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 virtual space, as we follow rates of infections, mortality, virus variants, and, now vaccination and its limits. Walks during the pandemic often re-explore the neighborhood, navigating it as if it was reading a map of a place I live: an unexpected encounter with a benchmark in the neighborhood, increasingly empty of pedestrians or sounds, begun to reappear. As I walked, in something like strolls and extended errands, 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, brought by the an increasing sense of deprivation of contact during the first year of the pandemic. I walked in search of reflection on morning strolls over the year since the first stay-at-home orders hit the Bay Area.
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.
The faux benchmark emulated a USGS monument caught my attention one day. While the tin disk is less a “benchmark” struck by USGS, the declaration of the antipodal relation was the sort of 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.
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 contaigion, 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” that one would do well to embrace.
As much as searching for the authentic, the pavement stared back to puncture the hubris of that unversalism, 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, I even made the effort to try to explore the city streets in detail, as I had been doing, in an improvised and reflexive way, as a flâneur of post-pandemic space.
- Most every morning, I woke up and walked early, turning often to birdsongs for orientation more than GPS, as birds seemed to be finding refuge in the trees, to find reassurance on what might be called the natural world was in place. The almost unforeseen by-product of the pandemic in the somewhat existential search for a new form of orientation, from the play of sunlight on leaves to sudden views of flowers, or even the increased meaning of song lyrics, or appearance of budding magnolias and the seed pods of sweet gums on the curb outside my house: if haunted by melancholy, there was something like a sea of possible redemption, to exaggerate, in the odd counterplay of reduced traffic, from the new acoustic empty spaces of the pandemic that I tried to fill, as they were filled with birdsong, in reaction to what ecoscientists E.P Derryberry et al detected as newly acquired behavioral traits of avian populations in this silent spring of reduced anthropogenic sound.
Despite the rather precipitous decline of avian populations across a large part of North America, due in great part to anthropogenic change, I was fortunate in Northern California to be at a center where the small lungs of sparrows, towhees, and finches seemed to fill the air with early morning birdsong, sending my wife and I for better and better binoculars, in an attempt to investigate the sweet gums, redwoods, and shrubbery that created some spotty tree-cover for them to sing. They seemed, in the absence of urban rumble, to fill the empty acoustical space outside my home, providing bearings each morning in chirps, trills, and song, as they reclaimed space or started mating cries, as migratory white-crowned sparrows arrived this Spring, battling for positions in their branches and somewhat proudly regaining their calls. For although a declined range in the variety of historic calls found a morning chorus of sparrowsong replaced by a new dialect in San Francisco, amidst the rumble of anthropogenic sounds. Derryberry et al. painted a lifting in the virtuosity and embellishment of birdsong in the pandemic, as if mapping an unseen bright spot amidst a grim pandemic–despite the very grim picture of sharp declines of avifauna across much of the North American continent extending over the past fifty years, with scary consequences for ecological habitats.
WHereas Kim Todd had called attention in Bay Nature some time ago to the decline of historic dialects of sparrow song in San Fransisco due to anthropogenic sound, with a powerful map of sonic space of Golden Gate park by Molly Roy, the rise of birdsong The new avian populations that Derryberry et al. registered in their re-examination of birdsong in the newly opened sonic spaces of their “silent spring” of 2020 foregrounded the urban populations of white-crowned sparrows who had filled the shorelines of nearby developed spaces that included a selection of healthy trees, like my own neighborhood, and seemed a neat confirmation of what I was so busy mapping on my Merlin app as I rediscovered my Life LIst.
If all mapping is a process of reorientation to spaces, 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, focussing not only on birdsong, but the network of actors who had created a sense of certainty in the past, as much for therapeutic balance as to come to terms with the shifting lay of the land in he 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. These markers, etched on the sidewalk in strikes that were often dated and signed, seemed more like markers of mortality, another injunction of being toward death, or perhaps they were more of a way of gaining balance and perspective on death as mortality rates were on everyone’s mind, as speaking about Heidegger seemed unnecessary as COVID-19 was so clearly poised to be the leading cause of mortality yet again in the United States, ending and all our shibboleths of modernization distancing death from the world.
2. Call it a conjuncture of COVID-19 with a midlife crisis, I turned to legibility for a better purchase on space, and to the strikes scattered over the ground that I had also barely noticed in the past. My friend Jeff had warned me sagely when I was moving into the neighborhood I now live in Berkeley, I would be often walking into a time warp, into a zone inhabited by ghosts of a Berkeley past. The local Self-Realization Foundation was long shuttered, with the front of the aquarium whose suspiciously flourishing concealed a healthy marijuana trade that had now thankfully become legit and an increasingly essential business, amidst scattered community centers and legal advocacy groups that seemed open questions. As the time warp became more real, as his words hit me in unexpected ways in a few years.
I turned to the mute legends of concrete pavers as if to take stock of the local in Berkeley, even as grim news grew. 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. If the sense of urban isolation might have been reflected in the “nameless crowd” of city streets, I was most always alone, now, and as if in compensation was noticing with an eery keenness the presence of names that popped out of the ground, reminding me of paving over the pas century. 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. In doing so, 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.
Perhpas even the simple act of respectful reading offered 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, as if to find a sense of greater stability a century removed in time in mute names. Was this a middle age crisis coinciding with the pandemic? The names found right there in pavement were an insistence of the value of the individual, etched in concrete, if not a forgotten monument of sorts to the individual life and the environment in which I walked, reading words stamped on the ground from a century distant as if traces of a past that one wouldn’t want to forget.
The cement from the Oakland Quarry that was used by the The Oakland Paving Company was a bit misplaced in Berkeley, but the entrepreneurs of concrete who had begun with the paving of roads seem to have been tied to the activity of early property development, and the bid for lots on the Oakland-Berkeley border where I live–and have lived for a chunk of time, without looking at the physical archive of such pavement strikes much, seem to be a relic not only of property development but promotion at a time when the lots were first up for sale, and many of the earliest local houses built.
If the records of property maps were not my forte, the abundance of online records of old lots once for sale “on easy terms,” courtesy Calisphere, historicized what was now a tight real estate market of gentrification, and created a sense of the boom of building that lots in such a neighborhood of newly paved streets claimed, boosted by the Key Route of Electric Railroad that would run to San Francisco, with a Country Club of its own. The progress of sidewalk paving seemed offered “free to purchasers,” as new traffic in paving grew piecemeal for new residents.
Was the oldest such strike–still legible!–apparent in the porous pavement up near Piedmont Avenue, particularly worn, beside a large mansion-like lot, flamboyantly constructed from an era a bit prior to Arts & Crafts.
The sense of an alternative spatiality of the past that opened up on the sidewalk I walked across without paying attention seemed a new side for engaging the local, and indeed an art of the local that was affirmed in the logo nearby, boasting the “art[ificial] concrete wks” that manufactured bespoke blocks from the Oakland Quarry, long used for the paving of roads, for the utilities firm, set on the pavement just two passes from the medallion that first called my attention to the antipodes. “Art Concrete”–Artisanal? Artificial?–was a southern California firm specialized in precast concrete, based in Pasadena, which provided meter boxes for utilities from its Oakland works, which only later changed its name after acquiring a competitor, Brooks. But it seemed an apt metaphor or legend for the botanizing of the pavement. Having gained a patent from 1914, the numerous meter boxes bearing the legend, taken as the header for Andrew Alden’s lively blog, “Oakland Underfoot,” opened a world of hidden traces into which I entered conversation, as if to decipher a lost spatiality I had long overlooked.
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.
As Charles Baudelaire had, a century ago, defined the flâneur as most at home in the urban crowd, the alternate multitude on the ground offered an odd sort of company, attuned to urban stimuli, this was almost an urban imaginary of the past whose concreteness was far more tangible amidst what Baudelaire had called “the midst of the fugitive and the infinite,” if the “ebb and flow of movement” on the streets was far more attenuated. As if in a stretch between the imagination and reality, I couldn’t help noticing, these names of these “old Italians,” those who have been dying, as the late flâneur Lawrence Ferlinghetti in 1979 described as “dying and dying/day by day . . . for years”–Joseph Catucci 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–peering up from the pavement from over a century ago–as if they offered a source of stabilty.
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 grasses, but where walking suggested new forms of attention that transcended the natural. Walter Benjamin, who if he grew up in Berlin, exploring its hidden streets and sex trade at night, 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 passionately but restlessly in protean urban forests of shop fronts, signage, and side-shows that belied old street names. The odd commemoration of Ramsden Blake, his name affixed on a metal plates onto the concrete, almost seemed as if homeowners had inserted these ovals after a repair had led them to remove concrete with Blake’s strike.
Over on 66th Street, just a few blocks into Oakland, suffered from far more improvised forms of commemoration, undated sidewalk cyphers that were indeed hard to notice, as if lives far more easily forgotten, perhaps as a consequence of lying across the border.
Walter Benjamin asked us to sense city streets as attentively as “the wanderer in the manner of a twig cracking and snapping under his feet, or startled by a bittern’s call or the sudden stillness of a clearing with a lily standing still, even if the city hardly remained still: now the city stayed still, and these marks seemed to speak. For Benjamin, the flâneur felt a giddy heightening of senses achieved by way wandering in its constructed space, attentive to the dress and movements of inhabitants and walkers as an urban observer by “botanizing on the asphalt,” a felicitous turn of phrase, difficult to translate, suggesting the built city of the late nineteenth century, and restlessness of the ethnographer of urban space that linked nature and manmade concrete. It was made more tragic, and melancholy, of course, as Benjamin, desperately awaiting the possibility of transit papers to leave France to cross the Pyrenees, took his life, despairing at being forced to return to France; Benjamin was seeking transit papers for leaving Europe, far from his pleasure of walking in city streets, having entered the spectral world that his friend novelist Anna Seghers called “the ongoing situation that consulates describe as ‘transitory,’ but that we know in everyday language as ‘the present,'” in her novel Transit, caught between officials demanding papers of passage, far from the former pleasures of moving on foot. Is there not a proliferation of such spaces of suspended passage, waiting for official languages to intersect with one’s present, today?
Anna Seghers, Benjamin’s comrade and a life-long Marxist, evoked the desperation of assembling transit visas in wartime Marseilles, to leave a continent closing down, but might have described the unseemly expansion of worlds of refugee and tragically expanding spaces of waiting not far away, between official permission and everyday limbo–spaces between a lived landscape and official maps. Seghers buried a reference to the tragic desperation of the one-time flâneur’s suicide at the foothill town below the Pyrenees obliquely, as the narrator reflects on a rumor circulating that “a man shot himself in a hotel in Portbau on the other side of the Spanish border, because authorities were going so send him back to France in the morning,” finding himself trapped as he travelled on a smuggling route. The mention of the suicide didn’t linger on tragedy, but from a distance remembered the terrible loneliness a looming geopoltical boundary held for the one-time flâneur. Without naming Benjamin’s identity or the nature of the bombed out town where he took his life, emptied of many of the left writing inhabitants who had fled to France, the rumor of the suicide in the foothill city Benjamin took in 1940, foregoing a transit he hoped for never found, led Seghers to evoke her friend’s final moments sparingly, imagining the unexpressed terror at being compelled to return to “this country in which we are still stuck must have seemed hellish and unlivable” for one with “such enormous hopes for his journey’s destination that going back should have seemed so unbearable.” The place that seems a port of sorts and decisive moment of Benjamin’s final days captures the frustrations of navigating modern space for a refugee who had left Marseilles for Mexico, on a boat including André Breton, Victor Serge, and Claude Lévi-Strauss, a crowd where Benjamin might have found compelling company: Segher’s unnamed protagonist, awaiting transit papers, leading him to reflect that “you hear about people who prefer death to losing their freedom,” wondering what liberty death might offer, as if recalling Benjamin’s ecstatic urban reveries, asking himself “was that man really free now?“Continue reading