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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.Continue reading