force to win votes, had facilitated the spread of a viral agent whose arrival was denied even as SARS-CoV-2 had already begun to flood the United States, in ways we only mapped in retrospect, as a global village that by March 1 had already grown satellites of viral loads in South Korea, the Middle East, Iran (Teheran), Europe (Milan; Gotheborg), South East Asia, and Hong Kong, as we anticipated its arrival with no health policy in place and no strategy for containing what was already on our shores. The global crossroads defied any choropleth, but we had only mapped the virus for some time in choropleths, as if believing by doing so we could not only map it by national boundaries to keep the virus at bay.

New York Times

But if we lacked a model of infection and communication of COVID-19, we lacked a sense of the geography by which to understand its spread–and to map it–and also, deeply problematically, an inter-agency coordination to assess and respond to the virus’ spread as we sought to contain it: and in the United States, the absence of any coordinating public health agency has left the country in something like free-fall, a cluelessness emblematic by a map cautioning American travelers to take enhanced protections while traveling in Italy or Japan, two major destinations of travel, and avoid all nonessential travel to China, but refrained from ceasing travel plans.

1. The most compelling language of the novel coronavirus is “false positives” and “false negatives,” that seem to betray the unsure nature of standards; the most haunting is the multiple sites COVID-19 can appear in the sites of the body we use to map most disease. While we associate the virus with our respiratory tracts, the virus can do damage to multiple organ systems, as well as create blotchiness of “covid toes” due to burst peripheral blood vessels; it can damage multiple organ systems simultaneously, including the kidneys, heart, lungs, brain, and linger in our intestinal tract where it can flourish and proliferate; the virus can reduce the ability of our blood to form clots, or disable our ability to form clots.  The ACE-2 receptor protein, a launching pad for viral infections, lies in our lungs and respiratory tract but in stomach, intestines, liver, kidneys, and brain. Increased sensitivities among those suffering from high blood pressure, cardiac disease, and diabetes reflect the nosological difficulties of classifying the virus as a cause of death or to grasp it as an illness, let alone to read data about the disease. If the virus lodges in the most delicate structures of the alveoli, which it causes to collapse as it infects their lining, it can take multiple pathways in the body, and as its pathway of infection may be multiple, medical response must be improvised with no playbook for clinical care.

All we know is that our medical staff desperately need protective gear. On top of that, it hardly helps that we are without a clear national policy, and find that the United States government has engaged in far less transparency that one could have ever expected.

We can only say its spread is accelerated dramatically by structures of globalization, and it stands to disrupt them. utterly Even as we map what seem total global knowledge of the disease, analogous to what we have come to expect from Global Positioning System, the multiple holes in our picture of the spread of the disease provide little sense of mastery over the pathways of communication, contraction, and infection we have come to expect from maps. These maps may even be especially disorienting in a world where expertise is often dismissed in the United States–not only by the U.S. President, but out of frustration at the inability to distance, diagnose, track or supervise the disease that is increasingly threatens to get the better hand. Have our visualizations been something of a losing battle, or a war of atrophy we will not win? Or do we even know what sorts of data to look at–indeed, what is information that can help us process a sense of what might be the geography of the contraction or the transmutability of the virus? Is the virus eluding our maps, as we try to make them? These sort of questions of making sense may be the process of science, but they trace, suddenly, a far steepder learning curve than we are used.

A dismissed biomedical researcher who ran efforts to develop a vaccine cautioned that we still lack that the failure a trusted, standard, and centralized plan for testing strategies must play a part in the coordinated plan “to take this nation through this response.” Dr. Bright, who was abruptly removed last month from his position as head of the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority, bemoaned the limited statistics, alas, in large part as fear of providing too many tests–or fanning the flames of insecurity that testing might promote in the general public and in our financial markets, seem to have created the most dangerously deceptive scenario in which the United States seems to be committed to projecting confidence, even if it is the global epicenter of the pandemic.

Have we developed a language to orient ourselves to the scale of emergency in the spread of COVID-19? While we turn to images of natural disasters in describing the “epicenter” of the outbreak in Wuhan, this hardly conjures the species jump and under-the-radar communication of the virus that was not tracked for months before it emerged as a global threat. In tracking COVID-19 globally, or over a broad expanse of nations or states, we often ignored the pathways by which the novel coronavirus is spread in crowded spaces, where the single strand of RNA may hang in droplets that linger in the air, and are looking at the small scale maps to track a microscopic pathogen. But we are increasingly aware the spread of these strands, of the virus SARS-CoV-2, that infect populations along increasingly unequal fault lines that divide our cities, nations, health care systems, and crowding, or access to open space, are all poorly mapped in the choropleths into which we continue to smooth the datasets of infections and hospitalizations. While the problems are posed for national health services in each region, the devastation and danger of overloading public health systems and hospitals outweighs are local manifestations of a global crisis of the likes we have not confronted.

2. And the crowding of such numbers beyond the buffers that began with lead to a visual crowding by which we continue to be overwhelmed–and will have been overwhelmed for some time.

April, COIVID-19Iinfections Globally by Country/Clustrmaps May 12, 20202020

For although the global pandemic will clearly be with us for a long time, spatial narratives might be more likely to emerge in networks and in forms of vulnerability, in ways that might reveal a more pronounced set of narratives for how we can respond to a virus than the deep blues of even the limited and constrained datasets that we have, as we struggle against the blindness we have in containment and mitigation, and the frustration of the lack of anything like a vaccine. (This pandemic is almost a metastasis of the anti-vaxxers: confirmation that a vaccine cannot check a disease, it gives rise to concerns that vaccinations might have left us immunologically more vulnerable to its spread . . .and a sense that the hope of eradicating COVID-19 by the availability of a vaccination in four to five years will be widely resisted by anti-vaxxers and their acolytes, to whom the pandemic has given so much new steam. Yet as the virus interacts with the viral posting of anti-vaxxers resisting social distancing or collective policies of response, the stresses that exist in our society will only be amplified.) And if as late as February 24, only three laboratories in the United States did test for COVID-19–artificially lowering public numbers–even confirmed numbers through March and April were as a result tragically low. Could maps even help to track the disease without a testing apparatus in place?

Global Covid Infections/Datascraped by Avi Schiffman, May 11, 2020

The prestige of the data visualization has been a basis for reopening the nation. Yet if less than a tenth of the world’s population has yet to be exposed to the disease–and perhaps only 5% of the American population, in one estimate, if not lower–the virus is bound to be endemic to the global landscape for quite a considerable length of time. At the same time, one must wonder if the many fault lines that have created such peaks and valleys in the virus’ spread, if confirming its highly infectious nature, to be sure, are not removed from us in some degree by the smooth surfaces of the screens on which we watch and monitor, breath bated, with some terror, its spread, unsure of the accuracy or completeness of the data on which they are based but attentive to whatever they reveal. In many ways, these maps have created an even more precarious relation to the screen, and to the hopes that we find some sign of hope within their spread, or hope to grasp the ungraspable nature of COVID-19.

These datamaps suggest a purchase on a disease we don’t understand, and we don’t even have good numbers on contraction. Yet we are discussing “reopening” the United States, while we do not have anything approaching a vaccine, let alone the multiple vaccines that medical authorities desire before resuming social contact at pre-pandemic levels. How to process the data that we have, and how to view the maps not only by hovering, zooming in, or distancing the growing rates of infection, but tracking the virus in spaces, mapping levels of infection against adequacy of testing, mortalities against comorbidities, against with the chronic nature of the virus must be understood, as well as levels of hospitalization levels; and distinctions or mutations of the virus and against age ranges of afflicted–by, in other words, drilling beneath the datasets to make our maps’ smooth surfaces more legible, as horrifying as they are?

Can we use what we have to pose problems about the new nature of this contagion we don’t fully understand, but has been mapped in ways that seek to staunch fears of a decline in the stock market, as much as an emergency of public health, with up to one third of the population at risk of infection? The instinctive reaction of the Trump Health and Human Services to create public-private “community testing sites” for drive-thru or drive-up testing at Walgreens, CVS, Rite Aid, Kroger and other pharmacies seems reflexive for a government wanting to minimize federal overhead, but a far less exact means, and a far less intuitively sensible basis to attract potentially infected individuals to sites of public congregation. The hope of Verily–a subsidiary of Alphabet, whose Project Baseline boasts the slogan, “We’ve Mapped the World, Now Let’s Map Human Health,” in a bizarrely boosterish rhetoric, aggregates medical for medical screening in California–

Select States for Project Baseline Testing/Verily

–and select states–was the primary response that Trump had promised of a network of drive-up testing sites that has never materialized, even as it expanded to a hundred sites in thirty states. After Walmart opened two sites, and Walmart 40, the difficult accuracy of creating multiple testing sites was prohibitive, the testing sites that were rolled out with the assistance of private entrepreneurs that Jared Kushner enlisted, that filled the absence of any coherent public health response–perhaps, terrifyingly, in concert with his brother’s health care company, Oscar, which also partnered with CVS and some of the same pharmaceutical services, focussing on drive-thru sites more than sustained medical care, focussing largely on calming retailers who feared the arrival of infected patients on their parking lots, more than on the efficacy of testing, which they didn’t understand. If only 40% of promised test kits were made available, the absence of providing staffers or selling, as in Massachusetts, self-testing kits–and failing to provide many in large cities like New Orleans, as if to keep the final tally of infected artificially low. Even if the Center for Disease Controls had never done clinical tests on hydrochloroquine, whose dangers on humans were not studied, and despite some benefits of the antiviral on cell cultures, none appeared in mice, the drug was promoted widely on social media as late as April, although its mention on Twitter grew, even as the government delayed any roll-out of testing sites.

The demand to calm the nation, a position dangerously close to concealment, delayed action on a wave of infection that President Trump had long sought to deny, claim to be overblown, or call Fake News. The lack of a public testing initiative, and rejection of the tests of other nations, forced the United States to adopt a disorganized go-it-aloneist approach, akin to isolationism, not benefiting from the potential ties to Chinese doctors’ response, or the testing kits that would have been available that the World Health Organization (WHO) had suspected since January, and made test kits for poorer countries that might be replicated in the United States–which chose to make its own tests to ensure the highest quality. When WHO had urged countries “test, test, test” for the coronavirus to contain its spread, the global health organization provided 1.5 million tests to 120 countries who lacked the ability to test by March 16; the United States went without the diagnostic tests developed in Berlin by la Charité, implemented in Germany. If the United States had submitted a test to WHO as well, the German test the health organization adopted was never used or ordered–and by mid-March processed a sixth the specimens as in Italy, with found over six times as many cases, and an eleventh as in South Korea, which found double the cases.

By April, the picture had improved, but not much.

COVID Tracking Project (Data)

And based on later data of the virus that spread to other American cities, the virus that had infected so many in New York seems to have spread to other American metropoles by May, as we were still awaiting broad testing.

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Filed under data visualization, disease maps, infectious diseases, public health, US Politics

Where Do I Go?

As if doing an asana into a terrain-view surface of Kathmandu, or leaning too forward into a map screen to place his head into its tiles, a sportily dressed male icon in the Antipodes Map plunges across the map to its other side.  The imagined transit through rendered topography seems noteworthy of an alienated relation to place, despite the proliferation of toponyms on the surface of a screen.  Although the site is dated, the avatar is an emblem of the reduced interactivity on offer in most web-based maps, and something like a prisoner in the platform that he was intended to promote, and the poverty of how we use coordinates as a way to organize screen-based maps that remove from cartography from an art and perhaps–more seriously–the observer from the map.  At a time when the world demands more detailed observation and scrutiny–and Donald Trump proposes not only to do less to slow climate change, but give broad profiles to climate change deniers in his incoming administration, the importance of mapping climate change seems likely to be curtailed, in ways that raise the danger of an alienation from map-based inquiry.  At at time when we need something stiff to take our mind off what’s going on, the teasing use of the map in the  Antipodes Map seems almost an emblem of uncertainty.

For the staid Google Maps platform, despite its richness in place-names, hardly suggests the landscape of where you would end up in the world.  The platform maps the location where you would suddenly re-emerge by showing its antipodal counterparts of any location on a map screen.  But the illusion of hexadecimal accuracy conceals the maps generated from a toponym could in fact be located most anywhere:  the map is impoverished of meaning.  If the icon exists in almost comic way, it suggests the seriously diminished expectations of a map and their expanded claims for trust in their certainty, the website creates non-utilitarian maps, stripped of any navigational use of actual way-finding, that make one feel the slippery epistemic consequences of one’s remove from a globe.  Indeed, it makes one wonder if the embrace of such a platform suggests an endemic alienation from the local against which we seem condemned to struggle.  The figure in the map is almost something of an emblem for the “end of the map,” and the consequences of the adoption and diffusion of platforms of impoverished interactivity. Even in an age where expanding abilities of interactivity have redefined video games, musical composition and screen use, why is the map with such lowered expectations?  There seems to be a clear sense of removing attaching narrative coherence to its form, despite its hugely rich narrative possibilities.

The algorithms underlying the Antipodes Map are simple.  They playfully promise the possibility of re-emerging on the “other side of the world” in ways that suggest the remove of the globe from our geographic unconscious.  Provided for an audience of bored armchair travelers from bored office-workers  to zoned-out insomniacs, the paired maps of antipodal locations claim to be about place, but suggest the remove of the viewer from their content.  This is partly because the rather sterile landscape is stripped of any use for navigating or sense of orientation, and its remove from the operations for travel that the map actually presents–stripped of much sense of the local or the spatial, it is as if the map were a way to play with spatial travel, so compelling that it might substitute for geographic knowledge, so removed is it from much any sense of actual presence with which a viewer can interact.  In a sort of caricature of an online map, it is a low-tech cartographic formulation of place that seems to expose the consequences of our increasing remove from a world of tangible paper maps.  Indeed, the easy generation of misleading mapping at such an extreme cognitive remove may not only perpetuate the sense of global chaos that Donald Trump purveyed with such success, but the misreading of the voting landscape that made his election so much of a surprise.  The comic image of burying one’s head in a map certainly gains added resonance after the 2016 general election for President of the United States as an allegory about the costs the alienating viewers from place whose tiles are stripped of scale and cleansed of much local detail.

 

Different Scales antipodes.png

 

Although it’s difficult to take full stock of the diminished role of the globe in daily life, the limited presence of a relation to place or spatial differences that is perpetuated in the Antipodes Map seem particularly acute for the problematic question of how we map “place” today.  In an era when we increasingly stitch together georectified satellite images of the globe, bemoaning an absence of coordinates may seem hopelessly antiquated–but the problematic meaning of “place” in a globalized economy seems mirrored in the dislocated sense of place that is present and perpetuated in many overly schematic maps–and the difficulty to mediate place, or to tell an effective narrative about place in the set of GIS tools that are available in most web-maps, whose terrain view backgrounds hint strongly at homogeneity.  The increased slipperiness of grasping place in the raster tiles of a slippy map seems to inflect the level of trust that the modeling of electoral projections sustained this past month, and a failure to register the declining numbers of voters in the map echoes the sense of banality in the maps’ properties–and their remove from telling non-generic stories about place.  The troubling absence of a road map for the future may even increasingly make us come to yearn for the tangibility and stability of the maps to which many have said farewell.

 

1.  It is more than somewhat ironic in an age of increasing border controls and confinement that the Google Maps engine provides an almost entirely notional relation to place in how the Antipodes Map.  For the website, which employs maps as a sort of device, takes advantage of online mapping to create an image of antipodal points of any “place,” promising to help users to “tunnel to the other side of the world”–showcasing a virtual escape from the more densely inhabited regions of the earth to that uninhabited region through to an antipodal point in the Indian Ocean, in the image of someone in a pose ever so slightly resembling downward dog, but with their head immersed in a map’s face, as if entering the sea of map data to re-emerge, mermaid like, off the coast of Australia–the very region once described as the Antipodes.

But despite the antithetical or oppositional nation of the Antipodes–or the firm belief in an artistic localism the Antipodean Manifesto advocated in 1959, proclaiming “Dada is as dead as the dodo and it is time to bury this antique hobby-horse“–place is not that clearly differentiated in a website that constructs antipodal relations generated by adding 180 to latitude and a negative sign to longitude is as almost sterile as its flat base map.  With brio, the Melbourne-basd artists who launched the Antipodean Manifesto asserted it “only natural that we should see and experience nature differently in some degree from the artists of the northern hemisphere,” against the ascendancy of American abstract expressionism, with a flourish of place-based common sense; yet the local is lost in the diversionary algorithms for imaging complementary cartographies of geographic location that are less rooted in place, than seem to aspire to transcend it.

 

Antipodes.png

 

As much as doing downward dog on the slippery surface of a slippy map, the figure in the map seems almost to bow to the authority of geolocation in the web-based map that almost says goodbye to the relation of the viewer and the map.

In an age that increasingly seems to pride itself as existing “after maps,” the website offers the metastasis of a form of mapping, fitting for an age when we are tracked in web maps,  but maps have ceased to exist as objects with their own formal properties.  It’s almost fitting how the Antipodes Map website provides viewers with an opportunity for cartographical interface maps from any place concretely render the sense of how geolocated maps exist in our heads–in fact, so immersed in maps are we that we rarely can resurface near the international dateline off the coast of New Zealand.  The cartographical fantasia that’s engineered on the old-fashioned webmaps of the website is emblematic of the loss of the globe, however–it recalls the paradoxes of imagining travel without a physical map:  we don’t travel in maps, perhaps because we are already in them.  In an age that both is inundated by maps, and lacks them, the screen cartoonishly absorbs the spectator viewing the map’s content, with a half-hearted attempt at irony at placing you next to the International Date Line in danger of being attacked by sharks.  The sense of impending danger might exist almost anywhere, given the multiple narratives that might be hung atop the awfully opaque surface of a Google Map.

 

rome-to-antipodes-near-new-zealand

 

Although the stitching together of images would be impossible without coordinate systems, they are sublimated in most satellite imagery and web maps, which exist with hidden coordinates, recently reborn in an age of digitized mapping forms as the UTM.  The gridded lines that once guided readership and visual attention to some degree, as well as explaining the nature of the transformation, have receded into the background as a layer beneath their surface, tacitly accepted, not part of the map’s surface and without any deictic function of indicating place–as if we don’t need them any more to read the map’s surface or place locations; the map has gained a formal coherence as a picture plane.

The absence of indication or reference points remind one of the wonderfully cloud-free satellite mosaics of Planet Labs, which balance spatial precision with the “accuracy” of the visual georectification within a coordinate system, but it has recently receded entirely, as the coordinates have vanished and disappeared as indices.  Terrestrial coordinates are the conspicuous absence we rarely take stock of in our web maps as most cartographers fit satellite maps into most any mapping matrix as a base map– stitched together as a mosaic of pixellated forms to provide a disembodied relation to a virtual landscape, whose rendering assembles a place for us in a weirdly disconcerting cartographical pastiche.

 

Laos Spatially accurate.png“Laos,” Planet Labs

 

The coherence of this map is of course predominantly pictorial, with far less premium placed on the projection.  With so many models for achieving smoothness in what now are called maps, programs for georectification take the place of base-lines, as the assembly of maps take their reference from LandSat, stitching together a mosaic that adjusts for any photographic distortions, warping each pixel to terrestrial curvature to create a coherent image seems as if it is completely removed from geographical coordinates–which are banished to tacit signs, as if relics of a past relation to a map’s face.

Because of this, the suddenly unexpected prominence that the system of coordinates gain again, as if in a return of the repressed, is so surprising in the somewhat outdated Antipodes Map.  While the website streams Google Earth locations in familiar tiled map imagery, the hidden use of a system of coordinates is its central and animating conceit.   As in the header to this post, the engine of the Antipodes Map bears out its the promise to match any location to its antipodal location,  as if suddenly pairing any screen map with its counterpart as if in a cartographically-enhanced ADD by playfully juxtaposing any place on the globe with its antipode in a semantically bizarre visualization map-engagement–

 

aleppo-antipodal

 

–that is an illustration, perhaps, that the map exists in your head.

But the Antipodes Map seems to render the flexibility with which map data has come to  supersede maps in somewhat accurate ways.  It’s no surprise, perhaps, that in our map-inundated era, Gary Johnson was left confounded by questions of what “Aleppo” was–a sausage?  a fashion statement?  something a President is expected to handle?–almost exasperated for lack of context to place the place-name.  Are we all in danger of finding ourselves increasingly lost in the opaque surface of maps?  We may be faced by a limited range of stories able to be attached to or hang around place, as place-names are situated abundantly in generic landscapes with few clear claims for their physical actuality, or to the stability of place.

 

tiles.gif

tiles.jpg

 

2.  The on-line viewer of the Antipodes Map is cartographically rendered as lost in the map or as entering the surface in which he takes refuge–as if to invite the viewer to enter through its surface to arrive at a location’s terrestrial antipode.  It is an easy slight of hand but a bizarre semiotic conflation that seems to perpetuate the illusion of frictionless travel web maps allow:  the instant generation of map situating the viewer on the corresponding point on the other hemisphere echoes an image of global inter-connectedness that the constraints of a web-map don’t allow it to ever provide.  We indeed seem to fall into our screens, or into the terrain-view base maps that they generate, in the Antipodes Map website, that has revived the life of an early modern or medieval geographic concept of the weighted harmony of the place of landmasses or continents on the globe to provide a diverting disorientation to the world as viewed by Web Mercator, our current de facto default for imagining indexed tools of spatial reference on coordinates, for lack of a globe.

 

zDNb5.png

 

Despite the considerable analytic benefits of slicing up the continent and country into differently sized map tiles, the maps that cannily re-segment the country into units may have led to a lack of clarity in much of the nation for what it meant to pursue votes–no doubt complicated by the overdetermined distribution of votes, and the nature of turn-out, and the range of local policies of voting were so systematically altered over years.

To return to the Antipodes Map, the inspiration of this post, the website has the odd quality of defining place in a post-cartographical world, dispensing with the map to organize a sense of place independently from a map’s legends, words, or narratives, as if it was a readymade version of truth, to whose authority viewers enjoyed a largely passive relation, and whose immateriality contains some disorienting features of its own.

 

OpenStreetMap_homepage.pngOpen Street Map

 

3.  One cannot but worry deeply that the absence of material coherence has quite recently resurfaced in the U.S. Presidential campaign of Hillary Clinton.  The apparent failure to plan a pragmatic strategy to win the electoral college for Hillary Clinton’s campaign, as we replay its narrative and promise within our heads in an attempt to grasp where we might have gone–or just went–so sadly wrong.  Despite the reassurance for which we turned repeatedly to political forecasts, the poor prognosticative value endemic to most all data projections that were produced during the final months of the campaign almost removed us more than oriented us to the political problems of the country.  Even if we almost didn’t grasp what happened, the problem of missing the people behind the numbers–or somehow seeming to describe the electorate, not wanting to look at the voters, the maps produced now seem to betray the inherent fraudulence of any such forecasting as an exact art, and the dangers of their analogies as forecasts to the weather or competitive ports– without looking at the margin of error or fate of the undecided, fetishizing figures rather than issues, led analysts to endow a misleading degree of solidity in the opinion poll maps.

Whether due to a lack of clear messaging by the candidate, or of just being outclassed by another storyline, something just seems to have been not visible or escaped detection– despite the reliance of the highly talented Clinton team electoral maps and big data.  For if data was ostensibly what Clinton’s team so relentlessly pursued, one can’t but worry that some did so, somehow, without looking that closely at the landscape and realities that lay beneath it.  Buoyed by expectations for higher voter turn-out and far greater voter interest, the attention to advertising markets on unreadable territories somehow increased.  Why, one wonders, even during its final weeks, rather paradoxically pursued advertising markets so aggressively it took its eyes off of the “electoral map” of voters, to shape its strategy out of ideal aspirations for arriving at a political consensus that seemed in reach in Ohio, North Carolina, and Florida, as well as Arizona.  What were the reasons for selecting as the major markets for television advertising states she didn’t need to win, and directing precious resources in a quest that seems now, with the benefit of retrospect, most misguided.  For in focussing on them, her campaign seemed to ignore votes in Wisconsin, Michigan, and almost Pennsylvania–and the important down-ballot priorities in those states–maybe taking for granted their historical support for a Democratic candidate as able to survive without active cultivation–in ways that were almost, incredibly, oblivious to a landscape defined by increasing voting restrictions.

 

VRA restrictions.png

States Implementing New Voting Restrctions in the 2016 Presidential Election

 

One fears that by being egged on by a data-driven optimism, inspiring a last-minute appeals to the all-but-out-of reach, the disturbing allocation of resources seems a particularly dangerous error, unwisely hoping for a victory across an east coast time zone for viewing audiences on the nightly news  on election night, or enticed by the elusive promise of a broad victory, which in retrospect seems so very self-indulgent, or at least misguided by the overselling of the precision in models of voting, and ignoring just how many wait until deciding how to cast their vote, especially when 12 percent of the electorate claims being undecided, but broke late for Trump in ways that invalidate any security in polls-based prognostications as a guide on where to place your money.

For in failing to defend bread and butter of the Democratic party the Democrats may have crashed the ship of state atop the rocky symbolic politics of a general election.  During a campaign that became increasingly unhinged from policy questions, and waged by vicious but misleading ads insinuating outright criminality but fixated on soundbites–Build the Wall!; Drain the Swamp!; End NAFTA!–slogans seem designed to boost voters energy but distract attention from actual economic issues and global dangers or disequilibria.  The consequence of Democrats saturating certain markets, buoyed by what we now see as unreliable polls, has resulted in the increasing sense of uncertainty that now afflicts the world, even if they may have seemed to make so much sense as a guide to saturate selective media markets–setting apart the content of those ads and their effectiveness.  The regions where unions once defined the project of getting out the vote found that their members were just not voting Democratic after all in 2016, the ongoing decline of unions‘ strength had significantly changed the dynamics of the voting map.  (And where many were expected to vote Democratic in the past, that just wasn’t going down.)

The dissonance of such changing where money was spent seems terribly sad.  The intensity of the ad campaign might be selectively distributed to a set of states where investments were perhaps either not enough or were maybe not clearly warranted anyway, as the airwaves were apparently flooded with Democratic ads in an overly optimistic way, as a barrage on the airwaves was assumed to sway people to one side in the final weeks of the most contentious presidential contest in recent memory.  This was almost a sustained hope to pummel one side with an intent that may have escaped actual possibilities, but remained skewed to the ever-elusive targets of North Carolina and Florida in ways that are retrospectively tragic, and removed from the distribution of electoral votes–

 

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campaing spending TV ads.pngCampaign Spending on Television Ads in General Election, Aug 9-Oct 25 (Bloomberg)

 

 

ad-map-final-week2016-presidential-cmapignaCampaign spending on television ads in 2016 Presidential Race, September2-November 7

 

While the content of the ads can’t be ignored in assessing the value of these markets, the way that the media markets were so clearly cut up by someone in the Clinton camp make one raise eyebrows that big buying in Michigan, Wisconsin, Georgia, Maine and Arizona seemed not only to abandon the vaunted fifty-state strategy, but fell short in generating enthusiasm or response.  It’s hard not to wonder, even if it many not get us anywhere, since it might help to reflect on the sorts of narratives that maps might better allow us to frame and to reflect on the advantages and consequence of doing so.  The disarming geographical clustering of media elites, the distance from their lives from the majority of Americans, and the inability to report on a broad range of social conditions create a perfect storm for failing to reflect how most of the actual voters lived, and the increased remove of most journalists from the nation, with broad suspicions of media “elites” and their pronouncements, remain a significant problem for journalists to serve a public.  But it remains fundamental that the false promise of a certainty of synthesis lies also in the data-driven delusions that allowed many to not see the potential real weaknesses Clinton might face–and not the strengths she might gain–and less on the dangers that were implicit in getting out the vote in the strange, new landscape of voting restrictions.

Could Clinton campaign’s projections have taken the eye off an electoral map, by removing a sense of niche markets from an effective overall narrative of electoral victory?   Ronald Brownstein already feared such an eventuality in the works, wondering openly if the campaign was overly attracted to assembling an apparently attractive advantageous coalition of voters, which weighted their attention to the map of apparently obtainable electoral votes that so unfortunately didn’t ever materialize.  In attempts to assemble an increasingly diverse electorate that they hoped would turn out for them, it’s hard not to ask, without recrimination, if they were driven by data and margins of possibility–or enticed by the possibility of projecting huge margins of victory across the map, in ways didn’t help the campaign to focus more intensely on the people behind it or the places where they lived, not to mention the distributions that the electoral college reflects.

The “rational over-confidence” that led them to aim for long-shot down-ballot benefits in Nevada, North Carolina, and across the South, suggests Alex Lundry of Deep Root Analytics has argued, may have led to a rather stunning neglect of core states that so surprisingly migrated in the end to the Republican column, in ways that redrew the national political map few data projections imagined and pollsters or pollsters predicted.  It may make no sense to look back in anger.  But was an absence of attention to the “heartland” in favor of devotion to urban areas in Florida, Pennsylvania, and North Carolina a consequence of undue trust in data visualizations?  Could it be that the seductive illusion of intriguing electoral scenarios was created at the cost of curiously disembodied data in a market of political prognostication–as wide trust in models and figures helped move Democrats’ eyes off the prize in the political map?   For while Trump inundated ad markets in Ohio, Michigan and Pennsylvania with particularly nasty misleading attacks on personal character, the Florida market gained irrational magnetism as a site to stop his Train, in ways we have to resist pondering if only to keep our heads.

Bracketing the current electoral disaster, are there genealogies of trust in data, and mediating the country through an electoral map, in the dismantling of the material map?  They are tied to an acceptance of an age after the map, in which we’re guided by the promise of comprehensive coverage at one’s fingertips–and persuaded that it would be possible to put them “in play” since we seem so empowered by the data we’ve assembled in an apparently coherent map, that we ignore its other fault-lines.

The premise seems so compelling that to be worth tracing in greater detail.  Could the embrace of digits led to ignoring individual voters, as probabilities and the compelling nature of alternate scenarios and visualizations of past history dangerously took one’s eyes off how recent elections in 2012 were determined largely by the nation’s new socio-economic map?

 

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countymappurple512.pngMark Newman/2012 election cartograms

There are optimistic signs of the possibilities and options for refiguring the huge problems in democratic representation, as by creatively using data distributions that we have to create better centered electoral districts in less interested ways–shown here in the state of Georgia–that could reduce gerrymandering by redistricting through simple GIS.

 

Impartial Automatic Redistricting (2010)

 

Indeed, many plans for redistricting can lead to a more effective model of representation to which special interests, and bureaucratic slowness, have not led us to adopt, with potentially quite undemocratic results, in large part because of the huge cost of the transformation in voting practices.  But is the cost of such a failure increasingly apparent in the ways we form and select government for all?

And anyway, is the geographic allotment in California with greater sense as such a map?

 

 

CA.pngImpartial Automatic Redistricting (2010)

 

The alternative possible plausible map offering voters more equitable distributions of equidistance by automatic redistricting seems, in the abstract, potentially more reasonable, and removed from the interested division of districts in the existing map.

 

map-1.pngImpartial Automatic Redistricting (2010)

 

Perhaps the difficulties of redistricting are daunting, but the tools of mapmaking indeed have made them increasingly possible, if not for the difficulty of undertaking national changes that cut so sharply against entrenched interests of existing representatives who have nurtured bonds to their constituents, and would feel challenged by the compact district of a new electoral map, even though the older map is effectively infected by existing interests to easily confirm the redrawing of district.

 

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Or have we been overly disempowered by platforms of mapping, in ways that have allowed them to serve individual interests in overly explicit ways?  Indeed, the possibility that mapping platforms are tied to an unwarranted overconfidence in data and in the manipulation of individual votes seem to have been present in both sides of the 2016 vote, as plans for exercising rights to create a more equanimous image of voting representation remains in an earlier era–as, perhaps, the electoral college itself, may overly distort voting in ways that we are too often compliant.

 

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If we have long been attracted and attached to the descriptive power of the map–

 

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–is the medium not only interfering with the message, but overly disorienting?

 

4.  The enduring absence of a globe may be an eerily enabling underside of globalization, in which the never-ending wonders of internet are given something of an enabling basis in a range of maps that erase a contextualized view of place.  The imagined freedoms guaranteed  by uniform access to online information on the world wide web may have origins in the sense of liberation from geographical divisions of mapped territories that many maps once seemed, after all, to perpetuate so falsely as a bad ideology of the state.  One feels hard-pressed to imagine the democratization of the “flow of information” as leveling the playing field, save by its flattening of the earth.  But let’s move to a rosier age.  But the desire for the liberation of such a global vision of information might start in the “big picture” that maps provided for folks like R. Buckminster Fuller and of course Stuart Brand, who famously took the globe as an image of big issues and complexity.

For the economy of online information that derived from such initial optimism and indeed near-utopian aspirations to emerge from geographical constraints of Cold War nationalism has produced a spatial imaginary that has all but dispensed with place, by positioning it in a new matrix of geolocation.  Despite initial eagerness to envision global unity as proclaimed in the 1960s in the iconic interrogative Brand’s clever button posed in northern California on or around March 22, 1966.  For Brand hoped a more complete image the world could provoke a release from the ideology of a national map and a holistic attitude to environmental care as if by an interrogative of greater imaginative force–

 

Figure-1-Campaign-button-1967-by-Stewart-Brand-Urging-NASA-and-the-Soviet-Union-to.png

 

–the notion of the “Whole Earth” that Brand and crew believed to be almost in reach back in 1968 has more than somewhat receded from sight.

Brand had bravely advocated expanding one’s cartographical comprehensiveness to remap connections in a new picture for his audience.  He became an evangelizist for the “Whole Earth” perspective and offered broad “access to tools,” by boosting the breadth of its contents, and cramming information into the dense layout of its pages that optimistically erased one’s sense of disconnect to actual uneven distributions of wealth and, er, tools.  But by providing inter-connections by “big picture thinking,” Brand promoted a wonderfully holistic vision in the Whole Earth Catalogue, that Bible of “Holistic Thinking” aiming to remedy an absence of attention to complex, interconnected systems of which Brand dedicated himself whole-heartedly, by the sheer force of making a more open and comprehensive map to display the whole “big picture” in its copious abundance, enticing readers to trace extensive interconnections in the world that the Catalogue revealed.

 

Whole Earth Tools.pngFall, 1968

 

Stewart Brand and company viewed cartography both as an illustration and a model for the understanding of “big systems” he sought to illuminate in the Whole Earth Catalogue, providing an image of complexity of the “whole Earth” that interacted over an extended space in ways that cartography provided a metaphor to reveal.  Viewing the “whole Earth” sought to provide ways of revealing unseen connections between places and also offered with brio a ticket to understanding whole specialized systems and bolstered the hubris of bridging a gamut of specialities.  If this made the Whole Earth Catalogue a precursor to the internet and World Wide Web in its aims to reveal the breadth of the ongoing state of play, it was also embodied in the notion of a playful game in which the earth’s fate lay in the balance–echoed in how Brand imagined players of the cooperative game Slaughter shifting sides to prevent the earth from ever being pushed “over the edge” to one side–in an undisguised metaphor for preventing real slaughter from occurring during the war.

 

Whole Earth March 1970.pngWhole Earth Catalogue, March 1970 (MOMA)

 

The notion of a game inspired by volleyball using a ball painted as a globe sought to turn players’ energies toward protecting any team from pushing the earth over the “edge”–a fear increasingly emergent in the Vietnam War, by focusing on preventing it from falling–or, in a version modeled after Tug-of-War, by shifting sides in order to prevent the ball/earth from ever crossing too far across one line, and trying to maintain its stability.

For back when Brand and his friends optimistically  enjoined NASA and the Soviet Union to ‘‘finally turn the cameras backward’’ towards the planet earth to provide a picture of the world, posing the question first on buttons he hocked at the University of California campus in Berkeley, the notion of a new mapping of a global world and its connections would open a perspective that liberated users from what seemed hackneyed nationalistic values and promising notions of interconnection to ideas and information in new graphic forms.  The idealistic promise of global coverage didn’t create such a release, even long after the button-selling of Brand was chased off of Berkeley’s campus, but Brand’s idealistic notion of the power of global coverage informed the internet’s promise to provide information everywhere, by allowing unprecedented access to maps in ways world-changing in itself.

To be sure, the liberating force of the internet lies in its ability to provide information everywhere, but it remains true that the surface of the world wide web is anything but a uniform surface or playing field.

 

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The absence of a level field in internet use continues even after Facebook‘s efforts to saturate the planet with free wifi, already evident in those most  connected to Facebook–

 

connessione-facebookFacebook Connectivity Lab

 

The obstacles to the dream of comprehensive online exchange hasn’t happened, and may not, given the uneven nature of the global penetration rate of the internet, whose global spread is broken down nationally on a cartogram warping of space by population, and shows deep whole in much of Africa and South Asia, and a lopsided evolution of web-use, convincingly rendered by the clever cartographer Luc Guillemot–

 

global-penetration-of-net-2000-2012Luc Guillemot

 

 

5.  Paradoxically, if inevitably the generation of most online maps is overwhelmingly and resolutely local, in the sense that it is only accessible in quite unevenly distributed ways–it would be wonderful to see the scope of the scale at which Google Maps is accessed in different places and regions, if such data were open; as it is, we rarely see the “whole earth” as Brand imagined, so much more focussed are we on tracking national political events or elections, or mapping the settings and spaces we travel and spread of local weather variations.  We map where we are in maps of air travel on view in airplanes, Waze apps we use to view traffic flows, or the crime maps of neighborhoods and, on a broader scope, the weather maps of nations, states, or regions, which have a sense of actuality that exploit most maps’ existence on a server, always able to be reformulated to track meaning and flows for our eyes, and indeed even to put us into its content.

Encouraged by the near-ubiquity of wifi and internet services, we use smart phones as navigational tools to trace our locations on winding roads, taking our eyes off of the itinerary, almost to the degree Rube Goldberg’s cartoon of Non-Tangle Map Rollers prefigured–running the danger of taking eyes off of the road on which we are driving.

 

Rube Goldbert's Non-Tangle Road Map Rollers.png

 

There is not such a utopian sense of how information actually flows online through the ether, to be sure.   Indeed, there are still clear winners and losers for the speeds of information exchanges that the speed of internet exchanges creates–and are not evident on Brand’s “whole Earth,” which still seems to provide the mental model to which online mapping aspires–despite the actual differences in the backbone that enables such online communications and the advantages it allots residents of certain regions:  for rather than provide a unified global image of à la Brand, cartographer Luc Guillemot’s recent map of internet capacities reveals intractable inherent differences in the sizing of information highways for different regions–and give the lie to the free-floating of information along the cables and backbones on which they are transmitted among different regions, by mapping the actual quantified capacities at which they run.

00.pngLuc Guillemot

 

The ways that we might understand the vision motion of information better have only begun to be mapped.  But the continuous provision of infinite information faces multiple material constraints.  The enticing image of the expanse of the global net has clear weaknesses, to be sure, as does the hope of expecting universal access to online maps.

So what of the whole earth?  Where did it go?  The proposals and presuppositions of the Google Maps template and of Web Mercator are rarely interrogated, but in the name of subsuming information to utility, and actuality to web tiles, the map engine does odd things, removed from experience, as a semantic web of spatial reference–like suppose a uniformity of land and water, render and reify abstract spatial positions removed from local context, and reinstate a flat-earth perspective that would be less familiar from a globe, that provide an array of tools to conceive of place–from tracking to geolocation.

 

6.  The framework of spatial reference generated the Antipodes Map streaming Google Earth locations in familiar map tiles imagery.   As in the header to this post, the engine bears the promise to match a map of where you are to the earth’s other side, analogously online information-sharing promises to place any user at any site, and by using the very same engine.  As internet-based maps provide a network of ready-made mapping whose instruments are accessible to all–despite the clear constraints that undergirds the internet and renders it less of the open area for free exchange.

The Antipodes Map engine is itself an artifact of the age in which any map is readily generated and supplied, more than exists.  It is an emblem of the utopian premises of the hyper-personalization of online maps–rather than present a record of the inhabited world, the site marks place for viewers by a search engine alone–and situates place in an otherwise undifferentiated expanse:  the map revels in the status of place in the map-engine as a “quasi-object” and of the map’s user as a “quasi-subject,” to use terms Bruno Latour coined as tools to understand the networks in which each exist; for the Antipodes Map website itself serves to trace networks of calculating place on an online map engine by a coordinate network, preparing a readymade sense of local landscapes disembodied from place and with little context, and removed from current political events or human habitation.

There is no Jules Verne-like majesty of imagining the construction of an actual tunnel, as a corridor running through the earth’s core, here advertised as a project to open to visitors tired of global air travel, linking Singapore and Ecuador, that is promised to be constructed from Singapore by 2050, which might provide the very sort of transport it imagines in an imagined physical corridor–

 

antipodes2

 

It oddly remaps place that preclude any sense of embodied travel, in a gloriously impoverished sense that sees the map as not only the medium, but simulacrum of travel.

The frictionless sort of travel that online mapping claims to provide to its users has been interestingly incarnated in an online Antipodes Map, if the magic of generating a web-map has admittedly lost much of its early initial sheen.  The search engine light-heartedly bills itself as a virtual “tunnel to the other side of the world” that half-exploits the decreasing availability of concrete media and forms of mapping in a “globe-less” society, whose lack it seems to mourn.  Many may mourn the symbolic centrality of the globe as a talisman of interconnectedness in the age of web-based maps, but the performance of the web-map and the surrogate reality that it offers viewers in a new network of map-use is celebrated in the engine as if to overcome the lack of the materiality of the map.  The engine allows, by an easy trick, instant generation of the web map from any set of coordinates, as “our ‘man’ will dig a tunnel from selected location, right through the center of the Earth, up to the other side of the world which will be represented on Right Map.”

 

different-scales-antipodes

 

Although the lack of scales in the two windows of the map-generator negotiates the fact that much of the world is water, the possibility for altering scales allow considerably bizarre symbolic, and even odder as a way to lend a sense of presence to the formally abstract and generic screen map–lending a notional materiality to the web-map that almost celebrates the map as a simulacrum that’s ready to be fashioned around where you are, wherever you are, immediately.

 

different-scales

 

For if the screen map declares it to be nothing so much as a “quasi-thing,” recalling a map in its pixellated forms existing only for the beholder for whom it is conveniently remade, and reassembled, that emulates the apparatus of map-viewing on a Google Maps platform.

 

7.  Indeed, the engine almost openly celebrates the rebirth of the new status of the map as a “quasi-thing“–which almost ceases to register spatial variations–where geodetic data exists only in a relation to the viewer or users of the platform, rather than inhere in the map, and place a “quasi-subject” that exists in a social network of map use and is provided for the user of a mapping service.   Place, in other words, emerges in the act of consulting the map and GS84 coordinates readily generates it, and place exists as a consequence of a technology of map-reading–and a network of reading place as it is generated on search engines–and as it circulates online in a network of map reading.  Although the Antipodes Map was not particularly successful as a search engine on its own, it recreates the same networks of map-reading to generate place through the immediate assembly of map tiles.  The Antipodes Map has little to do with actual Antipodes, but less dynamic GIS version that echoes the physical interactivity for reading space H.A. Rey so appealingly rendered in the illustrated children’s classic How Do You Get There?

Rey’s fold-out images offer visual surprises that dramatically addressed the problems of modern navigation of an age, as if to socialize children to problems of transportation, that responded to the increased mobility of the mid-twentieth-century, and indeed the increased possibility of a surprising degree of geographic mobility due to contingent circumstance that Rey himself experienced.  Rey’s classic book sometime seems a valiant attempt to put a good face on the history of displacement and mobility Rey himself experienced–but recalls a tyranny of the map that has become a far less sensitive visual medium in the a dangerously disembodied absence of a sense of self amidst the tiles of Terrain View.  The interactive mapping site suggests a nostalgia for the globe, by suggesting the notion of global antipodes can be easily rewritten for the screen, is subtly mirroring the imaginary of the smooth travel that the internet and many platforms of web-mapping openly promote, even as many face increasing obstacles to geographic mobility.  Any obstacles to mobility seem miraculously erased in the user-friendly promises to immerse oneself in the map and be transported to an antipodal point–albeit one that comes up quite short on any spatial experiences at all.

For if How Do You Get There? was permeated by a sense of place, and may indeed echo how  the intrepid children’s book illustrator might have mused on the varied conveyances of his narrow escape from Paris to Lisbon and through Rio de Janeiro, in Brazil, to New York City from bicycles to transatlantic ships, it offers a visual sequence of problems of transport and the most apt vehicles to move from one site to another, inventively exploiting the fold out pages in the paper product of the book to mimic movement across spatial divides across which different vehicles can transport you, retelling the radically expanded transit possibilities half way between the innovation of the ocean liner and the jet age:  the first image poses problems of transportations to which solutions immediately emerge by raising half the page, to reveal the conveyance allowing one to move across a medium–

 

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The growth of new possibilities of transit is implicit in every page of Rey’s book, most often poignantly told from the child’s point of view, as if to offer a guide that can orient them to both the local and global, and newfound mobility in urban and global space.

 

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In contrast, current users of “Antipodes”–a service whose plan lacks relevance to the actual Antipodes, a concept that maintained the balance and global harmony of the world’s continents, which came to refer specifically to the large southern landmasses New Zealand and Australia in much of the northern hemisphere–

 

207C.JPGSt. Sever (1030 AD, following Beatus Renanus)

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–but rather relates antipodal points that intersect the earth’s center in a straight line, mapped on projected coordinates.

There is a sense in which the dual maps presented to viewers clearly recalls juxtaposition images in parallel slide projectors, as a sort of comparison of the formal shift in settings that the map takes the viewer or generates a place.  Rather than offer the material visual surprise of actively unfolding a paper flap, the parallel images that recall parallel projection from two projectors in the slide lectures given in darkened halls of art history lectures of a generation (or several) ago, to focus the attention of his audiences on the Formgefühl of projected images to unmask a syntax of art.  The twin map-screens of different scales in the Antipodes Map are clunky because they  echo how parallel slide projectors provided an apparatus, from magic lanterns to the slide projectors, for art historians to compare and contrast styles Robert Nelson once described as an inheritance from the Swiss art historian Heinrich Wölfflin–who employed dual projectors to give viewers the sense that they witnessed and hence best appreciated the content of images.

 

8.  The juxtaposition of two map screens less openly celebrate the work of art more than the speed of the instantaneous generation of images, of course.  But the Antipodes Map is similarly intent in the miracle of creating a juxtaposition of antipodal locations, as if place was merely something that arose from the comparison of locations.  The basic suasive apparatus of the website’s map engines echoed how the material apparatus of projectors that became such a staple for orienting beholders to stylistic differences, and appreciate a work of art.  They seem to celebrate the online map, despite its visual dullness of its form.

The contrast immediately generated between a provided place-name and how the engine locates its antipode by the magical apparatus of an online map engine; users are  invited to enter the sketchy simulacrum, and to identify with the icon in slacks and a white shirt who seems to reappear at a corresponding point, albeit almost always at radically different scales–that exploit the frictionless nature of the virtual map as an accurate interface.

 

bed-stuyaustralian-indian-ocean

 

The aesthetics of the website obscure distance, by allowing one to move by the input of any toponym to two points in the world, and find its corollary in the opposite hemisphere automatically generated.   The coordinates of longitude and latitude are suddenly, as if by a magical sort of travel, spatially re-situated by polar opposites of place represented by adventurous figurines who seem to stick their head in the ground, as in the manner of an ostrich, only for it to reappear at the corresponding antipode on the terrestrial sphere.  The website lists the range of actual antipodal cities that make one wonder what meaning lies in antipodal relations–Manila and Cuiaba (Brazil); Shanghai and Buenos Aires; Taipei and Asuncion (Paraguay); Aukland and Seville; Singapore and Quito; Suva, in Fiji, and Timbuktu; Hamilton, New Zealand and Tangiers; or Masterton (New Zealand) and Segovia–beyond suggesting the extreme over-inhabitation of much of the current ecumene.

Indeed, “tunneling through the world” will allow one to move from through an infinity of antipodes, as from Split, in Croatia, to its actual antipodal point off New Zealand by a hexadecimal coordinate system of Google Maps,–

 

–in ways that suggest the antipodes don’t actually “exist” as a place, but only in the relative terms that exist in a Web Mercator projection of WGS84, which in the map screen can be imagined as two points between which web-maps allow one to physically move, and coordinates that can be readily juxtaposed.

The conceit of the simulacrum of the map through which one passes, as if to another world, to its antipodal counterpart, is a cool tool to vaunt the power of the web map with apparent precision.  Tunneling through the virtual screen will surprisingly transport you from one city to another.  Iconic humanoid stick figures, our new stock figurines of surrogate explorers within the screen map, are immediately oriented to a mapped place abstracted from any vehicle of travel by the GIS mapping engine, on a website that seems glibly to treat the map itself as the medium for imagining one’s voyage to a point of parity on the globe by analogy to Google Street View, as if one might poke one’s head through the world’s surface, and treat the conveyance of the map as a way to shrink space.

While the logic of calculating terrestrial coordinates of antipodal points is ridiculously simple–by simply switching out North (N) for South (S) in each latitude; subtracting the longitude from 180° and visualizing the result in Google Maps–

 

Antipodes.JPG

 

–the visualization is profoundly bizarre symptom of a globe-less culture, where coordinates exist not on paper, or on a spherical surface, but rather on a screen–and may suggest something of an a nostalgia for the globe as an object of contemplation, despite the sense that it is a far less adequate substitute, whose interactive format is a bit more of a parlor game quick to become outdated in the age of online mapping.

The formal trick of the interactive Antipodes Map invites us, perhaps for want of a paper map, to dive through the surface of the map, and presents the flat surface of the screen map as if it were a surface through which one could travel through a now-absent globe, as if through a looking glass, between such antipodal points as Rome and New Zealand–

 

Rome to Antipodes near New Zealand.png

 

or Denali Park in Alaska to the even colder regions of the Southern Ocean near Antarctica’s edge–

 

Denali Park:Antarctic Southern Ocean.png

 

and imagine easy transit from Oakland CA to the Indian Ocean–

 

rockridge-to-indian-ocean

 

or from the West Bank and Jerusalem, as if to escape the constraints of increasingly obstructive boundary barriers, to beside the international dateline in the South Pacific–

 

 

The notion of such smooth cartographical getaways are flights of fancy, but can’t help but make one think of the actual mobility of refugees who increasingly crowd the surface of the world whose itineraries are all the more fraught.  Has it been a coincidence that as globalization is based on new modes of mapping borderless travel and data flows without frontiers, frontiers of economic differences are increasingly constraining ever-increasing numbers who are not often on our mental screens?

 

 

Perhaps the magic of shifting place in the Antipodes Map is a product of a society where our travel intensity is so susceptible to place-shifting and where upwards of 700,000 are up in the air at any moment, and over a million paying passengers flew daily in 2015, and airlines are expected to fly 3.6 billion passengers by 2016.

 

air_routes-1Michael Markieta (Arup)–60.000 air routes

 

In an era of massively accelerated geographic mobility connecting some 7,00 airports, there is something crazily believeable about the playful conceit of the Antipodes Map:   one might readily imagine one can stick one’s head into the land only to re-appear, presto changeo, on the other side, as if by sticking one’s head into the ground, one might reappear on the other side of the globe.  We are removed from the sense of a globe–despite the use of terrestrial coordinates; the website rather provides a sort of Flat Earth Project, now is cast as sort of paired Moebius strip, using the visual metaphor of entering head and hands first though the pixellated map of New York,

 

New York.png

 

–one might be conveyed by the search engine, as the map gives way, in all of its faux materiality, and we appear at the opposed set of terrestrial coordinates, off the coast of Australia, in a metaphor for the cognitive difficulties of world navigation by smart phone, using a projection that expands Antarctica to a prodigious size the it serves as the footer of the screen:

 

Near Australia.png

 

Resolutely and radically anthropocentric, if similarly antiquated–much as the conceit of compare and contrast with dual slide projectors, the variation on Google Street View places the humanoid and seemingly male figure in an abstracted landscape, in ways that incarnate an idealized interface between man and map, loosened free from any environmental context or actual spatial orientation, save longitude and latitude.

 

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One can move in to closer scale, to be sure, and focus on a specific neighborhood or intersection of streets in a city before symbolically tunneling to the other side of the world, or reappearing on the matching coordinates in the other hemisphere:  but place is less here understood as a place of habitability, or inhabitation, so much as the coordinates mediated on a screen and as a sort of place-marker, familiar from Google Maps, with only marginal reference to its topography, and not a space for settlement or inhabitation.

The fictional cartographic conceit entertains an imagined transit of childhood–digging a hole to China?–but rather than present an actual adventure, à la Jules Verne, one celebrates the versatility of the flimsy artifice of the flattened screen, which suddenly and playfully invests itself perhaps with a health share of faux materiality, as if to announce the lack of global bearing or geographic learning that are in the end required for new tiles to assemble and reassemble themselves at convenience, to show you where you are, and no real need for a conveyance to arrive anywhere in embodied form, and to celebrate that no resistance or friction to imaginary travel exists any longer in a globalized world.

Sometimes the icons may seem odd, not to mention out-dated, as if one was doing asanas in the midst of a forest near Nepal, where all of the previously familiar constraints of travel are erased by the imagined access to space that the terrain map provides.

 

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We can move, frictionlessly, to tunnel across the world in this cartographical fantasy from a site located beside a lake–

 

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to an unkown site in the Indian Ocean–

 

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or indeed from the Himalayan mountains of Tibet to off the coast of Chile–

 

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The oddest aspect is the utter absence of a sense of conveyance, as if a celebration of the fact that what exists is not reality, but only, and absolutely, the fantasy of a flattened map.

If Ray celebrated the opening up of the landscapes of travel by different conveyances, as if to celebrate the transit across space for readers, by orienting them to challenges that almost seemed impossible–

 

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–the notion in this search engine seems to be that there is no landscape, but that by playing with maps, in an innocent way, the contours of the globe are not only easily transformed to a hand-held pixellated screen, the new medium of the map–

 

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–but that one almost doesn’t even need to see anything in the map as a set of spatial relationships, but can use it to lead to situate oneself immediately in the static landscape ties that the search engine generates.

How to reconcile the constraints in which so many live clustered on the side of borders that defined economical disparities, or just outside them, with the unbounded optimism of the online map that can track our position at any place in the inhabited world seems a problem of world-making, if one that mapping may not alone resolve.

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Filed under data visualization, geolocation, Google Maps, interactive maps, mapping place

Self Made Maps

Many online responses to the arto-carto project of Mapping Manhattan remind us of how the biggest challenge of any cartographic totalistic idealized view is to record local details with fine grain: it’s no coincidence the chorus of posted responses to the maps in today’s New York Times often complain about the loss or absence of specific individual neighborhoods, or the absence of economic diversity (and ethnic diversity) in the beautiful colored maps.  As an exercise of collective map-making, the project that Becky Cooper ideated and planned, “Map Your Memories,” provoked each cartographer to record their own view of that island, rendering it as inscribed with memories of their own.  This open call perhaps provoked the deep-seated nature of responses it has met, evident in the energetic nature of good-hearted responses Mapping Manhattan has elicited from online readers over the past few days.

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The call to “Map your Memories” asked a range of writers, artists and other would-be cartographers to record individual memories in the outlines of a map of Manhattan island of vague north-south orientation.  The book stands on its head maps’ implied claims of objectivity, by treating media as a screen to project memories, whose individual design reveals their topography to be imprinted with haphazard collections of personal associations or reminiscences.  The white upper-class basis for these mapped perspectives  is implicit in their subjects– lost gloves, volumes of Proust, chick-lit, cups of non-Starbucks-brand coffee, lovely one bedroom apartments, or stages of urban fear; the maps are something like open invitations to play Proust.

They are rightly, and also wrongly, criticized as upper-class white bourgeois artifacts, since that is what they openly are–no one would presume to credit them or mistake them from objectivity.  (That might not be the audience that the New York Times wants to address, but is after all the audience of Abrams, the art-book publisher.)  The playfulness of some of the maps clearly perpetuate these myths playfully transform Manhattan to echo something like a medieval zone-map, where torrid zones of uninhabitability, and in fact are divided by zones where the mapmaker would never set foot or know:

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In quite a few, boundaries of class are visually thematized and reified with a certainty familiar from  the medieval “here lie monsters,” or Odyssean sea-monsters, or an edge of the earth from which one might easily be able to fall . . .

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These maps celebrate the artifice of cartographical fiction-making, reading more like the maps of Jules Feiffer and Norton Juster, or of the sensibility of that great medievalist JRR Tolkein.

I prefer to read other maps as a range of responses of common DIY creative reactions to the plague or deluge in most of our big media of weather maps, visualizations of databases via GIS creations or simulations, where detail provided by surveying is lost or filtered out for a schematic view of the whole, reactions that are apparent in their sheer cartographical abundance or ecstasy of naming with which each cartographer is offering a map of their own.   I see a sort of reaction to the dramatic diminution of the art of the cartographer in Google Earth or the Weather Channel, where big color-drenched screens, sometimes over-saturated with details or more often just clotted by hues to signify climactic variations or cloud-cover, replaced the selective criteria of mediating topography or settlement via cartographical art. Such a diminution of the act of creative cartography is, after all, an imaginative failure, as much as a shift in cartographical media.  Contrast the abstraction characteristic of many GIS-generated maps to the abundance of local meanings that distinguish the series of maps that Cooper has assembled.  There is a joy of celebrating the individual that has led so many of the online comments to beg for their own memories to be inscribed in the maps, as well as those of the authors.

This is evident in the visual celebration of the mapmaker’s art in the lovely watercolor map submitted by Markley Boyer, one of the few historical imaginations, of the imagined bucolic past of Manhattan as a field of green, surrounded by a sea of blue.  This map most reminds me of the impact of the tools that our cartographers use, as much as their level of artifice.

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In this material remapping Manhattan as a lost Eden, the author of Manahatta: A Natural History of New York City, has reclaimed the artifice of map making in richly saturated colors and applied sponge.  This Manhattan of the mind is mapped at several degrees removed from the actual inhabited island–as are all the maps in this volume–but the degree of artifice by which it stands at a remove from the island reminds us how much all mapping records the relative richness of a vision of self.

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Filed under Becky Cooper, Feiffer Map, Manahatta, Mapping Manhattan, mapping memories, Markley Boyer, Proust