Tag Archives: historical memory

Metageographical Pavement

Who’s not disoriented today? One of the consequences of the pandemic is a far keener sense of the rapaciousness of surveillance capitalism as we both rely on online ordering and increasingly devote time to web-searches that come to haunt us in quick succession. But if we are tracked in our daily motions, step counts, and position, I was struck by how mapping tools stared back, from the pavement, in surprising ways, offering added respite and reflection on morning strolls over the year since the first stay-at-home orders hit the Bay Area. If all mapping is a process, the process of mapping mortality and infections of COVID-19 made me seek to map place in new ways, and to do so as a form of something like counter-mapping, as much for therapeutic balance as to come to terms with the shifting lay of the land during the first year of the pandemic, even as I watched infections spread far removed from where I lived, or process the high rates of infection and loss of life far away and nearby. If the walks we make are often tracked by GPS, the evidence on the sidewalk of past Berkeley’s offered a set of distancing operations to get through the day.

My friend Jeff told me that when I moved into the neighborhood I now live in Berkeley, I would be often walking into a time warp. And his words hit me in unexpected ways in a few years. Taking stock of the local in West Berkeley, I walked on foot on in what were often surprisingly restricted routes, meditating on their details in moments like walks for coffee, talking routes I knew well but that of course also seemed utterly changed. Balancing the spatialities of local and global was alternately pressing and depressing. Exploring the neighborhood streets that I got to know again on foot with increased regularity, I found myself seeking landmarks and sites of reassurance–and often revery–as a needed form of distraction, and a resting place of sorts, perhaps to calm the sense of distraction that hemmed in indoors, searching for a revery but also of new ways of inhabiting and opening up my own personal sense of space, seeking needed stability, either while sheltering in place or as all purchase on security and stability was compromised by the pandemic, set off from the natural world., to find some sense of stability a century removed in time. Was this a middle age crisis coinciding with the pandemic?

C. E. Burnham Co., Raymond Street, Oakland CA
The oakland Paving Co, 1911, Prince Street below Telegraph Avenue

In one version of the story, with archives and libraries closed, I traveled to outdoors archives of the streets and pavement as if reading of a local necrology of the neighborhood. The strikes of concrete pavers in deserted streets seemed to tap local memories preserved in the pavement as a needed purchase on place about to fade–the 1908 strike placed by C.E. Burnham, now worn down by footsteps of passersby. The displays of these names distilled something like an object lesson of the world, a stripped down concrete experience of the local, or an urban panorama of the past.In another sense, not satisfied and disturbed by the maps of infections, I shifted from the global and national scales of space to the local, finding solace and affirmation where it occurred on sidewalks of the streets where I lived, the surviving strikes amidst much of South Berkeley’s historically cracked pavements. These names of these “old Italians,” those who have been dying, as the late Lawrence Ferlinghetti wrote in 1979, who “have been dying and dying/day by day” and who “for years” were dying–Joseph Cantucci of Cassano delle Murge, in the province of Bari; Frank Salamid or his brother Angelo of Monopoli in Puglia; Lino J. Lorenzetti and his fellow Pugliese Nat Lena–were lying on the cracked pavement by my feet from over a century ago: these odd messages as the imprint of P.M. Henning placed proudly on Hillegass Avenue, seemed time-stamped messages of a more removed time than ever before, offering something like access to what might be a less troubled world.

P.M. Henning (1928), Hillegass Avenue, North Oakland CA

If Walter Benjamin’s injunction to “lose oneself in the city as one loses oneself in the forest . . . calls for a different sort of schooling,” the pavers of the neighborhood provided a way of familiarizing myself with the global outside the preoccupation of COVID-19, taking refuge as if a local antiquarian with these elegantly framed calling cards that seemed placed in the concrete that became new objects of attention on early morning walks. When Benjamin had famously described the urban flâneur as one “who goes botanizing on the asphalt,” in Walter Benjamin’s famous phrase, he wasn’t talking about pavement, or urban foliage, but scientifically exploring streets whose personal details could only be individually mapped while sheltering in place.

For Benjamin, the flâneurs were a new social type who explored cities as if they “opened out, becoming landscape.” They explored urban geography as a landscape best learned by wandering and during the pandemic, trips to get coffee offered urban odysseys; the strikes of pavers framed by squares or diamonds offered imaginary orientation on the city and an archeology of space, as the birds which had migrated to the city, as if the Sonoma coast’s avian population–save shorebirds–arrived at my stoop, issuing insistent cries and sliding scales from their tiny lungs that seemed a discussion of bird banter that filled the quieter skies, air travel eliminated entirely or reduced, ambient sounds of traffic pausing, and increased pirouetting of birdsong seeming to expand its register.

Writing in the early twentieth century Paris, Benjamin sought a science of wandering in the city or getting lost–the art of the flânuer or street-walker whose urban itineraries the poet Charles Baudelaire saw as a signature of modernity, a man who saw the urban crowd as his habitat, as much “as air is for the bird or water for the fish,” whose built environment and its anonymous crowds became both a passion and indeed profession to engage as a spectator of others. While Benhamin tried to define the basis of these poetic bonds to the nineteenth century Paris whose streets he explored, he pushed on the notion of an urban habitat, declining to separate sciences from the enjoyment of art, and deny “botanists can awaken a feeling for the beauty of landscape;” and in my fixation on that habitat, ephemeral strikes formed a forest of names I ventriloquized, as if to substitute for the absence of passersby. The time-stamped strikes were less as an antiquarian exercise of collection, than an archeology of place, as if redeeming pasts that rose to the surface of the sidewalk for an instant, set apart from surrounding foliage as tactile evidence of a past. Pursuit of the ephemeral drew me to pavers’ marks long passed over without remark, as if they held some sort of meaning about the urban space I seemed less part of that ever before, but wed. If Benjamin had found in Paris confirmation of how Baudelaire had privileged the city as a site of the fleeting, transient, and contingent, in the heightened contingency of the first year of the pandemic, the stability of the stamps on the sidewalk were sites of looking back in time, to earlier spatialities, outside of the tyranny of maps.

J. Catucci, Gen. Con. (1916), 62nd Street/Oakland CA

Were the signs underfoot something of a benefit squeezed from city walking, as air travel, motor travel, and trains were forestalled, and my attention focused on the local pedestrian space as an untapped pedagogy of idleness, born of a desire to lose one’s self, more than one’s way among the relatively restricted routes of walking, not following a guide, but finding the lives of the pavers who had, around the turn of the century, transformed the ground I’d long walked over without looking much at it or giving it attention?

While the online archives of paving stones provided a basis for adding information to the concrete strikes, as if each walk was a way of finding concreteness in an urban archeology of an old urbanized space, the names seemed more and more absurdly to acquire import as epitaphs at a time when we were all gripped by uncertainty about futures in more alarming ways. I admired the dedication of the San Antonio history teacher who planned a course on local cemeteries’ graves at Palo Alto College that took new wings during COVID-19, as cleaning graves’ headstones led to an ongoing justice project of unearthing lives, now readable at @sanfernando2stories, letting those born in the 1890s and early 1900s speak in a moment of uncertainty, from volunteer soldiers in the Philippine-American War or families of immigrants arrived in the Texas Revolution, or those dead from TB, as a true project of social justice. As Joyce Burnstein’s Epitaph Project, an ongoing dialogue with the epitaphs of the dead to engage selfhood, impermanence, and the writing of collective memory from transient materials, the paving stones seemed a collective meditation on impermanence and permanence in the city. As my brother has reacted to COVID-19 by longer walks in Brooklyn’s Green-Wood Cemetery, strolling among memorials for distance, the opportunities for walking in Oakland’s Mountain View Cemetery, off-limits to the public from March, 2020, save for funerals, raised questions about access to the monumental landscaping that was designed by Frederick Law Olmstead as a site for memory’s repository: an early addition to the garden cemetery movement in the United States, like Green-Wood, as sites of public prominence for national reflection. Walt Whitman, then a journalist, so taken with the opening of Green-Wood as a site for reflective thoughts shortly as it was being laid out as a space of commemoration that he brought groups of schoolchildren to the site he deemed “pleasing yet melancholy,” as if to commune with mortality in an early case of the flâneurie, and probably took it upon himself to write a set of articles advocating strolls among graves in “that Beautiful Place of Graves” as a space for “room to the thoughts that would naturally arise there,” in contact with democratic ideals and to affirm a sense of his own vitality, “the passing of blood an air through my lungs,” and to his heart, as a site for affirming his own vitality. Whitman often visited Greenwood Cemetery from the time the plots for graves were first laid and memorials to public figures of state rose, visiting its space after work, with regularity; the cemetery was a site about which he had often written as a newspaperman, that may have afforded an alternate vision of the unity of the nation. Whitman came up when I talked with my brother about Green-Wood walks a bit, but the names pressed on the concrete sidewalks, if far less sublime, offered a similar space for reflection while sheltering in place.

When the prospect of Greenwood cemetery was presented as an elegant prospect of three hundred and fifty acres by 1852, by the immigrant artist John Bachman revealed as a panorama filed with monuments, Whitman had long praised the site that was “expected to be ready for interments in the course of a few months,” as a model of the new Garden Cemtery movement, a “second ‘Mount Auburn'” whose “consecrated ground . . . led [visitors] into a train of reflections, at once pleasing, yet melancholy.” Long before peopled with neoclassical monuments as a patriotic space of inclusion, the site’s meanders led one on a pastoral site for reflection removed from the scars of enslavement that had disfigured the country and nation as a whole. If the view of the cemetery was one of several of New York’s public space, he designed in elevated perspective, as the views of Paris and Swiss cities he had designed from 1849, it celebrated the city’s evolving form as a built landscape as a new pastoralism in ways that Whitman must have knew would be available to readers, which he had celebrated as an opportunity readily available for all that he lauded as a site of “one of the finest prospects in the vicinity of New York” from which could “be distinctly seen Brooklyn, the bay and harbor of New York, Staten Island, and the Quarantine,” in 1839, for the Universalist Union, offering “profound calm” removed from the urban grid, as the 1852 composite panorama “Greenwood Cemetery, Near New York” reveals.

Detail of tinted lithograph of John Bachman, “Bird’s Eye Veiw of Greenwood Cemetery, Near New York” (1852)

My energy wasn’t nearly as sustained, and my search for a panoramic remove not so successful. In an era of isolation and far less crowded streets, the names set in the pavement assumed a simple eloquence of past lives.

Regent St., Oakland CA

Luigi Villata had arrived from Piedmont to join his brother Angelo in the pavement trade, laying sidewalks in much of North Oakland in the early 1950s, but G. Musso had lain pavement from the 1920s in Oakland, but did his name gain any added significance after Mussolini had gained authority in the Italian state since 1922? Mussolini openly proclaimed America destined to decline due to the lower birth rate of whites vis a vis blacks, but natalist beliefs were not viewed as un-American, but rather of a piece with segregation enshrined in the Claremont neighborhood when racial covenants restricted ownership of homes to those of “pure caucasian blood; Musso, an established Oakland contractor who often laid polychrome concrete, displayed his pavement stamp as B. Mussolini insisted on the purity of race and Italy’s spazio vitale, as he set sights on an “impero Italiano” in Africa, when home ownership was predominantly restricted in much of Oakland and Berkeley to exclude any “person of any race other than the Caucasian or white race.” Confronting such offensive racial covenants prove traumatic in the Bay Area–and taxing, as the legacy is perpetuated by hard to fill out necessary paperwork at the office of the County Clerk, and if deemed unenforceable in 1948, their legality was not contested until the Civil Rights Act. As renaming spread across the Bay Area, questioning public memorialization with hopes to the purification of public memory, Musso’s signature jumped out-predating Mussolini’s first racial laws to segregate residences of whites and Africans in the “Africa italiana” as he built the first forts in Ethiopian land by 1930 that renewed claims to empire by 1936–eliminating the last independent African country and eventually erasing African independence from the map.

What hidden spatialities of identity were present in the pavers that seemed dated August, 1931? The state geographical institute had enshrined Ethiopia as Abyssinia–enlarging the “spazio vitale” of Italy’s third empire, of course, even if that meant denying the independence of the only independent nation in African continent.

It seems more than necessary to remember the map of the sole remaining independent African nation that this new remapping wiped off the map of the continent and all but erased for a bloody century of war.

1. As our world was fracturing on multiple divides, the textured plaques of immigrants who paved concrete in the early twentieth century offered a textured pedagogy of immediacy, making present on less traveled pathways how the old city grid in almost redemptive ways. The excavation of that grid was a way of orienting myself to the past inhabitants of the region oddly comforting, and not only as a way to explore the nucleus of the urban sprawl.

1. We were balancing the local and the global with renewed acuity, by tracking the rates of infection and hoping for better orientation as the pandemic spread, and what that meant about where where. The bigger picture was insistently disturbing. The increasingly steep divides that exist between rates of infection across the region, a year later, suggest a scary divide uncomfortable to map, whose sharp divides escalate as one pans out, that remind one of steep inequalities of infection rates and public health challenges in the rather sharp inequalities that span from 2700 cases of COVID-19 per 100,000 inhabitants in the zip code where I live to almost double to 5701 per 100,000 nearby, and surpass double at 6941.3, taking the freeway down past San Leandro, encapsulating or condensing a gaping divide of our nation, sharper than that between “blue” states and “red” states as inequalities across the nation emerged insistently enough to make one do more than scratch one’s head, as the pulse of the pandemic seemed to pop out in ways fractured along clear divides in the Bay Area, as in the rest of the world.

COVID-19 Case Rates by Zip/Alameda County Public Health

As we watched the pandemic unfold on those most stripped-down and essential tools of data visualization, the time-series line graph, to try to chart the magnitude of death, case of infection, and indeed of hospitalization over time. Even if the tallies of such numbers seem called into question, and were eerily disembodied from space, or territoriality, we clung to them in an attempt to register our purchase on the pandemic whose numbers were so hard to aggregate in meaningful ways. From early on, we understoo that increases in income inequality and poor confidence in government institutions correlated closely onto the highest rates of death, and recognized the problems of low trust in government that was being shouted from many state capitols and the US Capitol was itself a dangerous driver of mortality. For the advancing of COVID-19 was a disease of globalization not only in how it was transmitted by routes of global transit, across spatial networks, or in indoor air, but advanced by the increased income inequalities that globalization drove. But these lines were rising with a terrifying rate of doubling that my own lines of navigation on the ground may have been an attempt to distance myself or just keep at bay.

Cumulative Deaths from COVID-19 Forty Days from Tenth Confirmed Death/McGill University

There was, in short, more than enough reason to be looking at the ground, and enough sense of dislocation to make us feel unmoored from any bearings on how so much virus had had such devastating effects-even if we were also caught staring at time-series iine graphs to materialize a sense of bearings in our disoriientation. On these walks of the pandemic, I re-explored the neighborhood, re-navigating it as if it a map with its own temporality, as much as a place I live: an unexpected encounter with a benchmark in the neighborhood, laughing at the sense of stability that it provided as I sought orientation on a street emptied of pedestrians or street sounds.

In an eery intermingling of rural and urban, categories that seemed ever more fluid–the skyrocketing number of sightings in the last Great Backyard Bird Count that the Cornell Ornithology Laboratory noted suggests a wonderful long weekend of citizen science this last February–the expansion of birdsong had no doubt lead many to orient themselves to calls and songs by consulting apps like eBird with far greater readiness. After all, my stoop was sounding increasingly like a bird shop, with calls and songs of finch, scrub jays, white-crowned sparrows, crows, chickadees and towhees crowding the street in what seemed a more contented and far livelier conversation, from persistent “sh-sh-sh-toh-wheet!–wheet!–wheet!” to the sustained fourishes and staccato trills that tapered off bu resumed in the evening around dinner. Berkeley lies low on areas of conservation priorities in northern California, but lies near one of the few areas of the country not affected by a broad-based and rather terrifying image of avian decline based on radar maps of migration in the Pacific and continental United States: but it seemed that the chirping of birds in my yard seemed to stake new claims of territoriality to perches in trees seemed downright exultant. The biosocial bees in the back yard hives, the Spring certainly brought an outpouring of what seemed happily content activity. Is it a coincidence that a striking loss of avifauna in the last fifty five years across speices and biomes in the United States have been by no means limited to grasslands but have included some of the most common species–from finches to sparrows to warblers, swallows and starlings–

–creating a striking widespread loss of populations and biodiversity to occur during my own life, to the tune of 3.2 billion birds, in which my neighborhood was one of the few hotspots of a decade of declining avian migration.

Was the chorus of birdsong and cries that I heard as an aural biosocial embrace as I walked down the street, what I imaged as a triumphant riconquista of avian airspace, defiantly calling, cooing, and performing extended trills of eight to nine beats, as if in amazed response to one another by bravura performances not a response to the huge loss of avian biomass that is difficult to contemplate, created by interrupted migratory routes, light pollution, and other anthropogenic disturbances–disturbed from the routes of migration in the contiguous United States that bode the fearsome possibility of avifaunal collapse, particularly steep in flyways from the Pacific northwest, if less than in the grasslands of the center of midwest where agribusiness has compromised birds’ migratory routes?

Birdsong became mooring of biosociality each morning, whatever the reason, dependent on listening for a sense of the vital in the cacophony of birds that start chirping for several hours. A crowded chorus of birds intersects with my walk to the coffee shop. As more birds migrated by mid-March, it seemed increasing experimentation with songs, calls, and trills of growing range arrived each morning, offering something of an alternative biosociality to inhabit, in preparation for a daily calendar when few face-to-face meetings were scheduled or would occur. The persistent calls, often ending in trills, clucks, and cascading compositions ending with squawks accompanied by the occasional alto moans from mourning doves created a new aural register of place, reminding one of the soundspaces that wooded warblers, sparrows, finches, and larks once created across the country.

Each morning from about six to seven thirty, I tried to make a sound map of the street that replaced the usual rumble. I was unclear if more finches were on my street–it seemed so when I turned onto it, however, hearing the sounds that were almost recognizable that began each morning at about 6:00 am, which replaced real concerrns about the decline of sparrows’ languages in the Bay Area, drowned out by ambient noise that seemed to obliterate once distinct calls and “dialects” of sparrow communities. While acoustic ecologists had monitored since around 2005 the abandoing of distinctions among the distinct dialects in once distinct communities and populations due to anthropogenic noises of transportation and low-frequency rumbles, to the background sounds of airplane flight, the background that had obliterated once distinct flourishes from sparrow calls might be imagined to return.

To be sure, the recent loss of historical dialects of sparrow populations in the Bay Area by the dominant dialect of urban white crowned sparrow notwithstanding, finch populations on Prince St. seemed to benefit from pandemic shifts in ambient noise: they seemed to be insistently adding terminal flourishes with innovative abandon, in bravura finales each morning. The morning trills that seemed to have expanded as my neighborhood grew as a site to explore bird language, from trills repeated three and four times that finished with flourishes, to smaller chirps after nine o’clock, useful to clear my mind from anxieties, as if the important birding areas near the Bay Area had intersected with a less busy or noisy urban ambient, leading to more varied range of song and calls, even despite the declining pathways of bird migration in recent years.

After the first weeks of social distancing that stopped just short of a lockdown that broke the lack of face-to-face that seemed to make birdsong place me into a new sense of social situatedness after months of sheltering in place, remind me of how, for lack of a human contact, Darwin’s belief that birdsong–“the sounds uttered by birds”–were indeed the closest analog to human language, that the “same instinctive cries expressive of [birds’] emotions” was not only more believable. As we reachedi a year into the “stay-at-home order” in the Bay Area, to check the spread of the novel coronavirus, exhausted by zoom and realizing others’ exhaustion at the medium, the analogy seemed all too pressing, that finds confirmation in how the expressive patterning of birdsong that young birds learn from imitation, both neurologically and genetically shared over fifty genes linked to speech and vocal learning that are also dubbed “language genes” or FOXP2: if birdsong lacks the mapping of a lexical network onto the network of vocal imitation and processing, the patterns of expressive communication seemed able to remedy the need for sites neurological activation while sheltering in place, a welcome neurological wake up call.

Athanasius Kircher, Musurgia Universalis (1650)

LIfted the overhead rumble of airplane jets with the sudden erasure of global air traffic from Bay Area skies, the sonic swoons, jackal-like titters, and arching song from the trees restored something akin to an alternative cosmic harmony akin to what Jesuit Athanasius Kircher had described in the seventeenth century ˆMusurgia Universalis as a great art of consonance and dissonance, and a new Harmonia Nascentis Mundi that seemed a needed re-enchantment of place. What were heard as optimistically insistent calls of acoustic experimentation seemed to restart what Kircher so influentially described as the music of the spheres along the proportions of divine creation–sanctus, sanctus, sanctus–at a time when the world was readjusting to being jerked out of whack. Did we benefit in particular from the proximity to birding areas on the Sacramento and range of local watersheds?

–that made me wonder about the expansion of designated birding areas around the Bay Area, and the greater diversification of local song, as the white crowned sparrows in my neighborhood–and in much of the region–had suddenly reached into the recesses of their memory to expand their songs, recalling the recordings of birdsong from seventy years ago, five years after researchers worried about the apparently endemic decline of variety and specificity of the languages of white-crowed sparrows long used to court mates or defend nesting grounds, as acoustic ecologists pondered how the ambient anthropogenic sounds had drowned out birdsong, and blurred the once-famous geographic specificity with which white crowned sparrows combined trills, buzzes, and whistles to a pattern that was able to compete with the urban rumble or new nature of the city, reducing once distinct dialects by sacrificing specificity to retune their songs to the noisiness of urban sprawl and blanketing noise of airplanes, learning a more effective song to mate with far fewer of the terminal flourishes detected in birdsong of the past, in what has been described nationally as a reclamation of “favored frequencies” after the sudden reduction of traffic and vehicles, to create a new “song space” by expanding the virtuosity of their vocal performances, in an optimistic illustration of ecological reslience. Were the songs heard in bird habitats changing across the state?

If Berkeley had always been a sight for coastal warblers in upper treetops, as well as white-crowned sparrows, song sparrows, finches, scrub jays, towhee and chickadees, the sounds of birds in treetops were hard not to imagine as voices of an enhanced biosociality, if not music of the spheres. The Jesuit polymath Athanasius Kircher’s attentive notation of the song of the cuckoo in his 1650 treatise on musical sounds may have influenced Bach to Respighi, to say nothing of Wagner or Messaien, but all rhapsodized birdsong in its company of birds; nature has long attracted, and there was something recognizable in the desire to preserve the sounds of “nature” in artificial means that led some of the first two-minute Edison cylinders were used to record bird song in 1898, for the 16th Congress of the American Ornithologists’ Union in Washington, D.C.,–and first 78 recordings in 1910!

When I was listening to finches in Berkeley, I couldn’t help but wonder if this was indeed different, or a mythic- return of nature’s resilience of the sort that used neoliberal rhetoric to suggest the return of long lost natural conditions on social media, in falsified posts that proliferated to offer some comfort as we social distanced, offering pictures of dolphins that had allegedly returned to the lagoons of Venice, now that it was not being polluted by Vaporetti and barges, to say nothing of ocean liners who line its lagoon, as if ending pollutants emitted into the lagoon over earlier years: optimistic clickbait entertained needed environmental fantasies of the resurgence of e “Venetian” dolphins arriving in Venice, or rambunctious elephants without a care for social distancing engering the fields of farmers in Yunan province created an alternate globalism to the pandemic. The false optimism curried as clickbait in those image of exotica offered eye candy deceptively rhapsodic in its staged counterpart to sheltering in place, akin to how I entertained expanded local birdsong of finches, even if Berkeley seems closer to natural habitats than Venice’s lagoons. But perhaps while staying indoors, the outside seemed so far away that the cries of finches were important to continue as most of the greenspace I saw was confined to my back yard, and nice to fancy as the biosociality I had been trying to come to terms with doing without.

Athanasius Kircher, Song of Cuckoo (1650)

2. If social distancing left us pondering the effects of the absence of social contact for a year, as increasing conversations bemoaned the lack of human contact and indeed of looking at human bodies, save online, even if birdsong was not a clear grammar, the apparently optimistic calls of song seemed to substitute for the absence of contact, as an expanded range of intonation, tonalities, and calls, punctuated by the primordial calls of ravens, offered pretty credible testimony of vocal repertory of expressive registers, if not linguistic skills. Kircher had studied in Aristotelian fashion the comparative anatomy of the ears of horses, humans, dogs, rodents, pigs, cats, and geese, more than birds, but the ear openings of birds’ auricular feathers allowed a better spatial awareness of the origins of sounds, and a heightened sense of biosociality while we sheltered in place, under the stay-at-home order, the street sounds offered something like a solace that I increasingly valued over zoom or flat-screen TV.

Most of the Bay Area to Start New Stay-At-Home Order on Sunday – NBC Bay  Area
March 2020 Stay-at-Home Orders in Bay Area

3. The surrogate of an absent extended social network of the neighborhood was something I started to recognize on the pavement of the ground. Rather than moving with downcast eyes, I was reacquainting myself with place in walks to a shop, to get coffee, or to venture outside, for evidence of a place that I had perhaps missed before, that invested the benchmark placed on the boundary of a local parklet with surprise as a relation of place to the global, or a perspective on the meaning of place–or relation of local and global, taken for granted in pre-pandemic times, looking for bearings amidst increased uncertainty. And the discovery of an improvised marker, reminding me of the grids that wrap around the earth, that had been tracking the progress of global infections, seemed punctured for a moment by the mock benchmark, emulating the over a million geodetic markers in North America–tidal benchmarks noting elevation in reference to a geodetic datum, survey points that act as controls for lat, long, and height, that acted as surveyors’ control points–but conflating the genre with the personal nature of the meaning of place. If the current geodetic datum have replaced and as standards of spatial classification antiquated earlier benchmarks, they lie beneath the new networks, traces of past spatialities like the old contractors’ names. Benjamin was no bird-watcher, but the strikes were “object-lessons” affording almost sensory experiences of a changed sense of urban space.

A heightened sensitivity to one’s surroundings, perhaps brought by sensory deprivation, was an unforeseen and almost positive by-product of the pandemic, stretching from the play of sunlight on leaves to song lyrics, and extending to budding magnolias or dropping seed pods of sweet gums and their off-red leaves.   And at the same time as such spray-painted pavement markers offer ubiquitous reminders of protocols of social distancing in the pandemic, I’ve been reading marks on the pavement for far more permanent or material signs of spaces we inhabit. In an age of global and national maps of the COVID-19 infections, hospitalizations due to the virus, human mortality, and lives lost, the retreat to the local seemed manageable, the faux benchmark that was hardly noticeable became something of a a symbolic center of an imagined geography I retreated, a point of orientation for an imaginary community–and spatiality–that was born in the age of social distancing.

Walking past the marker, and other benchmarks of surer history, raised questions of how these spatialities mapped onto one another, with a quite compelling sense of surprise: in the constant absence of face-to-face interaction, or the lack of embodied discussion of which we are all reminded daily, the spatiality to which that faux benchmark gestured became a source for private reverie, foreign to Thoreaux or Rousseau, to be sure, against the tracking of the spatial advance tracked of coronavirus infections. The place marker was a monument to the precision of coordinates–if the area you are describing would probably take six decimal places, to offer a sense of real position, even if the suboceanic antipode didn’t seem to demand much precision.

Who is to say that this isn’t a better use of mapping tools, after all? In the several square blocks of south Berkeley CA I found myself over the first year that COVID-19 spread globally, where I’ve lived on and off for almost thirty years, those stretches of sidewalk that had not in need of replacement from cracking or house construction offered a memory theater of some sort of, imprints of pavers a register of signatures of contractors whose marks, at a moment of heightened mortality, gained greater commemorative functions as a sort of public memory in public space, calling attention to themselves to punctuate walks in a pleasant material interruption of the past that I had long overlooked. And as ways of commemorating and accounting for escalating fatalities seemed somehow stuck in the craw of the nation, blanketed by the denial of a state of emergency or even viral communicability, the names pavers stenciled in the sidewalk underfoot gained a poignancy as commemorations–sites registering the temporal flow that seemed to be pouring across the world now like a crimson tide.

4. ConcreteT markers on the public property of the streets seemed to be a surface whose reading offered a new sense of taking back public space, in a very local way, as our sense of the public spaces open to us had corroded and grown frayed. Across the street from that benchmark noting antipodal relation to the Indian Ocean, the strike of a paver jumped out at me to register a deep temporal flow from over a century earlier, and the first era of the paving of sidewalks in the Bay Area, not long after Nat Lena began his craft, and early twentieth century pavers like J.A. Marshall–who set the earliest surviving strike on a sidewalk in Berkeley, CA–began what must have been a booming trade to pave public sidewalks. What was a rather straightforward insertion of an old-school calling card for contractors were now archeological discoveries that conveyed mortality not present before, as the pavement I was increasingly pounding underfoot conjured the lives of earlier generations of engineers and concrete craftsmen, the builders of public spaces in the East Bay: if the pandemic suggested a stoppage of time, from the first days of shelter-in-place policies, or lockdown, the paver gained an unexpected pathos, offering material bearings only on a past world over a century earlier–offering a fresh way of looking at the neighborhood whose streets I would be spending substantially more time, and a way of getting bearings on its built space: even this marker stared back at me, with a sense not of nostalgia, but of presence, of a past inhabiting the present’s own augmented sense of mortality, measuring these strikes as if they contained a mystical properties in a truly early modern sense as touchstones for exploring the city in my early morning walks in a newly empty city-space.

Prince Street, Berkeley CA

The “Oakland Paving Co.” was founded in 1902, exploiting the availability of local quarries to provide pavement for Berkeley and Oakland when concrete had become a boom industry, profiting from a local Rockridge Quarry that lay off Broadway and 51st St. to provide paved sidewalks in Berkeley that only grew after the devastation of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, pancaking many residences and prompting fearful migration East Bay.

Perhaps an echo of that catastrophe was in a sense legible in the imprints of pavers who had laid “art stone” on the ground or plank roads on Prince Street a century ago, as the survival of these strikes on what might be some of the less traveled streets still crisply stood out on the ground, that paralleled the pavement of once open space–and providing what indeed seemed to fit the demand for “art[ificial] stone” to dignify its pedestrian space.

The classification of concrete marks and strikes made such botanizing of the asphalt apt for capturing pandemic melancholy that was concretized in concrete of these older artifacts of the urban environment. There was something akin to a botanizing of the pavement in the search for signatures of the local past, personifying the ability of “botanizing on the asphalt,” not to get lost in the city, but orienting oneself by its signs: the first introduction of pavers’ marks was “art[ificial] stone” and a form of urban artifice, framed by the grasses, but where walking suggested new forms of attention that transcended the natural.

Walter Benjamin, who grew up in Berlin, but felt himself most at home exploring modernized spaces of Paris that Baudelaire described, a flâneur walking not by orienting oneself by a map, but by losing oneself in urban forests of shop fronts, signage, and street names. The goal to sense the city naturalized its built space as “the wanderer [moved in the city attentive to built surroundings] in the manner of a twig cracking and snapping under his feet, or the startling call of a bittern in the distance, or the sudden stillness of a clearing with a lily standing still at its center” as the urban organization emerged only while wandering as a way of familiarizing oneself with its constructed space, from heightened attention to its new inhabitants and walkers as an urban observer who was engaged n “botanizing on the asphalt,” a turn of phrase both suggesting the new habitat of the late nineteenth century, as an ethnographer of urban space that linked nature and manmade concrete creation.

Prince St. at Halcyon Court, Berkeley CA

From 1906, newly laid grid of the city of Berkeley had beckoned settlement in its multiple tracts from local realtors, to meet demand for resettlement that expanded after the 1906 San Francisco Earthquake shocked the Bay Area, at a time when the East Bay was more distinguished by unpaved open space, and far, far less sprawl to wander.

Looking with attention at the ground, finding myself a flaneur in an area I knew well, the streets started to speak back, as if with voices of the past gained a surprising testimonial vitality about which I almost grew passionate. The stamps offered a sense of transport at a time when we could no longer travel far, and lived with preoccupation. There was something comforting in re-reading the neighborhood, its sense of place and relation to space, that I could internalize in the somewhat tentative walks that led me to look for new bearings, and saw much more of and with different eyes than I had in the past, as if looking for new bearings to orient myself to the lay of the land, and to look back at its inhabitants about a century earlier in time. If New Yorkers feel like those acknowledged to be true New Yorkers not only knew the buildings or coffee shops of the neighborhood but what stores they had replaced, and what stores were replaced by them, stretching ten or twenty years past, to describe and rank their levels of familiarity with a built space, knowing who paved the streets’ sidewalks n the younger city of Berkeley seemed to offer an index of the intensity of familiarity with place at which I aimed: these men, if many dropped the helpful habit of naming the date of laying concrete over what I imagined a bit romantically was a dirt road until then, provided guideposts to the region which had mostly all fell below the radar in previous years.

Fulton St., Berkeley CA

Or perhaps there was something elemental as a system of orientation to these names, that made up for the absent crowd of passersby on the streets. More than the shifting names of university buildings, public schools, and even cities, recently enacted based on a hopeful if misguided decision to cut ties to the past, the names embedded in the pavement seemed signatures of oddly fragile testimony about the past.

Esterly Construction Co., Prince Street, Berkeley CA

Etched in what had been the once modernist medium of concrete, the often worn stamps of J.A. Marshall, perhaps the John Marshall who in 1905 was a “cementwkr” Berkeley’s directory, left his escutcheon as a calling card that gained epitaphic quality, as a trace of the everyday as I fled the outside noise and pandemic fears: what some describe as “fossils in concrete” triggered a sense of musing on the everyday and marking of place rooted as much as anything else in a search for historical redemption beneath my feet, including an imagined network of modest community Italian-American immigrant pavers whose concrete sections have survived a century.

J. Catucci, 63rd below College Avenue, Oakland CA
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Filed under Bay Area, collective memory, geodetic survey, Urban Space, USGS

Order on the Border: Prologue or Retrospective View?

Border security was the hallmark issue of the political career of President Donald J. Trump, in ways that long evoked a specter of racial division. The promise to expand the fences that had been barriers along six hundred and fifty four miles of bollard, chain link fences, and even helicopter landing pads that were military materiel from Vietnam were to be expanded to a continuous wall by the man who, Ayn Rand style, promised he was the master architect and builder of a border security system, in hopes to get the costly concrete wall he imagined would be perfect for the border built. But if he had been elected in no small part because of the assurance with which he had insisted “I’m very good at building thing,” including a wall to Make America Great Again, the President who disrupted conventions of government by provoking a government shutdown in 2019, did so largely as he was was loath to “give up a concrete wall” in government negotiations, as his Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney put it, and reluctant to have to “replace it with a steel fence” for democrats. Late in the ill-fated Trump Presidency, wall unbuilt, and looking like it would be reduced to Ozymandian fragments for visitors to look upon his Presidency and despair, desired to visit a section of poured concrete wall that seemed a testament to the achievements of his Presidency. Trump gestured to the border wall mounted on concrete as a sign to our national security, all but ignoring the

The President had concluded his presidency by disrupting conventions of governing again, by refusing to recognize the popular vote’s results and inciting a riot that invaded the U.S. Capitol by minions waving flags from the lost campaign, which they insisted was not over, amidst an inverted American flag of distress, which militia groups had been regularly raised in protests about counting votes and ballots with accuracy over the previous months in Georgia, Michigan, and Arizona, and has been displayed in discontent at the outcome of Presidential elections since 2012. The distress signaled, in no small part, fear of failure to complete a continuous wall of two thousand miles in the desert that was promised to keep undocumented barbarians out of the nation.

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

The building of the wall may have seemed a piece of cake for someone who had little sense of the practicalities of building, if it is hard to know what he knew about building border walls and when he knew it. For Trump was habituated in the construction of hotels and golf courses to move around regulations and obtain special clearances with the ease he might move across the globe’s surface, an ease he wanted to make even smoother as President and may have seen the office in no small part as allowing himself to move across regulations that he felt had constricted the expansion of projects of construction in the past. The levees on the Rio Grande that had been built in his presidency provided the sole remaining concrete walls left of the border wall, which was mostly more vertical steel bollard fencing, beams filled with concrete that expanded areas of existing fencing, that were judged to meet the “operations requirements of the U.S. Border Patrol” in 2019, until they were found easy to be sawed through by a circular saw.

The value of “high security fencing,” Trump grudgingly noted 1.6 billion for border construction, but a fraction of the $25 billion he had desired to allocate for the border barrier, heralding the quick start of work on the wall he had promised, “not only on some new wall, not enough, [but] . . . fixing existing walls and existing acceptable fences” very quickly, he had been accelerating the pace of border construction in ways that seemed to be timed to the election, and chose to visit the border wall for a final time in his Presidency, in a valedictory manner. President Trump’s visit to Alamo to “highlight his administration’s work on the border wall” was an affirmation that he had done his hardest to keep the barbarians on the edge of the empire on the other side of the border, and was to a site near McAllen, Texas, AP and other news outlets quickly reminded the nation, in part as the White House had almost left it unclear, and not the Alamo in downtown San Antonio, but the geographic confusion seemed an opportune way to fulfill the mission of the trip to tally achievements by affirming the threat came from south of the border at his term end–and elicit continued fears that the failure to complete border construction projects would not Keep American Great less cross=-border flows of population continued to be stopped.

As if visiting an outpost on the border of the empire where he sought to protect barbarians from invading, days he incited riots that had staged an actual insurrection breaching the U.S. Capitol, he ceremonially visited the border as if visiting the groundbreaking of a new hotel, accompanied by city officials, as if it were a privileged site of national defense, near the river whose meander had long defined the international boundary between Mexico and the United States, and indeed was a return to the Rio Grande Valley he had already visited to discuss border security in January, 2019, and sought to confront questions of the need to seize privately owned land to do so by eminent domaine. If the border wall was to be tall, daunting, fitted with flood lights, sensors, cameras and an enforcement zone that was a hundred and fifty feed wide was a steep goal, Trump treated government shutdown as a small price for 450-500 miles of border wall on track to be completed by the end of 2020, promoting a border wall whose construction would be completed by March 2021.

The river delta where Alamo TX is located and which Trump visited is one of the sole places along the entire US-Mexico border where steel panels are mounted on large concrete levees, and the concrete wall that Trump did promised actually exists. The visit to the concrete levees of the Rio Grande Valley that were mounted by concrete-core steel fencing were a display of Presidential authority on a line drawn in the sandy riverbanks far from the Alamo, as newspapers had to remind their readers, but provided a tableaux vivant of sorts, eight days before the end of Trump’s presidency, to defend the necessity of drawing a firm line in the sand.

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

The President has long lavished attention on the projected construction of border as if inhabiting the role of the public official, the enabler, and the fixer all at once in the unveiling of an even more majestic and far more grandiose national monument. Without ever conceding the election–and indeed instructing those who supported his candidacy in 2020 to “never concede,” Trump visited Alamo to make a final performance of border security before the Rio Grande, and to acknowledge the depth of his commitment to boosting border security. In returning to the Rio Grande Valley, Trump announced in Alamo that the border wall had progressed from a development project as “completion of the promised four hundred and fifty miles of border wall” he exaggerated as either in “construction or pre-construction” at pains to deny he had left the “wall,” the impressive centerpiece of his political promise to America, as scattered unbuilt fragments, after having rallied his candidacy behind the construction of a continuous concrete wall.

If a builder, President Donald Trump was long stunned by the prospect of building a border wall, and it seems to have been far larger and grandiose in his own mind than would ever be able to be constructed–or could be imagined to be constructed within budget across two thousand miles of open border. Before he spoke at the memorial for the 9/11 attacks on the nation, Trump described his huge admiration for the commemorative walls erected for the Flight 93 National Memorial, a 2018 visit to promote the building of the border wall half-way through his term, an opportunity to assure the public his long-promised “border wall” was being built, inspired by the towering walls of the memorial to those who died fighting Al Quaeda hijackers, as a “gorgeous wall” and promising that while he found the series of walls to be “perfect,” “I’ll be doing things over the next two weeks having to do with immigration, which I think you’ll be very impressed at,” as if to promise a border monument of awing size.

Donald Trump, Melania Trump
September, 2018

The odd elision of the monument to a terrorist attack with the planned border wall was more than notable–Trump no doubt could not spare the idea of linking the two, as it was his greatest plan for protecting America–but it suggests the deeply commemorative value that President Trump had long placed on a Border Wall. Describing the monumental commemorative structure as nothing less than an inspiration on whcih to draw for his own Border Wall, Trump engaged fantasies of monumentality and national power.

For in revisiting the border he had repeatedly visited to support the construction of a border wall–s times since August, 2017?–in his Presidency, President Trump took time to entertain myths about the border in attempts to reclaim the place of the southern border wall in the national discussion, but a tragic conclusion, also, to the collective cries for wall-building he had issued. If he had visited Yuma AZ, San Diego CA, and the Rio Grande Valley and El Paso in Texas, as well as Calexico and returning to Yuma once more, the return to the Rio Grande was an attempt to confirm that he had indeed contributed to the nation’s border security.

By January, 2021, his final border visit was both a reprise before the favored backdrop before which to perform his Presidential role, a final performance of sovereign authority, and a final attempt to remap the border in the public imaginary of Americans. For if the border wall had been a long process of adjustment to the limits of eminent domain, the environmental regulations of sensitive habitat, and the problems of mixing and moving tons of concrete at great cost to the desert, the imagined location of the border wall to Alamo, TX was a way to flatten the imaginary of the border to a single fight–the Battle of the Alamo, often memorialized in paintings, living history, board games, video games, and, most importantly for Donald Trump, in film–and a battle that could be won, as a “miraculous” battle that had been fought in the long-mythologized walls of the Alamo, in 1836, as if itw as a fight that would be fought and won on the ramparts of a single wall against collective Mexican forces.

Dawn, March 6, 1836, Siege of the Alamo - Day 13 | Texas revolution, Alamo,  Mexican american war

Despite the limits of completed “border wall” across the mountainous terrain, an expanse long defined by the Rio Grande’s course, an area of difficult building, and an area of especially sensitive habitat, President Trump devoted his final days of being Presidential to a visit to the Border Patrol officers at the border town of Alamo, TX–not to be confused with The Alamo in San Antonio, in an attempt to illustrate that the promise he had made to build a wall along the border was complete. Optics were long important to the construction of the wall’s sections, which he repeatedly visited in his campaigns, and which provided a rallying cry for rally crowds in the 2016 election–the run that first featured “Build The Wall!” as a collective cry of identitarian politics the level of “Remember the Alamo!”–and a backdrop used to jump-start his Presidency and to energize his 2020 campaign,

This Rio Grande Valley section of the border wall could be seen either as a construction project, akin to those on which Trump had broken ground in New York and Chicago as a real estate promoter with local politicians who had helped guide them–

Or as a quite complex necklace of wildlife refuges, parks, and wilderness areas in the Rio Grande Valley, whose banks were long nourished by loamy waters that regularly flooded the riparian areas of the region, making it a spot for the migration of birds, butterflies, and across the South Texas Wildlife Refuge Complex, a corridor for the travel of sensitive species.

U.S. Fish & Wildlife Tracts of Rio Grande Valley National Wildlife Refuge

Trump had repeatedly visited boder towns as Laredo TX, McAllen TX, Yuma AZ, Calexico CA, and San Ysidro CA in the past six years, and they provided a familiar setting and a backdrop for calls for greater security. The six Presidential visits he made to the US-Mexico border surpass visits of any earlier President since Taft first met Porfirio Díaz at the border in 1909, a century before Trump’s election. He had first visited Laredo “despite the great danger” of the region in 2015 as an obligation as a candidate and an illustration of his patriotic promise to Make America Great Again–“I have to do it, I love this country“–and after prioritizing the immediate construction of a “physical wall along the southern border” only five days after his inauguration, as if to confront a clear and present danger, multiple visits were later made by Trump surrogates, Mike Pompeo, Joe Arpaio, Paul Ryan, or Melania Trump, that magnified the border and a border wall as a Presidential order of business.

The wall was a basis to prioritize a promise to put America First, and an altar for pronouncing his intent to Make America Great Again. It was a basis to define the criminality of undocumented migrants as “illegal aliens,” to construct a revision of American immigration law, all by a system of remapping the border by a “physical wall.” So when he left office, or it seemed inevitable that he would have to leave office, reaffirming the “physical wall” he had mandated was a major order of business to confirm, and even if the wall was not as clearly present, he recognized the need to monumentalize its presence. Trump was a reactionary in returning to a national system of mapping, fending off global mapping tools that promised to erase borders in a network of global coordinates, Trump’s long campaign offered a way of effectively remapping the nation–or its national attention span. The insistence on the safety of the “nation” along this stretch of border wall over-wrote the many indigenous groups who lived on either side of the Colorado River or, as it was known locally, the Rio–so densely congregated in Hidalgo county, near Alamo TX.

If not much of the border will be covered by newly built wall by the time Trump left office, a considerable amount of currently disputed projects, in pre-construction or under construction, far outweighed the amount of border barriers already existing along the Rio Grande. Trump came to claim that they would be completed, in part preaching to the choir–the very group that had first endorsed his candidacy in 2016–that illustrate the deeply transactional nature of the Trump presidency, as much as the eagerness of switching attention from the disastrous publicity of the Capitol Siege that followed his last public appearance, and may tinge forever his Presidency with a deeply distasteful malodor of domestic terrorism, more than security.

But the visit to Alamo TX would exaggerate the process of construction–and the need for its continuation–in a useful rallying cry that could be resuscitated out of office, and indeed to affirm his dedication to the dream of a Border Wall he had planted in the nation, and indeed to restate its patriotic design. Indeed, the visit to Alamo conjured the illusion that the border wall was a straight line–the line that was drawn in the ground with unsheathed saber at The Alamo in 1836, even if the actual border at the Rio Grande was particularly serpentine and difficult to define, despite the accelerated construction of reinforced concrete levees in recent months. While The Alamo was never directly invoked in the border speech that President Trump delivered at the border that recited the “historic” accomplishment of his presidency to defend the border, and sealing the country from asylum seekers and refugees while urging “we can’t let the next administration even think about taking it down,” having spent $15 billion on the border security and construction, for a project he assured was “so important to our country nobody’s going to be touching it.” The pronouncements that came on the heels of the riots that he incited that had left five dead connoted a message about country and nation, concealed that the completion of 450 miles of border wall over four years–a dismal rate of just over a hundred miles of built wall a year, after having banked on the promise that “I’m very good at building things.”

Trump had of course vaunted expertise as a builder and negotiator to construct a border wall with minimum pain or cost. For the candidate even boasted that the cost of an anti-immigrant wall was but a “peanut” given the “fortune Mexico makes because of us,” assuring he would negotiate Mexico paying all costs of the border wall to Republicans averse to government programs. The negotiation of costs for the border wall had of course fallen through long ago, but he seemed to seek to affirm something of the majest of the “great wall” he had promised to built “very inexpensively” in 2015. The promise resulted in replacement of updated fences, with first seventeen, then twenty, miles of new border wall by 2020–and securing funds by the declaration of a “national emergency” of the arrival of immigrants. He seemed to celebrate with a sense of accomplishment, hardly haunted by the 2015 assurance “nobody builds walls better than me” or the promise, “I will build a great great wall on our southern border and I’ll have Mexico pay for that wall.” Both were consigned to the dustheap of history, but the Alamo visit was a search for some redemption.

As he had promised to construct a “wall” along the two thousand miles of border, because building was something that he “knew about,” the visit to the wall had to be spun as a form of victory. President Trump’s visit to a town named after the insurrectionists who defended The Alamo by the mythic line that Lt. Col. William Travis Barrett, a native of Alabama drew on the sands of the old Mexican mission with his sword, when he was only twenty-seven, ,dying in defense of The Alamo in ways canonized in printed accounts that since1878 have mythologized the line that Barrett drew before the siege of The Alamo as a heroic defense of the Texan Revolution: the “Revolution,” but the 1836 revolt was far more “Texian” than Texan, was a struggle to extend the pro-enslavement practices that dominated the southern states’ economy that were long prohibited in Mexico–and retrograde in the world–into Texian lands, at a time when enslavement was a globally retrograde–if in danger of spreading into Texan lands.

Moral Map of the United States (January 1837)/Cornell University Libraries, Persuasive Maps: PJ Mode Collection\

–but mapped a stain upon the nation, and not only for American abilitionists: while Mexico had prohibited the institution of slavery, the southern insurrections who fought, with Barrett, against Mexican sovereignty, were not only “revolutionaries,” but had envoiced a fight for the expansion of slavery, endemic to southern states but in need of expanding to Texian lands.

Barrett’s drawing of the line is however commemorated in San Antonio by a brass bar set in the paving stones of the mission, although its actual site remains unknown, evoked the line in the sand of the boundary of the 1848 Treaty of Guadalulpe, as if it had been drawn by the fort’s defender with unsheathed sword. Barrett’s rebellion, born from dispute with Mexico’s government over anti-slavery laws by fellow-southerners like Crockett and Bowie, as the Texas Revolution began, awaited reinforcements that did not arrive, Barrett’s commitment of himself to martyrdom became a spirit of defiance and dedication to country–

–as Barrett committed himself to martyrdom in immortal words of defending an imagined territoriality, “determined to perish in defense of this place, and my bones shall reproach my country for her neglect.” Barrett’s claim–“Victory or Death!”–was the basis for the first nationalist slogan of the Mexican American War, “Remember the Alamo!” expressed commitment, echoing Barrett, to “Liberty, of patriotism & everything dear to the American character.” One could, perhaps, forget that the border along the Rio Grande at Alamo, TX was far more sinuous and complex to construct without disturbing habitat and environmentally sensitive areas long bathed in river silt, or that the border was not simply a matter of drawing a “line in the sand.” Much as the border was not a clearly determined line but increasingly difficult to define along the changing course of the Rio Grande, even if concrete levees tried to stabilize its course, the “line in the sand” drawn at the Alamo was, if mythological, an attempt to draw a clear division of space where Texas indeed bled to Mexico, driven by land seized to expand the plantation economy.

Texas State Library and Archives”/“Moral Map of the United States

Commemorating The Alamo embodied separatist white supremacist values in defense of a national imaginary fit the spirit of the recent Capitol Riots. Trump long imagined the border wall would be a sight of national grandeur and historical memory. He had introduced it as comparable to how Eisenhower, mesmerized by the banks and multi-lane Autobahn he had witnessed in Germany as commander of Allied Forces, had commissioned 41,000 miles of interstates Eisenhower as the largest public works project of its time. But Trump must have realized the highway system had changed not only the national topography but all Americans’ relation to space in profound ways, as he had lived through it: surfaced road mileage almost doubled after World War I, 1914-26 from almost 257,000 miles to almost 522,000, the Federal-Aid Highway Act promised to pave 41,000 miles of interstates.

I had long dismissed as vanity the bizarre comparison of the wall as a project of national infrastructure comparable to the Eisenhower National Highway System survives as a personal legacy for national development, rather than as compromising national ideals. Before he took to signing the plaques of sections of border wall, the comparison to the earlier infrastructure project elevated the border wall to a central place of the national map. And Trump’s visit was an affirmation of the place of the wall in the nation, as a visit to the border town of Alamo, evocatively named after the garrison defended by Tejano insurrectionists, seemed a place to commemorate the role of insurrection in the formation of a nation, in the days that followed the attempted Capitol Insurrection by a motley assortment of flag-waving white nationalists, far right movements, second amendment supporters, and historical recreationists waving Gadsden flags, Blue Line Flags, Confederate Flags, and Betsy Ross flags similar to those flying over The Alamo in public memory as in the John Wayne 1961 Technicolor film that was designed as a special project to relaunch his cinematic career. The idealization of the sacrifice of The Alamo that seemed an elevation of nation over all, was the sort of jingoist rhetoric that the border wall was long based on, and that Donald Trump had long relished promoting. The mythologization of The Siege of the Alamo as a confrontation between the United States and Mexico, and a conquest of the American west by the dedication of a group regularly heroized in border culture as a racialized conflict, fit the barbed taunt that President Trump had made before the Capitol Riots of the need to “fight like hell” if you want to “have a country any more.”

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Clipping Bears Ears

The recent demotion of Bear’s Ears and the Grand Staircase-Escalante as national monuments pose risk of a deepening widespread and almost inevitable alienation from public lands.  The tenuous status of public lands was apparent in the mandate of protection after intense lobbying of the American Petroleum Institute and other players in the energy industry to cut the limits of National Monuments across the United States, in ways that stand to redefined American West.  And even as our so-called President touts his relation to the common people, apart from the political class, the proprietary relation to public lands that he seeks to instill by removing protected lands of national monuments like Bears Ears stands sadly at odds with the longstanding image of the identification with the legends of the white man in the open space of the American west’s sun-drenched outdoors, whose landscape was open to the grit of white, male conquest of an empty space–although the decision to remove Bears Ears from the list of protected lands suggests an abandonment of that image of the heroic cowboy, replaced by the disillusioned world-weary post-industrialist capitalist character we seem to have as American President.

Trump and Wayne in western backdrop.jpg

For Trump has definitively moved away from that imaginary, and the image of the open frontier, or of this land is your land, this land is my land, into a vision where the very same land is now poised to be opened to mineral extraction and prospecting, reducing the area once identified with the West to an area defined by the priority of industrial claims, and transforming it to a terrain inviting the colonization by extractive industries.  With his pursed lips, and evasive eyes, turning his back on a monumental landscape of the West, President Trump appears oblivious the destruction of space to occur across the national monuments opened to prospective mining, extraction of resources, and mineral industries, as if to deny their history, and allow the big rigs of extractive industries to enter to repossess those areas they have claimed on the map.

The preservation of a national monument that would rejoin fragmentary Indian Lands, indeed, was the strategic scope of the declaration of the two regions as part of our protected national heritage, in an attentive to remove previously protected lands from mineral prospecting in southern Utah, with the aim to improving the local economy and attract investment to the state now represented by Mike Lee and Orrin Hatch, who have both advocated the proposal to open the region to prospectors, with far less concern for its future of the country–responding to heavy lobbying by uranium mining company Energy Fuels Resources, which provoked a widely criticized Interior Department review, Trump issued executive orders that shrunk the monument to newly reduced boundaries.  For Hatch, eagerly labeling the designation of the national monuments as “unjustified federal land grabs,” evoking the increasingly militant anti-federal lands movement, particularly strong in Utah, who act as if the government had hidden interests in staking claims to a territories form wildlife refuges, conservation areas, national parks, or national monuments, summons a misguided anti-government credo as a basis for ending public lands.

Protection of National Monument of Bears Ears would expand claims to native lands in Southern Utah/Joe Burgess for New York Times

In replacing a sense of “goods” for the nation worthy of protection by the federal government–the purpose of the Antiquities Act of 1906, which expanded executive ability to conserve areas for preservation of their historical or scientific interest–to a vision of the executive asfacilitating abilities for exploitation of national space, and ensuring energy extraction.

The result is to threaten fragile material evidence of the region’s prehistoric inhabitation in a site recently put off-limits to oil and gas exploration on account of its use value to extractive industries, contesting the inherent value of preserving an area that has been considered among the most “endangered” historical sites in America. There is a well known precedent of prospectors seizing the sacred grounds of the Lakota Sioux native peoples, that were in fact ceded to them by the United States government in 1868, in the Black Hils of South Dakota, to create out of the former sacred site that became the National Park of Mt. Rushmore, after gold deposits were found underground, leading to a renegotiation attempt that led to a massive slaughter of hundreds of women and children, until the national monument of Mt. Rushmore confirmed the imperial acquisition of the land, by engraving iconic images of past Presidents on the Black Hills to affirm its incorporation into the nation’s body, with five faces of United States Presidents presiding in regal fashion over the region by sculpting their faces out of the Black Hills where GEn. Custer had defeated the valiant defensive acts of Sioux Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse:

If the same logic of prospecting has caused the National Monument of Bears Ears to be reduced to a rump, to allow extractive industries with ties to the current President to erode the Presidential Declaration of his predecessor, the point-based logic of GPS maps of underground reserves has determined a new perimeter to be drawn, reducing the size of the monument to allow rapid extraction and export of oil and other fossil fuels on rigs, to accommodate the request of oil and gas company requests to drill in the monument that have been advocated from 2013, allowing access to over 100,000 acres of land, often filled by sacred ruins, within a mile or inside of the declared eastern boundary of the National Monument, that stand to attract increased road traffic, vehicles, and workers in close proximity to the eighty-eight parcels of national lands that President Trump seeks to auction off–setting a terrifying precedent for privatizing public lands, and for privileging commercial interests regarding sites deemed of value without consideration for the landscape that lies above them.

Expresssed Aeas of Interests for Oil and Gas Drilling in Bears Ears National Monument\\

After a long and intense attempt to resolve inclusively an accord with the Inter-Tribal Council of areas that were deemed too sacred to be sacrificed for commercial interests, no matter their economic benefit, that led many native lands to be affirmed as a National Monument, the rewriting of the map of national priorities with which Donald Trump entered office has led to a wholesale revision of the map of protected lands, and the rewriting of federal land management and protection, as well as the power of the Antiquities Act to accommodate lands deemed of unique in their historical interest for the country, by economic criteria, rather than historic worth.

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