One of the consequences of the pandemic is we follow rates of infections, mortality, virus variants, and, now vaccination rates, to try to make order of world whose disorder seems more prominent than ever. The globalization of a viral spread able to diffuse in the atmosphere was measured, before its pathways of infection were understood, refracted in rates of reported infections, racial disparities of hospitalization, and divergent responses to viral outbreak. The stresses in a community that was already keenly insecure about health care security had a reassuring carpet ripped out from under it, trying to answer the question of what held us together, or would held us together in the pandemic days, unclear how to map its huge public health threat. In the increasingly empty streets I walked regularly during the pandemic months hoping to find distance and a sense of space, names struck on the sidewalk served as a sort of company, and a ghost-like version of a community that had once animated the area where most, until recently, were remaining indoors, watching the striking disparities in rates of infection where we lived.
As the residential bonds in Oakland and across the county frayed, I began to find traces in the concrete of the history of deep divisions, and imagined I was reading a lot in the markers of a sense of lost meanings that were, even if often obscured, inscribed in the the street, uncovering old spatialities marked by these imprints became a form or “botanizing the asphalt” helped reorient me place, recognizing a history of exclusion traced from the 1920s, amidst fears and fissures of the recent pandemic. To be sure, the names stamped on the pavement in this area that seemed defined by older buildings were perhaps a preserve of old imprints, ranging from the strikes that emulated scrollwork, escutcheons, and inverted triangles or crisp diamonds, of a first generations of sidewalk pavers from the turn of the last century, who seemed to advertise the modernity of paved sidewalks, to the circumspect surnames of men like “G.N. Noble,” “J.E. Morgan,” “J. H. Fitzmaurice,” or the common mark “Griset”–less adorned signatures seemingly belonging to taciturn artisans whose craft less easy to associate with elegance or modernity of earlier eras. The innovation of affording a house with new sidewalks worn off, these men perhaps often repaved broken sidewalk.
But the sense of a historical depth these signs in the asphalt offered seemed something akin to clues of an old neighborhood that arose along policed lines, and seemed a counterbalance to the disparities of health access, insurance, or even adequate data among urban populations that were increasingly hit by the tragedy of infections of COVID-19, from which there seemed little refuge from confronting, and, in those days, even much hope of stability. These small explorative itineraries promised a sense of stability, as if by mapping that world again on foot. Such strikes of pavers were absent on most of the larger traffic corridors of Berkeley like Martin Luther King or San Pablo, and foreign to the old town of Ocean View below, but seemed striking evidence of the areas most dense for single-family housing around my home, evidence of the old policies of racial exclusion created by realtors who had sought to keep Berkeley as s unique “white” preserve free from African American dance halls, Chinese immigrants, or often those without “pure Caucasian blood”–by exclusionary zoning laws that led to a suburban paradise, zoned for single family residences. Were these markers on the ground not effective markers and evidence of exclusivity of the street sidewalks that were paved, as much as I wanted to see them as pride of the artisans and contractors of the past?
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. These markers seemed like unrecognized monuments of sorts, both of dividing lines in the city organized by property lines and markets in the first half of the twentieth century, and the cleavages in home ownership by which it was defined. The sudden stoppage of the cities’ edges of broken streets is the nucleus of the current grid, whose groundplan has hardly been changed, if Oakland now runs far, far past Foothill Boulevard.
As I walked daily in the residential area of the Berkeley-Oakland border, despite the presence of contractors listing Oakland or Berkeley, a few Berkeley contractors in Oakland (Burnham) and of The Oakland Paving Co. in Berkeley, or Blake & Birger Co in Berkeley, most–but not all–of the squat triangular stamps of A. Salamid, son of the concrete contractor Frank, from Monopoli in southern Italy, were struck on land squarely in Oakland–if the border was vague. The stamps were perhaps the surviving traces of a broad project stretching from 1906 to the 1930s, parallel to the definition of neighborhoods of single-family houses, a sharp contrast to as dizzying data sheets of infections and fatalities, but that seemed data too, if not precise data-points, seemed they marks that might map or rescue individual voices from the past as records of a past spatiality. Either the boundary between Berkeley and Oakland had itself shifted, over the years, perhaps, or, far more likely, realtors had developed ties to private contractors independently of location, and what I took as a public space was paved only as it was privately, unlike the city sidewalks I had spent exploring in my youth.
Were the residential sidewalks on which I walked paved in Berkeley and Oakland before single-family residences in the start of the last century to carve appealing enclaves of single family residences by drawing exclusionary lines?
My eyes were often downturned. Walks during the pandemic I re-explored the residential neighborhood, navigating streets as if reading a map of a place I live for the first time: the inscribed names of old pavers popped out with new significance as records of past spatialities–and of mortalities–as if there was a necrology engraved whose superficial reading uncovered an era of the past, when the first residential codes were created in Berkeley from the start of the twentieth century, hoping to exclude populations by zoning regions for residential housing.
Moving in a neighborhood streets increasingly empty of pedestrians or car sounds, earlier versions of neighborhood seemed to peak out from the stones of pavers that real estate companies set in the East Bay, read not using maps, by surprisingly early evidence of habitation a century ago which I’d never considered. What was a rather straightforward insertion of an old-school calling card for contractors, perhaps placed for questions of liability or as a statement of their skill, in the uninhabited streets now seemed almost archeological discoveries that conveyed mortality not present before. The pavement I was increasingly pounding conjured underfoot lives of earlier contracters, generations of engineers and craftsmen, the builders of public spaces in the East Bay to welcome the huge nubmer of homes sold in the aftermath of the 1906 San Francisco Fire and Earthquake that had devastated the downtown and made many residents eager to relocate across the bay: the increased mobility in the Bay Area of the early twentieth century raised fears of the transformation of Berkeley’s character, but also of the promotion of a new residential community, in ways that brought an abrupt increase of density to the area around the old state university. Iif the pandemic suggested a stoppage of time, from the first days of shelter-in-place policies, or lockdown, the name of the paver almost effaced by pedestrians gained an unexpected pathos, offering material bearings to a past world a century earlier–as if that calling card begged me to define my historical relation to a place; I’d long taken such strikes for granted, perhaps the progress of the pandemic made me realize i was taking for granted my own health.
In 1909, sidewalks in the city were still emerging from tracts, if we look at a cartogaphic time machine of a local map from the era, as Prince Street began to emerge between the Woolsey Tract, Newburry Tract and Harmon Tract, and Berkeley still part of the Oakland Township, in George F. Cram’s 1908 Map of the City of Oakland, creeks not undergrounded, and many sidewalks only recently paved by men who probably wanted to advertise their wares for the incoming .
The poignancy of stamps demanded attention as fragments of buried pasts, now rising to the surface. If we were entering a new era, with worries about future assemblies and the fate of common spaces across the country, the sidewalk was something of a register of the past, and a register of past spatialities, across the neighborhood, that I–long after considering GPS and global projections for some time as shifts of spatial regimes–seemed to offer evidence particularly poignant of human actors and lives, where I started to search for clues of distraction, signs of interest, and rootedness. Akin to an unexpected encounter with an apparent USGS benchmark–unofficial, but one which stared me back as in the header to this overly meditative post, made this flâneur’s exploration of sidewalks something like an archeology of past spatial regimes, in an attempt to get better bearings on where we were.
As health insecurity, geographic mobility, and infection rates were tracked globally, and different viral strains presented a global problem difficult to digest, reaffirming the local seemed to be a glimpse of fragmented microhistories etched in the concrete pavement beneath my feet, in weeks when I spent many previous evenings drowning in statistical pictures of a pandemic that revealed deep fractures and divides, illuminating huge disparities in health access and cost that fragmented the nation in new ways, and became increasingly hard to find coherence I wanted to read. And the apparently anodyne traces in the sidewalk of the paving of neighborhood sidewalk in the old residences of the new Berkeley neighborhood to which I had moved provided a weird interlocutor of the deep history of an area long zoned for single family housing, designed to marginalize non-white and poorer families outside its own boundary lines, legislating the zoning of more affluent single-family housing and residential areas from 1916 with only implicit references to race, ethnicity, or wealth, creating neighborhoods realtors boasted to be hard-wired with legal “protection against an invasion of Negroes and Asiatics” in what would be a workaround for fear of mobility. The invisible walls that the adoption of strict codes of residential zoning for exclusive single-family homes in Berkeley to persist, in an uncomfortable legacy of realty agents, rapacious developers, and landlords created a longstanding barrier to creating public housing projects in California as their exclusionary tactics became a national model, leading it to be praised by Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover when he set as a universal goal of home ownership the right to live in a Berkeley-style single-family zone that omitted members of color, as if it were a universal right.
Was it possible that the private reveries I took in what I took to be public space, I wondered, tied to a historical landscape of single-family residences, long ago created by realtors and real estate promoters in the East Bay, that had created almost a model of the the single-family home that would be idealized in the United States into the late twentieth century, in its expansive suburbia that was engineered as a utopia of single-family residences, all too often by excluding people of color and non-whites who were cast as “invaders” of residential space? Was the persistence of residential zoning as a program of “white resistance” underwritten by eugenics inscribed in the names of individual pavers, often immigrants, the low level technicians of realtors whose names survive outside of single-family homes, the men who who prepared sidewalks for neighborhoods zoned residential or for single-family housing? While the racist origins were left inexplicit and deeply uncomfortable to recognize, the fracturing of land in my neighborhood of neighborhood zoning echoe dissparities of an uneven landscape of health care costs, and unequal access to health care?
These were a reflection, in large part, of the first laws of residential zoning, work around solutions for rapacious realtors who sought to keep a rustic era of Berkeley in place, and to exclude undesirable arrival within the state and retain “the same social and racial groups” before the Home Owners Loan Corporation’s maps of suburbanization underwritten by the Federal Government set rates for mortgages, an improvised “plan for protecting property values” by zoning for residences, ostensibly to prevent “the evils of uncontrolled development,” but that did double duty by excluding outsiders, and maintaining continuity within a market dominated by realtors who by 1947 openly agitated to introduce restrictive covenants of property sales limiting home ownership to “members of the Caucasian race.”
As I walked in a neighborhood close to regions long zoned for residential housing, I was struck by how mapping tools stared back, from the pavement, in surprising ways, exploring the local in reaction to the heightened and altered sense of awareness to surroundings. If I found, as if fleeing from the question of food insecurity and rates of infection, in more existential ways to whatever I might see, as if looking for peacefulness under a rock–an intensity that led me to notice a flower, tree, or park in new ways was encouraged by a sense of deprivation of contact during the first year of the pandemic, the uninhabited streets seemed something like a ghost town.
Meditative morning strolls during stay-at-home orders hit the Bay Area provided a form of needed reflection. The inhabitation of the flâneur’s role as an urban spectator of pavement filled a drive for grounding, and assessment, that turned as if by default to the actual ground. And walking with downcast eyes one morning, I delighted not four blocks from my house, almost laughing as I noticed a curious placement of a joking benchmark–clearly not placed by the USGS, but imitating its authority, in ways that seemed something like a breath of relief as it burst the tension that increasingly felt before the deep red graphics that mapped the current dispersion of confirmed coronavirus infections, hospitalizations, and deaths, as the viral spread of maps of the virus’ spread came to dominate the range of maps we daily read, and to place us before maps in particularly disempowering ways. As insecurities grew unlike what we’d experienced, I looked for stability in odd places in the unnoticed signs of old benchmarks and pavers’ names seemed partial texts. As my own travels contracted to a radius of a few miles most days, the ground seemed the best place to find meaning, as newspapers grew exhausting to read for their depressing news.
The faux benchmark managed to maintain a sense of brio and absurdity in described geospatial position that managed to separate geodesy from the distributions of deaths, and to remind me of the propositional or fictional nature of all maps–and wonder about who ever had placed cryptic geomarkers the size of coffee lids in plain sight. While hardly suggesting a real datapoint as a marker, its whimsy had an unexpected appeal I was proud of noticing.
As if revealing a liveliness in its placement, an adjustment in the concrete pavement, that conjured the point-based aspirations of spherical or ellipsoid reference systems, embodied by 240,000 stations marked set in stone over one and a half century. If most recently incarnated in the geodetic system adopted by the National Geodetic Survey, precise longitude, latitude, and height, the markers set in the ground or sunk in rocks once guaranteed a smooth sense of objectivity and assurance of the objectivity and reliability of the mapping of a continuous world–precisely those values that the Pandemic put up for grabs! There was clearly a conscious joke on the tin disk slapped onto the asphalt in front of me. It interrupted the point-based mapping, inscribed with instructions to make an antipodes sandwich, albeit with a soggy slice of bread on the opposite antipode, more to a passing pedestrian than to a surveyor–an unofficial record of place.
Prescriptive instructions is rarely what one might expect from a enchmark. But the many benchmarks sunken or situated in the ground across the Bay Area were intended to provide sighting points for surveyors to take the bearings on the lay of the land for home owners and realtors, even if the lay of the land was what was uncertain now, and since no certainty could be afforded by a survey, the ironic tone of address was actually welcome.
these maps were intended to help determine property lines, and to subdivide lots in the early property markets of the East Bay–suggesting how much property maps provided a basis by which real estate markets had long shaped the region. For if property and realty have dictated the artificial landscaping of the Bay Area by projecting a landscape of single-family residences that shaped what was intended as a semi-urban enclave in Berkeley and vicinity–San Leandro; El Sobrante; Walnut Creek; Piedmont; Danville–that struggled to stay out of the category. While I imagined this was the project of the East Bay suburbs for some time, Orinda seemed to spin out of the Bay Area as a white project itself.
Enabled or classification of suburbia, the fantasy landscape of single-family residences was one of social and racial exclusion traced by survey lines, and in fact etched on the pavements that realtors acted as brokers on real estate boards, even before Duncan McDuffie promoted a landscape of racial and ethnic divisions of exclusivity and desirability of building lots in ways that still haunt the history of housing in Berkeley, and the East Bay as a whole–where over 85% of the land is zoned and subdivided for residential housing, creating an artificial bastion that pretends it is not a planned community, as realtors exploited a land-use division that proved particularly attractive and rewarding to exploit from before World War I, but which residential zoning became a quick fix to create enduring protections for “good” neighhborhoods, excluding non-caucasians: as an older home-owner I met one morning after we got coffee at the same shop reminded me, the line was firmly drawn around downtown Berkeley’s Shattuck Avenue, the dotted line below, south of which the black community lived, and above it “where the racists lived.”
Described as an ethnic preserve safe from “invaders,” the racialized landscape of singe-residence zoning in Berkeley became a template for a nation from the 1920s, a proof of product of the design of tacit but powerful barriers and divides in space, that the area of the Oakland-Berkeley landscape I’d lived for the past decade, rediscovering traces of the eager repaving of the asphalt outside individual lots by pavers like Burnham & Co. or The Oakland Paving Co, seeking to reconstruct a utopia of desired landscapes of private residences less vulnerable to “outsiders.” The spate of early paving immediately following a burst of urban growth in the demand that escalated after the 1906 San Fransisco Earthquake, seemed to seek solid ground on the old land first settled by the Chochenyo/Huchiun band.
In a sea of overpriced properties, a landscape of residential exclusivity defined a new utopian model for the nation. The model, promoted by then-Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover as the model to which the nation was entitled, became a surrogate bucolic community designed by property lines and rules. Berkeley was a high-income residential neighborhood placed cheek by jowl the industrializing rail entrepôt of Oakland, and viewed outsiders as dangerously foreign to this enclave of business owners and professionals, surrounded by apparently natural borders of rivers, parks, and open space to preserve itself as an enclave, even after it was shocked by the huge influx of displaced San Franciscans who arrived in numbers after the 1906 earthquake and fire to migrate across the bay and double the local population in 1906-8and bring an influx of demand for homes with the result that by 1916, the dominant logic of real estate was the single family home, comprising 90% of the local build landscape in ways that created a profitable template that realtors sought to secure–and that now dominates the over-zoned real estate bubble across multiple enclaves that have come to dominate and define land-use across much of the entire East Bay.
The logic of land development is only recently beginning to redress as an “ugly history” and a legacy of racial disenfranchisement that was a model that predated the collapse of an urban housing boom of the 1920s, when the Federal Housing Administration created the needed housing insurance program to bolster the value of properties, and fluid real estate market, by extending exclusive protections to middle class home-owners by a strikingly similar three-tier ranked system that pointed excluded low-income areas from similar mortgage guarantees, creating among Oakland’s diverse inhabitants that have fragmented the city along property lines in the maps of the Home Ownership Loan Association that are still evident today. The status of the faux benchmark imitating USGS monument was not an official marker, of course. But it caught my attention one day as a formal sort of joke, placed on the ground over the streets I had so often walked, without being noticed. The disk is less a “benchmark” struck by USGS, but it reminded me of the declaration of a monument that might glide from one’s attention, like a water drop of oil-cloth, in the manner Robert Musil in 1927 described how monuments can evade our “perceptual faculties” and repel the attentive observation that they are supposed to attract from passersby: in the years after World War I, as memorials arose to individual heroes and soldiers who perished for the nation, beyond great figures of state, the arch Austrian felt the multiplication of commemorations of figures on pedestals was a poor repertoire, Musil felt as a military man and engineer. Musil’s quite caustic suggestion was removed, but in the aftermath of World War I, a new age of monuments, he argued makers of memorials would do well learn more from mass advertising to grab public attention was not entirely ironic, but grappled with public memory and memorialization, as many were finding a new language for placing public memory in urban space. But somehow, the benchmark grabbed my attention as a needed sense of levity in a pavement that seemed increasingly grey.
Musil’s appeal to ancient Roman statuary suggested the diminished nature of a language of public monuments as forms of remembering–or invitations to remember “with” what they commemorated. If commemoration raised the question of how one would bring into the remembrance of the viewer, I had started to look at the city sidewalks as forms of memory in the period of sheltering in place. Were not some of the first monuments in the Berkeley neighborhood I was increasingly exploring on foot during months of “sheltering in place” indeed not advertisements of their own. We had found a new memorial for the nation, hard to look at and difficult to scrutinize for meaning, as the tyranny of maps of infections and mortality that in 2020 as monuments of the nation replaced the monument of the Border Wall once President Donald J. Trump had promised to construct in 2015 as a common monument. Amidst the trust placed in new universal maps–maps that essentialized and universalized the long-adjudicated border between Mexico and the United States; maps tracking infections of coronavirus were queried for their statistical accuracy by the Covid Tracking Project and others, but set a drum beat of late Trumpian time.
In these contradictory if dismaying universals, the preservation of the particular seemed almost redemptive, in the new attention to a flower fragrance, a fragment of song, or a volley of bird calls. There seemed little or less space for the pedestrian; my apparent discovery of a set of faux geodetic benchmarks as the one in the header in this post that were placed around Berkeley that seemed to confirm the walkability of a pedestrian space amidst competing visualizations of the global progress of COVID-19 seemed in a small way an act of resistance, a re-navigation of habitable space. I couldn’t find any official tabulation of these geomarkers, but they stood in such sharp counterpoint to the marked overmapping that grappled with the escalating fear of contagion, transmission, and safety or security during the pandemic’ seemed to drown space, and leave limited space for movement, outside our back yards or rural trails, when possible, the optimism of that sense of a global mapping was called into question if not punctured in playful ways by the mock benchmark, never noticed underfoot, that someone had placed in the pavement some three to four blocks from my house, that made me pause as a mock monument.
It was a playful monument to what seemed a alternate spatiality, that made fun of the point-based systems of mapping that were the basis for national surveys and, historically, the adjudication of border disputes, whose comprehensive aims seemed punctured by the tongue-in-cheek plaque. The tracking of the coronavirus had almost etched the point-based nature of objective counts of infection and of mortality for upwards of a year, and I laughed to acknowledge the precision of its promise to position sliced bread. As we sought legibility in maps of inequalities in health care, uneven enforcement of protocols of containing infections, and even poor testing for infections, with limited success, the promise of legibility was playfully engaged by the benchmark I’d never noticed in particularly welcome ways–
–as the pandemic seemed to displace all past spatial anxieties of the nation about immigration, terrorism, or perils outside our borders, and dramatically revealed the existence of sharp health inequalities–and injustice. The maps and important dashboards that searched for orientation to the chaos of a pandemic that left us looking for security in time-series graphs, watching the escalating curves of mortality and infection rates that refuse to flatten, as we squirmed to come up with new means of containing viral spread, only to find we were pretty shockingly and disarmingly poor at doing all along. Getting good numbers to track in most of the maps in the needed dashboards, newspapers, and websites to try to steer a course among the spread of infections of COVID-19. Was this only a midlife crisis, or did all memorials not demand an eery sort of “being toward death” that the philosopher Martin Heidegger had analyzed, calling into question the very factors of arbitrariness of infections and the crisis of questions of freedoms so often misunderstood or reflexively returned to in many states, and indeed the question of agency and of self: for the viral spread we were trying to map had interrupted the lives of so many in ways that one never might associate with modernity, but were, one had to acknowledge, born of anthropogenic change. One certainly needed to regain bearings on the world. One might thrown Heidegger to the side and go to the skepticism with which Wittgenstein harshly critiqued how a persistent “craving for generality” had been reborn in the age of globalization, filled with a “contemptuous attitude towards the particular case” one might do well to embrace.
I made an effort to try to explore the city streets in detail, following itineraries for bearings as a flâneur of post-pandemic space of increasing distance, I noticed in my weekly step counts.
As much as searching for the authentic, the pavement stared back to puncture the hubris of that universalism, playfully suggesting the vainglory of a unified universal space, and turned those dramas back to a human story. While the local GeoMarker was helpfully undated, a walk to the further bakery, a mile and a half or so to the East, I conveniently found a terminus ante quem of sorts, or passed by a strikingly similar marker, made by the same sort of local geographer, that memorialized a site of considerable importance to all parents in Berkeley, as it remembered place that was the first site for the short-lived local program of alerting pedestrians to oncoming traffic at intersections, by placing a personal flag that street-crossers might carry, in order to alert oncoming vehicles, 2001-4, to carry to the other side of the street: not only for luftmensch associated with the university town, as if flâneurs after the fact, but was also for schoolchildren.
Berkeley’s ill-fated Pedestrian Flag Program hoped to eliminate pedestrian accidents closed long after many flags went missing, and they proved less than viable, after, sadly, a flag-carrying pedestrian was struck. The geomarker preserved a deeply local memory hard not to consider apt at the intersection where afternoon sun was glinted into my eyes, as I’d apprehensively crossed. The local memorialists at work had made their points, suggesting the optimistic program of self-governance by which Berkeley had long run.
The faux benchmark was a rather celebratory marker of the survival of pedestrian space. Most importantly, perhaps, it made me turn to search for similar GeoMarkers, in hopes to discover a lost world of walking that was left for pedestrians on other sidewalks of the pedestrian spaces of Berkeley. I’d heard from a fellow walker that he’d seen another, down near Tenth St., and as I went walking in greater extent, I kept my eyes fixed on the ground. I was most of all happy he noticed it, and while he couldn’t remember its location.
The pandemic prompted a sense of uncovering a hidden spatial architecture, parallel to that of Berkeley but lying there underfoot all the time-an architecture that reminded me of the cartographic roman a clef urban fantasia, China Miévilles’ The City and the City; I had uncovered an urban topography lying on the surface but out of sight for most, including, until this point, myself, that my increasing itineraries led me to uncover, lying on the concrete surface of the sidewalk, instead of the street, that offered a sort of running commentary on the building and occupancy of Berkeley.
The local Berkeley reference to Malvina Reynolds, who was inspired to write a lament of the landscape of houses of “Ticky Tacky [that] all look just the same” about the increased social conformity of San Francisco tract housing, Little Boxes (1962), the local folk singer’s critical reflection on architectural conformity of South San Francisco; it quickly became a recognized anthem emblematic of unease at the lack of invention about lifestyles in postwar America more broadly, after being quickly taken up and popularized by her friend Pete Seeger, who recognized its balladic power as a deep allegory for the conformity of lifestyles, adding to it several verses himself. If Reynolds was a social observer, struck by the housing formations she saw while she and her husband drove through San Francisco so acutely to ask her husband to drive them to La Honda as she wrote a song inspired by the sight of tract housing that would “convey to people things that they already knew that didn’t know they knew or hadn’t thought about,” in the words of her daughter, but hadn’t put into words, she would be surprised to see the words transposed to Berkeley of course slyly transposed the dangers of an advance of social conformity Reynolds saw in South San Francisco to the East Bay.
Reynolds’ lines on tract housing, situated at the busy intersection of Milvia St. and University Ave., reminded me–“There’s a beige one–and a grey one/And a brown one and a khaki one“–of the shadow cartography the markers seemed to be creating by signing to pedestrians. The faux geomarkers oriented pedestrians at a slant to the built geography of Berkeley, as if ironic and knowing comments on it. And as I walked, I found the strikes of local pavers on the sidewalks of south Berkeley oriented me to a shadow geography of built space. I unintentionally and then intentionally read more in th ecourse of itineraries across South Berkeley and North Oakland, seeing the expansion of calling cards of masters of concrete stamped on the sidewalk in strikes as material records of the rapid growth of a new paved spatiality in the 1910s and 1920s in my neighborhood, no more evident than in the many inset meter boxes stamped by “Art[isanal] Concrete” patented from around 1914, and which have spread over most all of Oakland and Berkeley, iconic monuments to a local supplier that was only recently replaced.
And while the names of contractors who seem to have provided the first streets of the region with sidewalks had long registered in my subconscious as a curiosity of the region, these oddly dispersed names, often matched with dates, were increasingly read not as part of the landscape, but somehow evidence of a receded past, and of past lives, in ways that I never imagined, even as a trained historian: the nine imprints–or strikes–that mirror housing lots signed by “G.R. Noble, Contractor” along a block of Hillegass Avenue of older houses along which I regularly walked along had long suggested he had worked with a realtor who had sold the lots for new residents: if not nearly as stylized as some, or linked to a date, the contractor who had identified himself suddenly became a sign of mortality, as the names and dates that swung back to my attention in a melancholy key–“Villata-1931”; “J. Catucci — 1916”; “J. B. Castellotti 1921”–suggested signatures of a post-World War I expansion of paved sidewalks and housing lots. The strikes without years stood out–L. J. Lorenzetti; T. J. Garvey; “Ed” Doty; W. O. Nelson–as if orphans, refusing to slide into their surroundings but springing from the streets of my north Oakland neighborhood as epitaphs of a bygone age of sidewalk paving and settlement of the East Bay. While they probably never had similar significance as mortal records, it was almost inescapable that these marks from a century ago marked out a lost age, that suddenly seemed to reach out to me as I looked with my eyes downward cast at the ground.
Was I just looking at the pavement too long, using my phone to preserve what seemed time-stamped snapshots of some sort of memorial elegance, or was this a weird form of middle-aged mourning for a lost past lying at my feet? The strikes set by these pavers a century or so as markers of guarantees of quality and professional calling cards gained a sense of palpability as epitaphs of past lives. They seemed able to indicate as never before a sense of loss, as well as offering a window into the past of the paving of driveways and sidewalks of older houses when many sidewalks had not been uniformly paved.
My friend Jeff, who I’d taken to talk about Kafka and Modiano with during the pandemic, had warned me sagely when I moved into the neighborhood I would be often walking into a time warp, to a zone inhabited by ghosts of a Berkeley past. The local Self-Realization Foundation was in fact shuttered during the pandemic, and the front of the aquarium store thankfully become legit and an increasingly essential business, amidst scattered community centers and legal advocacy groups. But the time warp became more real, as his words hit me in unexpected ways in a few years, as the streets grew more emptied, the names on the sidewalk gained resonance, and the sounds changed as urban traffic receded from local space. A very worn early strike set by Blake and Bilger–faint but barely legibly dated 1909, two digits in a distinctive triangle’s center–barely visible with abraiding, surfaced on the sidewalk on Prince Street.
Was I looking for these signs stenciled into the pavement because my eyes were downcast, or because I wanted to find a trace for another sort of community lying before my eyes? As archeologists talk about place as “haunted” by earlier records of habitation, and spatialities of settlement, the past seemed oddly comforting and dear to hold close, even if it was hardly legible with time. To be sure, the city was haunted by a specter of racial covenants and despite a long term effort to desegregate neighborhoods framed as residential to preserve clear lines of racial division.Continue reading