Tag Archives: Oakland CA

Metageographical Pavement

While seeking direction during the raging of the pandemic, as if existentially isolated in those days when anxieties ramped up, vulnerability to a virus crossing borders brought a vulnerability and a keen sense of the absence of all infrastructure able to sustain. The danger of introsepection was tempered by alarm, as a shock at the unaccustomed sense of the evanescence omade us turn to distant if suddenly proximate stories of plague past to process the new normal of pandemics. As many, seeking orientation to what was unfolding, exasperated at the overflow of global maps of pandemic spread that were intellectually impossible to balance with one’s fears for those loved, many looked to the classics–Defoe (Journal of a Plague Year), Manzoni (The Betrothed), or Camus (The Plague)–as if in an attempt to find bearings that fit our time of epidemiological disorientation, as I fancied to find an early urban infrastructure encoded in the century-old names stamped into the ground, pavers’ stamps of a tactile legibility I’d long ignored, but seemed removed from the dizzying distance of records of mortality, hospitalization, and viral spread that seemed almost impossible to comprehend or assess, and both reassuringly material–and present.

These imprints set in concrete staked a claim for permanence, before the Great War, and before the pandemic of the Spanish Flu, with an optimism of sorts to trump the newly constructed lands that were built in the East Bay sidewalks of what were once indigenous lands. There is something similar about these prints that recalls the early wall-building, before the establishment of the law, that Romulus had staked around Rome’s limits that separated the civilization of the city from the surrounding barbarism, as pathways and roads that, as Vico had it, into the institutions of human society by the building of roads and walls around fields.

2308 Prince Street, near Halcyon Park, Berkeley CA

The legibility that these sidewalks assumed as part of a historical record, long overlooked, seemed almost a source of security, and a form of memorialization, far more than antiquarian curiosity. Perhaps the prsence of fewer pedestrians altered human geography to remind me of the delicate construction of our sense of place, the flat surface of the pavement provided a weird surrogate for the absence of familiar faces on the street. In an age when we were reading webmaps, synthesizing global data of infection rates across countries and states, the local lens of the pavement had a concrete sense of specificity that those webmaps lacked.

Shattuck Avenue, Berkeley CA

–that even if undated seem far older evidence of the Oakland Paving Co., lugging cement quarried from the old Bilger Quarry in Oakland’s Pleasant Valley that from 1910 offered, as “The Oakland Paving Co.” met the need for metamorphosed sandstone for macadam and concrete to pave Berkeley’s sidewalks, in the years after the San Francisco Earthquake, meeting the demand for paved streets in the East Bay over a century ago. My historical training seemed to click into gear, shifting from the webmaps of the pandemic’s spread to the poetics of the paving of the sidewalks I had long pounded since arriving in the East Bay almost thirty years ago, without giving much notice to reading what was lying under my feet, as the geography of the repaving of the city popped into unexpected historical relief as the mute stones started to speak as I looked down at them.

1332 Walnut Street, Berkeley CA
1607-11 Russell St, Berkeley

This rediscovering of the local in the midst of the pandemic was a remapping of place, as we were trying to process global maps modeling the spread of infections and, soon, mortality, that almost resembled a flight path map without the vectors of transmission that we were asked to reconstruct. For in contrast to the smooth sections of finely grained grey paving, the mixed macadam of earlier eras surprisingly offered a site of dialogue and historical orientation as material culture, a point of dialogue while moving far less to meditate about how we mapped space and place. As the numbers of flights contracted, and we grew less global, we measured ourselves in relation to a global pandemic that we seemed only oddly able to see in local terms. But perhaps this was, yet again, only another iteration of the fate of globalization.

The global diminution of air traffic occurred as we were tracking the spread of a virus across national borders, moving in global webs of claustrophobic mobility and transportation across borders with a heightened smoothness that was forging transnational linkages of the most deadly sort, eroding the concept or use of national sovereignty over public health, the lines of these early pavers of sidewalks offered a local text whose superficiality seemed oddly comforting to trace and almost profound, meta-geographic markers of an earlier era before gridded space was widely accessible–as if it offered another way of negotiating with the dead. As global traffic slowed, and we sheltered in place, and afternoon or morning somewhat aimless walks became a form of meditation, the sidewalks became a weirdly present interlocutor.

Post-COVID International Airflow (ICAO), 2020

As much as fiction provided a respite from the specter of infection that became existential as it approached our space, blurring boundaries and destabilizing ourselves left us searching for a playbook, pavement provided a needed form of orientation, the work calendar interrupted. The storied names of the pavers of the cement sidewalks on the Berkeley-Oakland bore offered a parallel text to one of loss, as the names of contractors and pavers gained presence as a story of urbanization, and urban inequities, reactivated by the landscapes of loss.

The old sidewalk stamps left by pavers’ that dotted the border between these Bayside cities of a patriarch of one of the family of pavers whose work fed the city’s increased population after the 1906 Earthquake killed over 3,000 and destroyed 28,000 buildings–leaving some 25,000 homeless, growing the East Bay residential centers seemed in the pandemic to gain a commemorative cast as sites of mourning. It seemed that on or about April 18, 1906, the pavement set by men who owned quarries in different parts of the East Bay–Oakland; Rockridge; Berkeley; El Cerrito–set a new infrastructure for residential housing, whose echoes we felt, living on the edges of a real estate market of extreme gentrification. The evidence of earlier construction firms who seized once indigenous lands was perhaps less strong to me as a pedestrian while sheltering in place in Berkeley, CA, than the materiality of these signs perhaps monitory and perhaps memorializing, but literally concrete.

6440 Regent St., Oakland CA (Spring Construction Co., Berkeley 1905)
John Adler, 1916; 6410 Regent St., Oakland CA

In a season of increasing questions of commemoration, memorialization, and remembrance that were rising across the country, the sense of a hidden topography able to be traced by rose to the sidewalk’s surface. Once seemingly stolid “pavement strikes” set on sidewalks of north Oakland of the post-quake era seemed almost ephemeral, whose status as signs of the old expansion of an residential neighborhood might have seemed monumental–Look upon my works, Ye Mighty, and despair!–seemed suddenly transient signs, an old geography peaking up at intervals amidst transforming real estate markets that have carved up the East Bay over the last twenty years. The post-quake signatures left by pavers from College Avenue–“Paul Schnoor, 1909“–to off Ashby–“Oakland Pavement Co, 1904,” with an inverted “N”–or off Telegraph Avenue–“Burnham Co., 1908“–plotted the booming if not forgotten benchmarks of a past, revealed the engagement of the engineers of new neighborhoods by agents who elevated themselves by 1920’s to 1940’s as “Masters of Concrete” by elevating their skill as engineers of place and built space on the border between Oakland and Berkeley.

6459 Benvenue Avenue, Oakland CA

Was I walking in an old urban topography to escape the present, or looking to these benchmarks with a knowing sense of the lack of stability that they offered, peaking through a landscape of high gentrification as oddly uncomfortable echoes of a distant past?

Walking around my neighborhood with increasing frequency, I began to think of myself as not wandering to coffee shops and errands, but, more purposefully, as we all needed to embrace a sense of purse, doing research in the concrete archives of North Oakland sidewalks, searching for material signs of the past. When Walter Benjamin famously described the flâneur not only as a stroller, but as engaged critic of modernity whose act of navigating urban space had its own intentionality, in Franz Hessel’s Sapzieren in Berlin, moving in open urban spaces as an act of resistance, not bound by planning grids, but to appreciate “its charming disorder, branches crackling underfoot, the rustling of leaves on neglected narrow paths.” If Benjamin saw urban walking as “botanizing the pavement;’ the cracked concrete names traced a natural history of Oakland. amidst scattered leaves that told a hidden history.

6140 Canning St., Oakland CA

Before the moniker “Master 4 Concrete” adorned pavers’ strikes in the 1920, these signatures seemed deeply fragile, yet a remapping of streets I fancied to watch from a distance. Like rare surviving benchmarks of a past Bay Area built on Ohlone land, these century0old names evidence of the reshaping of the settlement of the Bay for Anglo residences, that survived by chance, seemed oddly transient sites. I almost mapped them not as signs of pride taken in careful work, but as something like the mass graves under the sidewalks, mortality in the air, and signs of a sense of transience, as much as permanence, as they gained something of almost Ozymandian resonance asking me to look upon the manufacture of such sidewalks as I seeemed to, in fact, despair, a grim sort of flâneuring indeed.

These were the architects of a new sense of modern built space, after all, that paralleled the growth of the first writers on public walking–the art of the flâneur won currency, after Baudelaire as one who “walks the city to experience it,” in 1863, even if I was walking to experience its absence and the pastness of its past. The encounter of a name of the once venerable patriarch of a family of pavers, forename slightly cut short by the repaving of part of College Avenue, was akin to evidence of the dense artificial stone paving of 1908, on the Oakland-Berkeley border, two years after the Great Earthquake sent tent-camps of refugees to the East Bay, as one of the first forms of urban infrastructure of crushed stone–paved sidewalks!–laid quarried sandstone, basalt, jasper, gravel, and schist over macadam to create a walkable urban space, sometimes sandwiched within new cement blocks.

6048 College Avenue, Oakland CA

I walked to remember the city, and to know it, to distance our destabilizing sense of not knowing that we find comfort in putting to work these humanist texts to gauge their relations of illness in a epidemic or pandemic, to reactivate their readings of texts that have lain dormant in whatever ways they could? The flattening sense of the pandemic oddly echoed the trumpeting of globalists in the benefits of a flat world, as the virus seemed to move across global cruises, in airplanes and airports, in conference centers, restaurants, trading routes, and motorcycle rallies, unmooring our own sense of controlling space or situating ourselves in a “safe” space. And if I found Montréal’s public health outfits warned me against such lounging and pedestrian familiarity on a visit to the city–no flâneuring, please!–the attempt to gain purchase on the city with some distance in Oakland seemed second-nature.

Gare Central, Montreal, public notice

The attempt to gain purchase on space, or on the global space of disease, led me to look at the flatness of space that I negotiated on walks, examining the pavement of Berkeley CA to find orientation in the markers on the pavement, often left as stamps in the concrete by the sidewalk pavers whose lives and urban infrastructure I payed more attention to as a reminder of the incomprehensible loss of life. The stability of these old paving marks suggested a sense of the often overlooked–if not unexamined–traces of urban infrastructure, that expanded from the time that horse-drawn wagons carried gravel from quarries as far as Alameda or El Cerrito to motorized fleets carrying over 300,000 cubic yards of gravel, macadam, and rock around the Bay Area.

These often broken sidewalks seemed grim evidence of the breakdown of our public health framework. While no one much cites Tom Friedman these days, “disease” was one of the few ways in which the world appeared unflat for the journalist who became a booster of globalization: the “un-flat” nature of India and China was, Friedman feared, most apparent in risks of disease, but where he argued the internet offered the closest to salvation of an impending flattening; yet the rise of this new emergent disease arose on account of accelerated modernization of China where the encroaching of urban expansion and growth into the hinterland from where this new pathogen seem to have hailed, per the World Health Organization. And we looked at the maps of infection’s spread from this point in the map to find that the world was indeed rather flat, in the unpredictable pathways it frictionlessly spread among populations by trains, planes, and ships without any barriers among developed countries, in the shock that we suddenly perceived that regarding this pathogen, the world was hardly “un-flat” at all, and the flattening effects of technologies of sequencing of the virus were less pronounced than how the virus moved along or disrupted the “large, complex, global supply chains extending across oceans” that for Friedman were such an unmitigated good that the “unflat” experience of the world was remedied by Bill Gates.

We are, or were, trying to process a topography of death rates but fell back looking for tools to process the effects of the arrival “emergent infectious diseases” as we entertained their origins in the degradation of ecosystems and encroachment of formerly protective boundaries between humans and animals that have increased the risks of pandemic disease as zoonotic diseases have entered densely inhabited cities as if marauding dogs. The incommensurability of all earlier literature with the global pandemic is nicely suggested in Phase Six, the novel Jim Shepherd wrote before the outbreak, whose ominous title is the term that marks the start of a global pandemic–“designating for anyone who might have missed it by this point by this point that a global pandemic was officially underway.”

The novel that tried to tell a global story in compelling local detail before COVID-19 broke, but after Global Public Health reported 90% of epidemiologists foresaw the emergence of a pathogen, not yet identified, would lead to over 150 million deaths, a toll one-and-a-half to three times as great the global influenza pandemic of 1918-20. Shepherd may literalize ’emergent diseases’ of unknown transmission vectors and incubation for the pathogen that emerged from the frozen tundra that was being mined for rare metals, one of the array of cataclysms of global melting with which we have not yet come to terms, whose emergence a pair of CDC epidemiologists compellingly struggle to map in Shepherd’s chilling novel.

As we returned to the influenza pandemic misidentified as the “Spanish” Flu, to seek bearings on the growth of an actual pandemic threat, feeling a vulnerability for which we lacked clear guidelines of response. The recurrence of the dates before the Spanish Flu arrived in San Fransisco that I crossed on some stretches of pavement alone seemed significant as they suggested an apparent lacuna in the marks left on Berkeley sidewalks and across North Oakland’s residential geography. As I stared at the pavement on nearly abandoned streets, scanning the asphalt for signs of understanding, I found the strikes of old contractors or pavers something like an interruption or a punctum, making me pause in my tracks. COVID was forcing us to come to terms with those we lost, in new ways, and as I took breaks for psychological balance, single names seemed like community remembrances of those forgotten in the last century. I had recently moved from one of the leafier areas of north Oakland to an area of far “oranger” hue, at least not of the kelly green canopy I’d been accustomed, and the marks left by pavers were perhaps more evident, as the streets were certainly less populated than they once were.

Tree Equity in Berkeley/ARC GIS//American Forests

As the United States closed its borders in response to the global spread of COVID, and the virus spread across the globe, while we all studied global maps of virus vectors, variants, and mutations to try to track its spread, I walked in neighborhood streets with a combination of apprehension and a need to find solid ground, or tried to affirm the signs of the community where I lived. It was perhaps not by accident that the contractor Richard Schwartz identified the massive growth that the city experienced after the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, as refugees expanded the population of Berkeley and its paved streets by half in a month–growing from 26,000 residents to 38,000 overnight, as Berkeley and Oakland set up large refugee camps and tent cities in response to an unexpected influx of unhoused. As COVID-19 plunged many into poverty, increased gaps in wealth, and dispossessed many, and placed refugees in crisis, I searched the cracked sidewalks of my own city for signs of our relation to a global crisis.

Bancroft Library, UC Berkeley (c) Regents of the University of California

Many then fleeing San Francisco arrived in settlements despite the absence of infrastructure–the largest number displaced arrived in vacant lots open on Adams Point, north of Lake Merritt, if not in the military camps that were set up in San Francisco, if not the “earthquake cottages” on wooden platforms, akin to the “tiny homes” in Oakland and Alameda for unhoused and at risk youth or now via AirBNB. In Berkeley, settlements were quickly established without galvanized steel to accommodate those suddenly unhoused, creating a new landscape of refugees arriving in open lots.

As we processed the pandemic, we were, predictably ever more addicted to comprehending global maps than narratives, as if finding increased justification for social media addiction in refreshing dashboards of hotspots, hoping for bearings on the infections, hospitalizations, and deaths might arrive. We seemed to be tabulating in our heads and reading from the newfound authority of our screens, internalizing geodata of uncertain authority, it was increasingly therapeutic to imagine the pleasure of discovering new geodata on neighborhood sidewalks, making alternative maps that seemed affirming in my mind. Movement curtailed to some extent, the antique pavers’ strikes on the sidewalks seemed akin to dated billboards above a ringroad, each dated name seemed a refreshingly concrete reminder of location and located-ness in the modern pavement set a century ago. As I walked in more confined places than usual around the streets that lay effectively as they did when the earthquake hit and the exodus of refugees to Berkeley occurred, seeking stable ground and hopeful of new residences–at a time when few streets seemed to yet exist or be paved above Claremont Avenue, and few lots were even sold.

Although the exact border between Oakland and Berkeley had changed, and many streets’ names by the Bay, my flâneur-like walks seemed to track or investigate the expansion of residential sidewalks as if to observe the expansion of modern life at a historical distance. I began to walk to navigate that shadow geography of the past, by old marks on the pavement, opening the archive of stamps left on the concrete sidewalks in order to date residential neighborhoods or look for early clues in paving, to sketch something like a metageography of the neighborhood to keep the present at bay.

As he developed and expanded Leaves of Grass at the turn of the last century, Walt Whitman about 1890 evoked the “populous pavement” in his Manhattan. The near abandoned pavements of the north Oakland residence where I seemed to spy a strike from as early as 1906 outside of my door, much abraded by footsteps and time, the triangular stamp of the firm “Blake and Bilger” dated 1907–the year after the arrival of San Franciscan refugees in the East Bay–suddenly triggered a sense of deep time that hanging out with these pavement marks in solitary morning or late afternoon walks seemed therapeutic, a distance point as the name of the population of dead contractors removed me a different time, one where the Bilger Quarry by what is now Pleasant Valley from 1910 offered, as “The Oakland Paving Co.,” more than enough metamorphosed sandstone for macadam and concrete to pave Berkeley’s streets, if that pavement was clearly cracking over time.

2201 Woolsey Street, Berkeley CA

The strikes of pavers that popped from the pavement as discoveries of surviving snapshots of the residential expansion that escalated in the East Bay from around the time of the 1906 San Francisco Earthquake, in a search for residential stability and safety became, mutatis mutandis, sites of bearing and orientation on the pandemic’s escalating trends.

1609 Russell St., above California St., Berkeley CA

The areas of sidewalk paving that seem to start from around California Street in Berkeley seemed to offer teasing traces of the past history of the region, peaking out as an older archeology of place. But the divide that was clearest followed the divide of Shattuck Avenue, where I lived, a divide above which, as an elderly black homeowner who is my neighbor noted, lived not a demographic defined by race–but “racists.” Or was the divide Sacramento Avenue, the closest to the Bay that I saw marks of the veritable paver Paul Schnoor, whose signature on the pavement that dates from 1908 was “Schnoor & Son,” probably from before World War I and predating strikes of the growing business identified on other sidewalks as “Schnoor Bros.,” one of the most common Oakland strikes from 1918 through 1927.

The sharp racial divide of residential housing formed in the Bay Area was an earlier deep demographic fault line in Berkeley, where contractors stamped newly laid pavement in 1922, 1928, 1930, 1931, or even around the same time Benjamin elevated the street-walker to the level of a critic of the corrosive effects of modernity and capitalism in Paris, as much as a chronicler of the present that Baudelaire imagined, a witness to the divides that afflicted modern life, who walks the streets to register modern pains in street signs, crowds, facades, or fashions of dress. What, exactly, was not to criticize? The pavement that seemed so often to be cracked around these contractors’ early strikes stood as a sharp reminder of the fraying social fabric and aspirations undergirding this isolated residential community.

438-40 60th Street, near Howell

Of course, the streets were more empty in the pandemic, but the faces of past divides seemed to open like an archive set in concrete beneath my feet, peaking out at rare intervals. The strikes of pavers seemed akin to sites of geolocation to map the transformation of the Bay Area by the paving of residential roads, premonitions perhaps of the terrifying escalation of real estate prices that have led the population of unhoused to jump in Oakland by almost 50% from 2017 to 2019, the worst in the Bay Area, and encampments to grow in Berkeley by a full 13%.

The set of historical stamps I’d so often overlooked assumed a sense of a forgotten narrative central to the neighborhood’s shaping, long overlooked; they were perhaps snapshots of a history of effective segregation of residential community, that echoed the social stresses that emerged so clearly in the pandemic. I started to photograph them, as if to document this shadow geography of north Oakland, as much as looking into the past, to avoid the present; I was of course trying to map fixed surface or meaning in the ground as so much that unfolding in the maps of rates of infection with which we were all interfacing too often.

I passed dated markers which on increasingly empty streets seemed to regain their role of marking laid sidewalk as they were memorials–many reaching out as witnesses from the very time that Benjamin wrote of the transformation of urban space in Paris’ new social divides of urban spectatorship. Several, I noted, were from the first decade of the century, dates or final digits at times abraded with time or just left off–as if to suggest the rapid business of sidewalk paving contractors faced in Oakland from 1906, one of the earliest imprints I detected from the Blake & Bilger Company of Contractors, who would soon afterwards merged with the Oakland Paving Company, as if to declare the near-monopoly that the quarry then located on Pleasant Valley near 51st Street afforded adequate gravel to pave city streets.

Blake & Bilger Sidewalk Strike/Berkeley CA

The individual stretches of residential pavement in North Oakland and Berkeley, a consequence of the historical sales of residential units which contractors paved and signed with strikes to advertise their wares, gave sidewalks a board-game quality, the different years of whose laying seemed to jump out like snapshots of the past, suggesting a topography of settlement and residential units of the city years before the Earthquake of San Francisco of 1906 and its related fire encouraged settlement across the bay.

2936 Ellsworth Avenue, Berkeley CA

If contractors’ strikes provided clues for the old residential neighborhood, ephemera, miraculously not rubbed out or repaved from gentrification, I smiled at the interruption of strikes of concrete contractors by a geomarker that seemed of the early days of mapping, when we were only beginning to internalize geolocations by our handheld phones. The paving of streets before World War I and the post-war pandemic of the Spanish Flu seemed eerily present in the pavement, staring back at me, as an image of the modernity of Oakland CA, on cracked old residential sidewalk of 60th Street, just above Telegraph,

440 60th Street, Oakland CA

that promised a “Home Stead” in the street, an early imprint left by an Italian-American immigrant paver, Frank Salamid, who legend has it left his career as a barber to pave Oakland’s residential streets after the 1906 Earthquake hit, creating a new market for urban homes. The name “Salamid” now recurs on so many North Oakland streets over a period of forty years, per geographer Andrew Aldren; the stamps of his brother, Angelo, who had emigrated in 1914, were among the first recognizable words my daughter used to recognize. Aldren, who richly charted the traces of contractors like Frank and Angelo Salamid on Oakland streets as “fossils in the city’s hardscape,” long before the Pandemic hit, the evolution of stamps Frank and Angelo’s contracting company left indeed date from 1909, soon after the quake forced the city’s expansion and sale of residential properties, but the snapshot near my preferred coffee shop offered a surprising view of another time, surviving in surprisingly crisply drawn cuts.

460 62nd Street, on Canning Ave., Oakland CA

When I cleared the leaves, it seemed to reveal it was set from 1909, and a nearby stamp around the corner suggested Frank Salamid had begun to ply his craft of concrete masonry by paving some of the sidewalks in the area where Angelo would continue at a later date, when he took over the company and its stamp became a squat diamond.

459-65 63rd Street, Oakland CA

The pandemic period produced a maddening claustrophobia over time, of trying to find diversions and also novelties in increasingly restricted familiar routes, as the sense of discovery was dulled in moving in a time we seemed to have lost direction, and collectively as much as individually demanded better bearings. Was there a meta-geographic meaning in these century old strikes, that might root meaning in a period we were inescapably addicted on our news feeds to daily data vis of infection rates, mortality rates, and hospitalizations, feeling the fraying of the social fabric suddenly intensify?

The pleasures of the truly metageographic conceit that was set on this part of Berkeley’s pavement seemed to interrupt or puncture the deep anxiety with which those other datamaps haunted my mind, as a single geographic point in space became the focus of my attention.

Antipodes Sandwich, Geodata on Prince Street at Halcyon Park

I had to laugh when my daily walk came across the “Antipodes Sandwich” geomarker that had been planted in one spot of concrete–a precise spot of geographic coordinates on a urban cul de sac, if maybe not so precise as would warrant the fanicful proposal of placing a piece of bread to make a sandwich.

Less able to concentrate to narratives, I took short interruptions of the problems of processing rising tallies. And if one pandemic drive was a compulsion to follow rates of infections, mortality, virus variants, and, now vaccination rates, to try to make order of world whose disorder seems more prominent than ever, in the forced calm of the cone of social distancing.

As much as reading narratives, we were all trying to put together stories, and the ephemeral markings I walked past on the way to get my morning coffee seemed more pregnant with meaning, the stylized signatures in antique letterings in contractors’s strikes on the modern pavement of the past seemed messages of another time.

Shnoor Bros, College Avenue, Oakland CA

As we scrutinized maps of the progress of the pandemic in the United States, trying to understand the pathways on which it travelled–the circulated air of hotels, airports, airplanes, or hospital wings, and the terrifyingly expanded topography of elder care across the world–the solid pavement offered a comforting concreteness, rooting familiarity in an apparently comforting sense of place.

The old marks not obliterated or scuffed off by the feet of pedestrians seemed reassuring, marks of the first residential sidewalks on the Oakland-Berkeley border constituted a “metageographical pavement” along an unclear differentiation of Berkeley and Oakland, ephemeral markings of an age of industrial production and expansion of the turn of the century, when the first residential sidewalks were lain for individual residences, in a sort of patchwork quilt of sidewalks that distinguish the region from most modern urban pedestrian space.

2031 Prince

Looking at these old signs of another era, I guiltily found inappropriate comfort in a “boring passion for minutia” by displacing attention from the pandemic in new ways. Sophie Atkinson re-read Robert Walser’s solitary pilgrimages with new appreciation in the pandemic–an attachment to walking without destinations–that found timely resonances of a comforting cosmopolitan nature during her extended walks in lockdown London. There was something of a sense of reclaiming the the known environment by these mobile practices of visiting the streets on which one had only recently walked, without any worry of infection or infection’s spread, as if one was steeling oneself by a reactivation of one’s investment in space. Walser, poetic prophet of post-modernity, she walked daily in search of an unexpected suddenly “significant phenomena, valuable to see and to feel,” by which “the lore of the country and the lore of nature are revealed.” As if on a similar sort of pilgrimage, searching for terms to discuss the comfort walks provided, observing and studying “every smallest thing,” an effacing self-surrender helped me to attend to local details of the material detritus of the overpaved world, as a way of remapping boundaries and proving his abilities to leave circumstances of confinement, was balanced with a drive for distancing current complaints–less with an eye to one’s destination, than a practice of re-orientation.

This was not contentment, but almost a policing of boundaries. There seemed something like a hidden network that was suggested by these old markers set in the wet concrete some generations ago–before the Spanish Flu, or before two World Wars, or our own Forever Wars, in the seemingly troweled imprint left four blocks East of my house, where I was first surprised to see evidence of the sidewalk paving that grew to accommodate Berkeley’s new residential neighborhoods where I currently lived, but whose once intentional bucolic remove suddenly seemed in fact quite distant indeed. Et in Arcadia Ego, indeed.

2308 Prince Street, Berkeley CA

Travel beyond the nearby counties effectively curtailed, I walked without any destination, for bearings on the situation. But I gained distance and escape, perversely, by looking, as if with renewed distance, at the strikes that local pavers left on the streets of Berkeley, circa 1909, casting myself in an unproductive flight of pandemic provoked anxiety and fancy at looking at what seemed archeological ruins of a present past. As the cracked common spaces in Oakland and the United States seemed increasingly apparent, I was trying not to aestheticize the broken pavement as ruins, but to find in them a basis for the social fragmentation of the pandemic, if not the frayed social fabric it revealed, as if to try, a bit naively, to map a sense of its deep divides. As the ground seemed to be cracking under our feet each day of the pandemic, the mute voices of these pavers of the past animated by imagining the marks they, long dead, had set in the ground as a distinct signature of modernity–J.E. Nelson, C.J. Lindgren, Esterly Construction Co, dating from at least 1904-12 in Berkeley and Oakland. Many of these names recur through stamps from the 1920s, unsurprisingly, as it began to seem almost a form of observance to notice how these long left signs their lives threaded through the Berkeley community that I now walked.

3330 Bateman Street, Berkeley CA
Blake and Bilger Company, ’09, 3067 Bateman Street, Berkeley CA
C. J. Lindgren, 1907 Prince Street

Was there a sense of familiarity of the pavement as a retreat or respite from the internet searches for information about the pandemic? The stamps following the 1906 Earthquake across the Bay framed the streets in another disaster, but seemed to offer a weirdly satisfying concrete relation to the past. The reveries of this solitary walker turned to an invisible sort of map, an alternate local map, as I sought some signs for needed security that lacked in the daily count of morality and hospitalization in the pavement that promised something like access to an elusive if somehow tangible past.

My favorite as i walked up Prince Street to my neighborhood coffee shop, a struggling site of collectivity, each morning, was the overeager Esterly family’s Construction Corp. seemed to so benefit from a booming business post-quake to not even keep up with the years, circa 1907-08, as the concrete sidewalk pavers filled increasing orders for paving residences in the developing residential areas on the South side–areas where the pavement had miraculously endured, with houses, as the residential communities intensified.

2420 Prince Street/Berkeley, CA

While this mark left by Esterly Consruction Co. is technically left undated, lacking a final digit, the strike and its concrete mix echoes and parallels a nearby stamp on Alcatraz Ave of 1907.

1907
609 Alcatraz Avenue, courtesy Andrew Aldrich, Oakland Underfoot (2010)

As if reading a one-to-one map that lay atop the neighborhood I lived, whose trades were apparent on the ground, I bore down on the micro-geography of the concrete sidewalks near my house, reading the names of pavers traced in the pavement as if ports of access to different ages. For the years that pavers stamped in strikes a century earlier, taking some sort of comfort in the clarity of the dates of their creation, mapping a sense of their coherence as benchmarks of an earlier era in the unstable ground beneath my feet, as if seeking a measure of clarity, a point of bearing on the area I’d been living in Berkeley CA but sought new purchase. The flat statements of these names and dates, dislodged of much context, and telegraphic in meaning, seemed to hint at a deep history of bordering, private property, and the establishment of a single-residence zoning in Berkeley I had never fully taken the time to appreciate–a truly “deep history” that haunted the area where I had comfortably sheltered in place, lying on the surface of the sidewalks where we had never thought to look, the detritus of Oakland’s modern space.

And at the same time as I started to haunt the corners of the internet, to construct an immigration narrative of my own family from Austro-Hungary and the Lower Carpathian region, during the sense of social isolation of the first pandemic year, as a sort of inversion or compensation for social isolation, the meditation on the isolated names pressed on the pavement of a century ago–around the first time that the boats carrying my family docked in New York and Montreal, from 1890s to the 1920s, the streets of Berkeley were paved. On morning and afternoon walks, as if fancifully tracing evidence of a deep history of the neighborhood as if in compensation for social distancing, digging deeper to an elusive past as I walked. If the strikes of pavers were not reflective of the building of houses constructed in this largely residentially zoned area, paving city streets and sidewalks was an important movement of urban modernization, an early urban infrastructure, now invisible, along with the installation of sewer systems, electrical wiring, and gas pipes–the sort of urban infrastructure that was now being so deeply tried. While I often seemed to notice a stamp bearing of an even earlier year–1886!–revealed “1986” after clearing away pine needles; Mason McDuffie planned the first residential developments in Oakland in 1887, but the late 1890’s were rare to see on local pavements. If the driveways made by C.E. Orff or Jepsen in the 1920s and later, remaining some of the few unrepaved sidewalks in the area of Berkeley I had recently moved, an early planned residential neighborhood of the early twentieth century.

I’ve long considered paving as among the earliest of urban infrastructures. In the late nineteenth-century, the norm of dirt streets were replaced by downtown sidewalks made by pressed bituminous concrete, over rocks, surfaces of compound cement concrete–“art[ificial] concrete”–of sand, cement, and aggregate provided a modern form of building the city and urban neighborhood. Unlike in the East Coast where I grew up, the paving of sidewalk remained, as common in the western cities, provided by local property owners, and I could trace the urban plant of the city through the ostensibly ephemeral often anonymous marks left by pavers. I became fascinated with the uniquely dated texture they gave city streets, as if they offered a hidden architecture of urban space.

As if on an archeological dig, I traced signs in the sidewalk while walking absent-mindedly as evidence of the impact of the housing boom after the 1906 San Francisco earthquake on the micro-geography of the pavement, unpacking what seemed hidden history of the local, lying in plain sight underfoot, where they survived, marking the redesign of the residential community in the very years of the destruction of downtown San Francisco in the 1906 Earthquake and Great Fire that sent many across the bay in search of firmer land and residential property.

2108 Essex Street Berkeley CA

I discovered a virtual collective of old librarians, local historians, sidewalk aficionados with iPhones, with interest in filling cel phone memories with images of the evidence of the ground. In an age of increased atomization, the stone signatures seemed an imagined lost community of the area that were compiling the traces of trans-bay migration of a century ago, now a map that might be read as a dispersed set of portals to root oneself in a deeper sense of place and of time, rooted in the scare of the 1906 fire that sent many across the San Francisco Bay and nourished by the hope to segregate new communities, by the rise of covenants among residential communities, evident in post=1910 cities after the Great Migration, but already present in the late nineteenth century, but that flourished in the building of new gates, fences, and policies not limited to concrete, in which local builders like Mason McDuffie had specialized before segregated housing was outlawed, as groups like the Claremont Improvement Club adopted strict covenants that limited home ownership to those of “pure Caucasian blood,” reflecting the adoption of racial hierarchies in censuses from 1850, founding Claremont Park as a pastoral residential community below the Berkeley Hills by 1905, just before the earthquake, advertised in a color brochure complete with map, addressed to an imaginary “San Francisco businessman” as a site for calm repose across the bay, before the earthquake rattled San Francisco homeowners.

If The Oakland Paving Co.’s imprints of 1904 and 1912 near my house–earlier than Oakland sidewalks made from cement from the Upper Rockridge Quarry on Pleasant Valley and Broadway, used from 1910–suggest the value of paving on Berkeley’s expanding residential borders. The tasteful emblem of the inverted triangle on the sidewalks near the submerged Temescal Creek, undergrounded by culvert in north Oakland for elegant private residences off Claremont Ave. or to repave residential Berkeley streets for newly built neighborhoods, a transformation being a case of boundary drawing and social exclusion.

Ayala St. Oaklahd, CA

–or finding the same paver’s craft on Ellsworth Street in Berkeley, closer to my house,–

Some stamps lain by contractors, often specific to the day, seemed to set a basis for a residential neighborhood that seemed to be fraying in the pandemic, but that they seemed to remind me of, as ghosts of the un-remote past. If Lewis Carroll famously described a one-to-one map that had not ever been unfolded–“the grandest idea of all! We actually made a map of the country, on the scale of a mile to the mile!” that “has never been spread out” as farmers objected it would block out the sunlight, a map rolled out where it peaked through from the past; segregation of Berkeley’s neighborhoods began before 1906, promising areas of exclusively “residential character” removed from the “advancing tide” of “flats or shops,” in neighborhoods whose exclusively “residential character” was the result of racially restrictive clauses in property deeds and covenants on which developers like Mason McDuffie relied to boost their investment in neighborhoods’ exclusivity, hiring Frederick Law Olmstead to design the Claremont Hotel and Claremont Park community at a geographic remove from the city. The residential lifestyle allowed children to roam “out of doors! out of doors!” without night clubs or alcohol in prominent places, in East Bay enclaves exclusively for “Caucasian buyers”–not for “any person other than of the Caucasian race,” home ownership policies stipulated, with the result of mapping an exclusive residential neighborhood as early as 1905-1911 in the East Bay, or just before the Earthquake hit.

The shaping of that past neighborhood peaked up from the ground at select spots during the pandemic, revealing another world that rhymed in disturbing ways with inequalities today. If by 1907, West Berkeley was distinguished by streetlights, paved streets, telephones, and factories like soap and glassworks, and an industrial development fueled by the influx refugees from the city, invisible lines became increasingly important to define and defend. The new pavement added before World War I modernized the area of Berkeley and North Oakland for home owners in a new language of real estate and social class. As I seemed to be able to detect the names of a new generation of contractors of the post-quake years–Frank Salamid, J. O. Adler, and others–the rapidity of making a residential area, from below San Pablo Avenue up to College Avenue, seemed to gain focus, which I would not have detected with anything like that attention if time hadn’t paused, or seemed to pause, in pandemic days.

6401 Regent Street/Oakland, CA
1008 Grayson Street, Berkeley CA

Jorge Luis Borges’s Del rigor en la ceincia embraced the conceit soon after World War II, describing, as American military engineers re-drafted national maps by geospatial coordinates that wrapped around the world, described a society that abandoned one-to-one map coexisting with the nation’s territory as it became “cumbersome”, as this large paper map was reduced to tattered fragments in some “western Deserts,” I imagined I found hints and clues that were central to the spatiality of South Berkeley’s Oakland border in the time-stamped impressions preserved in the pavement underfoot, as I embraced a sort of exploration of the surviving evidence as if excavated clues. The turn of the century provided an origins story for the residential community and its divides.

433 63rd Street/Oakland CA

If roads to hell are paved with good intentions, the pavement strikes that stood out as marking space and time paved a space for single-family residences, sections of residential sidewalk paved for individual houses, bearing signatures of the forgotten artisans who converted what was once an empty property lot into a site of residence, leaving a sign of the quality of their work and the promise of future expansion of residences: these very pavers set the ground-plan of home-owners’ neighborhoods, the foundation of a shadow property association of the past. The sense of these strikes as something set by past lives–and defining past neighborhoods–was a microgeography dating from the early twentieth century, even before the Spanish Flu, but seemed to define as set a part a new area of paved sidewalks for single-family residences, that were newly settled after having been sold as, presumably, unpaved lots, probably at the edge of Berkeley, if now along the line of a north Oakland-Berkeley divide. The turn of the century definition of the comforts of home ownership across the Bay from San Francisco, defined as a preserve of private property, was a story that was inscribed in the pavement, if one I rarely took stock of or knew–but the unread evidence stenciled by such strikes revealed a topography of social differences and dividing lines.

Displaying IMG_8163.jpg
2936 Ellsworth; Berkeley CA

The concrete sidewalk offered a tangible sense of the past, at the same time as a refreshingly tangible sense of time. At the same time as I looked up to notice a flower, tree, or park in new ways after weeks of deprivation of contact over the first year of the pandemic, as we continued to shelter in place, but my eyes turned to the ground in hopes for transcendence or finding some sort of different news, as if signs on the ground described possible sites of contact with an earlier world. Was this only being middle aged? Or were there some deeper transactions I might have with the pavement, few other interlocutors being present on the city streets, as if in confirmation that we had entered a new era? As if walking with downcast eyes for unnoticed signs of old benchmarks and pavers’ names, I traced contracting and expanding routes as a pedestrian, looking downward to find meaning. And compelled by the keen awareness of temporality that seems to have affected me most at the start of the Pandemic, wondering what sort of era into which we were entering, and if we would ever leave it, the physical remove of these strikes, many from before the Spanish Flu which so many had seen or tried to see as a precedent for the diffusion of illness across the nation, and across the world, with high mortality rates, seemed to leave me scrambling for dates in hopes for drawing such seemingly futile senses of equivalence–or for reminders of a time before pandemics–as if rediscovering a new material relation to the past.

The Oakland [sic] Paving Co. in Berkeley, CA (1904) Ellsworth Ave., Berkeley CA

As newspapers came to be too exhausting to read and depressing in news, or the dashboards devised by tracking apps devised to convert databases of infections to the palettes of webmaps for ready legibility,–

–even as we had no clear sense of the mechanism or spread of contagion, or the arrival of the first cases of infection in California and the United States. If walks seemed to create a fragile measure of normalcy, tentatively, before electrifying news, the comfort of the tangibility of old traces on concrete seemed a form of security. If Walter Benjamin had famously looked back on the dangers of mechanical reproduction as a premonition of fascist media in the 1930s, after fleeing Nazi Germany to Paris, perhaps the craft-like manual nature of the individual imprints struck from frames and contractors individual signatures from bygone eras of Oakland and Berkeley’s past–strikes that continue to the present, and current dates–offered a reassuring micro geography of meaning.

Benjamin had of course fled Germany seeking signs of reorientation in the course of the flâneur in Paris, habituating himself with the modern sense of the streets as an exotic immersion in the senses. For me, the thin sense of contact that these stones offered in the time of social distancing were a far more muted surpise, but a new form of “botanizing the pavement” abandoned by most other passersby. Moving along empty streets without familiar faces, I read names of the architects of the sidewalk, taking comfort in and searched for names as if I could better acquaint myself with where we were. At times, as I collected them as an alternative therapy, I fantasized it was a taking stock that rectified an imbalance, a micro-reparation of sorts before the increased evidence of the social costs that the pandemic revealed.

Spring Construction Co., Berkeley CA 1905; 310 Benvenue, Berkeley CA

How could such rates of infection be processed, especially as they were woefully incomplete? The epistemic unease at the security of mapping, or objectivity of these data maps that were queried, questioned, and re-examined, contrasted with the pressing urgency of trying to read the multiplying varieties of the novel virus itself, suggesting just how much we were still learning and needed to learn; the conceit of tallying the signs that seemed in full gave my apparently aimless walks a sense of purpose, as a form of reparation for a world out of whack, whose discrepancies of health-care, infection rates, and uneven levels of public trust seemed finally unmasked and on full view. Amidst the pandemic’s increasingly uncertain ground, I started to walk farther than usual from home, and walk with greater intensity of seeking an imagined goal, or justify my new status as something of a flâneur, dedicated to find the first pavers of main arteries like Telegraph Avenue and College Avenue in Berkeley CA from around 1908-9–most often from “Burnham,” or shortly after the Great Fire and Earthquake of 1906, at the same time as outmigration from San Francisco across the Bay had led to Berkeley’s growth, registered by the surviving names of pavers, one sharing the name of a contemporary city planner, Daniel Burnham, who worked in San Francisco and others, as the Spring Construction Co, tied to local monuments as the Claremont Hotel.

Burnham 1908; College Ave., Berkeley CA

–or the overworn escutcheon on Telegraph Avenue, off Alcatraz, apparently lain in 1909.

Alcatraz and Telegraph, 1909

The names echoed the Berkeley-Oakland divide, from the 1905 paving strike of Spring Concrete Co., Berkeley, at the old craftsman house sitting at 3100 Benvenue Avenue., on the outside limit of the Berkeley border, to where the Berkeley-Oakland border emerges on College Avenue, at what is now the home of La Farine bakery, emblazoned by escutcheon strike of an industrious local family of pavers–the Schnoor Bros. who bridge three generations–dated 1924.

The doorway is non-descript, but the strike is evidence of sidewalk paving enshrined steep divides of income, today reflected in differences of infection rates among contiguous Bay Area cities, historically marked, long before their recent gentrification, by an open racial as well as a very steep economic divide. If sidewalk paving began by marketing “‘art’ stone”–artificial stone–by contractors as a modern replacement for brick or wooden boards, the lots that were sold for houses in residential areas shaped by laying wet concrete mix.

443-47 McAuley Street, Oakland CA
6421 Regent Street, Oakland CA

Were these Italian craftsmen keen to take the job as masons to craft the cement with necessary smoothness as they entered the city’s economy, or were they just arriving at the right time? Signing the paved sidewalk was not only the reflection of a craft–“Whenever a skilled person makes something using their hands, that’s craft,” reminds historian of craft Glenn Adamson–but a deep if superficial craft of memory. In staking out of regions for settlement along a clear Berkeley-Oakland divide, these strikes along the border set the terms for a terrain of marking out new residential areas of home ownership. Were these pavers not leaving tokens of their craft as contractors, in defining often Arts & Crafts residences in Berkeley CA, registering the imprint of their own handiwork, or just leaving their mark in the city?

Was one indeed able to map, as I imagined, the arrival of the very sidewalk of Spring Co. Concrete to the quarry John Hopkins Spring acquired on the former Berryman ranch in North Berkeley, site of Spring Construction Company, mined from conglomerate in what is now La Loma Park in North Berkeley, whose was quarried in North Berkeley 1904-9, and after areas near Codornices Park, Cerrito Canyon, that helped pave much of Thousand Oaks, and pavement bearing the Blake & Bilger triangular imprint to the Blake & Bilger quarry on Glen Echo Creek, near the Rockridge shopping center, owned by the Claremont Country Club, today, a site of mining metamorphosed sandstone, later run by the Oakland Paving Co.? Or was it from Blake’s El Cerrito quarry? A micro-geography of East Bay pavements seemed a hidden geography in itself waiting to be unpacked, of the quarrying and fragmenting of the hillsides of the East Bay–leading to an opening of quarries in Diamond Canyon, Hayward, prospecting in Livermore, as the search for sources of limestone, metamorphosed sandstone, quartz chert, and basalt grew in the early twentieth century with a greater demand for dressing the surfaces of sidewalks in locally sourced concrete. The Jepsen Bros. had owned quarries from 1912 to pave driveways and sidewalks that extended from Albany to North Oakland and beyond.

On often directionless walks seeking peacefulness, I looked with unaccustomed intensity at uninhabited streets for a sense of grounding, if not re-assessment, if the search may well have begun as my eyes looked downward as if by default. Walks without a destination led me to seek a perspective in an imagined sort of convalescence–a respite from oppressive data visualizations that were hardly a means to come to terms with the collective obituaries framed in the unfamiliar concept of “cumulative” deaths. I was struck by the somewhat random dates on the sidewalk in my Berkeley neighborhood, where “1911” arrested my eye–before the Spanish Flu pandemic!–or 1909, 1930, or 1936 pavers left inscribed nearby. If as a flâneur of the pandemic, finding and collecting the names of pavers seemed almost a search for transcendence by composing an alternate necrology of the neighborhood, as if a form of dealing with death, as the estimated deaths inexorably rose–even if they were all undercounts. The surety of walking offered an alternate form of tallying, as names of pavers became memorializations of individuals, akin to an imagined meeting, as if gathering information for an imagined alternative report; my income low, and indeed dubious, there seemed to be some ready temporary comfort in the small enchantments of the sidewalk to balanced with the global tragedy with perhaps few counterparts, if we often invoked the Influenza Pandemic of 1917-18.

2308 Prince Street; Oakland Paving Co. 1911

The traces of grading the porous pavement were as visible as a laying of concrete that was smoothed out a century ago; just three to four hundred paces eastward, across Telegraph Avenue, the earlier strike peaked out of pavement cracking with more evident signs of time, where the paver seems to have left off a final digit, situating letters or plugs in a grid of sorts to arrange a company logo, that seemed a partner record of the material past.

I was bearing down on the local with a similar intensity on often aimless walks, as if searching for evidence or bearings. For turning to the local detail as a site of something like transcendence became a way of distancing a global disaster, or holding it at bay–and a profession of tracking a local topography of mortality as well. If Walser’s walking led to the melancholic realization that “I was a poor prisoner between heaven and earth, and that all men were miserably imprisoned in this way,” after his flights of fancy, the dates and names on the ground provided some sort of grounding that I needed to process mortality rates and the shifting maps of infection rates.

For all the rapid creation of charts of mortality rates that were painstaking crafted by epidemiologists and journalists in line charts that projected different possible counts, our expectations for certain data were frustrated as if looking into the abyss of mortality: the very fact that only a bit more than half of global deaths are registered–six in ten, the ballpark figure of the World Health Organization tells us, if 98% in Europe and 91% in America; the death toll of the novel coronavirus in Wuhan is guesstimated to be up to ten times as great as the reported 4,848 in the capital of the Hubei province, or as much as half a million, if reported global deaths pushed beyond four point two million, dizzying numbers if incomplete.

Financial Times, confirmed COVID-19 morality rates in UK and USA, March 2020-March 2021

The complexity of crafting a simple line graph of confirmed deaths and those due to complications of COVID-19 had us contemplating line graphs as specters of human mortality, whose complicated crafting don’t conceal so much as reveal the limits of certainty, and made me search not for global but grounds for transcendence underfoot. And in the days of social distancing, on walks that seemed perhaps aimless, but tried to find a sense of balance before the rising curves, following traces of the past set in the pavement seemed a sort of escape from the rising numbers, if not a destination. Daily walking was a rediscovery, as the trips from the house where I lived became less important for their points of arrival, pressing against the boundaries of the present condition, less in flight from something, than a type of convalescence from watching disparate rates of mortality and hospitalization rise, as my attention attended to something else.

If figures of infections, hospitalization, and mortality death haunted the air, solitary walking became a response to a restlessness–in the morning or late afternoon–and I was readily accepting the sense of the walks as haunted, or with added melancholy, in ways that seemed states of distraction and something of a befriending of loneliness, if not what past as sociability. Walking, for Walser, offered peacefulness as a way of seeking out being arrested by coming across the individual name, and the odd specificity of the date at which the pavement was lain, smoothed and left to set. Walter Benjamin felt that the walks the author devotedly took must be understood as with a spirit of discovery as a form of convalescence, “newly sensitized to the outside world,” there was perhaps a search for collective convalescence in the undue attentiveness birdsong, flowers, pavers’ names, as if struggling to combat or imagine a future remove from an overwhelming melancholia. In history graduate school, a friend and I had listened to slightly more senior students describe summer research plans of visiting archives with lightly veiled satisfaction, and imagined our intent to exploit the unexamined archives of early modern Oakland, where we lived, echoing how the French historian of the Mediterranean, Fernand Braudel, had described Istanbul’s unstudied archival treasures of Mediterranean trade, in his own search to gain a new perspective on deep time of a longue durée that seemed more than ever sadly out of reach. It almost seems, in retrospect, as if I was discovering the existence of that very archive of lost communities inscribed in the pavement strikes–bearing dates from the 1920s and 1930s, at times a decade after the turn of the century–a material archive of early modern artisans or craftsmen who were technologists of the community that defined the old edges of built space and its boundaries, of an era before pandemics, and before, even, the Influenza pandemic of 1917 to which we reached back for bearings in search for a precedent for reactions to the spread of COVID-19, and how the pandemic was challenging modern notions of transmission, contagion, science and even space.

I gathered names on the ground as if points of orientation, finding stamps and strikes of pavers whose names were set in the pavement with century ago an alternate register of mortality. The dizzying sense of temporal distance offered a perspective a century ago–before the 1918-20 pandemic of the “Spanish” Flu entered California, were somehow a distance on our own sense of modernity and the disarming unpreparedness for the pandemic, which seemed as if we were entering a new era, and indeed one of historical rupture. As if a new historical epoch, of an end of confidence of modern control over the spread of disease, whether of the control of inter-species jumps of viruses, and a new range of “zoonotic” diseases, or the mutation of the new viruses that arose, if not from global warming, from

Spring” Construction Co, Berkely CAL. 1905 (2420 Woolsey St., Berkeley CA)

Early pavers’ names are a bit ubiquitous in many of the older residential neighborhoods of Berkeley, CA, where the developers of lots seem to have regularly paved sections of sidewalks for tracts where houses were built, giving them on odd patchwork nature, and resulting in pavements that are often repositories of information of historical development and the segregation of areas.

which I read as if I were uncovering an often unread archive paved beneath my feet in the micro-geography of my neighborhood, in images with only retrospective senses of clarity, as we tried to come to terms with the historic nature of the pandemic’s spread. Strikes left by early pavers–“Burnham-1908;” “F. Stolte-1930;” “P. Barelle-1938;” “J. Anderson 1936”–of names and dates presented as epigraphic evidence beneath my feet akin to levels of time, v snapshots of a stratigraphy of the Berkeley-Oakland neighborhood I lived, “Burnham” resonantly echoing that of a contemporary urban planner, as I gathered evidence about the area I wandered, as if it were a profession.

For if earlier years of the possible pandemics feared to spread globally had been numerous–near-misses of the fear of H1N1 expanding globally in 2009, of MERS in 2013, Ebola in 2014, and Zika in 2016–the coronavirus spread in ways unseen since the avian-born pandemic of 1918-19, harder to map, track, or conceptualize; visualizing the virus became a cottage industry and a collective rush to create the best visualizations possible. As I tried to retreat from the spread of infections and hospitalization, and indeed the growing uncertainty of both tallies, the dates beneath by feet on the pavements along the Oakland-Berkeley border provided a form of retreat, pavement punctuated by dates that seemed–1909; 1923; 1938; 1930–to mark a sense of the anonymous architects of this urban border. With less of a sense of transport and reverie than Walser, if with a similar dedication to what he called, only partly facetiously, his berüf–“without walking, I would be dead, and my profession would be destroyed”–the sense of opening oneself to “thinking, pondering, drilling, digging, speculating, investigating, researching, and walking” gained a sense of investigating the quite deep history of breaks in neighborhoods in the micro-geography that I started to examine as etched in concrete. Whoever “walks only half-attentive, with only half his spirit . . . is worth nothing,” Walser said of the dedication he assumed, while walking, attentive to houses, advertisements, social transactions, as if to re-familiarize himself with the world as a therapy–to “take fresh bearings,” with a degree of industry, as a “Field Marshall, surveying all circumstances, and drawing all contingencies and reverses into that net of his,” in a calculus of metropolitan space, if with far fewer social transactions–but in fact mostly to “maintain contact with the living world,” lest we be shut at home, before the virtual remove of Zoom.

The paving of the street that defined the edge of the exclusive Oakland neighborhood formerly a farm until 1905–set aside for an upscale residential community–had been paved by the local quarry in 1912. The date gave me new bearings on the present, that gained a spiritual side, as well as a form of taking bearings: Walser found a microcosm of the world and lovely homes, “walking and contemplating nature,” richer than what Walter Benjamin cast as “botanizing the pavement,” albeit a lovely phrase–for me, the collection of older marks on the pavement began as a curiosity, but turned to navigating historical levels inscribed in a surface as lines of exclusion and inclusion that the earliest dated pavers’ strikes bore witness, and made up for the few numbers of people on the street, in what seemed among the earlier surviving sidewalks that were paved in the this neighborhood.

3086 Claremont Avenue, Berkeley CA
2340 Ward St., Berkeley CA

The paving of this Oakland-Berkeley area was defined by early residential zoning, restricting local populations to whites and often by income, effectively, and expressed in stipulations of residential home-ownership. The border was increasingly legible in the local maps of mortality and COVID-19 infections. Putting into relief my sense of the fuzzy border of gentrification, one could not be struck by the discrepancy of increased infections-as, later, increased vaccination rates–between Berkeley and Oakland. The barrier seem, in my own neighborhood, loosely defined, but defined different expectations and experiences of the virus, poorly understood if only read by that odious term, concealing so much, of “comorbidities.” As we discussed how much the novel coronavirus was indeed a sort of rupture, or how significant COVID-19 was both epidemiologically and, at a deeper level, historically–wondering if the possible narrative of an endpoint of escalating infections would be a return to “normal,” or if “normal” really made sense as a place to return–the architecture of this local municipal border seemed to make sense as something I sought. to decipher in what might be called, perhaps uncharitably, an episode of pandemic flânerie, or a search for a space for reflection and a hope for distance that city walking might offer to cope.

Did it make sense to look retrospectively at the ‘Spanish’ Flu, or why no historical ruptures were created by its spread? The maps offered a chilling reminder of the difficulty of stopping its spread to populated areas, across the nation, that was oddly comforting in the progression of pandemics over space if haunted by rising curves of mortality. And as we watched our own time-series graphs of the temporal progression of rates of death and mortality, questioning the undercounts, role of co-morbidities, and trying to peak under the hood of the data visualizations to grasp its spread, the dizzying global scale of infection rates, hospitalization rates, and mortality rates gave us all on the fly crash-courses in demography and epidemiology which we had to admit our grasp was pretty unclear. The learning curve was so daunting, if so basic, that it seemed for a historian more important to gain distance in the past, and preceding pandemics.

Second Wave of “Spanish” Flu Reaches California as it Spreads across America, 1918

As we tried to map the progress of the coronavirus, its origins, and contraction in different rates, we turned with security to the clearest form of visualizing the pandemic, the time-tested time-series line graph, that basic tool of visualization most fit for something so daunting as mortality, which had been a basis for tallying the estimated total of the fifty million killed in the 1918-19 “Spanish” Flu pandemic, a tally of mortality we would later approach. While the 1918-19 pandemic was a removed event, the curves of mortality on time-series graphs tracked a sense of the compression of deaths to a linearity of time; rates were tallied weekly of the avian-born pandemic in an eerily identical graphic space of data visualization, which was echoed in the similar kinship of tools adopted to contain its spread–masks, hand washing, quarantine–as tracking the progression of time across the old x-axis and the rates of hard to comprehend escalating deaths along the y-axis distanced them with a helpful sense of anonymity.

Spanish flu

As much as we were braced by how the progress of the pandemic revealed vulnerabilities of public health systems, the pandemic had posed stress test of the global information network–both in charting and sharing information about infections and identification of the coronavirus genome, and in educating the public about its treatment, and locating access to accurate sources of information.

The difficult to process nature of arranging these humblest of graphs in terms of total cases of COVID-19–a basic tally, but one hard to say was accurate; new cases per day, a metric that seemed to suggest how much of a handle we had on the pandemic’s spread; confirmed cases per million; or the rates of infection in different nations, that oddly removed the spread of mortality as if we were viewing the challenge of combatting the virus as a spectator sport. Due to the official public denial of its danger or threat in the United States, and in the proliferation of online newsletters, uneven public tracking of infection rates by the CDC, multiple sources of ostensibly authoritative advice from whether it was healthy to exercise outdoors given the dangers of droplet dispersal from others, needs for frequent hand washing or gel disinfectant, and dangers of pubic space grew. We moved through space differently, in the Bay Area, projecting to different degrees a cone of six feet distance, internalizing distance as a social good as we sought to remeasure our relation to a fractured social body.

Public Notice for Social Distancing, San Francisco
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Filed under Bay Area, Berkeley CA, borders, Oakland, urban geography

Fruitvale Station

When I took public transit to a legal clinic near Fruitvale Station in hopes for help to contest an eviction notice my family and I had received this past January, I felt a growing sense of entering a new social topography that I didn’t often see–and not only because it was the first time I had experienced eviction or anticipated a legal confrontation with my landlord.  The oppositional landscape of the gentrifying city was immediate, but was most vividly concretized by seeing the altered transit map in the car I took to a legal aid office–where the name for the station I was headed was covered by a decal (in a glorious act of cartographic resistance) that renamed the station after Oscar Grant, who had been shot on its platform after taking part in New Years Eve celebration in 2009, by a white BART officer.  

The decal placed on the urban transit map  in the header to this post served to reorient the viewer to an urban landscape that had been changed by cycles of gentrification, many of which had propelled so many residents to the urban periphery in Oakland. Indeed, the city has created a new sense of the suburbanization of many neighborhoods erasing the presence of former inhabitants, it seems to engage the social geography of the city, and the guerilla-style renaming of the station served as more than a marker and a reminder of a past that resisted urban exclusion, or resisted the dynamics of urban change in a city where I suddenly noticed my own precareity on the way to my appointment with legal aid.

There was some comfort in the decal affixed to the wall of the car. It created a chasm in the landscape in that BART car, in some way echoing the huge urban rioting and unrest following the killing of a twenty-two year old in the city–rioting that recalled the uprisings in urban America after the assassination of Martin Luther King. Jr., when the army was called in to northwest Washington, DC to avert social catastrophe. The memory was still so hard to negotiate that only a decade after the event did BART’s Board of Directors name a road near the station after Oscar Grant, an alley between 33rd and 35th avenues, to mark that unnecessary death.  Rather selfishly, or out of fear, I was not thinking about the tragedy of his killing so much as the shifting landscape of Oakland and my relation to it.

The changes of rapid gentrification are beginning to be mapped by the Anti-Eviction Project, whose maps chart trace the residues of renters’ place in Oakland’s housing market.  The decal oriented me to the changing urban landscape of Oakland, and served as a reminder of the precareity of urban residents as cycles of gentrification forced many living near Fruitvale Station itself, to relocate, recording something like a residue of displacement, that echoed the adoption of a tree as the new urban icon, suggesting a suburbanization of much of urban space, known now for farmers markets and the “unseeing” of many of its earlier residents, and erased much of its urban past–and indeed erased their faces.

A sense of presence was announced with clear resistance in that sticker, commemorating the shooting of Grant, a young twenty-two year old whose shooting provoked a level of rioting and looting that was reminiscent of the rioting in America cities after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr, catastrophic disruptions that led to the army to restore security, was, to be sure, a protest against racial inequality and overt racism of the BART officer.  But the sense of instability that it registered in the transit map arrested me as a new site of orientation on a rapidly disappearing past, and as it somehow became an anchor or point of stability that orient me in the changing urban space, increasingly fluid and unsure, where I’d received an eviction notice in 2018.

The effect of cycles of gentrification–if not its engines–are evident in maps of the unlawful detainers served in the city in the past decade, and instability of the urban landscape that this has created.  Visualizations of massive displacement of renters in the Bay Area chart escalating evictions in amped up real estate markets.  The result is  suggests of the changing nature of the commons or of public space over the past decade, as Oakland emerged as a prime site of private residence and rapacious landlords, and the city became something of a microcosm of the heightened pressures that the Bay Area experienced.  The contracting commons is hardly able to be captured in point data.  But a map of unlawful detainers issued across the city suggests  the nature of the earth change, a swarm of ladybugs or less prosaic leeches feeding on the city’s neighborhoods, and ingesting its vitality:  the arrival of predators that occasion such unlawful detainers suggest that the economy of home ownership nourish a form of master-slave relations.  For across neighborhoods of radically different income levels, the shifting populations that have filled housing markets are mirrored by an ethnically shifting neighborhood, and a lowering of economic diversity.    Even in the cordoned off area of North Oakland where I lived, the invasion of unlawful detainers had been felt not only from afar, but within what was a formerly African American neighborhood where home sales approached and far surpassed $1,200,000 for a two bedroom.

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ladybug crowd.png

The extraordinary density appeared to track the outbreak of an epidemic or urban virus, the embodiment of the affliction of the city by landlord evictions mapped from 2005-15 seeming to be spread in strikingly uniform manner from North Oakland, where I lived, to Fruitvale in an evil effervescence or infestation of increasing gentrification and displacement of long-term residents.

Alameda Evictions

Over the previous years, I had only watched largely through maps at how evictions had transformed much of the East Bay–an area already fractured with strong social divisions–and the Bay Area at large.  But the foreclosure landscape that had transformed the Bay Area was something I hadn’t seen at first hand, but had suddenly become disorienting after receiving a 60-day notice to vacate the premises of what was my family home for almost fifteen years.

Unlawful Detainer Notices Filed, 2005-15

The surprise news had left us facing a legal landscape little familiar, but increasingly ready to reach out to social services with which we’d had no familiarity, and to face a landscape of landlord evictions that has been the byproduct of rising property values across the East Bay.  And so the ride to the social services non-profits that are congregated around Fruitvale Station, a community that has long been of special resilience, seemed the only hope we had of legal redress.  And the remapping of that station–where I headed on public transit–by renaming the station in gesture to a decade-old event piercingly revealed the unstable ground of social justice in Oakland, and made me feel better than since we were first served notice.  The alternate embodiment of that map, created by a decal, seemed a powerful gesture of resistance as BART approached Fruitvale Station, and I reflexively looked from the map to the panel that hung above the BART platform a few times.

east bay

Although my dispute with my landlord was resolved, if quite contentiously, the sixty-day move-out notice concretized the economic pressures that have rewritten Oakland communities, and the deep disparities between landlords and renters–and the increasingly adversarial roles of landlords and predatory buyers of buildings in the face of the promise of greater rents– reminded one of the possibilities of legal contestation or assertion of renters’ rights for many in a city where I’d been tensely aware how rents had increased immensely and property revaluations was actively pressing populations on something of forced migration to far flung suburbia from Modesto to Visalia to Fresno to southern California.  Arriving at Fruitvale Station to avail myself of public services was entering, if temporarily, into the unknown landscape of the disenfranchised.

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A Newly Divided City? Evidence Against Ranked-Choice Voting and Affluence from Oakland, CA

The recent election of the new mayor in Oakland, California, raises interesting questions of political pluralism, because it is an unexpected outcome of the relatively recently adopted institution of ranked-choice voting.  Although the hope of the practice of ranked-choice Voting–hence “RCV”–of inviting voters to select their top three choices in a given election, rather than confine their choices to but one, has been an attempt to address a crowded field of candidates for national and state-wide positions, the institution somewhat unexpectedly led to the front-loading of the recent Oakland Mayoral Race, and the feeding of a predictable media frenzy, as well as to the blurring of several of the candidates’ messages in a media haze.  Indeed, the front-loaded race, when combined with the elimination of a primary, risks featuring an expanded cast of characters invited to declare their candidacy in order to jockey for the position of assembling alliances across an economically and culturally diverse city in ways that may have consequences that are practically, as well perhaps also as psychologically disenfranchising in unintended ways, as they serve to disguise the deep social and economic divisions to which the city.

While the concept of “ranking” voters’ preference for multiple candidates in a local election has been historically promoted as a means to express choice.   By shifting voting practices to accommodate the relation of voters to a widening field of candidates, RCV is promoted as producing a more equitable way to determine the winner based in a tight race.  However, the crowded field of candidates and tacit alliances of sharing constituencies reapportionment may effectively compromise the fraught place of minority rights in contemporary America.  For though the candidates were ranked in ways that seemed to bridge economic divisions between neighborhoods and districts within the recent mayoral election, the relatively new practice of ranking three top choices stands to further distance the electorate–pyschologically or actually–from the candidates they might choose, and rather than ensure the flexibility that the policy of such “ranked” voting is intended to afford, creates both a splintering of constituencies across a diverse city such as Oakland as a consequences of attracting a broad slate of candidates to represent different constituencies–in cases when no single candidate is able to bridge constituencies–and indeed table the issue of bridging constituencies rather than assembling alliances of more propertied groups that could exacerbate existing social divides, and encourage long-term disenfranchisement to a degree that is toxic to healthy participatory democracy.  It may be that the record decline in turnout across California was due to the lack of compelling issues that were brought to the table or seen as realistic by Oakland voters, but the distribution of the votes also suggest the degree to which RCV allows a candidate who was only the first-place vote of a decided non-majority share of the electorate both to campaign most extensively on a platform for those candidates most likely to vote, and to represent the interests of several sectors of the city.

Whether Mayor Libby Schaff-the victor of the recent race, will be able to continue to represent the entire city, or feel it sufficient to respond to the needs of the constituents who she was elected to serve.  Mayor Schaff’s first mayoral actions, both of boosting the police force–and calling law enforcement “the highest priority that is in Oakland–as well as outlawing night-time protests in the Oakland streets, in response to complaints of protesters’ violence from shop-owners, suggest priorities not geared to representing the whole city–as does her dedicating her first day as mayor to visit the city’s police force.  The share of the $2.4 billion budget Schaff has allocated to policing closely adheres to her mantra that “Oakland is very short on police”–but difficult to square with the economic problems so many city agencies face.

Looking closely at a detailed interactive map of mayoral votes crafted by Jeremy Dupuis of the Registrar of Voter, what divisions are revealed between different first-choice votes for Oakland mayor present of the city and its social composition?  The question is striking if only because of the sophistication with which the recent RCV mayoral ballot created of the city’s changing demographic composition.  How the ranking of candidates in a ballot of fifteen choices seems to orient the viewer not only to voting preferences but the contrasts of the changing social composition of Oakland as a whole–and raises questions of how minority interests and deep social and educational differences can be adequately registered in any election.  Indeed, in a city like Oakland, recently deemed by the centrist Brookings Institution the seventh most unequal city in the United States, as a result of its recent gentrification, the jury is out as to whether Ranked Choice Voting has unintentionally increased the city’s increasingly pronounced social fissures.  With RCV having elicited some ten candidates for mayor in 2010, leading to a nail-biter of a conclusion in which the lead vote-getter of first-place choices lost in the final tally of ranked ballots, the list of candidates grew to fifteen by 2014.  The havoc of the unique post-Ferguson climate, in which massive protests closed the freeway in Oakland, echoing Occupy, and increased anxiety through city streets about urban security, may have hastened the fears about safety on the streets and police security that had already played so large in the early November election, where she won 62.8% by ranked-choice voting with all precincts reporting.

Based on not-yet-certified but complete numbers, the distribution of first-place votes for Libby Schaff was concentrated in the hills and surrounding areas–Districts 1 and 4–was clear.  Low voter turnout shaped the closeness of the race, and lack of information about the voting system may have increased suspicions that mirrored the persistence of deep social a divisions, whereseparate constituencies offered few credible challenges, and consensus unclear.  While Libby Schaff was the top vote-getter by far, her deeply limited contact with many residents in some urban precincts suggests a division around lines of prosperity that’s particularly troubling to the city’s future.  Did RCV unintentionally encourage an already deep divisions in the electorate, or exacerbate the divisions between neighborhoods of an increasingly economically divided city, eager to protect and consolidate its newfound prosperity?

A Divided CityCandidates for mayor--legend

Tom Dupuis/Oakland Registrar of Voters

The division of votes reflects a divided urban tapestry, in which the reassigning of votes led one candidate to blossom in ways that reflected the strong second-place finish among similar candidates, as this visualization of Dave Guarino shows, by tracking the increasing share of “extinguished” votes first cast for other candidates that Schaff gained–and the great proportion she gained from pro-business candidate Joe Tuman, to consolidate her victory and garnering over twenty percent of votes cast for mayor, which were probably cast from similar geographic regions of the city–sensitive to his message of being strong on crime.  The streams of Tuman’s 9,000 plus votes ran to over three candidates, but three profited from them, and Schaaf drew more from this pool of votes than any other extinguished ballots.

Although the process of the reassignment of “extinguished” votes in successive rounds of recounts that confirmed the plurality of votes for Libby Schaff (16.433%) in four rounds of reassigning ballots confirmed the election of a candidate for whom consensus seems to have exited, the foregoing of any primary in the Mayoral race may have created an oddly stacked ballot, where a large field of candidates allowed Schaff to assemble a plurality by drawing heavily from Tuman’s supporters after repeated rounds of reassignation of votes’ second choices.  (Although the votes were not geotagged, the apparent combination of votes for Tuman and Schaff seems to replicate a distinct economic division of the city.)

Guarino maps votes extinguished

The streams of votes that created the Schaaf victory, with still less than 30% of the vote, may call into question the best means of giving Oaklanders a place in the selection of a new mayor, and developing the city’s poltical voice.  Does the replacement of the open debate of a primary with a Ranked-Choice scenario allow the best presentation of ideas, or does the strategic timing of endorsements in a crowded non-primary election help manipulate the vote, creating a distorted picture of voters’  selections, combined with a historically low turnout, that doesn’t reflect the concerns across the city?

The interactive version of extinguished votes suggests only part of the picture in a race were few votes, not long before the election, were even decided–and less than half of the voters seem to have been ready to select all three of their votes.  Does the apparently low level of selecting more than one candidate suggest that voters who chose to identify multiple candidates could more easily effect its outcome, in which a rump essentially votes for the city as a whole?

Number of Candidates for Voters in RVC

1.  The selection of a mayor by RCV ballot was a fascinating opportunity to forge consensus across the city’s diverse but clearly segregated neighborhoods, long divided by different vested interests and politics of fear.  While RVC provides a way of resolving a crowded field in ways that reflect a large number of voters’ choices, is it the most democratic way of encouraging open debate about mayoral candidates?

The divisions between candidates orients viewers to a social topography that speaks volumes to the difficulty of imagining a relation to public space in Oakland, CA.  It indeed speaks to the increased withdrawing of urban neighborhoods from a shared public space in the city:  despite the assembly of a strong victory by a former City Council member who attracted just under 30% of first-place votes in a very crowded field, Libby Schaaf, the distribution of what regions chose Schaaf first suggests something of the difficulty voters faced in coming to a consensus, or collectively get behind one candidate to address the city’s interests, although RCV was adopted to elect the mayor of Oakland since 2010 as a way to make all votes heard in the city–and prevent voters from worries that candidates would cancel out each other’s votes.

One of the salient issues about which Schaaf and a crowded field of fourteen other mayoral candidates jousted was the question of how to reconcile the presence of poorer neighborhoods–40% of whose residents live below the poverty line, and are traditionally less likely to express their voice at the ballot–and the high (perhaps highest in the country) per capita rate of recorded robberies.  Indeed, the daunting unemployment rate of 11%, substantially higher than the national rate of 7%, and markedly greater than the region rate of 5% in a metropolitan area with San Francisco and Fremont, in ways that mirror a tendency to find more long-term unemployment in western states and urban areas since 2007.  (Given the substantially greater chances of long-term unemployment among blacks and those without high school diplomas, and as underemployment among blacks hovers at 20%, according to the National Urban League, Oakland seems a tempest waiting to occur.

Even a Google Map distribution reveals drastically developing disequilibria in the correlation between families living in poverty and death rates in Oakland–

Deaths:Poverty in Oakland

or Oaklanders’ statistical life expectancy, according to statistics of the Alameda County Office of Public Health–

life expectancy

How likely does the notion of creating common grounds within a city of such drastically divided life-situations, and does the expansion of possible mayoral candidates in fact give most Oaklanders a clearer political voice?  By reading the screenshot of the interactive map released by the Alameda County Registrar of Voters shown in this post’s header in relation to a range of open data on the city’s population, and specifically to fear of crime in the city’s affluent areas, this post tries to suggest that deep divisions in fact continued to animate the ways that candidates courted votes of precise demographics, and indeed how RCV reveals that the city broke behind candidates in distinct socioeconomic groupings.

The concentration of better health and high employment in specific areas and neighborhoods of the city poses steep challenges for creating common political priorities for the city.  If income inequality have expanded in urban areas across the nation–

CityInequality2012

–the question of how our political systems will best accommodate or respond to these inequalities poses a dilemma of national import:  will the voices of poorer voters be marginalized from elected offices, or better leverage power in a simple majority vote?   and what candidacies and platforms can our electoral system work to best foster?  Particularly striking is the clear parallel–unintentional, no doubt, on the part of the Registrar of Voters or the mapmaker, Tim Dupuis, of light pea-green first-place votes for Schaff, and the deeply engrained social divisions that remain from the HOLC map of Oakland residences, dating from a very different historical era which, in today’s society, one would not like to remember, but whose historic persistence continued effects on the city’s economic division cannot be denied.

Oakland Votes 2014

Oakland-Berkeley HOLC

Despite the clearer lines of dominant voter preference the Dupuis’ interactive map reveals, the echo of the divisions in the historical HOLC map of Oakland, indicating regions regarded as being of worthy investment and refinancing suggests a record differentiated attitudes to the role of local government.  Indeed, the persistence of these divisions in voting tendencies, level of education achieved, income, and home ownership in the East Bay contrast dramatically to the recent rewriting of the historical topography of regions of redlining in much of the downtown area of nearby San Francisco–even if the city shares its own dramatic inequalities around Hunter’s Point:

SF Redlining

The apparent parsing of the vote along lines of demographic difference in Oakland’s recent RCV mayoral election enabled the historical splits in the city to be placed in prominent relief, as the dominance of hills’ voters, buoyed by a broader urban prosperity, fragmented the interests of a divided electorate in the city’s lower-income areas.  Despite some measured analysis of “how complicated the election’s outcome really was,” the splintering of votes that it reveals suggests deep fault lines that further public data can help to unpack–and suggest the deep role that fear and fears of the need of greater policing played in determining the voter turnout in an election that was long close in the polls, and even at some date deemed a “toss up” with almost 40% undecided, and Schaff in third place, before she received Jerry Brown’s October endorsement.

What can the division of voting preferences in the Registrar’s map tell us about how voters’  selections were made to create the appearance of a landslide among fifteen candidates?

2.  Dupuis’ interactive map breaks into the first-place votes that dominated individual neighborhoods of the city in ways that raise questions about how individual candidates addressed  the needs of the city as a whole.  The “nuanced glimpse” it has been vaunted to offer of Oakland might be best analyzed through an exercise  of “distanced reading” of the trends in the urban populations it helps unpack. The geographic distribution of local consensus is communicated to a great extent in the division of first-place votes for mayor of Oakland in the recent mayoral election of 2014.  While we often discuss ‘data scraping‘ as a way of extracting information from computer files in a format that is easily readable and interpreted by human readers, the point of this post is to “scrape” the  screenshot of first selections of candidates in ways that read its results in more problematic ways in relation to a variety of open data already compiled about Oakland–and often translated to readable visual form.

Much as “web-scraping” aims to transform unstructured data on the web into structured data able to be more readily analyzed and examined, this post tries to unpack the screenshot of voters’ preferences as a guide to orient viewers to the city’s changing social topography, and ask what the striking homology between voting preferences and urban fears means for Oakland as a city.  For a distanced reading might constitute “screen scraping” the distribution of votes, without querying its actual data, statistical basis, or programming, to analyze the image of the city’s divisions that the screenshot captures and even the visual modes by which it presents voters’ primary choice for mayor in 2014 as a reflection of the new social character of Oakland’s urban space.  Although the symbolic forms by which it reveals what seems to be a decisive electoral victory, the data that it offers can be usefully situated in relation to a range of sources of open data on the city’s changing character.  Rather than adopt the practice of “scraping” the image as a metaphorical strategy alone, such “screen scraping” aims to render more legible the data overlays that the screenshot of voting choices suggests by placing it in relation to other images based on open data.  For whereas most city maps celebrate harmony, indeed, the screenshot reveals deep and clear rifts–and oddly lends  prominence to the very socioeconomic and cultural divisions which voting seeks to mask or symbolically elide.

Geographical maps create diverse texts for viewers, the distribution or data visualization of first-place votes across the city provides an opportunity to read the particularly challenging question of representing the political priorities and preferences of different districts in the city in a single elected official.  As much as the distribution of Oakland’s first-place votes have provoked insights into Libby Schaaf’s popularity, it deserves to occasion further considerations of how the plurality she assembled, if numerically far beyond the vote counts of other candidates, is based on the new divisions by which the city may be plagued.  The big “light green doughnut” overlay in the screenshot of the ‘map’ the Alameda County Registrar of Voters Tom Dupuis called a “treasure trove for anyone interested in examining the nuances of the election outcome or Oakland’s current political landscape” reveals less of a stable landscape, than reflects uneasy relations among Oakland’s inhabitants and divisions in education, economic well-being, and access to safe housing with which the city struggles.  Dupuis’ carefully upbeat rhetoric belies the deep rifts that political representatives of the city will need to address.

Schaaf’s strong finish marked something of a swing back along the pendulum between Oakland moderates and progressives.  The distribution registers a new direction for the electorate, based on the selection of someone who defined herself apart from local interests in Oakland:  Schaaf’s candidacy attracted a unique clustering stretching from the districts in the hills to the area around downtown and Lake Merritt but reflects the rising home values in Oakland geography which have radically redrawn its political geography.  As the below maps reveals, ongoing processes of rapid gentrification has occurred not only in the Lower Hills of Oakland, but in North Oakland, and “early stage” gentrification has begun in much of the city, even as “Middle Stage” is noted in the Dimond district and areas formerly rundown.  The below 2013 map of “Stages of Gentrification” in the Bay Area is worthy of attention as of 2013 is perhaps most interesting for how it orients us to levels of gentrification from San Francisco to the East Bay.  But the consequences of such steep demographic changes have effectively shifted the political topography of Oakland in ways that bring to the surface new stresses on attitudes to public space–and of politically confronting the deep socioeconomic problems of infrastructure, prison recidivism, low high school graduation and high truancy rates, and placing other urban issues on the front burner of local politics, all visible in the American Community Survey.

Gentrification Map of 2013

The issues that dominated the recent mayoral election were not any of the above, but rather “public safety”, which became a central issue along which candidates strove to distinguish themselves:  the hot-button issue provoked the fears of a growing section of the voting population about living in an urban space, indeed, and revealed an increased desire to retreat from public space in ways that seemed to underserve the city as a whole.  The long, green corridor spooling over the complex contours of the districts that ring the polity of Piedmont reveals how support for Schaaf rested in the Hills regions, migrating to the more affluent areas of Oakland, where residents were drawn by her positive trumpeting of a focus on crime–without raising the spectra of criminality and its containment, as the more moderate candidates, or addressing the low rates of graduation from the city’s high schools, the impact of prison recidivism and the revolving door of incarceration, or poor health.

The annulus of light pea-green first-place votes cast or Schaaf crest around the independent city of Piedmont, a tree-lined residential area separately incorporated since 1907,  over 75% self-identifying as white, suggest a division between hills and flats that is not absolute, but indicates a troubling story about the difficulties of bringing a range of necessary issues to the forefront of the mayoral election–and the problems of finding a mayor for the entire city–and suggests uneven values of urban realty, more than a basis for civic concord.  The districts in the hills around Piedmont–one; four; and two, in clockwise order–created a growing division in the city’s districting that

Crest of Green

Piedmont,_California

The colors chosen to designate those areas where Shaff won a first-place finish oddly echo the semantics of the USGS coloration of the topography of the city:

Oakland TOPO USGS

OAK TOPO

But while both these maps show the green areas of Redwood Regional Park on the cit’s borders, the suburban leafiness of the park captures the areas where Schaff’s candidacy did best raises questions of growing divisions among the city’s diverse neighborhoods.

Oakland’s uneven economic topography creates distinct problems of forging political consensus of its own.  But does the proliferation of political perspectives that the alternate selections encouraged by Ranked Choice Voting (RCV), used to elect the mayor of Oakland since 2010, but still occasioning considerable confusion at the polls, demand that voters familiarize themselves with a range of candidates in ways that tend to further segment and sectors its voters?Despite the well-intentioned hopes to allow all votes to “speak” at the polls, the deep fear that RCV has narrowed the expansion of political involvement of voters, and increased the appeal to local constituencies to create a clear plurality, bodes badly for the cultivation of the city’s public space.  Selecting Oakland’s mayor has followed guidelines adopted with a range of California cities since 2006, but may do a deep disservice to expressing the public interest:  rather than selecting one preferred candidate, voters are invited to list their top four preferred choices.

But we lack a suitably adequate legend legend to read first-place votes distribution in the mayoral election.  Even as we’re compelled to acknowledge that even with just a hair below 30% of the first-place votes–at 29.43%–Schaff won almost twice as many first-place votes as the second-place current outgoing mayor, Jean Quan–a former school board member and community activist, whose local image as a leftist was tarnished both due to budget shortfalls and as both soft on crime and too ineffective or just nervous in allowing a police crackdown of the Occupy Movement (in ways she would regret).  (The response of collective dissatisfaction led the former community activist to move toward the political center, and to so vilify Quan to organize a recall effort that long stymied the end of her term, and divided the city’s politics with considerable vitriol and dissensus to levels which almost obscured serious political debate in the mayoral election.

3.  The difficulty of building political consensus in the city was however also not served by Ranked Voter Choice.  Indeed, the encouragement that it gave multiple politicians to declare their candidacy not only obscured the major issues facing the city, but seems to have effectively allowed a relatively small share of the electorate to choose the election’s result, which damaged the possibility for the mayor to forge close ties to the city’s diverse groups.  In ways that seem perilous for the public good or city’s representation, the contraction of issues at stake in an RCV election may have increased the splintering of the city into separate constituencies, ill-suited to meet its varied needs.  As a result of the division in the electorate, it often seems that issues as growing prison recidivism, public maintenance, poor health care and high drop-out rates or the public transit system and housing seem to be abandoned or suppressed, and the issues of crime assume a prominence as “public safety” issues that it’s questionable that a mayor can address:  the odd circumlocution, claimed to be the focus of multiple candidates and several forums, and redefined as a prominent top issue with the prominent emergence of multiple private security firms across several city neighborhoods, have used the construction of “public safety” to divide the city’s public good in profound ways.  For did the circulation of the issue of “public safety”–a term bandied about in the election a sort of code name for urban fear–create the decisive geography by which districts that lent their first-place votes?

To be sure, the division of political interests in Oakland tend left collectively, even more than in other metropolitan areas, but the city is also an odd microcosm of the sort of schizoid politics that have come to characterize California as a whole, which, rather than a reliably “red” or “blue” state, while voting Democratic in presidential and national elections, tends much more deeply blue along its semi-urbanized coast, and turns deep red in its interior.

Deep Blue Coast
But the process of “Ranked Choice Voting” was intended to ensure that in the deep blue of the Bay Area, no candidates would effectively cancel one another out, by dividing the ballot, by allowing each voter who fully grasped the system to cast three ranked votes for a single office.

The adoption of the practice of “Ranked Choice Voting“(RCV) was approved in 2006, when Oaklanders approved the electoral law  to involve the electorate and prevent the eventuality of a splintering the vote.  The measure was introduced after considerable frustration that voices of the electorate were not being heard when the example of Al Gore and Ralph Nader competed for votes against George W. Bush in the 2000 Presidential election:   although California’s northern coast is solidly Democratic in voting, the deep debates about what counts as progressive is particularly heated in the Bay Area.  The combination of a dramatic expansion of declared candidates for mayor–ten by 2010, rising to fifteen in 2014–combined with historically low voter turnout in a city of uneven education and political mobilization–creates problems of not increasing a field of candidates who are linked to districts’ specific interests–and indeed to the competition for scarce resources by city districts. Although RCV was blamed for how the majority first-choice candidate of 2010, Don Perata, was upset by the preponderance of second-choice votes for Quan, as ballots were reallocated after the candidates were eliminated.  The strong number of second-place votes cast for Schaaf in 2014 cemented her recent victory in ways that legitimated the first-place choice of a small, and socio-economically distinct, sector of the city.

The election of 2000 raised the fear that one’s vote would not influence the final tally, as well as encourage the unwanted election of a Republican President, and fed a deep frustration at single-candidate voting and  led folks to search for mathematical alternatives to count votes that would both to preserve every voter’s voice and prevent a “wasted” vote.  But the institution of RCV is still being assessed, and its implementation demands to be considered in how it plays out in different situations.  For the practice demands a literacy with the new form of the ballot, unclear in a city like Oakland, where its adoption moreover does not seem to have helped to manufacture consensus, plagued by both deep divisions of interests difficult to reconcile and dercreased involvement of voters in elections, both magnified by fears and by growing socio-economic divides.  It seems to create a problem of mapping the social space onto a political space of representation, complicated by the fact worst turnout for a November mayoral election since they started in 1990, about 14% lower than in 2010, and an estimated 55.7% of residents’ registration in time to vote.  Oakland has been long, divided, to be sure, by special interests and local constituencies, as well as by corrupt politicians who have manipulated these divisions to their benefit.  The move away from the city’s divided path will be long.  But compelling questions are raised of healing exacerbated socioeconomic divisions, as well as reducing special interests, by the very fact that so small a portion of the city’s residents decided the election, where lower than 35% voted for the current Mayor-elect, can represent a small part of the city and the city as a problem in microcosm of the alienation from American politics.  (Dissatisfaction with how a hiving off of some neighborhoods from others led many to try to remap Oakland’s districts to create a greater ethnic and racial–and economic–balance led local journo-cartographer Jesse Douglas Allen-Taylor to try to puzzle out a more equitable proportional mapping of districts based on the 2010 Census by shifting boundaries to cross hills and flatlands.

Whereas district topographies work to preserve specific enclaves in some fashion, and partition hills from what were predominantly urban areas–

Seven Districts in Oak

–the proposal to expand districts bordering Piedmont to embrace more of the area of West Oakland and to shift East Oakland to embrace parts of the hills stemmed form an attempt to gain districts of better ethnic and economic balance:

JDAT-Socio-Economic-Plan

The perception of clear tensions among the city’s districts leads to direct competition for schooling, policing, and other resources, but the proposal was not adopted, and the economic growth of districts 1, 2 and 4 create a new division of property in the city.

Did the adoption of instant run-off voting, which places a focus on a general election in which candidates compete to be individually ranked by all voters, best respond to the steep socioeconomic divisions of the city?

Oakland 2014 mayoral

Does the institution of RCV, which invites a plurality of candidates to declare themselves for individual interests, encourage political fragmentation in a city long-known for its moderate-leftist divides?  Does RCV invite a more democratic process or accentuate a proclivity to create distinctly self-interested voting blocks?  The light-green ocean that seems to float over the city in the above screenshot encircles the hived-off city of Piedmont, long separate from the city, defining the range of districts where Oakland’s mayor-elect of Oakland became the first-place choice; their uniformity contrasts to the range of candidates that appealed to specific sectors of the city.  The expanding slate of mayoral Democratic candidates reflected the scuttling of the primary in favor of a system of selecting three top candidates out of a field, progressively eliminating those candidates receiving the least votes from a final tally, reassigning votes based on second- or third-choice selections.

The coalition Schaff successfully assembled across select neighborhoods primarily seems to have responded to a narrative of increased policing and of maintaining “public safety”–as well as a compelling promise to sustain increased government transparency of ‘open’ government to relieve a city long plagued and divided by special interests.  But addressing a distinct sector of Oakland may come with costs.  What can the divided nature of first-place choices tell us of the challenges that any future mayor will face in assembling local consensus across the city?  While the practice ensures all voices of voters are expressed in the final result, the almost topographic variations of elevation along which the city vote split raises questions about how RCV encouraged the city’s votes to break along interested lines, and if it offers the be the best way of creating consensus in the field.  Oakland’s rapidly transforming economy–much of which has driven the current economic boom–created unintended synergy with the possibility to elect the mayor by a plurality which, while thought the best path to create consensus in a diverse city, may exacerbate the deeper and more salient divisions in the city’s economy.  The division to an extent creates an apparently legible manner that the city divided along partisan lines in casting its first choice votes, based on the different interests that each candidate reflected and with which local residents identified, raising questions of how Oakland’s diverse neighborhoods translate into a coherent political space.

4.  Before investigating the above screenshot of how first votes were cast tells us about the division of Oakland’s votes on clear lines, and lets us examine how the institution of Ranked Choice Voting decided the mayoralty on second- and third-place votes, and unpack the fracture lines in the above map by a range of open data of the election, and of the shifting political topography of a city riven by educational and economic divisions in ways that make consensus difficult to define in the city across the bay.

Boland's Oakland Transit Map

The innovative institution of Ranked Choice Voting , or RCV, asks voters to select their top choices, to be counted in rounds of successive elimination of candidates obtaining the fewest votes–forgoing a preliminary two-party primary before a General Election.  By inviting voters to consider all candidates to select three top choices, the adoption of RCV tacitly encouraged a broad range of candidates to declare their candidacy, and helped five candidates continue their races until Election day–ranked voting had been decisive in the results of the 2010 election, and polls were hesitant to predict how the selection of second and third choices might alter a field where candidates hovered around 20% commitment.  But the mechanics of reassigning votes in RCV became problematic in a year of historically low voter turnout–when the approximate percentage of Oaklanders turning up at the polls of 45% seemed consistent with a dramatically low turnout statewide of only 46%.  The institution depends on familiarity with its practice:  voters who stay home from Ranked Choice ballots not only find their votes discounted, but voters fail to complete the selection of three candidates, find their first choice is eliminated and vote effectively discounted–creating potential difficulties of silencing voters unfamiliar with the system, or seeking to use it in the most advantageous manner.

But the importance of receiving broad responses for the ballot–shown here with instructions– depends on the voters’  close attention to the candidates, essentially a good thing, and overcoming the possibility that a new ballot alienated some.  The likelihood voters treated their ballot strategically as an opportunity to cast a symbolic or sympathetic vote, reserving their more practical vote for second-place vote,  created a the possibility of a distinct difference in how voters approached their ballots across the city’s different economic classes and view the ballot as making a calculated selection corresponding to their interests.  It also means that the variety of candidates create a unique opportunity to look at how Oakland votes, which the remainder of this post will try to examine, comparing a range of open data visualizations to examine the underside of the distribution of the vote.

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In inviting voters to select four top preferences among the candidates.  By dispensing with a primary, it opens up the possibility of a ballot of expansive choices, and potential alliances.  But does Ranked Choice Voting create the best consensus in a city of widely economically varying populace or divided demographics?  This post skeptically interrogates the mapping of the results of RCV, and raises a question of how Ranked Choice intersects with low voter turnout that increasingly plagues the state.  The distribution of the vote suggests that as much as to best preserve a conclusion of consensus across lines of neighborhoods, the possibility that a plurality offers a victor in RCV may encourage pre-existing divides, and indeed echo an earlier geography of urban division in Oakland, although it was adopted to conserve individual voters’ voices by asking candidates to present themselves collectively to the city’s voters.

Yet a clear consequence of its acceptance that was perhaps unforeseen is to encourage candidates to compete for all voters and compete with each other in ways that appear more democratic than a system of top-heavy primary elections.   The institution of RCV has effectively created strategies for seeking a plurality of votes, rather than a majority, by rewarding the possibility of the reallocation of votes, and elimination of candidates not able to assemble a coalition:   if the fielding of ten candidates in 2010 created the opportunity for a competition for second-place votes, the reallocation of “exhausted” ballots allowed a clear majority to be assembled in 2014.  An unforeseen effect may obscure its democratic process, and allow candidates to create coalitions with each other, and give greater electoral weight to sectors of the population who craft apparent consensus through a plurality, or who constituted the most effective voting block.  Some evidence might be found of the limits of creating actual consensus in Tom Dupuis’ elegantly colored and cleverly designed an  interactive map too read voters’ choices across a crowded field of fifteen candidates.  It reveals social divides and the effective symbolic sectorization of votes in a crowded field of fourteen candidates.

As much as the map gives viewers a “nuanced glimpse” of the results, as the Registrar argued, it reveals the distillation of  the steep competition for votes in a real roller coaster of an election which enjoyed multiple front-runners at different times, with polls suggesting narrow gaps and alternate eventual outcomes.  Did competition among fifteen candidates foster a fracturing of the city’s first-choice votes, hamstringing the crafting of consensus in ways reflected in the socio-economic rifts revealed in the Registrar’s map?  Did the division of voters’ preferences that emerged, more to the point, serve the public good?  It might be that these lines not only offer evidence of the city’s continued growing socioeconomic fragmentation, but are encouraged by the procedure of reallocating the votes for candidates who received fewer votes according to the institution of Ranked Choice Voting:  such a model of reallocation of votes encourages us to accept these divisions as a reflection of the division of multiple interests in the city, in ways that almost make us throw up our hands at the idea of arriving at a clear consensus within the sort of crowded field of candidates, and leave us wrestling with how a winner could be anointed to represent Oakland.

The difficulty of involving the city in a process of voting where sectors of the city seem already–given low turnout–disenfranchised seems particularly grave; RCV may well disenfranchise those less literate with ballot choices.  The levels of turnout across the city demand to be mapped more clearly, but the screenshot of the map provided by the Oakland Registrar of first-choice voting already demands analysis in relation to a range of other open data maps for the clear topography in attitudes that it reveals.  Although issues of being tough on crime and promoting public safety dominated the recent 2014 election, it is striking how effective a pro-policing strategy came to be in pulling out the vote for Schaaf–although it was first articulated by Joe Tuman and followed up on by Jean Quan and Bryan Parker–in those neighborhoods bordering the regions of the city where the highest number of homicides were most historically prominent and densely concentrated in prior years:

Oakland 2014 mayoral

homicides_2008-10_map-1

In the overlays that distinguished the neighborhoods in this post’s header, color-coding distinguish districts by which candidates received the greatest share of first-place votes:  the fractured mosaic reflects the city’s current economic divisions as if they are tacitly concealed in the legend that accompanies it, in ways that raise pressing questions of the winner’s ability to truly speak for Oakland, when the districts seem divided around the I-880/I-580 corridor.  Despite Schaaf’s clear ability to win many votes outside the hills areas, and around  Lake Merritt, this post suggests that these may show the topography of urban wealth to which her candidacy appealed.

Oakland Votes 2014

This magnified map of voters’ first choices in Oakland’s recent election was effectively shaped into a majority vote for Libby Schaaf after six repeated rounds of re-assigning second- and third-choice votes and eliminating candidates.  Despite the considerable (if unwarranted) fears RCV would delay its final outcome, as it had in previous years, one winner was winnowed from fifteen candidates, as over six rounds, Schaaf acquired a clear plurality of the popular vote and appeared a veritable landslide whose pea-green flood appears to flow from the hills across neighborhoods without ambiguity:  this, it says, is Oakland today.  As viewers habituated to similar infographics that present conclusive images of the status quo as if had transparency, and had no history, it might make sense to consider how RCV encouraged considerable fragmentation of voting in the city, and to note the different perceptions of the city’s needs expressed in the division of the electorate between larger and often less-densely inhabited districts in hills and more compressed districts in urban flats.

Although the below map of first-choice votes in the race conceals the quite considerable courting of different populations and vigorous contestation of the vote’s outcome–Rebecca Kaplan, who made a strong showing in 2010 mayoral race, was for a time favored over Mayor Jean Quan; strong polling was common for other candidates–an intense competition for voters concealed in the final tally.  Of course, in opening the field to so many candidates, the practice of RCV presumed the ability of the voters to distinguish the varied platforms of each candidates–something that was increasingly blurred in the increasing emphasis many paid to crime that won votes of more monied voters, and the upbeat narrative she provided of an Oakland that was doing well–and one whose residents deserved better law-enforcement.

The compelling division between sectors of the city grew in how to confront the question of urban crime, and its high robbery rate–judged by the FBI to be the highest in the country.  For as crime has grown, the police force has shed some 20% of its staff since 2010, the date of the last mayoral race, in ways that have led police to bemoan a failure to respond to high crime rates by adding more patrols.  Although Quan has instituted community patrols, the recent rise of private security firms in Oakland has led to a growing distrust of the status quo or office of the mayor to protect many urban neighborhoods–and created a deep quandary over what sort of expenditures will best serve the city’s residents.

5.  A narrative of failure of local leadership has elided the decline in crime that occurred during Jean Quan’s tenure, and the benefits brought from the rise of the effectiveness of the neighborhood community policing in Oakland that Quan had long championed–and the aligning of districts to encourage community policing.  While both changes contributed to a significant drop in homicides and robberies, as well as residential burglaries across some fifty-three Neighborhood Councils within police beats already, the increased density of Neighborhood Policing Beats and focussed nature of Neighborhood Crime Prevention Councils in Districts 3 and 5, in East Oakland did not address all residents.  Indeed, the areas that felt they needed more policing prioritized a narrative on public safety–and where the narrative of cementing the Oakland Police Department with neighborhood committees actually appeared to have been less effective.

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The notion of a need for containing “crime”–and the linkage between “public safety” questions defined by widespread criminality–“economic” and “property crimes” rather than homicide–and seen as a basis for economic growth”–forged a specific argument that is directed to a demographic which could be expected to be reliably turnout in the election.  Despite the difficulty of one candidate attracting a clear overall majority, the data visualization barely conceals the divides across the city, and conceals the huge divides in voter turnout across districts in 2010 helps reveal deep fault-lines between individual districts.  Such a divided voting populace clearly favors the candidates who raise issues that resonate with the divided darkly-colored demographic of the city–and don’t even need to compete for over half the city–or two-thirds the physical plant–from West Oakland, East Oakland, or the area near the Port, whose turnout was already known to be less than half in 2010.  With turnout declining city-wide by 2014, does the Registrar’s map reveal a coalition of propertied voters who have come to speak for Oakland as a whole in an increasingly fragmented city, where the interests of mayoral candidates address “property crimes” that almost seem code for urban fears, removed from the models of community policing Quan helped introduce.

Oakland Voter TurnoutCourtesy Ofurhe Igbinedion

Such significant if predictable disparities most probably grew by 2014, and were known to all candidates.

Despite the validity with which the above map illustrates the predominance Schaaf’s choice in first-place across much of the city, it also reveals clear divides.  In an era when the infographic seems a sort of speech act, having an enunciatory value bordering more on the declarative, than inviting analysis, the map demands to be unpacked for what it tells us about Oakland, however, rather than the degree it depicts a consensus that invests a mantle of authority on Schaaf as mayor.  For the map begs questions of what sort of consensus was created around the Oakland mayor–and with what authority was Schaaf effectively anointed representative of the entire city is a crucial question worthy of consideration, especially in relation to the practice of Ranked Choice Voting.

6.  In a city as ethnically and economically divided as is historically the case in Oakland, the dynamics of Ranked Choice Voting create complicated questions of political representation and the best means of investing local residents in elections, of far more interest than mechanics of tabulating votes which have received so much attention in Oakland’s most recent mayoral elections.  Such questions might be best considered in the analysis of what sort of coalition was created in Oakland’s Ranked Choice Voting system.  Does the map that shows the pea-green flood of first-choice votes for Mayor-Elect flowing down from the hills to meet a mosaic of districts show a city divided or reveal consensus for the entire city, or in fact echo the deep historical divisions within the city?  It threatens to resuscitate some of the city’s darker specters and deepest divides, as the segregation long supported and effectively encoded by the “racist housing policy” of the Home Owners’ Loan Corporation, long accepted across America as a tacit form of racially-based housing discrimination in housing that classified neighborhoods as worth real estate investment or not.

Although the pea-green hue that designates the block of districts who selected Schaaf as their first choice resonates with the leafy green of the many trees that still line Oakland’s streets, how closely does the map map onto the the socioeconomic boundaries of a newly divided city?  In a city that is still scarred by the mortgage market dictated in the still-notorious HOLC real estate maps which date from the Depression, but shaped American cities like Oakland until the 1960s, the valleys of economic growth that long characterized Oakland continued to inform the way that echoed how the electorate divided across the city’s property lines–if only in how they note the “best” areas for investment in light green, a hue that is quite eerily analogous to the Registrar’s coloring of the districts who listed Schaaf as their first choice for mayor:

HOLC Oak-Berk

Legend

The clear family resemblance of the color-scheme of this “Residential Security Map” transmitted from the days of the HOLC’s authoritative voice suggests that RCV may not create the most open new space to define an open political space in Oakland’s future–and indeed the recuperation of a somewhat analogous five-color scheme of coloration in the Registrar’s map, albeit with the expansion of the hills area of “First Grade” residences,  seems to augur a new civic divide.  This return of the long-repressed seems hardly a coincidence, but indeed suggests the scary persistence of a policy of segregation underlying current Oakland politics, from which debates over the need for political “leadership” distract.  The constraints that such HOLC ranking of regions introduced in the local housing market provide a scary point of entrance into the distribution of different mayoral candidates across city neighborhoods:  for their distribution reveals the deep division between “left” and “moderate” in Oakland’s election, already familiar from the 2010 race between the moderate pro-police Don Perata in the hills, and his distancing from the more left-wing candidates who won other areas of the city.  Oakland’s real estate market is, to be sure, not similarly divided today, but the curious comparison of these visualizations of the divisions of the city’s populations provide something of a starting point to analyze the divisions of corridors and regions within how Oakland broke for different mayoral candidates in 2014.  Jean Quan quite awkwardly strove throughout her term to distance herself from her community-organizer origins, and embrace more moderate creds, but her failure to unite the left in ways led to the fracturing of a large body of votes between herself, Rebecca Kaplan, CIty Auditor Courtney Ruby, and ex-Quan appointees labor lawyer Dan Seigel and former Port Commissioner Brian Parker.  The odd resurgence of the sectorization of Oakland by antiquated real estate “codes” exposes the underside of its economic growth.

The practice of federally mandated redlining created strong obstacles across neighborhoods to being serviced by insurers or equity loans that prevented many of the same urban areas from developing, effectively skewing the mortgage market against neighborhoods in ways that were engraved into the city’s physical plant.  The divisions that the color-coded map of the Home Owners’ Loan Corporation pictured above caused a deep disinvestment in areas judged to be “hazardous”–“D,” shaded in red–or “declining”–“C,” shaded in yellow– obstructed loans or insurance to poorer areas that effectively discriminated on racial lines, and prompting a suburban outmigration at the expense of Oakland’s poorer urban areas.  While these sectors were not exactly the same as the economic fault-lines that structured the 2014 mayoral vote, but they clearly chromatically echoed its essential contours, and in an almost eery manner resonate with the demographic alliances that determined the election’s results.   One wouldn’t want to suggest reading the distribution of first-place choices for mayor in the 2014 election against a redlining map of the 1930s, but that map set a basis for home-ownership and settlement of the city which left a strong imprint on its socioeconomic fracturing, even before freeways were built through its heart.

That boundary lines of that big green doughnut of first-place votes that is situated in the hills in the screenshot of the map of the Registrar of Voters, and balanced around Piemont,  gives special insight to a city demanding to be explored by open data available on the city’s population . . .

Green Doughnut in Oakland

7.  This post seeks to examine the distribution of votes in specific neighborhoods.  For while the sectors of redlining were not exactly the same as the economic fault-lines that structured the 2014 mayoral vote, the divide among current Oakland voters clearly chromatically echoed the Home Owners’ Lending Corporation’s essential contours, and almost resonate with the demographic alliances that determined the election’s results.  This post suggests the benefits of an exercise in “distant reading” to unpack divides among first-place votes for Oakland’s mayor, less in terms of the following the contours of proportional voting than to distinguish the varied interests that might have motivated–or be accentuated by–the expansion of an electoral field to multiple candidates.  The comparison of the map of the Registrar might read against a range of maps of the city’s demographic divisions to better  a contextualize the visualization of first-place  choices in relation to the issues that drove the recent election, and the different degrees of involvement of such a radically diminished electorate.

To start to unpack this division of electoral preferences, some substantial GIS-spadework might allow one to read the vote against the city’s shifting demographic.  For the electoral splintering can be read in relation to the shifting terrain of property valuation that has recently transformed the East Bay.   A recent map–of somewhat questionable accuracy, which RadPad engagingly imagined by mapping costs of renting one-bedroom apartments after a BART map to suggest that migration from San Francisco rentals (where $1 million now gets a home-buyers just over 1500 square feet) drove up demand for East Bay rentals in ways that pushed monthly costs of one-bedroom units beyond what many residents could afford.  It’s unclear what sort of data the map uses, but its hope is to take the very icon of interconnectivity across the Bay Area that BART creates to reveal the intensifying the relative sectorization of an already economically fractured city.  The new market for living East Bay, shown as surprisingly more expensive than one might have imagined, prominently placed significantly high rents around Oakland’s “downtown”–19th and 12th Street–as well as in Lake Merritt and Fruitvale.

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The emergence of strikingly similar divides across the city that the BART system links is foregrounded in  a map showing the steep gaps between life expectancy in areas on the same public transit lines–from a slightly earlier period–so clearly linked to the huger divides in average income at different stops in the East Bay, and the huge increase in rates of asthma in Oakland’s City Center and Fruitvale, in contrast to the outlying areas outside of the urban pollution, and the far lower educational levels of what “Oakland” consists.

BART Health Map:Life Expectancy at BART stops

Such a demographic spread suggests the steep challenges of creating a representational unity across the city, although it only starts to reveal the fracture lines of economic wealth and urban affluence that have emerged within the economic growth of Oakland in recent years, but were reflected within the shifting constituencies that existed for different mayoral candidates in 2014.

While not offering the best screen or field conducive to electoral analysis of the vote distribution, given its lack of continuity or coverage, the pointed map that pushed rents for a one-bedroom that of $1,100 or $1,200 to the far corners of Hayward or Richmond, our outside Oakland itself.  While not necessarily accurate, and omitting parts of the city, the map suggests a relatively rapid redefining of the profile of the East Bay.  For a huge range of Oakland where the BART offers an increasingly crowded morning commute, renting one-bedroom has increased to over $2,000/month, only declining below $1,400/month outside of the Oakland that exists on major traffic arteries, with quite a considerable depression along the same transit line that stops at the Coliseum, Bay Fair, or Hayward, and a notable peak in downtown Oakland and Lake Merritt–and few one-bedrooms in Rockridge are available for as low as $1,775/month, or the availability of rentals Fruitvale at the same rate as Lake Merritt.

OAK

Yet indeed the BART map in any of its iterations offers little basis to map or represent “Oakland,” both because of its clearly non-representational nature, and in the clear original intent to bridge the Bay Area, and amalgamate its space, irrespective of water and land divides–a point that was most strongly made in its original version of 1972, or in the more expansive map that blurs Oakland into a web of regional transit.

BART_OriginalMap

system-map

8.  For a snapshot of the city’s economic divides–divides extending to the completion of High School or life-expectancy, one can more easily map a microcosm of the “wealth-gap”  Thomas Picketty has described.  A similar map of variations in home-prices reveals the steep challenge of creating consensus across the same city in even greater detail and relief.  More accurate and more illuminating is the most recent landscape of the listing house prices Trulia generated for Oakland as a heat map in Google Maps, which reveals far deeper rifts between desirable neighborhoods and valleys of undesirability that makes the divided terrain all the more legible than the cute distribution of rentals along BART commute rail.  It offers a more effective vehicle to understand the topography of voting, and indeed contrasts with the image of high-priced rentals in Oakland, by illustrating the deep drops in realty prices across a large swath of the city:

Truliaized landscape, listing price

As does a heat map of houses’ valuation raises similar questions of common grounds, and of the geographic limits of Oakland’s economic revival, which provides a worthy preface to re-examine the stark differences that regions of Oakland selected their first-choice in mayoral candidates:

Trulia-ized landscape, house valuation

The electoral map of mayoral choice must be viewed through the lens of these landscapes, and of framing consensus across a shifting economic terrain, where propertied interests are increasingly primarily opposed to and fearful of a growth in property crime.   By excavating the electoral map through a public data, the results of the election might be better analyzed in relation to the changing composition of Oakland’s neighborhoods–even independently from the multiple reasons for the strikingly low turnout in the city–with only some 55.7% of eligible voters registered in October 2014 and voting some 14% lower than 2010.  Of the 47.4% voting turnout the election inspired, in a system of Ranked Choice Voting, where votes for some candidates are eliminated, fewer than 35% of actual voters decided the election’s results.  The map in the header suggests where they lived.

Rather than accept the short-term record of the divisions of electoral preferences, this post tries to mine the Registrar’s data visualization and create a set of maps that offer a deeper context for the election as a whole than the layering of electoral choice show.  The point is not to naturalize the divides in Oakland, indeed, but to see how they can be worked with and overcome.  And the goal is not to unpack economic bases on which vote divided, or suggest the increasing economical inequalities across the city, but entertain questions of how Ranked Voting, in a strikingly low turnout, helped candidates manufacture consensus around what almost seem non-issues, by increasing the increasing strident and oppositional development of  political debate during this year’s mayoral election and by encouraging competition for votes speaking for only a part of the city, in ways that might deepen effective disenfranchisement across the city.

9.  The practice of ranking candidates sought to keep consensus among voters–in a city which long lacked a serious Republican candidate, the idea of choosing three alternatives appealed.  But in manufacturing consensus by an effective collapsing of the urban electorate, RCV created a narrowing of political debate, by minimizing the impact of those who don’t decide to select a full panel of three candidates or erroneously select the same candidate for three posts or listing only one choice in the erroneous belief they would benefit the candidate, although the reverse is the case.

Far more crucially, the victor of Ranked Choice Voting raises questions of the legitimacy with which the entire city feels their presence reflected in the mayoralty in a race that was as narrowly contested as that between Schaaf, Kaplan, Quan, Siegel, Tuman and Parker–who indeed often had trouble distinguishing their own voices for voters.  The conferral of victory by reapportioning votes belies the fact that they are often only supported by a plurality in a crowded field such–as that of the choice of fifteen candidates for mayor in Oakland CA, where the newly adopted system of RCV also makes it virtually impossible to win a majority mandate–or to organize their campaign in ways that curry specific constituencies.  In an age of increasingly low turnout, moreover, the costs of RCV in creating an imagined consensus among many candidates may outweigh the benefits of giving a voice to all:  for unless more voting can be encouraged across the city, is the ranking of individual choices really a means of enfranchising the city as a whole?  Although the opponents of RCV often point out that its main danger is to dilute the effects of a party’s endorsement, the intervention of the California Governor and one Senator tilted the balance in Oakland voting, even late in arrival, to Schaaf.

Unforeseen costs of RCV may lie in the low turnout that it can unintentionally provoke, as candidates curry actively voting sectors of the population, instead of confronting the issues that confront the city as a whole. If the election was celebrated as lacking without ambiguity, based on the “genuine connection” with Oaklanders, the rapid tabulation of votes reveals that her victory of the popular vote, although both evident and created without ties to unions that have so heavily influenced local Oakland politics in the past, despite the great success she had in transcending easy type-casting as “from the hills,” and, not contented to rest on her base of support, reach out–leaving her as the favored second- and third- choice alternative for many, mostly who were well-off but tired of a perceived lack of leadership.  Schaaf’s deep victory was in many ways a victory for the status quo that benefitted in her ability to move “beyond the hills” as a result of RCV.

The fractured terrain in the mapped electoral results of what candidates districts selected as their first choice raise questions about the possibility of asserting the symbolic authority of majority–and demanded six rounds to be decisively resolved.  Despite aiming to increase all votes’ significance, there are some indications RCV did not encourage learning about choices, but may have helped instituted an uneven distribution of how voters selected three choices–and an attempt to appeal to specific and indeed increasingly distinct demographic constituencies, and out of desire to form a plurality of votes.  Whether or not all voters indeed complete three choices, there is the danger that some votes counted more than others as rounds of the tally eliminated candidates, and that the list encouraged a fragmenting into camps of consensus–and that the victor is invested with a symbolic legitimacy that does not in fact reflect the true magnitude of their support–and create the inevitability of a non-majority victor, whose legitimacy is in a sense, as it was recognized since the system devised in 1871 by an architect in Massachusetts, William Robert Ware, and it was adopted in Australia since 1918:  the system has only been adopted in local elections, there is support to use it to “break the two-party [system’s apparent] deadlock” on voter-choice in America, and respond to an increasingly partisan polarization of politics in Washington.  How its results might be mapped–and what sort of coalitions or political practices it might encourage–demand attention and consideration.

The uneven adoption of selecting three ranked choices by “instant runoff voting” may, for one, privilege the voice of certain voters who select three choices in a crowded field.  in the eventuality that not all exercise the option to select three choices, as requested in the ballot, RCV “counts” votes in potentially disproportionate ways.  And in the case of close competition between multiple candidates–as the fifteen candidates who announced in the recent race, of which at least up to five were considered polled credibly–the collapsing of the electorate around a set of candidates could manufacture an effective landslide majority victory of the sort that instant runoff voting is able to stage.  There was shock, to be sure, at the election of Jean Quan in a startling upset victory over favored insider Don Perata, when his apparent lead of almost 10% among first choice votes evaporated after the tabulation of second- and third-choice votes in later days directed the vote to candidate Quan–in ways that may have brought an ebb in its adoption after some seventeen Californian municipalities embraced it after 2000.  But the sort of manufactured victory by which Libby Schaaf arrived at a “landslide” victory of  63% created a sense of consensus as other candidates dropped out of the pool in successive rounds, and their votes were redirected to second choices.  Schaaf attracted as many first-choice votes as her closest competitors, Quan and Rebecca Kaplan, combined.  The mapping the distribution of votes Schaaf gained reveal what Alameda County Registrar of Voters Tom Dupuis rightly called a “treasure trove for anyone interested in examining the nuances of the election outcome or Oakland’s current political landscape.”  Yet rather than reveal a stable landscape, the overlays of dominant voting preferences suggest a surface whose content needs to be excavated to reveal its deep divisions.

For rather than picturing a coherent landscape, the conceit of transparency Dupuis adopted belies how the distribution of votes mirrors the city’s fractured social divides, and the economic fault-lines and lack of a single political vision.  If the notion of a landscape itself expands the metaphorical definition of the map, the conceit of how votes map Oakland’s political landscape acknowledges that districts’ different first-choice candidates mirrors the city’s clear socioeconomic topography.  Laying electoral returns over neighborhoods masks the persistent uneven levels of income, educational completion, or ethnic composition in the city, but translates its inhabitants to a register of political allegiance among the fifteen candidates in ways that suggest the distinct demographics each courted–and the fault-lines that the results of the election were intended to mask.  The social landscape of the last election is striking–Schaaf clearly captured the well-off hills, whose properties have considerably higher values, and the other candidates crisply divided the social mosaic across Oakland’s other neighborhoods.  Although RCV was not statistically central in shifting the proportional division of first-choice votes in this election, the expansion of the field of candidates RCV both encouraged and enabled each candidate to identify with a demographic or interested community that echoed and opened the fault-lines of interestedness across the city.

The quite fractured “landscape” revealed in the electoral map of Ranked Choice Coting conceals the underlying narratives that shaped the election–and the alliances and allegiances that developed during the campaign around the fears of public safety, as much as issues of Oakland’s economy, jobs, or public sector.  Such narratives were not about RCV, but seem unleashed by ranked voting:  the color-coded Registrar’s map  reveal salient splits of allegiances near the port of Oakland that do map onto the city’s social landscape: the more irregular boundaries of districts for Schaaf, hued pea-green, contrast to the rectilinear bounds of the city blocks in East Oakland, reflecting property values which voting works to resolve.  The resolution of a majority in RCV is difficult because of the ability it opens for candidates to address a distinct demographic, and reap benefits from a self-selected regional consensus, and not the consensus of the city at large, so that the candidates’ policies oddly refracted the city’s needs.  Indeed areas of the city more removed from BART lines that promise to cut commute times to San Francisco, the results of the voting remained in stark contrast to the plurality who voted for School.  (They were also no doubt plagued by lower turnout.)

E OakEast Oakland electoral districts, color-coded to reveal first-choice votes

One of the hidden narrative that the visualization of first-votes in Oakland’s districts effectively masks is the question of prioritizing public safety by expanding policing that a distinct demographic demands.

Considering the massive media blitz on the sometime scandal of the triumphal victory of outgoing mayor Jean Quan–defying electoral predictions and received wisdom, considerably less attention has been paid to how RCV affected the recent election of Libby Schaaf.  Attempts to map the distribution of Schaaf’s recent victory over a crowded field may reveals the complexity of its claims for equal political representation, and the effectiveness of a narrative of increased policing–and mayor Quan’s relations with the police–that became so central in mayoral debates.  Schaaf’s selection raises questions of how ranked voting translates into a system of political representation and the political liabilities of ranked ballots as a political institution.  In ways that suggest a sophisticated marketing to a select demographic, Schaaf’s team successfully cultivated an interesting demographic constellation of hipster and suburban voters based on a Brown-like campaign that particularly appealed to this group for updating the image of Oakland as city–as much as addressing its social problems.  Even as newspaper articles poked some fun at the institution in blaring “not even ranked voting could save [mayor] Jean Quan this time round” against Schaaf and several old competitors from 2010 who competed for left or moderate votes, Schaaf’s victory revealed a surprisingly distinct geographical grouping of votes.  Schaaf attained a majority of votes after redistributing the votes of supporters of “lower-ranked candidates” receiving a smaller share of first-place votes–and rapid tallying an impressive 63% of the vote and the immediate impression of a groundswell of support for a candidate who was in fact only the first choice of less than a third of voters.

10.  The map of voters who split for Schaaf in their first ballots is moreover troubling in suggesting how strongly her support was based in the more economically well-off areas where she gained a clear majority of votes that weren’t splintered in effective suburbs of the city–rather than the poorer “downtown” areas and the flats, and the increasingly vibrant areas of Grand Lake, North Oakland, and Lake Merritt, as well as the suburban Trestle Glen, Glen View and Montclair:  the coalition is a non-majority grouping which built a huge amount of momentum in the election’s final two months.  It’s creation is striking not because of how it mirrors a wealth divide–though it largely does–but because of how clearly it seems to have grown in reaction to perceived needs to contain personal and especially property crimes, and reject apparent insufficiencies of the current mayor’s crime policies–as much as a vision of governance.

Even as the electoral map showing Schaaf’s victory is abstracted form the city’s complex social topography, the windy lines of the electoral districts Schaaf carried as primary choice indicates their far greater property value.  But the point of this post is to suggest that the issues that came to the fore in this campaign–issues of containing crime and increasing policing, rather than less attractive ones of urban blight or a crisis in public education, youth truancy, and social welfare–drew together an increasingly economically prosperous electorate who felt threatened by the criminality in the city, and on the edges of the demographic of the flats.

Oakland 2014 mayoral

11.  The choice of color by which to color districts with a majority of first-place votes for Schaaf clearly echoes the green of the City of Oakland’s new inclusive oak-tree emblem, if not the leafy region of the hills–but will it invest Schaaf with authority as the selection of the entire city?

OakLogo

800px-Flag_of_Oakland,_California.svg

While Ranked Choice Voting gave broader participation to voters and allowed a range of candidate would would not “draw votes” from each other, there was some anger at the 2010 victory of Jean Quan.  The recent expansion of candidates complicated questions of arriving at an accurate outcome, or a conclusion able to accommodate the diverse interests of communities across the city.  For one, the result depends on understanding and selection of alternate choices:  for at crowded field that divides without a clear majority winner gives strikingly significant roles to second and third choices to create a final tally of votes that elected a mayor, and assumes that all voters are included in the subsequent rounds of dividing the vote.

Candidate Schaaf benefited from associating herself with the image of a young, hip Oakland, whose economic development is clear in a range of high-end restaurants, boutiques, galleries and hip locales.  But actual  enfranchisement was something at odds with the expanding role that policing played in the competing visions of the mayoral candidates, and the clear appeal that policing seemed to gain for voters.  On the tail of the late-arriving but dramatically delayed joint endorsements from Governor Brown and Senator Barbara Boxer, sporting semiotically-charged and sophisticatedly hip wooden oak-tree earrings–that recuperated the stylized swirls of the curling branches of an oak tree adopted as an urban icon during Brown’s tenure, intended to improve the city’s image, and emblazoned on its street signs at considerable cost, to match Brown’s vision for renewing the city’s downtown: Schaaf promised an analogous message of growth with environmentalism, even if she fell short on policy plans.

RS12595_IMG_2202-scr

Libby Schaaf/KQED

The wooden oak-tree earrings inconspicuously flaunting the icon, first introduced by Jerry Brown to update the city’s flag and suggest its vibrancy and inclusiveness, the tree became adopted as an emblem of the campaign.  It almost presented a manicured vision of transcending the problems that faced Oakland and seems tailored to a precise demographic, even if its branches suggest an embrace of the city’s diversity.  Schaaf’s candidacy, long rooted in the hills, compel one to map the coalition she assembled in the context of RCV; the layers of electoral voting the Registrar provided might be better read less by contextualizing the voting block she assembled–and the narrative of public safety that animated the last months of the campaign–in the range of open data maps to explore the actual diversity and divides in Oakland’s neighborhoods’ relation to property crime.  But the mechanics of ‘Ranked Choice’ must be reviewed in relation to the recent mayoral contest to examine the narratives of political representation that unfolded in the election and framed the electoral divisions of the city, rather than letting the electoral map speak alone.

12.  Yet the openings RCV allows in Oakland’s political debates and future should be the central topic of this post.  The mapping of what districts preferred individual candidates in the recent mayoral election this November also suggests the prominence of clear coalitions created by such “instant run-off” voting to allow non-majority candidates to assemble a majority.  The map can only be read with a review of how the practice of such “instant run-off” voting expanded the field of candidates so widely to dilute their effectiveness in assembling a consensus choice.

While the goal of Ranked Choice Voting was to increase each voter’s enfranchisement–especially in a situation where first choices may be filled without a second choice being made–the result is often to capitalize on the system:  much as Kaplan and Quan had asked their supporters to use the ballot by listing each other as second choices, a dominant power structure to be able, in such a crowded field, to assemble sufficient votes in surprising ways, moderate candidates like Courtney Ruby, Bryan Parker, and Joe Tuman invited their supporters to rank one another, at the last minute, in an unsuccessful attempt to stave off Schaaf’s rise in the pools–she received more votes than they did combined.  If the secondary choices can determine the election, however, RCV also presumes both that all voters will select three choices for mayor; if all do not make three choices, but leave the remainder of their ballot empty, their voices will count less than those enumerating three choices.  For if Ranked Choice Voting was designed to eliminate the need for run-offs and their cost, Ranked Choice Voting has provided a mode of amassing consensus, it gave far greater say to those who complete their full three choices:  as candidates with low percentages of votes were eliminated in successive rounds, and their constituents’ second and third choices are tabulated and reallocated, instant-runoff voting allowed Schaaf, whose plurality as first choice (29.43%) to gained the necessary majority (63%) as the field of fifteen candidates narrowed, and second- and third- choice votes entered her column.

This November’s mayoral race provided less of a surprise victor in a deeply contested field in previous years: RCV was not nearly as critical in this year’s mayoral race.  But ranked choice voting provided a curious way of refracting how a plurality of the city’s population mirrored the city’s social divides.  If voting is increasingly tied to different expectations of what Oakland’s communities could most hope from a mayor, in the low-turnout election statewide–46% statewide–attracting more anti-Quan votes than strong backers of candidates, anti-status quo candidates may have attracted voters to the polls in ways that propelled the late-rising candidacy of Libby Schaaf, a special assistant to Jerry Brown when he served as Oakland’s mayor.  Belied by the apparent dominance Schaaf held across the hills, the election was in fact a roller coaster of a vote for several months:  many early polls had favored City Council at-large member Rebecca Kaplan by over 50%, with a majority ready to not re-elect Mayor Jean Quan, but for the past two years, significantly over 50% of polled Oaklanders have named “crime” as the major issue the city faces–63% this year, down from 70% last year–with fewer folks citing the economy or education, though these factors seem closely linked.

As may become too common in future urban elections, fear of inadequately addressing public safety emerged as a showcased compelling issue in the recent election, increasingly overshadowing other issues from unemployment to eduction, and propelled by Quan’s cycling through four police chiefs and city administrators in four years, and the parallel grassroots growth of ‘Neighborhood Watch ‘ campaigns.  As Trestle Glen resident Tuman showcase effective “crime-fighting” in a “five-point plan” for reducing crime and the causes of crime in Oakland, from placing more police on the streets, improving response times and developing crime-prevention strategies, Schaaf picked it up and ran with it by asking voters to “reject that crime is a tax you have to pay to live in Oakland,” in April.  With crime, community-police relations, and hiring and training more police, Quan’s forced lay-offs of officers issues of that odd neologism public safety led candidates to promise rises in the police force–if Oakland’s police include some 665 officers, candidates have promised to increase the current 707 officers currently funded to 800 (Parker), 836 (Kaplan), or 900 (Tuman).  Even before the recent decision not to indict Darren Wilson, the police officer who shot and killed the unarmed Michael Brown August 9, increasing Oakland’s police force would have been unpopular to those marching in solidarity with Ferguson in Oakland–as elsewhere in the nation–to demand an end to the increased militarization of local police whose targeting of specific groups was felt to endanger safe neighborhoods.

No one, surprisingly, asked if more police is actually what Oakland needs–and few pointed to the fact that the reduction  of the police force by Mayor Quan actually mirrored a reduction of crime in the city, rather than creating conditions for its increase in a city that long resisted police presence.  One might have had good reason to question whether the increase of policing equates to a growth in public safety.  And in the face of recent conflicts with police from Ferguson to Staten Island, and from the protests at the police’s killing of Michael Brown (hands raised) to protests at the killing Eric Garner (“I can’t breathe“), the increase of police presence is by no means popular thing citywide.  The historic downturn in crime in the first years of Quan’s tenure was however obscured as candidates piled on the mayor in blaming her for an inconsistent relation with building a trained body of police in Oakland since an April debate–and leading both Quan and Joe Tuman to enlist the none other than the once-not-popular former LAPD Chief and current NYPD Commissioner and national strongman William Bratton to burnish their images.  Framing the election around policing re-dimensions the mayoral race by focussing the electorate on issues that appealed in selective to specific demographics, and perhaps relegated other, more immediately pressing issues–education; unemployment; the local economy–to the back burner, bestowing public prominence to policing in ways that cannot but alienate another demographic, and make them less likely to vote.

Candidates’ increasing appeal to the containing of crime spoke primarily to more affluent propertied Oaklanders, and may have alienated much of the electorate, as much as educating them to the city’s broader needs.  One might indeed ask if a future scenario of police violence is only waiting to arrive in Oakland’s streets.  In a city which spends some 40 percent of the general funds budget on police, the notion of expanding the police force means and policing equates to augmenting the already large share of funds on policing, raising questions of the future budget of the city that only recently emerged from the threat of receivership.  The complex narrative of a reduction of policing at the same time as a rise, albeit followed by a recent reduction, in urban crime, and fears joint specters of receivership and compliance since the Occupy movement have detracted attention from a mandate on public safety.  But even in the recent police responses to post-Ferguson protests, the sort of response that increased policing and confrontation with police would generate–tear gassing; containment by batons, rubber bullets or tasters and other practiced tactics of policing; almost inevitable racial profiling–whether a growth of policing is what Oakland needs to spend money on deserves to be debated.  Before looking at some maps of crime in the city, let’s begin from the electoral map of first-ranked votes to suggest how the narrative of preserving public safety and containing crime appealed to specific demographics in Oakland, and how specific sources of fundraising supported this narrative of the need to restore public order and contain crime.  Does the presence of more police, in short, which presage a force equipped with military arms that suggest far greater expansion of possibilities of confrontation with protestors or civil unrest actually bode well for the city?

10850109_418141448339423_604459649808786156_nEmily Robinson

13.  At the same time as each candidate drew on different levels of discontent with the status quo, candidate Schaaf most closely identified herself with the project of continuing Oakland’s recent economic growth–and gained significant support from monied interests in a field of fifteen.  The image of growing Oakland distinguishing herself within the five front-runners, including outgoing Mayor Quan, at-large City Councilwoman Rebecca Kaplan, Port Commissioner Bryan Parker, or labor lawyer Dan Siegel–rather than a focus on crime.  But although Schaaf’s victory cannot be attributed to Ranked Choice Voting in ways that brought the current mayor to office, she emerged as victor from a contest in a crowded field of those who sought to claim the left of folks more moderate than Mayor Quan, her tacit championing of a law-and-order narrative.

The consolidation of consensus indeed emerged with relatively rapidity over a short period of time around the mayor-elect, distinguishing the moderate Schaaf not only from a wide field but two former front-runners, Rebecca Kaplan and Jean Quan.  Schaaf emerged to defeat a crowded field, including the city’s current mayor, although the first choice of less than 30% of the popular vote–by the final count, however, she had pulled ahead by over 60% in the policy of Ranked Choice Voting described above.  And in a policy where voters who were more likely to chose a full range of candidates–there doesn’t seem data to see how many folks didn’t select the full list, or how many ballots were disqualified by selecting the same choice three times–this created something of an artificial mandate to be the mayor of the whole city, even if her support was clearly concentrated in demographically somewhat specific areas.  And in a year when turnout was so low to barely approach 40%, it is hard to say that her candidacy ever reached the broadly based support that her ostensible majority victory portends.

The electorate was moreover informed by what issues attracted folks to the polls in a low turnout year.  The paradox of how Ranked Choice relies on attracting more voters to the polls–and works best when voters take advantage of the ability to make all votes count–a very uneven turnout gives somewhat disproportionate voice to selective constituencies as well as to support second- or third-choices.  And here is where the effects of Ranked Choice Voting may have been somewhat different from intended, and somewhat skewed the vote in the favor of those who would be more likely to select a full range of three choices, and to respond to a candidate who claimed to be able to reduce urban crime in ways that appealed to more suburban areas of the city.

Although ranked voting is intended to increase the and prevent competing candidates from extinguishing each other’s candidacy, and it has fulfilled both ends to a great extent:  Schaaf clearly won the coalition of the Hills outside Piedmont, Crocker Highlands, and North Oakland, with most all of the Lake Merritt area.  But she will soon find herself enmeshed in negotiations with the big unions in the city (including SEIU and police), the city’s notoriously fragile infrastructure of old roads, bridges, and highways, and school system, which may break the back of her trumpeted fiscal conservatism.  Did the coalition that backed her so strongly–and allowed her to raise more money than any other candidate–create a powerful enough Montclair–Hills-North Oakland-Adams Pt.-Glenview alliance to address the city’s urban problems?  In the face of low turnout throughout the city, the plurality that Schaaf assembled suggests a model for envisioning alliances outside of a political party.

It’s not the best omen that the city split in her election–with many greater-income, whiter neighborhoods going for Schaaf, who represents the wealthiest region of Oakland–but even a worse one that the divides represent a social split that is all too evident in Oakland’s communities.  And while the map that reveals Schaaf’s strong victory suggests a continuity of green supporters that ran down from the Oakland hills, whose squiggly roads almost correspond to greater property values, the distrust that went for Schaaf tended to peter out when they encounter the straight-lined districts of the lower-income formerly working class urban areas, or so-called “flats,” where the demographic is distinctly different.

The far whiter and economically better-off neighborhoods that cluster around Piedmont and East of Lake Merritt, neighborhoods of relatively lower crime and less density, as well as lesser diversity, went collectively for who seemed the most familiar candidate, endorsed by Jerry Brown and Barbara Boxer.  This is the same region, one might note, where  CommunityCam allows us to chart one of the most sensitive indices for fear in an urban setting:  how closely residents of the city monitor its public spaces or finds it necessary to survey itself:   the 272 known surveillance cameras that are placed specifically in downtown Oakland and some 810 cameras city-wide reveal a map of monitory insecurity that is indeed amazingly dense for a relatively small area, where video monitoring is particularly diffuse.  The placement of such video cameras in the neighborhoods form Lake Merritt to the estuary and Jack London Square, a downtown nestled by I-980 and I-880, registers a notably dense topography of suspicion and fear that gave great appeal to the promises of increased policing both Schaaf and Tuman offered, and provides interesting insight into the underside of Oakland’s plans to develop downtown area as a commercial center.

WATCHING Oakland

The benefit Schaaf drew from voters of other moderate candidates in growing the plurality of less than a third of voters who chose her as their first choice–29.35–to put her over the top arrived with in ways that gave an unsurprisingly rather homogeneous demographic.  While amassing just under a third of the votes in a field of 15 is a considerable achievement, each of the five candidates among whom the field long seemed contested and surprisingly up for grabs in recent polls before Schaaf received the endorsement of former Oakland mayor and Oakland resident Jerry Brown’s early October.

14.  This post began form examining the interactive datamap released by the Alameda County Registrar of Voters of which the distribution of first-place votes for candidates.  Although it has been presented as revealing “complexity” in the election’s final victory, rather than there reflecting the “landslide” suggested by final tabulations, it shows the city split in perhaps predictable ways around who could best serve the public interest.  Strikingly, districts that backed Schaaf for first choice are curiously contiguous and of higher property values; districts dominated by Quan’s supporters were contiguous with those won by Schaaf’s fellow council member Rebecca Kaplan, and raise-the-minimum-wage advocate Dan Siegel won districts that also gave large numbers of votes to Kaplan.  Kaplan, Quan, Parker, and Siegel offered distinctly viable alternatives to Schaaf in the flats, it appears; Quan and Kaplan combined received more first place votes than Schaaf, and the voter turnout was often extremely low.

The narrow margins of victory in areas outside District 1 and District 4 also made those districts decisive, and suggests her victory needs to be seen as far less decisive.  (During the 2012 mayoral election, riding on the get-out-the-vote drive of the Presidential election, Oakland voters turned out at 76.4%, and the high turn-out helped tap an electorate that put Quan over the top over the polls’ favorite, Don Perata–in ways that gave RCV a bad name, and led no jurisdictions to adopt it after Quan’s victory.)  Yet the visual jiujitsu of the infographic created an impression a majority of electoral districts selected her as first choice, even among a wide field of candidates, privileging the pea-green expanse in the less densely populated hills.

Oakland 2014 mayoralRegistrar of Voters/Alameda County

A close-up reveals Schaff’s “sea of pea green” stopping around the hills and City of Piedmont and those districts distinguished by equilateral bounds:

Hills for Schaff

Is the economic transformation of the city the grounds on which Oakland has elected a white mayor?  The area of the Oakland “hills” were those where Schaaf clearly won by her greatest margin, extending from North Oakland to San Leandro, where curving roads indicate elevations–including the wealthy Montclair–while her competitors were far closer in those areas associated with the “flats,” where Kaplan and Quan were closely behind in the tally–or in fact won the district.  With far less than a third of the total votes so far–29.43%, a number not yet able to be officially verified–the segment of the city that she represented was quite socio-economically distinct, in ways that a simple map of winners of districts cannot depict, for all the interest.  With four candidates receiving over 10,000 votes for first place in the second mayoral election organized by “Ranked Choice Voting,” in which voters select three ranked candidates, consensus is difficult to define as it often broke along electoral districts.

But the existence of clear corridor in the above map selecting Quan, Kaplan or Siegel as first-choice votes suggests an absence of strong connections to Schaaf in poorer areas of the city near the I-580/I-880 corridor.

Quan:Kaplan:Seigel Corridor

Is the failure of Schaaf to appeal to this swath of the city a bad omen for facing its unique problems, or sense of being left behind Oakland’s temporary economic recovery?

Further examination of the map would require excavating the layers of RCV and margins of Schaaf’s victories–higher in the hills; narrower in the flats–her dominance in two hills districts (District 1 and District 4) made her campaign quite hard for a crowded field of mayoral candidates to defeat.  Endorsements from Brown and Boxer were perhaps less the point than the hope inspired by the message of renewal, and deep concerns for safety that she seemed to echo.  For all the discussion of the “nuanced glimpse” that the electoral map provides into Schaaf’s victory, the divide it draws seems all to familiar–and the division between folks it excludes of the political process clear.  A clear advantage that emerged for Schaaf within the process of ranked voting only as she picked up the votes of those who had supported economist Tuman, who had finished fourth in the initial ranked-choice tabulation, picking up over 4,000 votes which gave her the absolute advantage of 49.5% of the popular vote in the penultimate round of reticulations of the popular vote, leaving Kaplan with 26.69 percent and Quan with 23.76% of the votes, and neither with a real chance–unless no voters who listed them first had chosen Schaaf second.  Yet if as much as 15% of the electorate selected only one candidate in the election–and less than half actually allocated all three votes in the election, the effective voting imbalance that RCV creates demands investigation–if only to map where those districts where ballots that did not enumerate three choices were cast.

oakland-chamber-of-commerce-2014-mayoral-poll-35-638

Tuman–the only candidate who did never held a political or governmental post, but the most vociferously in favor of increased policing, who went so far as to associate his plan with NYPD chief and LAPD vet William Bratton in his search for burnishing this image–had focussed on crime, economic growth, and parking enforcement, and had finished fourth in the mayoral race of 2010; a communications professor at San Francisco State and paid political commentator, he seems to have bolstered his own career, as much as being a credible candidate, and carried no districts.  “Tuman’s vote” was undoubtedly a central means by which Schaaf obtained a decisive victory; his popularity was based in wealthier parts of the city, including Crocker Highlands, and a central platform was putting 300 more police on Oakland’s streets, and to boost the local economy by relaxing parking restrictions downtown.  And when his own ballots were exhausted, a considerable number were transferred to Schaaf’s column, putting her far over the top–and creating the appearance of the elegant alchemical transformation of a “tight” race into a “landslide.”

tuman to schaaf

15.  The question of whether the recent success of much of Oakland’s economic transformation over the past two decades, which culminated in the he growth of the Quan years, has led to an atrophying and lack of engagement with the huge area of East Oakland, and what consequences that will bring for the city as a whole.  The area we might do well to concentrate upon–the more dispossessed region of East Oakland, which gets less coverage and was less affected by Oakland’s recent economic growth or real estate boom, destined to be sandwiched between two interstate freeways that serve as obstacles to urban renewal, provides both the greatest statistical source of Oakland’s criminality as well as the site less well served and most in need of help–and seems to have tended to Kaplan and Quan.

%22East%22 Oak

This is the region where the highest numbers of shootings have been concentrated:

Shootings map

The victory by a candidate who was named first choice by less than a third of the electorate–as of now, 29.4%–suggests that she cannot be a choice of the entire city, but her constituents break on a clear divide.  Libby Schaaf has been argued by some to represent the area of the hills, an accusation she has strongly and effectively resisted in a strong campaign.  But the electoral map strikingly almost echoes a division between income, evident in how a mapping of what Oakland families lived below the poverty line in 2012, though the current distribution reaches from Adams Point to Lake Merritt, traces the boundary of thee light green districts which selected Schaaf as first-choice–and echoes Oakland’s racial divides:

Percent below poverty line, up to 40%PCT

Put another way, the poorest areas of Oakland are crammed between its two largest interstate freeways that run across the city, and this area did not tend to select Schaaf as a primary choice:

Poverty in oakland

PCT

The voters did not make up their mind about this election with conviction, to be sure:  if Quan was the first woman to be mayor of the city, Kaplan, Schaaf and Quan had been regarded as front-runners, although in a poll taken only three weeks before the election, 21% of Oaklanders polled hadn’t yet decided on their first choice, and 55% had yet to select first choices in the ballot.

The folks who seem to have been most committed to voting, however, seem to have disproportionately voted for Schaaf, distrusting Quan and attracted by Schaaf’s message of being hard on crime.  And the nasty ill-spirited sentiment that high-crime areas supported Quan because of her current crime policy, content with the status quo, and that “some groups would like to keep incompetent leadership like Quan in office.”  Although anecdotal, the mean-spirited sentiment indicates a deeply single-minded animosity filters the reading even of the distribution of the popular vote–and a deep ignorance of the attitudes on the streets to a police force that, in seniority and salary, the predominance of whom hail largely from out of town as of 2012-13–creating a particularly unbalanced topography of law enforcement as well as political economy that plays out on the ground in interesting ways.

opd_staff_residency

In mapping the residences of police against commensurate salaries, a troubling picture emerges of the demand to ‘put more officers on the street’ that has unique resonances, as it seems to run against the very notion of community policing.  The deep antagonism of many Oaklanders to the police that existed before its militarization had heightened long before recent protests at the disproportionately increased attention to the testimonies of police officers in both shooting the unarmed Mike Brown in Ferguson and suffocating Eric Garner in Staten Island, NY, or cutting off the flow of blood to his brain.  The below map both raises questions of how Oakland’s expenditures on its police is effectively directed toward surrounding suburban areas, and about the disconnect between neighborhood areas and the cops who police them.

Oak cops from where

opd legend

Oakland Police Department Officers’ Residency mapped by salaries/Financial Year 2010

The disproportionate share of cops retired or active that live outside of the city–and the amounts of money that is directed to pensions of retired officers living outside the city–has long received much criticism as a means of extracting urban wealth.

OPD EXTRACTION from Oakland

The accusation that some folks would prefer fewer police on the street also betrays deep ignorance of the uneven distribution of a poor voting turn-out:  even at the high turnout of 2010, the threshold was not above 45% for many of the poorer areas of the city, and was dominated by districts in the hills and the San Pablo corridor, according to this map from public data made with TileMill by GIS Analyst Ofurhe Igbinedion.

Turn-Out 2010

The deep gray trough of low-turnout along International Blvd., and below I-580, even in a high turnout election, mirrors the remove of many Oaklanders from the mayoral election.

OAK Detail

Of course, whether RVC is understood by the electorate unfortunately seems to remains unclear:  former Mayor Jean Quan was successful by asking voters to choose her as their second choice in 2010, and the difficulty with predicting the election lies in a difficulty to predict how second- and third-choice votes are decided.  But the uneven readiness to select three choices in the current election may leave many votes disproportionately counted.

16.  Returning to the present race, the comparative investedness of Oakland neighborhoods in the recent race is evident in a map showing which areas were dominated by which candidates–what regions of the Bay Area were dominated by donors to candidates–that helps track how over one million dollars of campaign money was raised in the race among the four most successful fund-raisers, Schaaf ($421, 267), Quan ($357, 284), Parker ($348,882), Kaplan ($280,876), Tuman ($261, 665) and Siegel ($206,882), which raise pressing questions about the equity of campaign finances–and shedding some light on the disproportionate amount of money spent on votes in this election.  Indeed, the close ties that this suggests of Schaaf both to vested monied interests in Oakland and in nearby areas which invested heavily in a vision of a well-governed and -policed Oakland–from Alameda to Pacific Heights Marin to Orinda, Walnut Creek and Pleasanton–suggest a considerable inflow of money from outside of Oakland.

Although Schaaf spent “least per vote” among the top candidates, her amount spent was far higher than almost all her competitors.

Screenshot-2014-11-13-12.39.41-e1416273438577

The deep ties of Schaaf’s campaign to a monied interests in wealthier regions around Oakland, as much as they depended for donations on the communities in the Oakland hills.  The geographic distribution Open Disclosure offers is striking since it suggests a distinctly uneven distribution of the fundraising economy that has come to drive the mayoral elections, from Marin to the Peninsula to Orinda, Pleasanton and Walnut Creek.  It shows the disproportionate role of neighborhood fundraising in determining Oakland’s elections, lest one was not aware of it, even in the face of campaign contribution limits per individual of $700 or $1400.  For a range of wealthier regions of Marin, San Francisco, and Oakland’s hills enriched Schaaf’s treasury, drawing from the Marin and Pacific Heights lands of Jerry Brown and Barbara Boxer, while Tuman, Ruby, Kaplan and Siegel largely enjoyed their own very local constituencies, and Quan and Parker drew from several areas in Oakland and San Francisco.

Where candidates raised $

The candidate who raised the most money in the end in each ZIP code suggests a deeply uneven distribution indeed, with Quan increasingly edged out by Tuman and Seigel downtown, and Kaplan eating into some of Schaaf’s core hills constituency, in ways that were not evident in first choice votes on election day–and Courtney Ruby reveals similar support (the colors, confusingly, are switched for candidates here, though the scheme reflects most successful fundraising):

Final Campaing disgtributrino for fundraising

The differences where candidates were most successful in raising money reflects the final distribution of votes, though the votes were concentrated in Oakland alone, of course, and do not follow a division by ZIP.  The calculations of contributions mirrors, unsurprisingly, some of the electoral data, although Schaaf’s contributors seem to translate into more votes.  But these do not clearly mirror a picture of how Oakland looks.  Put another way, Schaaf’s contributions were clustered not entirely but primarily in north Oakland and the hills–


L-Schaaf-Map

and were not nearly as evenly distributed across Oakland neighborhoods as, say, those of Rebecca Kaplan

R-Kaplan-Map

What differences existed between the folks who supported Schaaf, both by donations and first choice selection, and other areas of Oakland that selected other candidates as first-choice?

Unlike the hills, much of Oakland is a renter-majority city, in which many residents struggle to find affordable housing.  A range of community-based organizations formed to respond to issues of low-income renters offer data indicates that upward of a third of these renters are regularly confronting issues of habitability and substandard housing, despite government efforts to the contrary–many of whom voted, when they turned up at the polls, for other candidates.  The same divide also maps loosely onto Oaklanders who face habitability issues–such as mold; lead paint; cockroaches; disrepair; lack of heating–in the dwellings that they rent–one index of renters v. homeowners that remains starkly geographic in Oakland, as do contentedness with the habitability of their residences:

habitability

or emergency visits to hospitals for asthma over the past year, which are compared here to the county rate:

asthma emergency visits

Those areas significantly above the county rate did not tend to select Schaaf as their first choice, raising questions about how these neighborhoods view her as mayor.  (While Schaaf was a preferred candidate in many, the low voter turnout needs to be mapped for the last election.)

around lake merritt

The unanswered question such data maps place squarely on the table–the elephant lurking in the room–is how well Schaaf will represent the city as a whole.

17.  It is too early to raise such concerns explicitly, but the large number of eligible voters who did not even cast a ballot in the city speaks volumes.  “East Oakland is a part of this city that really needs investment and love,” Schaaf noted more appeasingly, in somewhat touchy-feely tones that one wonders what they actually mean. For the city remains split in interesting ways, with many working-class sections solidly for Jean Quan, who was rejected by those in better-off areas, and Rebecca Kaplan fielding many votes in other areas, and Dan Siegel, a pro-labor lawyer and long-time strong-armed Oakland lefty, getting others; Bryan Parker, an African-American business man and director of the Port appointed by Quan, did well only in those areas closest to the port.

Mayor Quan’s rocky tenure over the last four years alienated many for different reasons, but partly through no fault of her own:   she had upset the favored candidate in 2010, after he was associated with political corruption and police unions, allying herself with a range of candidates who were, unlike their rivals who were less firmly rooted in the city, dedicated to improving Oakland.  But subsequent her performance in relation to the Occupy movement tarred her candidacy, even as the cuts and lay-offs she sanctioned in human resources, social services, the City attorney, parks, zoos, and museums had fomented Occupy protestors–and led to a recall effort.  Mayor Quan had notoriously won the 2010 election because of the system of Ranked Choice Voting:  voters selected her as second-choice in ways that elevated her above conservative democrat rival.

Schaaf, the occupant of the District 4 seat that Quan vacated, in her own campaign stressed not the problems of the city but its “awesomeness” in her campaign, celebrating the city’s newfound economic, and emerging as the anti-crime candidate able to uplift Oakland.  But Schaaf was never the populist grass-roots community-organizer Quan had been, however, and the ties that Schaaf holds to middle-class voters suggests some degree of potential working class alienation.   (Don Perata had won the hills, promising to put more police on the streets; but Quan claimed much of downtown.)  An increasingly salient index of a crisis in public confidence lies, as Michael Sierra-Arevalo has noted in October, is the growth of private security firms in the hills-areas of Oakland.  Indeed, the hiring of private security firms reveals growing distrust of the city police by literally taking policing into one’s own hands in crowd-sourced ventures, and a writing off of the ability for Oakland’s police department to provide necessary security.  Oakland seems to suffer, almost endemically, from an almost chronic absence of officers patrolling the streets.  Unlike most of the rest of the country, Oakland has indeed experienced dramatically rising crime rates in recent years–even as a significant part of the city enjoys an economic revival and an inflow of new monies and rising property values.  The external sign of such a revival is the blossoming of high-end restaurants in the Temescal and Downtown, from Lake Merritt to 51st Street, but the growth in crime in nearby areas.  Indeed, Oakland was touted as “robbery capital of America,” and the below mapping of police beats in the city didn’t help Quan.

Districts bordering on high-crime areas were not strongly against Quan, although Quan did not win Redwood Heights or Fruitvale–but the image of the mayor as soft on crime was most dangerous for her in the outlying areas of the hills.  Even though she pulled a surprise in 2010 by winning as a non-career politician who upset the popular pro-union candidate Don Perata by a margin of just 2,000 votes.  Quan’s promise to focus on revitalizing Oakland by using her skills at working in local issues–and improving Oakland as a city, she gained a bad image first with an unseemly waffling in response to the Occupy movement and then in unpopular reductions in the police and social service and never really emerged as effectively combating a rising tide of crime or able to claim a mantle of urban renewal in 2014.

18.  The search for choosing candidates that might better address questions of public safety suggest the benefits of reading such a demand for more policing of the city against recent maps of crimes in Oakland, and reveal a growing expansion of criminal activity beyond the poorest areas of the city between I-880 and I-580, stretching to San Leandro.

The striking rise of crime areas–if not focussed in Montclair, Mills College, Trestle Glen, or Redwood Heights, was too close to be comfortable for folks to stand behind Quan’s anti-crime performance as mayor:

Robbery Capital?

Yet the recent rash of robberies in Oakland’s diverse neighborhoods seems unquestionably to have been on the minds of voters because crime had moved beyond the region between the I-580 and I-880, and began to appear in critical ways in voters’ consciousness in North Oakland, Trestle Glen, the Dimond District, and Glen View or near Mills College for the first time:

20130507_075733_eoak0508OAKROBS92web

Even as the real estate market has been brisk, the presence of police is precarious, and the growth of neighborhood crime has led to a blossoming of private security firms in direct response to the distrust of the police:  the growth of such firms from Skyline-Hillcrest to the Dimond district, from Crown Hills to Claremont, from Lake Merritt to Crocker Highlands, has escalated across Oakland’s middle class neighborhoods in response to fears about crime.  It would be interesting, and opportune, to map the diffusion and establishment of such private security details in Oakland over time, which extend from Glenview to the Dimond district, as well as Kings Estates, Temescal, and Maxwell Park, and Crown Ridge near Merritt College.  In large part, this has mirrored how a growth in Oakland’s economic health since 2009 has paralleled a decline in officers on the street–from 830 officers in January, 2009, 615 officers currently patrol the streets of a city of roughly 400,000 people, according to city police records, or about 167 officers per 100,000 citizens.  The recent spate of crowd-funding for private security patrols in Oakland, unified in their common charge to “take back” one’s neighborhood, united  “like-minded folk” to disaggregate from the city’s common protection.  Rockridge City Council Member Dan Kalb hopes that the rise of such private security details will never be taken as a substitute for police, but only as a supplement.  But it will be hard to turn back the spread of such local details in many areas, which reflect on the nature what sort of public spaces we want to create–and might cause us to be more introspective on our community movements.

The narratives that such private security patrols trumpet may have played a large role in the race for mayor.  They certainly stirred strong pubic emotions and debate.  By promising investigative professionalism and more patrol cars, such private security companies claimed to offer an ability to “meet both your security needs and your budget” when police seem discredited.  Local security patrols are hardly viewed as a substitute for police–and may create underlying conflicts or communications problems with police–but they are nonetheless accepted as a necessity and, increasingly, crowd-sourced to respond to fear about decreased neighborhood patrols and low police protection with rising robberies (up 54%), burglaries (up 40%), and car theft (33%).  (San Jose has, however, rejected the idea of such crowd-sourced private patrols.)  And they cite the following Property Crime Index to bolster their points, by the specter of the rise in property crimes in Oakland’s neighborhoods in ways that seem far above either California’s or the nation’s as a whole–although one would expect so much of an urban setting of endemic poverty, high truancy, and unevenly funded public education:

oakland-property-crime-rates

There is, to be sure, a regional rise of such security firms.  (In Latin America, the opportunism and collusion of police has increasingly led them to be less trusted as keepers of the peace or security, private security firms have started to comprise a growing part of the local economy:  the AP has recently described how private firms fill “security gap” across Latin America, ensuring the transport of cargo that is coveted by criminals in northwestern Mexico by international firms, or protecting wealthier clients:  in places where “people don’t necessarily trust the cops.”  Private security officers outnumber local police 2 to 1 globally, and 4 to 1 in Brazil, 5 to 1 in Guatemala, and 7 to 1 in Honduras.  Such firms employ some 4 million agents across the region, creating an industry that, if it keeps up with 9% annual growth, is projected to become a business generating $30 billion by 2016–offering private protection to those who can afford it, and asking fellow-citizens to fend for themselves.  This can have unintended consequences not yet seen in Oakland, but perhaps foreseeable:  in Venezuela one private security worker estimated that 25% of his fellow-guards commit violent crimes during off-hours.)

The neighborhoods in Oakland where crowdsourced funding has been used to create private security firms are increasingly employed are on the outskirts of the downtown, rather than in those areas.  These more monied areas such as Rockridge, Trestle Glen, or Crocker Highlands are of course in essence divesting from their trust in public government and transferring money out Oakland–while paying low property taxes, and not wanting to raise them, they are playing off of an image of a city that is ineffective in fighting crime or dealing with criminality.  The image of ineffectual city government that this practice perpetuates instills and distrust of existing government, and creates an image of a need to contain crime and criminality in Oakland’s poorer areas, and indeed to better police those areas that lie on their margins.  And indeed by looking at the crime statistics in Oakland as a whole, one can add a needed layer of information to the emotions of the electorate that lie beneath the Registrar’s interactive map, peeling back the color overlays to reveal some of the deeper fears that not only motivated the election results, but also perhaps a paratext that demands to be considered beyond the map of the election’s results.

19.  Libby Schaff’s appeal beyond the crowd who inhabit the hills may largely lie in her clear focus on the perceived dangers of public safety that are increasingly of concern in many areas outside of Piedmont or the hills, where property crime appears on the rise.  How did this appeal make her so much more successful in attracting votes within a precise demographic of the population that we don’t often identify with Oakland itself?  (And how can we not think that she was elected as white Oakland’s mayor?)

A persuasive answer may lie in her focus on crime.  The outpouring of support derived partly from endorsements, and what the city council member advocated for improving the performance of police.  The mayor-elect trumpeted a “laser-like focus on public safety,” a code word for crime, an increasing concern for the city as a whole, but the complex relation between the mayoralty and the police, and a move to a candidate who had a less apparently oppositional relation to police; Quan had not only suffered poor relations with police during the Occupy Movement, but had faced the resignation of two police chiefs one after the other in 2013.   The desire to contain an apparently growing level of criminality–at times, rampant criminality and property crimes–into the area between the I-580 and I-880, and diminish its spread in Oakland as a whole, played a large role.

Oakland 2014 mayoral

The large support that Schaaf won from District 4 and surrounding hills areas suggests a reluctance to recognize Schaaf as one of their own across a large range of some of the less privileged and lower class areas of Oakland, and indeed raise a challenge for Schaaf’s mayoralty.  Perhaps one might look more closely at the rise of crime over Quan’s tenure, and indeed the longer view that would provide a needed perspective on the situation in Oakland that Quan first confronted when coming to office in 2012.  These slightly antiquated maps of simple or aggravated assaults and violent crime (noted in brown) and property crimes (green) by which ever-versatile Michal Migursky mapped in Oakland by open data in 2008, which were so clearly concentrated between 880 and 13 freeways, or the non-affluent urban areas, and preponderantly in those that lie below the 580 freeway that formerly bisected the city’s neighborhoods.

880 and 13

The distribution of hotspots of automobile and residential burglaries in 2012 reveal a strikingly similar concentration, although the dispersion of crime through the city, although a low density of crimes–marked by circles or triangles–clouds the entire city, in ways that made hills residents quite conscious of an apparently expanding impact of robbery in their neighborhoods:

oakland-crime

And the fairly terrifying clustering of 290 robberies and homicides over a months between September and October, 2013 reveals a concentration in those areas where Schaaf did not carry the vote so clearly:

RObberies and Homicides 2013 to now

The larger picture shows an even more specific concentration over that month:

y24iytf

The month mirrors the Trulia Trends Crime Maps, which created a compelling heat map of the region of the Bay Area for 2012, with a similar focus on areas west of the line created by the I-580 freeway which bisects the city east and west, and almost seems to have its epicenter in Fruitvale and Seminary:

heat map violent crime

The Oakland Police Department’s own community crime-mapping website, CrimeMapping, reveals a strikingly similar, if less legible, distribution of 275 crimes in Oakland over the last month, with a preponderance of automobile thefts (purple mini-icons) and scattered robberies (blue masked face mini-icons), and a broad smattering of assault crimes overwhelmingly focussed between the I-580 and I-880 during the first week of December:

last month Oakland Crime

Assault Crimes

But burglaries, for example, were spread far more widely over the same period of December 4-10:

Burglaries 12:4-10

and a still somewhat broader distribution of automobile theft:

OAK auto theft

These areas of crime are the areas that the Schaaf supporters want to contain, and trust Schaaf to be able to contain from the city’s other half.

20.  These maps  underscore the somewhat slightly schizophrenic identity of Oakland, CA as a city.  They reveal the steep challenge that the mayor will face generating a sense that, as a woman born in the Oakland Hills, will be able to direct needed economic intervention in:  though most any American city has its slums and poorer neighborhoods, this is an area that is almost neglected, as i as a result of the freeways that cut across the city’s communities and revealed its deep rifts.  Put in the best light possible, the election of the mayor might be an occasion for introspection on what we want Oakland’s mayor to seek to work to achieve.

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Filed under election maps, mapping urban elections, Oakland CA, open data, Ranked Choice Voting (RCV)

Oakland Represented Variously: What We See When We Map Oakland’s Inhabitants

The range of ‘open’ online data that is available for a city such as San Francisco showcases the city’s clear definition of a public space.  Although there are plenty of spaces of local meaning and importance in Oakland, from the site of Occupy near the mayor’s office to nearby Chinatown and Lake Merritt, or from Fruitvale Station to west Oakland urban farms and on to Alameda, the fragmented nature of public space is difficult to map coherently.

When it comes to public space, the East Bay and Oakland–despite a rich variety of parks, an estuary, and increasing vitality of Jack London Square–is a polycentric sprawl, its former downtown interrupted by freeways, and open boulevards dotted with closed commercial centers, beauty supply zones, or dense interchanges.  This is in part due to how little the diverse areas and neighborhoods of the city know themselves.  How to map the inhabitants of Oakland, CA, given the considerable diversity across neighborhoods?  Does it exist as a unified social space, or what image of the city emerges?  By looking at some of the census maps of the city, and mining the range of information compiled in them by displaying their data in mapped form, we can process and digest the complexly variegated nature to view its population’s profile.  (Indeed, the problems of politically representing the complex composition of a somewhat divided city were revealed in the most recent mayoral election of 2014.)

The sprawling city challenges the abilities of the social cartographer as much as the post-modern space of Los Angeles, even in this real-estate view.  Maps of any scale organize social space by relevance, preparing a selective record of its inhabitation and revealing networks for ready consultation.  Maps of any scale create a simulacrum or construct of social reality, as much as simply orient their readers:  the city’s salient features highlighted and network of organization explained, omitting other spaces and residents. We might start by acknowledging how the below bird’s-eye view of Oakland from c. 1900, of unknown origin, celebrating the city’s settlement and early Bay Area Real Estate:  the engraving showcases an open urban grid as an area becoming future realtors to its shores:  if mostly green and largely uninhabited, presents a prospective view of the city-port as a commercial center, showcasing notable houses of prosperous residents that distinguished Oakland’s built environment, and beckoning viewers to its estuary and the man-made shores of its new Lake as if to shift our attention from the city of San Francisco.

Oakland 1900

Elevated or “bird’s eye” views praising urban identity and architecture such as this anonymous print had a long tradition.  Such imagined constructions that gained currency as encomiastic forms, often complemented by poetic paens to their social harmony.  If the artist who engraved and designed the elevated map is not known, the presentation of the city’s growing physical plant and street structure echoed the architectural elegance of earlier urban views, as the visual encomia to the elegance of architectonic form of Venice in the virtuosic perspective designed by Jacopo de’ Barbari circa 1500 of his own creation.  De’ Barbari exploited skills of perspective to craft a graphic and pictorial encomia to his native city’s architecture and burgeoning wealth to trumpet its social distinction; an earlier elevated view of Florence, sold by the cartographer and engraver Francesco Rosselli similarly celebrated and displayed the architecture of his native city.  De Barbari famously employed to evoke the harmonious order of his city, also lying in close proximity to surrounding wetlands, by displaying its distinctive harmony–vaunting its delicate socio-political balance figuratively by deploying his mastery of creating a previously unimaginable perspective to considerable effect, showing the density of its architecture in the watery surroundings.

Jacopo_de'_Barbari_-_Plan_of_Venice_-_WGA01270

Even if much of present Oakland seems a bit of a blank slate, whose territory expands from its port and the man-made lake built to beautify its urban estuary, the print of c. 1900 divides plots and settled acreage, as the surrounding images of buildings that testify.  This is not only a pictorial space, but an attempt–as the Rosselli and de’ Barbari maps–to show the social space as harmoniously mapped to a pictorial space of representation, and distinguish the city as a microcosm of the world.  Both maps offer  sophisticated visual glosses on the ancient notion of a “chorography” or qualitative view of a community, elegantly overlaying and equating their imaginary perspectival space with he social spaces of each city.

Can we create a modern chorography of Oakland that both displays and comprehends its dynamic heterogeneity, or would the city split into social divides?  Google Maps clearly fails to do so, but what would a comparable mapping of Oakland’s populations look like, perhaps mapped from the ground up–in the manner that Jacopo labored to achieve?

OAK Topographical

There was clear redlining of much of the East Bay’s residential areas in real estate maps for the East Bay cities dating from the Depression, in which Home Owners Loan Corporation rated neighborhoods for the refinancing of mortgages  that amounts to a reflection of the value of property in the East Bay, and reveal an odd mosaic of the city that privileged some regions, but also include a clear redlining of those regions by the Bay and the main arteries of transportation that continue to define Oakland’s port.  The red-lining of the city’s residential areas in the New Deal structured the city’s social geography in  imaginary construction ofways that reflect the continued exclusion of African Americans and blacks from the market of legitimate home mortgage in much of America through the 1960s, described so compellingly by Ta- Nehisi Coates, and in Oakland not only reflect the deep divides in residential ownership but created social disparities but record scars that make the city’s future harmony particularly difficult to re-imagine.  The zones of imbalanced opportunities for home ownership that long existed in the city created perpetuated deep social divides among its residents, often left without the chances of refinancing that were available to many other residents from the 1930s in the United States, as its port and low-lying areas became victims to a classic image of “blight” with roots in its deep abandonment by the public good in ways not yet overcome.

OaklandBerkeleyHOLCmap

From the first settling after the San Francisco earthquake of the Oakland hills, the demographic divides Oakland’s settlement seem to have been reflected in the value of residential ownership in its neighborhoods in ways revealed in the fractures lines of the map of the Home Owners’ Loan Corporation, and which have continued to divide its neighborhoods even after a period of urban growth.  The absence of clear neighborhoods or community organizations around the major traffic arteries that Oakland has long been defined by at its port and older shipping canals created something like a social divide not only in this early HOLC map, but that has been perpetuated within the socioeconomic divisions that were so starkly reflected in the “red-lining” of urban real estate.

Redlining By the Shore

Even if Oakland has been billed a “livable city,” the “split personality” is revealed in the divides starkly illuminated by a map of social lifestyles generated by an ESRI tapestry charting dominant lifestyles–purple noting High Society; blue “upscale avenues;” teal “Metropolis;” light bright blue “metro trendsetters;” green “seniors;” and tan and brown “inner city,” “highrise,” or “up and coming.”

The map shows the city’s split personality:

esri dominant lifestyle est bay

In a year that boasted crowd-sourced mapping of the San Francisco Bay, organizing the demographic divides that continue to shape Oakland deserves our sustained attention–and the varieties of viewing the divisions and distributions in the settlement of Oakland’s space.  Unlike San Francisco, dominated by some 359 skyscrapers in its downtown and other regions, Oakland is far more geographically disperse and diffuse, with only a small number of buildings over fifty meters all clustered by Lake Merritt–including those noted in blue, under consideration or construction.
Skyscrapers in Oakland-  50 meters

The recent ambitious and brave investment intended to equalize these clear socioeconomic divisions and to prevent them from being perpetuated by public services from schooling to economic opportunity is a step in the right direction and, based on a back-of-the-envelop calculation, seems to have its priorities and direction of resources fairly straight in how it has decided to invest in Oakland’s neighborhoods’ futures.

OaklandOpportunityImpactOverview-1024x663Distribution of San Francisco Foundation’s Investment in Oakland

But how to frame and orient the viewer of a map of the city’s demographic divisions is fraught, given the difficulty of uniting Oakland as a whole, or even in abstracting an analogously unified image that connects its disparate inhabitants.  The network that bounds the city was advanced rather optimistically in a map that elegantly promoted the lost or abandoned system of Key Cars whose web linked downtown Oakland to the Temescal and Alameda–the infrastructure for the local economy that it did up until its complete dismantling by 1959.

Map of Oakland and Vicinity- Key Car System

The serviced networks that any map foregrounds, even one of transit routes, engage their readers by networks of inter-relationships.   The above map affirms a network of transportation for their rider, suggesting the ways that the infrastructure by which the Key-Car systems united downtown Oakland and the vicinity–much in the manner current BART maps promise to link everywhere in the East Bay in a radius to Point Richmond, Brentwood, and San Jose.  The current BART network may link the Bay Area, indeed, as Oakland seems to be forsaken as being the economic it was by transit authorities and Bay Area residents.

But Oakland is also a city whose social space was long both divided and eviscerated, as the network of streetcar transit was dismantled, the railroad stations that centered the town from the 1880s declined or closed, preparing for the razing of the West Oakland residences of many porters for the MacArthur maze, long before the collapse of the I-880 Cypress Freeway in the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake–and the subsequent massive shifts in home-ownership as a large number of houses went underwater after 2007 led to a wave of foreclosures that was almost distributed across the city, and which redefined its social space once again.

FORE_MAP

The divides and diversity in Oakland make the mapping of the city of particular interest as tools to understand its social reality.  In a society where we are regularly mapped and surrounded by maps, the critical of reading maps is recognized as an important tool to negotiate and mediate lived social space.  What sorts of divides and continuities emerge in a city like Oakland, historically defined by considerable racial diversity and income disparity?  How to map so many variations in one place?

When Denis Wood and John Fels described the map as an ideological construction of space or territory, they took time to examine the surrounding ‘paratext’ to maps as keys or markers that revealed the ideological construction of the space within the “nature” of the map, created by interpretive legends and iconography, as well as the semiotic conventions of the map itself:  yet interactive urban maps provide much more of a creative cartographical conventions and treat the map as something like an open text.

In their critical examination of the authority inherent in the medium of the map, The Nature of Maps, Wood and Fels argue that the relation between a map and territory exists through how cartography–as much as cartographers–“constructs the natural world” in relation to other sign systems, construing the relation of a ‘map’ to ‘territory’ by how maps inescapably make their subject ideological.  Taking as their case in point maps of nature, they argue the order of maps demand assent from readers through what they call the ‘postings’ and the relays that the map creates to the world it ostensibly depicts, and the new understandings of space it creates.  Wood and Fels argue “relays” in maps, tied to the texts inherent in them or positioning in books or  paratexts, which uniquely promote the construction of meaning, effectively organizing complex mental spaces to understand nature in maps, whose structure demands assent to create truth-claims about nature, and transform the space of the natural world into a structure by which nature is spatialized as known.  The Barbari and Rosselli views assert an ideology of the local, spatializing the city as it is best viewed and encomiastically celebrated as a microcosm, even though the “paratexts” by which one reads a map are left tacit for their viewers.

Yet the map does not begin from an empty space, so much as it is rooted in a space that is inhabited:  it indeed tracks multiple networks of inhabitation.

Oak 1871 Birds Eye View

Tempting as it is to argue that social space fills in the empty space of a geographic region, the maps of Oakland’s inhabitants suggest a remaking of the city’s social space–and present an image of the remaking of that space viewed from the ground up.  For rather than providing a fixed or authoritative transcription of space that promotes “a standard scientific model” that creates a “mirror of nature . . . through geometry and measurement,” as Harley wrote was endemic to the discipline of cartography, or invest authority in a single map, the variety of Google Maps templates to plot data from the US Census for the years 2005-9 create a set of multiple maps in themselves each provisional, which they invite viewers to act by ordering their content.  It is perhaps no surprise that, in an age when maps proliferate, and we are both regularly mapped and surrounded by maps, the appeal of the website is that it provides tools to select variables and determine geographic parameters about the city that we can know:  indeed, their interactive nature provide a shifting notion of a map as a graphic fixity.  Wood and Fells primarily examined the organization of space within the printed map, critically reading map’s insertion in printed texts and their relation to the semiotics of written legends.

The compilations of maps based on census data offer, at a far greater granularity than other maps, to divide space by variable criteria of income, race, or level of education to offer what might be treated as elements of a composite picture of the city’s inhabitants–from the ground up–rather than demanding assent to a given cartographical record.  In a sense, the interactive maps below start a discussion about the nature of mapped space from which one can begin to examine the city’s social space.  The interactive map creates an open text whose variables and criteria users can create.

They provide a basis to question, critique and re-evaluate question the dominance of stereotypical categories of local violence or gangs as relevant descriptors of the city, but provide a bit more complex picture of its social composition.  For the interest of these maps lie in how viewers map them as simulacra against their mental maps, rather than in their mimetic claims:  ‘simulacra’ since all maps are both filters of information that parse the relevance of social space and embody a coherent order of space, providing deeply social tools for reading.   Rather assigning integrity to the map as a unique document, we can understand its ‘social life’ through how each creates and constitutes its own social reality for readers:  the Google Maps templates offer a basis to refract socio-economic distributions in the city, rather than fetishize the authority of the given map as a form that commands assent; the familiar templates increase the improvised nature of the comparative mapping exercise.  But Matthew Block, Shan Carter, and Alan Maclean are also particularly inventive graphic artists in how they use of Google Maps–especially in comparison to how it is usually used by others.

The interactive maps created from the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey provide tools to track social realities across the nation, and filters to view specific variables in each zip-code and neighborhood.  I’m interested how maps embody Oakland as a coherent entity, and in Oakland a test-case to examine maps as embodiments of space and to illustrate spatial divides, as well as to filter different aspects of social space.  The interactive maps devised by Block, Carter, and Maclean employ Google Maps templates to invite viewers to process the coherence and divides within data from the US Census in spatial terms, using data for the years 2005-9 to create multiple maps, generated on demand, that refract or mediate statistical realities in visual formats which provide compelling ways to embody and understand social realities from the ground up. The statistical “maps” map at stunningly finer grain that reality–by “Mapping America: Every City, Every Block,” as they boast–that use tools of mapping creative interventions to analyze the Bay Area and its inhabited landscape; the mapping forms offer tools more than vehicles to demonstrate variables of race, income, education, or presence of recent immigrants, offering alternative models by which the region might both be mapped and, by extension, surrogate realities by which its composition might be known.  As much as surrogate realities, they refract pieces of that reality that we must juggle and assemble for ourselves, less attentive to the semantics of the Google Maps frame than their content. One might compare them to conventional maps based on skimpier data, to which their detail and agility provide a sort of foil–starting from the graphic charting crime-density in the Bay Area based on the police blotter.

Berkeley:Oakland Crime Density

The map is surprising for how the area immediately around the campus is a thick blotch of indelible red, bleeding into its nearby areas and along Telegraph Avenue like indelible ink.  Most of this “crime” is based on calls to the Police Dept., including a significant number of calls about problems of noise around fraternity row:  the impermeable barrier both around campus can be explained by the different policing agency that supervises the university’s campus, and the boundary of the Berkeley Hills to the East.  Crime is mapped not only indiscriminately, but distributed to reflect the contours of public complaints, as much as actual crimes.  Although the red splotches and streaks around much of Oakland and focused in its downtown seems in keeping with the difficulty of maintaining control over the dispersive city, while around UC Berkeley are dense stains of intense crimson that corresponds to the frequency of calls that the local police receive near campus.  It is interesting to contrast the map to that of San Francisco–where a huge amount of crime is clustered in the downtown, near the Embarcadero, Tenderloin, and Mission and some pockets around Van Ness–in a broad field of relatively crime-free green.

SF Crime Density

And so, if we shift mapping forms to a sort of heat-sensitive map of the violence committed and reported, the hot-spots of Oakland are more readily apparent–almost as a diffuse miasma of violence spread over neighborhoods like a viral form whose trajectory is difficult to explain or track:  heat-sensitivity is an apt cartographical metaphor of the subject charted:

eastbay_violent crime

The map of hot-spots of violent crime provides a different picture, if a tragic one, extending along the city’s major streets deep into East Oakland.  One might ask how this maps onto the city’s racial diversity. Given common predispositions, it might make sense to reflect on the city’s composition with greater granularity.  Does violence correlates to the complex ethnic or racial distribution of the city?  or to income?  or to gangs, as often suggested?  The interest of the interactive maps lies how viewers map these simulacra against their own individual mental maps, as much as in their mimetic claims:  ‘simulacra’ since all maps are both filters of information that parse the relevance of social space, providing deeply social tools for reading.   Rather assigning integrity to the map as a unique document, we can understand its ‘social life’ through how each creates and constitutes its own social reality for readers. Aside from the heat-spots in West Oakland, race is not a determining factor in a clear a way at all, although the ethnic diversity of Oakland–a historically African American city with a rapidly shrinking number of areas dominated by African American populations.  It’s in fact striking that the greatest mix of black and hispanic Oaklanders in any neighborhood occurs on the edges of Oakland:  and that the island of Piedmont is the only area that’s white.

oakland-racial-map

Census Block legend

The same data can readily be re-mapped to present a distinctly different picture of the city, emphasizing urban diversity, by using the US Census Bureau’s data from 2005-9, using the American Community Survey.  Block, Carter and Maclean exploit the Google Maps platform to embed Census data in color-coded terms, which shows small pockets of African American concentration by light blue, but relative integration with the greatest concentration of Asians near Chinatown downtown.  The below aggregates units of fifty people, rather than proportional composition, to provide finer granularity of the population and of each neighborhood in Oakland, if in a less than dynamic manner:

Race in Oakland Google Mapped

Oakland’s complex diversity might well be compared to the clearer clustering in other urban regions of the Bay Area, where whites are more concentrated in clearly bound neighborhoods, and Asians similarly concentrated in areas around Golden Gate park (Inner and Outer Sunset)–if with considerable overlap of Asian and Hispanic populations in the Mission:

Mapping Race across Bay Area

%22Greater Mission%22

Far more sharply defined geographies of racial separation define New York City, where property values create the starkly demarcated racial composition of  Manhattan, and concentrations of blacks in outlying peripheries in the Bronx, New Jersey, Queens, and Brooklyn, as well as part of Harlem:

NYC Racial Map from 20005-9 census

We see a different picture of Oakland if we look at outside racial self-identification, but examine economic diversity at a finer grain in its neighborhoods.

Back to the Bay Area, stark income divides define the landscape of Oakland in this map of median family incomes in the same dataset, more than race:

Oakland Household Income Mean

More specifically, the map reveals clear divides and income troughs where median incomes have sunk below $25,000, often reflecting food deserts and islands of an evil toxic brew of desperation, hungry desire, and distraction:

Below 25,000

For Oakland, the website Spotcrime employs catchy icons to track arrests (handcuffs); arson (flames); assaults (fists); burglaries (masked faces under hats); robberies (men running with money-bags); shootings (cross-hairs); thefts (purple silhouettes of men running); and vandalisms (green cans of spray paint spraying red), creating a detailed map to set off mental alarms in the name of a call to “know your neighborhood’s dangers”:

Assaults, Arrests, Arson, Burglary, Robbery, Shooting, Theft, Vandalism

Even if the violence and theft are predominantly in low-income areas, where the map dutifully foregrounds these impressive icons, doesn’t it remove a lot about what good happens in the same low-income areas?  After counting 1, 077 shooting incidents in Oakland in 2011 with 1, 594 victims of guns–the largest category among which (140) belonged to minors, and the greatest sub-group 16-year-olds (40) and 17-year-olds (38)–John Osborne used Google Maps to represent in a fairly schematic way the urban distribution of fatal shootings by neighborhood:

Shooting Map in Oakalnd 2012

The terrifying concentration of aggregates off International Boulevard, a major thoroughfare in East Oakland, past Fruitvale Avenue, the overwhelming majority of whose suspects are male.  In abstracting each as discrete, of course, the map is less successful underlying ties to both prostitution rings or drug deals, so much as a platform to make claims about gangs or organized crime.  The following map of victims of shootings reveals an even somewhat scarier density in the identical area of West Oakland:

Victims in oakland 2011

What kind of image of Oakland emerges?  It’s difficult to map it clearly.  One striking effect of the greater scale and definition of the maps based on the 2010 census is that the considerable proportion of resident immigrants in the city, which reveals a considerably high percentage–often more than half and up to 70% if not almost 80% in West Oakland, across from Alameda–of foreign-born residents, which demonstrates a considerable geographic mobility among residents that seems specific to the area:  Oakland has long been a cosmopolitan center that attracted the displaced to its margins.

Oakland Foreign Born Map

Immigration is not criminality, but suggests the margins of the city are where the displaced arrive:  displacement might be something of a thread in Oakland’s history, from the arrival of (far more wealthy) San Franciscans after the 1906 earthquake in Piedmont to the Chinese-American railroad laborers who settled downtown, the railway porters whose families created a large community in West Oakland from the 1880s, and workers for the shipyards, or rich communities of Eritreans, Africans, Native Americans (Lakota or Dakota), Hispanic, Hmong, Vietnamese, Somalians and Congolese who most live in cheaper housing and are likely to be taken advantage of in varied ways.  As of 2004, Oakland somehow ranked tenth in the US for the largest number of immigrants, according to the 2006 Census, despite a less vigorous local economy, and almost 30% of its entire population is foreign-born.   The margins of the city somehow remain greater and far larger than its center.

But Oakland remains known, despite this mobility, despite the presence of city gangs, a more deep-seated and almost endemic presence and prime descriptor of the city.  One can–and many do–blame gang-violence, or the competition for turf; but the violence is difficult to separate from prostitution and drug-related crime, not necessarily competition between gangs or gang-related activities, even though gangs do suggest a culture of violence.

Gangs in Oakland

Gangs are difficult to measure, although the intensity of turf-wars would seem to make it easy to use the map as an indicator of violence.

Yet if one looks at a broader map of “gangs,” the variables seem impossible to keep constant, even in a hand-drawn map of gangs in East LA from 1978 purporting to decode ‘insider knowledge’ about a topography of violence, but provides only the sketchiest of tools:

1978-eastlos-gang-map-oplg-300x224

The difficulty of attributing meaning to the mapping of gangs is more apparent if one notes their widespread presence, given this–perhaps unreliable–map taken off of a “National Gang Map” which reveals a dramatic concentration of gangs and gang members in the Westernmost states:

National Gang Map

Perhaps their presence itself reveals an attempt to make meaning from life or to carve it out of one’s social terrain to the greatest extent that is possible. One compelling map maps educational attainment–with the brightest yellow indicating an inability or difficulty to complete High School at 70%–with less than high school completion hovering around 40% among families.

Education--Less than high School degree

In the Bay Area at large, the failure of education in the Foothill-International area is striking, and is doubtless also some degree of failure in socialization if not of public education, and maps a continuing challenge for the city’s School Board and public schools.

70% no HS Bzy Area

And a corresponding map of college-educated Oakland reveals a bounded drop in below 20%, more roughly characterized at 5-14% with a BA, with large numbers of closely bordering districts hovering between 5-8%:  this might be one measure of the cultural insulation and isolation of the region, if not a clear barrier to what is often described as an ‘achievement gap.’

College-Educated Oakland

Those empty tan regions are a measure of the difficulty of shifting a divide between different Oaklands, because it maps a cross-generational or at least temporal divide in the given area over time.  The heterogeneity of Oakland is nonetheless striking even in its inequalities, to turn back to map racial diversity of Bay Area generated in bright colors on the NYT website of Block, Carter and McLean, since it suggests a picture of considerable promise.

Racial Composition OAK in Bay Area

But of course a map is not a picture.   It is a picture of variability, which can shift depending on one’s chosen criteria.  In the distribution of income levels in North Oakland, aggregating incomes of twelve families reveals a telling integration of an income-mix more striking and apparent than the in the above demographic models:  despite a scattering of upper-income levels across this North Oakland area from Emeryville, across San Pablo, and up to Broadway Terrace and Grand Avenue, lower income levels are present virtually throughout the region, with the exception of East of Broadway, although Broadway provides a clear dividing line of high incomes and lower ones, and the 880 corridor below MacArthur dotted with light blue markers.

my-neighborhood-income-map

The color-coded map of relative incomes provides us with some possibly meaningful correspondences to the hot-spots in crime.  But I wouldn’t advance the sort of argument that maps crime–or gun-violence–onto variations in household income.  The pictures of the city offer limited tools that suggest possible sites of research that might help to connect these dots.  But they offer useful, ground-up mappings of the city’s inhabitants.

Processing the relations among inhabitants of Oakland offers a way to renegotiate your relation to the city as a whole.  Mapping is about navigating, as well as processing, a surfeit of information, and about making the connections among it, grosso modo, that exist.  The fine grain of the census maps provides both a corrective to our preconceptions, and the start of something like a more fair–and illuminating–map of the city’s social space.

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Filed under Oakland, Oakland CA, open data, Racial Diversity, US Census

The World Once in Oakland

There are multiple layers of nostalgia in the antique map once found in the familiar marquee of De Lauer’s Super News Stand in downtown Oakland, California.  The sign was long an emblem a comprehensive range of world news sources and foreign newspapers, the dated map as a relic of an old sense of news. The map that so dramatically foregrounded the prominence of the United States in such an exaggerated fashion is both heavy with nostalgia of a past sense of the global centrality of north America in world news, and also of a time when the news was able to be mapped or derived from different fixed news bureaus, and bridged places otherwise removed from one another as proudly displayed on its magnificent if quite intentionally geographically distorted marque.

De Lauer's Globe

The black and white marquee of De Lauer’s Super News Stand seems a time-capsule of an earlier sense of Oakland as news entrepot, and of an era when newsprint provided a primary sense of immediate access to the wider world.  Amidst fluted pairs of caste-bronze gas street lamps in downtown Oakland, a kitschy illuminated globe marks a site of pilgrimage for newsprint, founded by a family who sold newspapers from pushcarts since 1907–both a mecca of the printed word and monument to past empires of print.  The intentionally distorted globe on Broadway carries maps, but uses the image of the US-as-world to boast of the breadth of its array of some three-hundred plus American and foreign newspapers and some 6000 magazines was a paradise of crumbling paper and glossy picture magazines, from fashion to crafts to hunting arts, complemented by comic books, triangular sandwiches and an array of cigarettes and cigars.  The magazines that often seem dog-eared from use are encyclopedic in variety, and extend back to the roped-off adults only area in the back, and are flanked by paperbacks.  (Rumors has it that incense from nearby Chinatown was burned regularly to disperse the smell of newsprint.)

The 24-hour round-the-clock schedule, before the news cycle contracted, doesn’t help the slightly worn appearance and feel of the store that might be at odds with its boast for such comprehensive news coverage.  But it symbolized a sense of easy access to news sources in an earlier era of print, as a venue to which anyone could obtain to at virtually any time of day.

delauers with papers at hand

Beside Oakland’s Tribune Tower, between 13th and 14th on Broadway, De Lauer’s Super Newsstand boasts a range of papers from round the world, and a wide selection of foreign magazines whose scope its patrons boasted did not exist west of Chicago.  Laid out in the sort of space usually reserved for a small supermarket or bookstore, its deep interior has the spaciousness of a sort of library and proud arcade of the quotidian, linking “your home town paper” to the world, back when newsprint linked the world.  And where else to buy books of superheroes than a super newsstand?

news marquis

Built beside the line of old streetcar lines and trolleys that formed an extended network across the city until 1958, De Lauer’s was a destination and a site of the distribution of news, whose papers from the Tribune Building next door spread across the East Bay–the dense business in the downtown area is evident in this Key Car Map of the old city center around the Broadway line and nearby Feeding Point by the Lake:

Oakland Key Car System

The site described as the best site of its sort west of Chicago was a survivor of downtown Oakland, whose own map had changed so much from the bustling department stores of the 1960s.  It was the site for comic books, foreign news, fashion magazines, and more, before gossip, cooking and craft magazines dominated the press.   The luminescent globe on its marquee carries the sense of global news coverage and the optimism of the early 1960s–before the 1968 riots or 1964 Free Speech Movement–that placed North America triumphantly stretched across and filling its parallels and meridians beneath the banner of the one-of-a-kind newsstand itself:  De Lauer’s Brings You the World, it still boasts, with a grandiosity of a world’s fair under a single roof, even in an age when newswires are readily accessed on the internet, and print seems a charmingly antiquated medium ill-fitted to the 24-hour news cycle.

But what about that map?  The globe on its axis is illuminated as something of a relic from an age of the Magazine Emporium; the marquee of the Super News Stand on 13th Street charmingly symbolizes the illusion of comprehensive coverage in an era of world news mediated by print, that occasioned the marked distortion of the prominence it gave North America:

De Lauer's

The prominence is more than a slight distortion of the prominence of America on the globe–

globe map

–but echoed the centrality of news that affirmed the connected place of America in the world, as well as the profusion of newspapers and sources in the United States.

The emblem of news funneling from all over the world into one newsstand was the premise not only of De Lauer’s, but of the world of print media that it nourished, now sadly an artifact quickly receded with the advance of on-line news, where we are less focussed on the global importance of American news, or, for that matter, the authority of one site to present world news.

cronkite

The ostensible focus on the world and actual depiction of North America on the marquee is not meant as a cartographical argument, but echoes the limited concern with other regions or territories in this uncredited map showing the “dependent territories” of the United States, from a classic 1904 manual of American history, which similarly foregrounds the United States as central to a global context and obscures other national boundaries in a uniform gray:

Uniteed States and Dependent Territories

But geographic knowledge was not the point of the De Lauer’s logo or marquee, so much as the comprehensiveness of their stock; De Lauer’s concentrated on all the nation’s newspapers, if it also expanded to include a range of those world-wide, in a gesture of cosmopolitanism of the city, and a complement to the grandeur of the Tribune tower, constructed in 1923 after Renaissance Venice’s bell tower of St. Mark’s–as UC Berkeley’s Campanile–as if to echo the grandiosity of claims to empire on the sea, and is inflected with a distinctive Moorish style.  But the grandiosity of the terra cotta apex of the Tribune Tower suggests the bold design of the storefronts of older buildings in Oakland’s once-grand downtown, several buildings of which are adorned by arte nouveau reliefs.

Tribune Tower

(The sense of Oakland as news entrepot was even more evident in the previous if less majestic tower on the building that resembled a transmission tower and recalled the early role of radio, long before broadcast news:

before

The subsequent expansion of the 20-story tower added to the building in 1923 reflected gave it a more elegant sense of keeping time for downtown.)

The newspaper store had grown rom a single outdoors newsstand, first moving into the Tribune Press building on 12th Street, the expanded 1301 Broadway store housed a wide range of papers and magazines, complemented by books, postcards, school supplies, maps, cigarettes, energy drinks and souvenirs, a repository of the news and arcade of daily communications from the newswires more than a 5 & dime store. De Lauer’s oddly became a bit of an intellectual hangout by the 1970s as a site of leftist magazines.  From the 1970s to 1980s, the illuminated marquee on Broadway was a sort of beacon of world-wide news sources and foreign magazines within Old Oakland’s downtown–where newspaper offices are still clustered in the city, encompassing the world’s news and leftist reviews, and, before the accessibility of world-wide news sources in online form, selling to a wide range of folks and providing a sense of open-ness which perhaps later led the store to permit homeless to camp out by its windows’ permanent 24-hour glow.

Newspaperman Charles DeLauer had worked tirelessly at the stand seven days a week until his tragic death at age 91–committed to providing out-of-town newspapers, racing forms, and foreign as well as national magazines twenty four hours a day, even weathering a declining market for news and the rise of cable news, and, back in the past, the rise of USA TODAY, which featured its own newspaper kiosks and dispensaries on American sidewalks, looking like a familiar television set as a trusted news source. If the market for many were killed by the internet, the building consolidated in downtown Oakland a family business that had once represented some forty newsstands and wagons across the Bay Area–a Bay Area far reduced in size from the present. It has long earned praise for surviving an era of news streams and digital feeds, as well as latching its revenues to glosser magazines and a source for hard-to-locate newspapers for migrants, although its now better known for illuminating the transsexual prostitutes who stand beneath the bright lights of a distinctive gleam, after the downtown neighborhood seems to shut down.

222751882_d43825178e_m

The landmark was rumored to be threatened with closure in 2008.  It was saved for a reprieve by an Oakland non-profit, but by he had reached his nineties the aging De Lauer was overwhelmed with fears that the time had come to close the curtains on a store from which over three hundred papers once circulated:  “This is a business that time is passing by because everybody has a computer,” he observed stoically, fearing the end of viability of his Catholic commitment to print.  As rumors circulating it was shuttered and provoked an outpour of support, just a month before the already retired De Lauer died of lymphoma and leukemia, the shop stocking 300 newspapers was bought by Citrine Advisors, and the store remains afloat, doing a brisk business of not only cigarettes but triangular cello-wrapped tuna fish sandwiches and soft drinks, energy drinks, adult magazines, paperbacks on world history–and range of local and state maps.

The wonderfully retro imprecise confident cartographical crest De Lauer’s long boasted illuminated Broadway twenty four hours a day, by the Civic Center BART, was never so much an actual map. It was an emblem that celebrated the promise of an all-embracing information center of the world before the world wide web, content stored not online but in the magazine racks of the old print arcade; the sign declares the United States to be the information center of the world, and the world as existing and refracted through the United States American Press Corps–contemporary to the Pan Am logo, the global map, designed just before the Cuban Missile Crisis, as an image of global dominion punctured by panic about Soviet missiles once about to be located on that island–an island notably absent from the map on the Super News Stand’s storefront.

The departure of that map, once so central to the store’s public image, in recent years has removed it to a lost Oakland, and left the place once adorned by its the map, now sadly stripped of marquee and only an abandoned wall–the store’s name appearing only as a decal on the window–

sripped-of-marquee

–reduced to geometric shapes, as if yet another casualty of the internet economy, which has transformed the storefront into only a Mecca for glossy magazines.

marqee-facade
It was, after all, only the range of magazines stocked gave a new sense to the global map that hangs outside the store.
It was long a hub from which newspapers once flowed through the East  Bay, and from which you can obtain all seven papers distributed by the Alameda News Group, as well as a range of out-of-town newspapers that are hard to obtain from the few vending boxes that still dot the streets.  The illuminated-globe logo of this 1960s emporium announced  a cross between a library and entrepot of world news, and the store, still surviving in the digital era, now survives by selling food and porn, like a steadfast guardian of the printed word and random convenience store.  It remained more than an icon, but an active center:  open in the 2010 riots at the same time that all other Oakland stores were boarded up, and doing  brisk business at the same time as the 2011 Occupy movement led to more shuttering of stores in July and August, when the store provided Occupy protesters with an unending supply of sandwiches, power drinks and cigarettes as they made headlines in the news.  Yet after years of running in the black, the store now run and by Fasil Lemma, who had long helped De Lauer keep the business afloat, with his partner Abdo Shrooh for over four years, is feared to have found a new tenant–and a 7-Eleven had already leased the site in 2011, although their permit was still awaiting pending city review.
neon

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Filed under History of Oakalnd, maps and advertising, News Maps, nostalgia and maps, Oakland

The Density and Habitability of Urban Space

How to map the compelling question of urban livability?

The journalist, blogger and economist Paul Krugman sought to qualify exactly which pressures drive the costs of urban housing recently in “Conscience of  a Liberal.”   Krugman qualified how population density effects urban housing prices, by noting the importance of mapping density in new ways.  Scarcity of space or land constraints might seem to shape prices from a point of view of supply and demand, but Krugman argued that we can attend to a new urban geography by looking at aggregate rather than standard population density alone:  in response to Noah Smith’s argument population density was less relevant than proximity to economic centers, he argued that the rise in the prices of extra-urban areas across America, and “hiving off” of exurban areas in such cities as Phoenix or Houston, where the relative scarcity of land does not determine prices and population density in cities’ centers can change independently from the prices on its peripheries.  Following  Richard Florida, the mapping of “population-weighted density” of census tracts that can capture the way that Americans tend to be moving toward less densely weighted areas of habitation, even if the population, nation-wide, is rising.  (While population rose 10% in the US 2000-2010, it also spread out across urban areas, which became less densely weighted over time.)

This new picture of the United States that has cultivated a “lifestyle” of a less dense mode of living seems to be based on the increased valorization of “inhabitability” as a metric for home ownership in ways that are for more widespread than the movement to the suburbs in the 1970s:  we are all moving toward less weighted centers of population.  The hiving off of new suburban regions on the map that Krugman describes have not only pumped-up real estate is a reaction, in part, of voting with one’s feet against the over-density of urban space.  To be sure, although New York City property values are high, if we all lived in at the amazing density of New York City, the entire 7 billion inhabitants of the globe could fit into a geographic space similar to Colorado–a state which currently has a low density in much of its expanse, but whose pockets of population density are interestingly clustered close to adjoining regions of medium density.

Colorado_population_map

One thinks of the much-circulated infographic, repopulating the world within the United States at the density of global metropoles, that suggests the exceeding density that urban cities have come to acquire, and the continued density that a city such as New York or Paris holds, in comparison to San Fransisco or Houston:

the-worlds-population-concentrated-small

The variation of cities suggests some reasons for, say, the greater “livability” of certain places, as well as the distinct nature of the urban experience in a broad selection of cities across the world.

So what does this “hiving off”–distinct from suburbanization, as it suggests an exurban experience even outside of cities with relatively low population density, entail?  The 1970s phenomenon of widespread suburbanization, allowed by the creation of major highways and arterials that fed by commutes to urban centers like New York or Los Angeles, which served as an endangering withdrawal from many public schools in cities and urban centers, reacted to the intense pace of urban growth and in-migration.  Rather than based on suburban homes, the hiving off of communities echoed a similar demand for “habitability,” but was now about creating new spaces where exurban communities could be created, and how we could use the concept of aggregate density to measure them.

Krugman offered a more specific updating of James Kunstler’s compelling critique of urban sprawl.  when it was launched in the 1993, Kunstler decried the unwarranted expansion of suburban housing and malls in a manifesto that responded to America of the late 1980s, The Geography of Nowhere, as “the greatest misallocation of resources the world has ever known”–what he called “dead spaces” that he saw as produced by the new attitudes to space that the automobile allowed, stripping vitality from urban centers, and creating the rise of quasi-spaces of strip malls as suburban heterotopia, displaced amusement parks of purchasing, lined with unproductive spaces of parking lots.  This partly architectural perversion of lived space, for Kunstler, led to an evacuation of vitality.  Krugman focusses rather on the place that “habitability” has gained among the economic forces that shape the prices of urban homes:  his argument begs to be mapped, or graphically modeled as well as understood by statistical indices.

Economic thought might be playing catch up with cartographical modeling here:  the critical mapping of density, after all, began right after the 1870 census, when Francis Amasa Walker, superintendent of the census, offered a new model for mapping the population density of the nation not according to county, or electoral districts, but according to the actual contours by which the citizenry inhabited space:  dividing each square mile into its relative density of inhabitants, Walker distinguished those zones with less than 5 inhabitants/sq. mile from those with 5-15, 15-40, 40-75, 75-125, and over 125 inhabitants/sq. mile in 1872, and from that year undertook a number of projects with congressional funding that mapped that distribution against wealth  per capita, to create the first map to record the distribution of wealth in the nation’s geographic space, revealing the dynamics of income distribution along spatial axes–in what Susan Schulten aptly described as the nation’s first example of an infographic.  (Never one to not consider the uses of mapping populations, he created similar maps for the US Congress that mapped population density against disease, illiteracy, public debt, ethnic groups, and the birthrate.)

Desnity of Population [of US]

Such a clear figuration of density does not correspond to actual urban areas, given the former density of rural populations–or have fine enough grain to distinguish property value in them.  But it roughly reflects property values in the nation.  But its generalization of density across each county provides a useful metric to understand variations in the generation of income, tax revenues, and birth rates.  While a model of density-independent population growth may be applicable to animals–plants, insects, mammals, and other seasonally reproducing species, population growth is rarely independent from density in human populations:  and with the increasing segregation of age cohorts in contemporary America–and the graying of some cities, and lower age-level of others, the metrics of growth are especially not uniform.

A more contemporary, but less statistically exacting, version of the infographic–stated in the bluntness of th modern infographic, might provide the following portrait of the relative density of individual states in the union:

sq kilometer

At a finer grain, we find a density map as the following, which provides far more refined detail:

specialreports_2edb.population density usa

And we can zoom in for density of regions, in ways that provide a clearer picture of the Southwestern states in terms of how they broke down by counties, over time, around metropoles:

popanim

To be fair, such a general level of density is not that relevant to the points that Krugman addresses in this specific issue, where he advocates the need for moving away from such generalizations of state-wide population densities, which are less meaningful for microeconomic questions, to examine the organization of the city as a unit in ways that will allow us to distinguish the changing character and economics of urban areas.  Krugman considers how changes in urban geography across the US reflect a new paradigm or model of population density, he asks us to consider new tools to map where ‘average’ Americans live by the “weighted” density of population distributions similar to the sort of maps Walker first innovated, and focus attention on the relative density of different zones not of the nation but individual urban areas.

He argued that overall ‘density’ means less today than ‘aggregate density‘ or the relative density of neighborhoods or sectors of new urban growth, and used this as a dynamic structure to  map population density according to weighted density to better  understand how the “average” American lives.   He does so to offer a critique or assessment of how his fellow-economist Bill McBride suggested attending to population density as they were correlated with housing costs his competing finance blog, Calculated Risk.  Does overall ‘density’ mean less as a measure of housing cost, Krugman wonders, than ‘aggregate density’ (or relative density) within selective regions of cities?

Like Paul Krugman, I would question the meaning of density as an index of value, but I would suggest we need to develop tools to understand the dynamics of density that involve a more fuzzy or less quantifiable variable of habitability, which I would argue if less easily quantifiable becomes more evident in maps.   And in the remainder of this post, I’d like to show how maps offer a measure of the fuzzy value of ‘habitability’ as well as its inverse, a perceptions of ‘uninhabitability,’ might be loosely understood as a way to map the increase or the radical diminishing of property values rather than density alone–or understandings of how density drives demand.

We might  use these maps to include other variables that shape density, and use maps  to do so.  The question of how we can try to map habitability, both in terms of access to open spaces, access to markets, and attractive environments, might create an even better index of value.  In San Francisco, for example, where property rates have risen dramatically in the past several years, and whose neighborhoods are confined to a small area of land:  Oakland is itself much less dense, if also confined by similar topographic limitations, notably the mountains:  but four of the ten most expensive housing markets in the country, including Santa Clara, San Mateo, San Francisco, and Marin, are in the Bay area, according to the recent March 2013 Report of the National Low Income Housing Coalition–and in the state that requires the greatest hourly wage to rent a two-bedroom apartment.

out of reach hourly wage per two bedroom

To be sure, the variations of real estate and population in a state like California are closely tied, given the huge variations of density across the state.

California_population_map

Yet the profound variations in the Bay Area, to take one example that is clotted with a red of high density, indicates profoundly striking differences in desirability:

sanmap1

And such dramatically differing variations across the region seem to be distorted by the demand for living near a not-densely populated area such as Silicon Valley, where real estate prices are suggested in this Kwelia map of 2012 which illustrates the relative geographic distribution according to median incomes–and suggests the very real distortions in real estate that can occur independently of actual or weighted density.

screen shot 2014-01-17 at 9-2.14.13 am.pngKwelia


Whereas the debate between the economists turned around the measure of density, it’s unclear why in an age of complex data visualization Krugman omits variables beyond density or to map determinants of urban spaces.  As an economist is wont, Krugman tends to confine himself to contrasting the relative value of alternative models of housing markets in urban space.  If we accept the model of scarcity as the motor of rapidly escalating real estate prices, it’s hard to explain the rise of attraction to less densely populated urban areas in urban areas, however, or the re-use of less inhabited areas as new areas of density.  If we might assume rising population means rising housing costs, as Smith has since noted in an update to his post, transit policy and presumably other public policy issues related to urban infrastructure can influence or shape housing costs–issues that introduce habitability as much as density as an influence on housing costs.

If we weigh models of density and populated-weighted density as models of urban environments, population-weighted density might help explain the social geography of urban spaces at a time when average American increasingly live in somewhat less dense neighborhood:  during the first decade of the century, population has broadly “spread out within metropolitan areas” and brought a “hiving off” from cities and led many cities to abandon the model of a vital urban core is often associated with  “quality of life.”   But the generic term does not reflect how urban space becomes mapped as habitable to different populations and demographics:  for just as cities are mapped in new ways by public projects of urban infrastructure, people map areas of settlement around the contours of urban space by preferring zones,  in turn attracting further interest in them.  An interesting liberal strain of response to Krugman’s post bemoans the end of Jane Jacob’s model of the city as constituted by local communities and the positive sense she gave density as causes of the community and vibrancy of individual neighborhoods, which she valued as the basis for urban life.  (Many also critiqued his argument as not acknowledging the economic models of different cities, from how the absence of economic vitality thins cities like Detroit to how hi-tech creates a new geography of work.)  But in mapping population-weighted density only in numeric terms, Krugman may ignore the appeal that the neighborhood–as much as geographic location–has on real estate, and the increasing flexibility with which a neighborhood–even of different but overlapping socioeconomic backgrounds among their residents–is redefined in particularly flexible ways.

Less attention is paid in both models  to the constraints by which people map their own living spaces, even when constrained by a city’s complex and often unfair geography.  Parts of urban environments are recast as more habitable based on different criteria, often in response to the made or ‘created’ geography of the city–or fail to be recast in habitable terms.  The growth of desirable land in Los Angeles responds to the constraints with which freeways have sculpted urban space, and indeed in ways bound by the 405 in a sort of deterministic way, and the creation of the former Cypress Freeway shaped–and in cases destroyed communities in Oakland, California.  Vice versa, patterns of urban settlement and housing prices helped the investment in an urban infrastructure as transportation in Boston or New York, because they led populations to map their lives in urban space.

Does density alone shape market prices?  In a sense, yes:  but density is a reflection of deeper indices that one might better term ‘habitability’ given their manifold causes and considerable variations.  Changes in workplace practices and locations encourage a shifting relation to the urban space, as more people work on-line, of course, and live and work in isolated archipelagos around cities:  the vitality of neighborhoods that Jacobs celebrated has become far less important as a unit of economic meaning with increased geographic mobility and more dispersive work environments, including telecommuting. As a result, the framing of a debate between population-weighted density or the availability of “space” as determining land value omits the notions of habitability shape urban space: rising land prices in LA, for example, reflect the shifting attitudes to space created by a system of freeways that shaped land values–rather than scarcity–and defined a map of urban settlement outside corridors of transport that, more than mountains, shape Los Angeles neighborhoods.

This reflects the desire for a way to maps how areas become understood as habitable:  and in Oakland, where property values have risen not only in response to the rising rents in SF, but as the city has been defining new notions of habitability by restaurants, urban gardens, and public spaces like farmers’ markets.  By trying to identify a model for urban settlement, geography of population density becomes a stick of measurement rather than the remaking of urban spaces:  multiple complex constraints on the habitability of urban environments limit the development of urban land values.  In  the recent recouping of housing prices in the Bay Area, for example, areas of recent price increases were mapped based on data from Zillow.com–and metadata from Google Maps–to find a considerable recuperation of costs in San Francisco and Fremont alike, despite their quite different density, and a mild recuperation in many of the low-density areas of Berkeley and Oakland, as is rendered evident in the regions of light rose coloration below.

 

Bay Area Property Map

Conversely, if much of Richmond, Brentwood, Antioch, Union City and Hayward remain selling at a far lower price than in the prior boom, many Oakland properties sell at a brisk price, and hi-tech areas like Mountain View–and some areas near Walnut Creek–are positively booming.  To some extent this has to do with access to economic centers:  the less populated but also less desired and more removed Daly City is nowhere near recovering its boom prices, while Mountain View has surpassed boom prices.  But the widespread recovery speaks to issues of habitability, as much as density.

As a counterfactual, let’s look at some actual urban environments where the question of habitability responded to a striking lack of investment in creating a habitable urban space with adequate infrastructure or access to green space–one crucial measure of habitability.  Consider, for example, the considerable distances at which less valuable property lie from green spaces or urban parks in Los Angeles, creating an endemic that led the “LA Streets” Blog Santa to bring the city more green spaces last Christmas.  (African American neighborhoods enjoy .8 acres per thousand people, in contrast to the recommended 10 acres per thousand inhabitants, or the median 6.8 in high density American cities.)  Pink regions here map a distance from park exceeding the LA average, most of which are concentrated away from the shoreline or surrounding national forest:

Access to Parks in Los Angeles

 

The value of land responds to how we map urban spaces as habitable often shapes property values, as much as the questions of the availability of space. Something like the new Stamen map that focusses on the readability of mapped space by watercolor tiles, pioneered by Zach Watson, provides a new resource to look at urban space to analyze questions of habitability without being distracted by data overload, in what was intended as a visually simpler and pleasurable alternative to the tedium of Google Maps, provides a manner to differentiate neighborhoods in San Francisco–albeit a region whose high real estate prices don’t need much explaining:

 

SF Greenspace Stamen

 

Krugman provoked an interesting comment that advances in GIS could provide new tools to include aggregate densities in urban spaces.  Indeed, working with the above Stamen map, or with a time-lapse model of aggregation might provide tools to show the shifts in how space became ‘habitable’ or worthy of inhabitation.  These tools offer the ability to map a new geography of work:  one could model of the shifts in economic redistribution of wealth in urban space, or relative distance of residents to workspace, that might map the relation of neighborhoods to space beyond their relative income or real estate costs.

Flexible GIS models might also help reveal the different maps people create within a city as an environment in powerful ways.  In juxtaposing the alternatives between two models of urban life–the metric of population growth, which  creates competition for limited resources of land in a somewhat Malthusian fashion, or population density, or urban settlement informed by how agglomerations understood in terms of population-weighted density shape demand in extra-urban spaces or urban peripheries for land that changes land prices–the mutable map of the urban fabric is either dramatically oversimplified or ignored.   When land is constrained, the first train of thought goes, rising populations increase the price of land faster than inflation; the questions of how people map land as habitable–and desirable–more informs the second proposition, pointing to the rise of “edge-cities” on extra-urban space that become desired centers of population.

That choice between population and weighted density seems a bit artificial,  because both are abstracted from how people make concepts of neighborhoods out of open space–by mapping it as their own, or by not being able to do so.  Today, New York has of course become the model of a high “population-weighted density” city, based on the average land density of its inhabitants, or the relative density of its populated areas.   But whereas in the 1970s suburbia gained value in the 1970s around greater New York, leading them to abandon a city that became defined as less “habitable,” and to define preserves away from commercial activity, we now value habitability as a relation to a neighborhood, or something like one.

The remapping of the urban core as economically vital paralleled a shift in the understanding of its “inhabitability”– mapping not only its density, but what makes it conducive to habitation or less appealing as a living space.  Could we map the shifts in aggregate population density to investigate patterns of land value, to examine the rise of prices in New York and in regions of uneven density of population spread out within large cities?  One point here would be to chart the spaces made and created in individual cities over time that informed property prices by creating new models of the habitability of the same spaces and of urban life.   To do so, I’ll use maps to illuminate shifting attitudes to space.

Before considering urban geographies, it’s interesting to map a distribution of the predominance of bars to grocery stores in a cute map that I can’t resist–with surprising concentration, the number of bars exceeded grocery stores in urban areas clustered in the Midwest and parts of New England, and areas of the plain states and spots of the Southwest.  It would be interesting to pursue this map into urban areas–does the prevalence of bars over grocery stores suggest a greater role in serving neighborhoods, or a preference for the social function that bars serve in specific urban or rural regions?

Grocery Stores v. Bars

The map may tell us about a culture of sociability–in the colder midwestern north, and New England, bars are important sites of aggregation.  The map speaks about how folks create habitability in urban space in response to different constraints.  We can use this model, more importantly, and this will be the end of the post, to expand the criteria by which we look at urban spaces beyond density that can help raise new questions about the relationships between property value and urban milieu.

Others might reveal the increased livability of different spaces within the city, as this map of the green spaces in New York City, perhaps the city that possesses the densest urban core, in ways that map urban resettlement outside the region of its greatest densities by the foundation of community gardens and urban agriculture, discussed in an earlier post, which notes those places that accept volunteers by blue dots:

 

Community Gardens NYC region

 

The map reveals not only an expanding urban green-space, but the re-envisioning of densely occupied areas as of more livable urban spaces, in ways that mapping population density or aggregate density alone don’t suggest.

Still other maps of urban environments reveal the constraints on the very maps we make of urban space that are so central to housing prices–a process perhaps missing from Krugman’s discussion of two attitudes to the analysis of land-value.    Maps are a central tools of real estate to attract attention to  property and shape urban space into neighborhoods, and fit notions of habitability into existing spaces.  Many structures define these spaces of habitability, not necessarily understood in terms of weighted density alone.  Los Angeles is not, as Krugman’s piece suggests,  “hemmed in” by mountains that constrain city’s sprawl; its low density seems to run out to the Valleys, as freeways define the urban space and create  anew map of property values and more habitable and valuable land.  It almost seems land properties rise in their remove from the freeway, where the relation of land to freeway is more easily mapped, much as much of the value of land in Santa Monica seems to recede in value from the Pacific. Freeways or overpasses divide urban space and help structure maps of habitability; freeways of easy commute may, conversely, increase the value of hived off aggregations of “edge” cities, by improving connectedness to other environments.

We can map moreover habitability in different ways.  Cities like Oakland CA offer a sort of counter-example of a space where habitability set off a rapid rise of real estate values and the price of land:  there is no clear confine to urban space, but the spread of restaurants, green spaces, farmers’ markets, urban farms, and open public spaces fashioned a new notion of the inhabitability of distinct areas of its urban space in successive districts, earlier shunned, even when considerable crime continues to plague nearby parts of the city and the city hears the screaming sirens of police racing to the victim or scene of a homicide.  (If some would say real estate prices derive from the flight from the property values of San Francisco, that only seems to be the icing on the cake.)

The value of land is not a simple calculus of limited supply, but of the mapping of urban space–first taken up by real estate agents who sculpted Oakland’s neighborhoods, but informed first by a shifting sense of the habitability of the land, whether in the middle of an old port-city or the more trendy area of the Temescal.  Demographics prefer different models of habitability; the age of the population of Oakland seems exceptionally low, for example, as they might first define the city as more habitable.  The shift of populations toward less densely settled urban areas reflects this shift in how we have come to map habitability, one might say, even if aggregates of population density reflect land value; without numerical data to show for it, I  offer that the value of land reflects the relative scarcity of habitable areas in urban space, but also shifts as notions of habitability emerge.  In New York, the premium on habitability drives the growth of new neighborhoods, from the allure of Soho or the East Village to Brooklyn Heights as more habitable than more crowded urban environments.  Imaginative ways to map public spaces create habitability in urban regions; the lack of parks in Los Angeles fuels a somewhat undifferentiated urban expansion and settlement.

But there are huge obstacles to mapping the habitability of space in the very regions and cities that habitability might be encouraged, as we find habitability to become, in much of California, the preserve of the wealthier few, and urban spaces constrained by barriers to their physical improvement.  Take a simple map of the distribution of parks in the state, and reveals radical differences between the parks/inhabitants: the polemic map ties park-poor areas to income, contrasting darker greens to show greater availability of acreage/thousand inhabitants in the San Francisco than Los Angeles areas:

 

map-save-state-parks-for-all-Park-Income-Poor3-790x1023

 

Income variations allow the possibility of a flexible and inventive relation to maps of habitable space–as the clumping together in aggregates or scarcity of desired urban lands reveals.   As we become more movable in our work, and develop a more flexible notion to workspace, this shifts the relations of local routines of personal and work space, and there is considerable choice about the spaces where we live:  workspace is less dense in different cities, to be sure, as silicon valley or other IT belts like the Research Triangle around Durham NC, but the premium on the flexibility of defining one’s own model of habitability seems to determine the new urban geography Krugman describes.  Further anecdotal evidence, beyond the United States but in North America, might point to the shifting geography in urban Ottawa, where the residential Glebe was distinguished by rising residential real estate.   Within the shifting infrastructural map of the city, one maps one’s own personal space.  Indeed, the bizarre settling of San Francisco’s sky-rocketing real estate prices is partly driven by the arrival of highly paid executives working in Silicon Valley, shuttled to their work in select buses whose routes allow them to select an alternative to public transit, as discussed in an earlier post.  The paths of flights into San Diego, to use another example, skirt more select residential areas like Mission Bay, create a zone marred by the rumble and whine of overhead airplanes.  And the organization of urban space no longer reflects how we map and understand urban geographies as habitable–or come to dismiss them as simply uninhabitable and worth less.

Only by balancing what maps tell us about how an urban region gains value for its habitability can we effectively broaden the discussion and use maps to measure inhabitability against degrees of uninhabitability and will we be able to extend the critical evaluation of value beyond questions of supply and demand.

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Filed under human geography, infographic, mapping density, Mapping Park Poor Neighborhoods, Oakland CA, relative density, urban geography, urban growth, Urban Livability