Tag Archives: social distancing

Metageographic Pavement

Seeking direction in the coronavirus pandemic, isolated amidst escalating anxieties, increased vulnerability to a virus crossing borders brought a vulnerability our infrastructures seemed more than ever to be unable to sustain. The danger of introspection was tempered by alarm, as a shock at the unaccustomed sense of the evanescence made far less remote stories of plagues, as we turned to their pasts to process the new normal of pandemic life. But as we could only stare, open-mouthed, at the visualizations of infection and mortality rates, trying to grasp the scale of death and their rate of growth, contemplating what it meant to “flatten the curve,” we were all too often gawking as spectator of the dashboards of exponentially expanding cases, loosing our purchase or indeed stability.

As much as I wanted to critique the present, the amount of information–and lack of it–overwhelmed. Was one able to adopt a clear critical stance? The absence of walking on the streets seemed a zen-like reprieve from online stress, there were far fewer aperçus of the urban to discover in questing about with one’s eyes alert to the surroundings, but the sidewalk stamps seemed to gain a weight I’d hardly noticed in the past, as if marks of another, removed, maybe more harmonious time. If the figure of the flâneur is associated with a passionate connoisseur of the bustle of urban life, the relative emptiness of Berkeley CA became a space of which I was keenly aware not because of the fabric of the city or alienation of capitalism, but the relation that I had to the sidewalks beneath my feet, and the encoding of telegraphic scripts they offered in the worn cement of another time of over a century ago, as the strikes from 1918, 1906 and 1904 suggested a town only emerging from the conventions of real estate and private residences that now fill the streets of Berkeley today, as signs of an early form of settlement.

As I ventured outdoors on long walks, there was a sense of ecstasy of contact less with the bustle of inhabited spaces, than their increasingly resonant echoes of pasts. The stamps stood for a new sort of contact with urban space, that almost made me stop in puzzlement and take me out of the present-day. This seemed a sort of urban archeology of the everyday, encountering what might be a sort of architecture at my feet. On these walks, perhaps, I was becoming a botanist of the pavement, to paraphrase Walter Benjamin, in periods when I was offline, trying to unpack the signs sidewalk stamps offered with some degree of sophistication to situate myself in new surroundings before the wars of the twentieth century. While I’d never thought much about Berkeley or California in concrete terms before the 1920s, the stamps of pre-war Berkeley traced a settlement of urban space with a tactile nature–and the slip of that inverted “N” in stamps of the Oakland Paving Co, an accident of setting letters, welcome as an ability to touch the past, as if conscious of a contingent and maybe more evanescent present.

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Oakland Paving Co, 1904/Wilbury St, Berkeley CA
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F. E. Nelson, 1910/Bateman Street, Berkeley CA

The sudden sense of connoisseurship of the pressed pavement seemed an earlier letterpress era of print, a sense of legibility far easier to decode than viral transmission, mutation, and decoding genomes, but also a removal from the present. As I was starting to find my footing to walk in these almost abandoned streets, the dissociative rhythm of finding markers from an earlier time seemed a way to escape the present and its anxieites. I started to find a sense of a lost order that seemed to be traced on the pavement beneath my feet. The streets abandoned, names started to seem lists, or even doubled as a set of gravestones, as if infected by the growing sense of mortality as I felt its weirdly imposing effects. I spend a huge amount of time, walking, as if emptying my mind, facing the stoic silence of stamps set into those stony surfaces, as welcome recognizable touchstones. Perhaps they offered antiquarian busywork, as if cataloguing signs of time past kept at bay the uncomfortable sense of pausing any natural rhythm of the day, or that the “oceanic” feeling of Sigmund Freud cast as a glimpse of eternity, or oneness with the world, seemed sacrificed or obscured. The improbable survival of those stamps were a reminder of that past, or maybe a substrate of that loss.

At the time, with little script on hand, and an illusory sense of the stoppage of time dominant in my conscious, the sidewalk markers of old and long-dead pavers seemed to speak to me. Amidst the tally of a surrogate for psychic stability of sorts amidst increased step-counts and improvised destinations of an oddly existential air, I was looking for a path for stability and seeking distance on the pandemic in the century-old stamps set in the concrete pavement like early claims of private property. These stamps, isolated fragments not worn by footsteps of pedestrians or lost to time, seemed in their survival way stations that were guides to a lost trail of the built residences in the East Bay by resourceful men, suddenly invested with a weird heroism I’d been loath to attribute as crafting the stability of a past geography of early twentieth urbanization and public space, even as our social fabric had tragically frayed. These unknown men who left definite traces in the sidewalk stamps of what now seems modesty–Blake & Bilger Company, founders of the Oakland Paving Co.; J Catucci, Gen[eral] Con[tractor]; Spring Construction Co.; C. Burnham–seemed like heroes of the forging of an earlier city, even if it was more of an extra-urban enclave. Unlike the screaming outside and overbold pronouncements, the reticence of the geometric sigla pressed into concrete were the safe spaces in a pandemic filled with disinformation and dread. As each inch of the public sphere was filled with cautions or false security, the hidden trail was a weird way of giving some purpose to long walks in the early morning and late afternoon.

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The forgotten names on sidewalks of these old engineers of the city not only hearkened a sense of modernity, not yet obscured by the shuffle of feet and still peeking over a century of pedestrian traffic, time-stamped with barely legible dates like 1908, 1904, 1906, or 1912, but exultant markers of the achievement of modernity: they had paved the ancestral Ohlone lands for private residence, and the boosterish hiving off of private residences, just before but no doubt stimulated by the great quake across the bay–when the twenty foot movement of one tectonic plate sent so many suddenly homeless fleeing San Francisco seeking temporary security in the old East Bay, increasingly consumed by real estate markets of time past. I was, of. course, retreating from the datascreens of mortality and hospitalization, of COVID infections and of excess mortality, finding a more tactile antiquarianism in the insignia and escutcheons of an earlier era that were basically old advertisements for the benefits of solid, level paving, whose date maybe was primarily an indicator of how long they would endured. And it was that endurance that appealed to me in an age of suddenly and unexpectedly heightened awareness of all of our contingency.

J. A. Marshall, undated stamp at Whitham House (1899), 2198 Blake St., also used by Marshal in 1899

The stamps of pavers was in a way a placement of “Berkeley” on the map, 1899-1918. If 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’s Journal of a Plague Year, Manzoni’s The Betrothed, or Camus’ The Plague. (A copy of the latter arrived for my daughter by post, as if to keep her up with the latest existential quandaries, although it remained unread.) The texts framed in the ground, set like time capsules of a past century, seemed to provide a weirdly comforting grounding–if not orientation–as if they became the deep history of place against our quandary. Indeed, the paths that I seemed to be tracing or finding of the paving of sidewalks outside of single-family homes seemed to be a path-finding, of sorts, to the landscape of private property by which the East Bay landscape is now predominantly defined. What more apt way to witness the pandemic unfold?

What could one read effectively, anyways? As we isolated in place, I tended came to consult the inscriptions stamped on the pavement by contractors, as if they were the neighborhood elders. For in the moments of small excursions by foot, and in walking increasingly only on foot, despite diminished pedestrian encounters, I looked for bearings from epidemiological disorientation in the sense of deep time that the sidewalk stamps of my Berkeley neighborhood offered, as if to gain from the a sort of psychic stability. The discovery one day of a 1912 stamp set twice in the concrete before a house that did not look nearly that old began a search to escape to the traces of a past world on the Berkeley-Oakland border. Walking more widely with less in mind than other periods, I began to read these imprints as transactional sites of memories, on the pavement I daily walked up to where Claremont Avenue bound from 1905 a subdivision promising residents “sunshine and hills” in single family residences. The close cousin of the imprint framed a trans-dimensional memory of place, history, and housing that seemed to pop into relief on relatively empty Oakland streets. And when I found, nearby, a set of stamps from 1904 from the same company, the sense of imagining the pouring of the very pavements I was walking, before and after the anxiety of the earthquake and other disruptions, seemed some solace.

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The Oakland Paving Company, 1911/Prince St., Berkeley, CA
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Oakland Paving Company, 1904/2619 Newbury St., Berkeley CA

I came to think of the imprints pavers had stamped on the ground as a surviving unnoticed network, a reassuring social network I could help rise from the dead to reconstruct traces of an imagined past village community, when concrete was mined from Oakland, Albany, and Emeryville quarries. On walks, I became the imagined intermediary of a past I had not noticed, communing silently with men like Blake & Bilger, Frank Salamid, the Schnoor Bros. (or their progenitor, Paul, who showed up as early as 1908) and even the Oakland Pavement Co. as I traced the local genealogies on what must have been the newly modern form of paved sidewalks that were a feature of what had emerged soon after the San Francisco Earthquake of 1906 as a site of single family residences, and a refuge, in those days, from fears of tremors. The comforting company of these inscriptions that from an earlier era, predating World War I or World War II, and the catastrophes of the twentieth century, seemed a perfectly available form of escapism, at first, to navigate the world that was until recently uncomfortably crowded by the false fraternity of Tech. Bros poaching local real estate–and raising its prices–from Silicon Valley.

Amidst the challenges faced by the nation, amidst the rising specter of increasingly apparent deep-set inequalities, disparities, and deficits of public health, I fancied to be able to uncover an old 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. The imprints on local sidewalks gained an increased interface that I’d rarely felt, even after living in North Oakland and Berkeley for far over twenty-five years, as the names of long passed contractors, cement pavers, and construction firms appeared as offering evidence of a sort of urban infrastructure, revealing a lot about place and the longstanding status of the single-family residences in my neighborhood; reading the scattering of cement inscriptions excavating a sense of place by sidewalk engineers, tracing a deep archeology of place that was shaped by real estate markets, social inequalities, and a half-way house of urbanization in the early days of the expansion of the East Bay to which I retreated readily, as if reading signs from what seemed the first pavers of the ground.

The earliest “strikes” dated were from over a century and a quarter ago–1899 or 1905, and even a 1901 and 1904–the majority charted the expansion of the city, and the shifting cast of characters who framed driveways, pavement, and on the city streets, offering a distraction from that peeled me from confusion or fears of contraction of the virus. Moving up the street on which I live, confined to the 2000’s blocks, I started reading the ground as a remove from the global, even imagining a lost village community of the time when mining pavement came from local quarries, engineers had names, that fictionally rooted me in ways that seemed welcome. If in Graduate School as an early modern historian, we’d joked that we were spending summers on researching the unexplored archives of early modern Oakland and its relation to the Mediterranean economy, riffing on the great French historian Fernand Braudel’s insistence to expand n the perspectives on historical time, space, and even periodization or events, it seemed that traces of early modern Oakland lay in the cracked pavement at my feet, a neglected history of neglected records as deep as they were confine to the superficial, at my feet, tracing mobility patterns in Oakland and Berkeley in a profound way that one could tease out to read the city in concrete, even as the raging pandemic traversed borders and challenged medical science.

As I walked to coffee and manufactured errands, taking stock of the empty streets, the individual imprints left by pavers from between the 1906 earthquake and the Great War seemed a form of public memory. Perhaps there was a greater sensitivity to them to champion as we were debating memory as a nation, if at a far less local scale. The stamps set in concrete sidewalks near by house staked a claim for permanence, before the Great War, and before the ‘Spanish’ Flu raged, trumpeting with an optimism the newly constructed lands of a built East Bay.

The sidewalks of sold lots of what were once indigenous lands staked a claim as a new part of the city, expanded be the entry of folks from the city across the bay, but also an entitlement of lots for new housing–literally, titles–that the real estate corporations and construction firms built, a sense of a signature on the ground that was asserting a new form of mapping residential neighborhoods. And taking these imprints, as the 1911 one I came across near my house, invitations to think about time, and about the new contours of place, I came to think of them as a secret sort of map, very much imbued with the materiality of a receded past that still informed the neighborhoods, the troweling of sidewalk lain over a century ago suddenly seeming both an optimistic assertion of permanence and a melancholy record of the past, when the landscape was redefined by concrete resurfacing. But these were heralds of the single-family residence, testimony to early work paving the sidewalks or driveways of individual lots, distant echoes of that gospel of propertied American individualism, that seems to have hurt us so in dealing with the pandemic as a problem of public health, or occasion to invest in public health policy.

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.

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 still felt on the edges of a real estate market of extreme gentrification. The evidence of earlier construction firms who seized once indigenous lands was less evident as a pedestrian while sheltering in place in Berkeley, CA, than the materiality of these signs perhaps monitory and perhaps memorializing, but literally concrete. The crisp lettering left by the Spring Construction Co. on Regent Street and Benvenue Street on Berkeley’s southern border was spied by Lincoln Cushing on a schoolyard in Albany, without a date, and far crisper capitols.

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, a pandemic novel Jim Shepherd was writing as the COVID-19 outbreak occurred in Wuhan, whose ominous title was “designating for anyone who might have missed it by this point by this point that a global pandemic was officially underway.” The weird rapidity of the transport of that RNA strand that so readily replicated in human bodies by zoonotic transmission traced and mapped from the global wildlife trade. The dry imprints of once wet cement stamped as evidence of an earlier sense of place, and somehow seemed to speak to the tangibility of an earlier era, which I read them as if from the other side of a temporal divide.

In the piercing sunlight of several days when I was most likely to walk, the intriguing nature of the stamps took me to a present while the virus was taking us all over the world. Shepherd was in the course of telling a global story in compelling local detail as 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. The toll was 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 a chilling novel that aimed to point up the real fears of a pandemic suddenly unfolding in real time around him, as if the world had caught up with the fictive world he was writing, and a Moebius strip was complete.

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. But the company that had sent its mark, complete with inverted N’s, from at least 1904 offered evidence of a

2201 Woolsey Street, Berkeley CA
2394-96 Ellsworth Street/Berkeley CA

The pavers’ strikes popped from the pavement as discoveries of surviving snapshots of the residential expansion that escalated in the East Bay accelerated 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 St. 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 Street; 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 Street., 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. Seeking something far more fixed on which to focus than the rising rates of infection whose statistics seemed both the focus of much news reporting–if suspect as incomplete–I searched for fixed meaning about the local in these stamps, that seemed to fix a map of urbanization. And the old stamps in the neighborhood I lived from 1908 or 1912 began to trace a web of their own of urban paving, as I spied a 1901 stamp–suspiciously early?–off of Telegraph Avenue for the Oakland Paving Co., or followed the family histories contained in the stamp of Paul Schnoor’s early 1908 stamps to the expansion before the Great War of the new firm Schnoor and Son on a Rockridge driveway, cast in concrete, in 1912-13, and the prolific heirs of the Schnoor Bros. across much of Oakland from the 1920s to 1930s, a boom era of paving by all likelihood and surviving evidence on the sidewalks on which I started to daily walk.

This was a way of re-navigating my neighborhood, at a remove from the present, contemplating a deep history when we were in overdrive processing web-maps of the diffusion of the virus we were loath to call a pandemic, and as human-to-human transmission of the disease was confirmed and teh CDC warned us that “disruption to everyday life may be severe,” in mid-February, in what would seemed one of the understatements of the millennium. Was this a new wartime, as the global pandemic was declared by March, 2020, with its echoes of a global war? Critic 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 surprise, meeting a search for sold testimonies in concrete form, as it were. It elevated wanderings as 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.

I half-humorously fantasized that I was remapping space–that the odd exercise in antiquarianism on which I was thrown back, my daily work rhythm stopped, was a tiny effort to rectify inequality, a micro-reparation of 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–the imprint of “Burnham,” or shortly after the Great Fire and Earthquake of 1906, met outmigration from San Francisco across the Bay, was registered by the surviving names of pavers, sharing the name of a contemporary city planner, Daniel Burnham, who worked in San Francisco and others, as the Spring Construction Co, who helped create local urban 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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Distance Learning, Disrupted Learning & Social Eruptions

On a morning walk, my mind turning to Dr. Anthony Fauci’s injunction to exercise, I daily move between the many signs posted outside houses in my neighborhood congratulating graduates of the Berkeley CA public high school my daughter attends or Oakland’s School of the Arts and Tech, ending among million dollar homes sporting yard signs congratulating graduates of elite private schools. This is America, and not uncommon. The path I take traces yawning shifting divides of public schooling across America in the most blasé of ways. The uneven distribution of different schools barely conceals the deep divisions between schools and families seems to widen in terrifying ways as the coronavirus pandemic continues to ravage the nation. While we are shocked to learn that Donald Trump delayed informing the nation about coronavirus not to panicked markets, the lack of school policies stood only to magnify existing fracture lines: for the failure to provide any overarching vision left school districts with the football as decision makers they are unequipped to assess of learning requirements in remote settings of learning, and to bear the weight of difficulties in shaping remote learning programs without training.

Ill-equipped boards are asked to struggle in high pressure situations with finding ways of engaging students increasingly removed from one another or instructional settings. Increasingly, states are offering regional guidelines, but the absence of a national policy may rupture public trust with the very schools on which the nation most depends, now treated as swimming in a laissez-faire sea without guidesposts in an already disrupted educational setting, raising questions of graduations, requirements, baselines of school performance, or even study habits and the value of coursework and requirements for diplomas or graduation, as the educational market long an unqualified good in America stands to erode.

But if this might have been an opportunity for collective response, we have no evidence of any preparation to supplement what school networks offer, as if those who can afford the private tutors, off-site education, and private educational services are alone provided with continuing education, as other scramble to make up the gaps school closures create. Unprepared with a broader educational strategy in the midsized of a global pandemic, we have all in essence “left the library” of schools, pausing education or switching the nation onto a disembodied experience, that makes the old physical globes of schoolroom study seem emblems of a far less complicated past, when global topographies lay undisturbed beside books in cozy nooks, waiting, as it were, for new fingers to turn it with curiosity, while more and more schools are compelled to remain on the remote learning platforms to which they gradually shifted en masse over the month of March, 2020.

U.S. News & World Report/Bret Zeigler
Confirmed COVID-19 Cases, March 2020

The status of education–and of school closures and now school reopening–became a sort of political football. Despite the readiness of a switch to remote learning and online platforms of education, school closures echoed a cartography of abandonment, in unforgivable ways: if closures were born of necessity, and disorientation before the pandemic’s spread. And the levels of insecurity that have been fostered in the desire for mitigation may remind us that the problem of COVID-19 has been a crisis of public education, as much as a lack of frontline workers’ protective equipment–PPE–or adequate testing.

To be sure, the many functions that schools now provide across the social spectrum of the United States–meeting nutritive needs; offering social and emotional support and providing models outside the family for structuring time; minimal levels of health services–go far beyond being quantified by educational standards: by a magic trick of tests and quantification, government may have reduced education to metrics that erased their value as sites of community from the Bush administration, and led them to be sacrificed with deeper costs than many have registered. Without metric to tally schools’ dividends to students and communities, we omit the crucial educational role of instructing about coronavirus comportments–from regular hand washing to social distancing to mask-wearing, to bridge some of the enduring divides that have endured in the nation, with coastal “elites” donning masks more than the “heartland” of an expansive non-urbanized midwest.

Mapbox from Dynata Data/Upshot, New York Times July 17, 2020 (link to interactive map)

Is not the deep and tragic failure to not “educate” the nation to mask-wearing, sustained since the first cases of the coronavirus reached our shores, suggested the only the initial hot-spots where infections ravaged communities in the New York tristate area, Seattle, the Imperial Valley and coastal California, and central Texas are sites of mask-wearing, with Chicago, Detroit, Denver, the southwestern border and coastal southern Florida and Tallahassee. Only a fifth of the time or less were all five people who might meet at a large part of the nation likely to be wearing protective masks.

Why is such a paucity of mask-wearing continuing save an absence of public health education? There is a predictable if terrifying congruence with areas that were themselves, by the proxy of underserved medical communities Mitchell Thornson mapped, also by a Mapbox distribution of commute-based health centers, rather than by counties, to suggest the sites most vulnerable to disasters such as viral infections: even if the promise of a complete count of infections recedes, the inhabitants of some 300 counties underserved by federal health services suggests fault lines of future sites of vulnerability, that may accentuate with continued school closures.

Mitchell Thorson, clinics in counties medically underserved and vulnerable to disasters. featured in USA Today, March 31, 2020

These steep inequalities of health care suggested a very broad difference in those able to weather and sustain COVID-19, to which the Trump administration seemed blind. School closures created insecurities for American families was perhaps not different from globally, but they lacked any support network: social support had withdrawn to schools in the United States more than other nations. The lack of any narrative of the sudden closures, and interruption of human contact and resources that followed, were deeply disorienting. And the lack of oversight from a government that one expected, perhaps with little grounds, to provide a sense of purpose and oversight in an unprecedented health crisis was, unbelievably, punted to the states, and from the states to local school boards, utterly unprepared to cope or plan–as admittedly, even are many medical specialists and health professionals–with the scale of a pandemic.

It seemed like a charade of government effectiveness; Secretary DeVos shifted from leniency, lack of coordination, to steadfastness concealing unprecedented circumstances. And the recent possibility that private schools and sites of instruction will be allowed to open their doors, while poorly funded public schools serving adjoining communities, if sometimes distinct demographics: whereas public schools that serve up to 90% of American children–just short of 51 million (50.8) by federal projections–open for restricted hours if at all, private schools possess the needed funding for on-staff epidemiologists, thermal scanners, and additional teachers–as well as often enjoying more space.

The Emoji Icon Index tells at that on Instagram, the story of a skyrocketing use of the  😷 emoji from early March, as the. Face-with-Medical-Mask rose in use in parallel to the icon of the virus, but a plan for schools, quickly shuttered in China, was not imagined, as wishful thinking prevailed.

While our nation is prepared to react to the novel coronavirus by high-level cabinet meetings to bail out airlines after summoning executives or the bail out of banks, school are evidently far lower down the list. If Donald Trump prioritized cabinet-level meetings on bailing out the airline industries to ensure the Dept. of Treasury provided passenger airlines $25 billion, cargo haulers $4 billion, airports $10 billion and airline contractors $3 billion as industry lobbyists demanded to recognize a 95% reduction of passengers in response to the epidemic, saw meeting with executives to work out that deal worth the time of health officers and coronavirus response team–

–while he saw no similar body of school executives with whom he might meet in one room around a glistening desk with nametags, mugs of coffee and glasses of water. A past President of the P.T.A. of an Alameda CA public elementary school was familiar with reduced funding of California’s public schools since rollbacks on property taxes, smarted at the clear contrast of inability to prioritize public schooling as part of our national infrastructure. Is it not most probable that the very corporate structure of the airline industry provides a more familiar set of faces to interact earning high incomes, unlike the leaders of the dispersed structure of public schools, or community voices, that Trump is so much more apt to dismiss and neglect?

Or is it that the nation is ready to sacrifice the public schools that are less likely to have the funding, save in wealthier districts in Durham, NC or Charlottesville, VA, echoing lines of a deep class divide? Not only were private schools prepared to devote attention and benefited from technological resources to transition to online platforms in the Spring, but are able to use larger buildings and reduced class sizes to benefit the children who attend them, while the aging ventilations systems of older buildings of public schools lie on the other side of a technological divide that plagues the nation.

To be sure, there are deep discrepancies–informing the Mapbox Upshot map, of which one might be rightly suspicious given the potentially unsound sampling practices based on the interviews conducted by Dynata, both in the United States and globally,  based on 250,000 survey responses between July 2 and July 14; the surveys administered by a firm boasting to provide businesses with a sense of global trends of consumption able to reorient businesses and advertisers to “re-opening,” but while showing vast expanses with relatively lower incidence of a group of five wearing masks–

–fails to acknowledge a rift among state governors who recommend masks, rather than require mask-wearing–or the considerable role that mayors have consistently played in advocating mask-wearing, if they often appear over-ruled by governors who have been filling the absence of federal policy: the looses of “recommendations” in Iowa, Wisconsin, Missouri, and Oklahoma, Kansas and the Nebraskas meant that only in some cities, where mayors had advised protective measures, was mask-wearing adopted, creating a terrifying prospect for the pandemic’s future.

When Fauci addressed the question of health disparities between race, he reminded the nation stoically that “we are not going to solve the issues of health disparities this month or next month . . . but what we can do now, today,” the voice of reason was probably far less reasonable for many, who had already tuned out, before he described the need for social distancing that was, in fact, a privilege for many. The mottled nature of northeastern communities the Dynata found in its interviews suggested an uneven terrain of mask-wearing policies, even in the Tristate Area, dictated by individual choice–and underscoring the lack of regional or federal policies.

The social topography of crowding, of second homes and of gardens or access to parks that was revealed in the Bay Area made us think in practical terms to egregious inequities that were perpetuated by sustained lack of investment to resolve pronounced racial disparities in health came as COVID-19–and the uneven landscape revealed as the coronavirus tore through communities where it was contracted in the United States. The revelation of inequalities was striking, as it suggested how communities experienced it quite differently, and the question of access to education–and access to remote education–cut across social divides in profoundly different ways.

The almost purposeful pronounced lack of master narrative in confronting COVID-19 was long apparent. President Trump, grasping for authority as a true authoritarian playbook, argued the situation demands force, as his removed son-in-law, the dauphin Jared Kushner, spun 60,000 deaths from COVID-19 as a “great success story,” as if to challenge the nation’s personal narratives with a monolithic storyline of a disconnect from communities which were ravaged by hospitalizations. In claiming his father-in-law created a “pathway to safely open up this great country,” Kushner radiated overconfidence as he painted a future as rosy as the marble atrium of Trump Tower, even when the figures didn’t add up. It was akin to Trump’s 1993 proclamation, after huddling with bankruptcy lawyers to obtain new lines of credit, having had “the most successful year I’ve had in business!”–he reprised in a compulsive act of boosterism over the next decade, and continues to rely upon in the pandemic.

The dauphin Jared had not only used a spilt infinitive, but a split reality, a divergence destined to make the Presidential Election about COVID-19, whose malevolence is hard not to say: as the growth of rates of infection by the novel coronavirus most rapidly grew in the United States, claims Trump was doing “things right” with coronavirus testing plummeting to 30% percent, over twenty-five million unemployed and further furloughs coming, and one million infected by the coronavirus and 60,000 dead in a month, hardly fit narratives that suggest “great success,” even as the rates of infection from the coronavirus may have by mid-March grown greater in the United States than any place in the world, as escalating infection rates would continue to elevate the United States far beyond other nations. The manifestation of symptoms of COVID-19 grew two weeks after contracted, and by late March through late June, they had risen above all other nations.

Yet no clear plan for school closures had emerged on a national level in the United States, and denial at the danger of the infection’s growth dominated. Vice President Pence adopted similar talking points, in a few months, taking it upon himself to bestow premature congratulations that “we slowed the spread, we flattened the curve, we saved lives,” in a mismatch evident to any map in news media, but to the actuality on the ground.

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Shelter-in-Place?

If elites have long harangued lower classes for continuing behavior that continued to spread disease, interpretation of the spread of illness has rarely divided so strikingly along separate interpretations. It is as if life or death matters were open to public debate: rarely have reactions to an infection been able to be received so clearly along partisan lines. While reaction to COVID-19 were long cast in partisan terms by the President, our Fearless Leader of Little Empathy, as far overblown, the surprise was perhaps that even as the data grew, and the exponential growth of infections in American cities began, the decision to announce Shelter-In-Place directives in hopes to “flatten the curve” shuttering non-essential businesses with increased fears of overloading public health facilities.

Faced by drastically uneven hospital bed capacities in individual states, reflecting existing fears of hospital bed capacities for intensive care units or floor beds, and deepening fears of needs to add increased beds across the nation, to confront a major public health emergency. Using different scenarios of increased needs for beds based on infection rates, a relatively moderate need for beds: infection of a fifth of the population in six months would compel expanding existing capacity for beds in multiple western states already hard-hit form infections, like Washington and California, east coast states, including Massachusetts and New York, and Midwest’s like Ohio, Michigan, and Minnesota, and many pockets of other states, including Louisiana. Actual fears of such an impending emergency of public health emergency —

The Upshot/New York Times/March 17, 2020

–grows even sharper if one allows oneself to imagine an expansion of infection rates to 40%–not unheard of for the highly infectious novel coronavirus–over the same six month period:

.The Upshot/Interactive Version/March 17, 2020

1. Even as “Shelter-in-Place” measures sought to staunch the spread of infections across the nation, the uneven nature of the measures adopted by state governors, mayors, and counties suggested a fragmenting of the nation, as the governors of many states reacted to the issuance of shelter-in-place orders or stay-at-home directives by declaring their separate rule of law, in the words of Alabama’s Governor, “we are not New York state, we are not California–right now is not the time to shelter in place.”

Shelter in Place Measures Confined to Bay Area/Washington Post, March 15

Yet if the confirmed infections of the novel coronavirus seemed concentrated in preponderance in Louisiana, California, and New York, the virulence of its transmission was far more widely distributed, Philip Bump created a simple overlay to show, and the readiness of imposing measures of restriction were often resistant to accept school closures, or shuttering bars and restaurants as a means to restrain the virus’ spread.

httpsPhilip Bump, Washington Post, March 17 2020

Such choropleths are poor indicator of concentration and dispersion of infection, or of the “hot-spots” early watchers of the novel coronavirus hoped to isolate, folks commuting from counties of identifiable outbreaks created an immediately far more complicated map of viral dispersal, often crossing state lines and state jurisdictions at the very start of March, as work commuting alone bled from 34 counties into 1,356–even into Mississippi!

County-to-County Commutes from Confirmed Cases of Coronavirus COVID-19/March 3
BRENNEJM, r/dataisbeautiful/

Despite some a lone call the President impose a national shelter-in-place order, but the response of asking for a collective sacrifice would be hard to imagine. But the animosity that Trump revealed to any governors who tried to impose a policy of social distancing has intensified a new sense of federalism, as the increasing opposition that President Trump has directed toward Governors who have responded with attempts to enforce social distancing led, mutatis mutandis, to a new call for “liberating” states from social distancing requirements, President Trump announced April 21 that “We are opening up America again,” with great content, heralding an “opening” across twenty states comprising two-fifths of the nation’s population, if partial reopening are only slated in eighteen states.

But how could one say that the need for social distancing was not increasingly important, in a nation where health care is not only not accessible to many, but that hospital bed capacity is uneven–and would need to be ramped up to serve the communities–

–but that many areas are distant from ready testing, diagnosis, or indeed the ability for easily accessible health care? What is COVID-19, if not a major wake-up call for disparities in public health and medical access?

New York Times

–and many regions suffer severe health care professional shortages, that have been obscured in the deep shortages of health professionals, according to Rural Health Info, who have revealed these gaps in the following infographic, but many towns in each county remain difficult to get to hospitals in time in cases of emergency or need.

2. The legitimacy offered to “re-opening” states for business channeled a rousing sense of false populism across the nation, courting possible onset of a second wave of infections by easing llocal restrictions on social distancing–although testing is at a third of the level to warrant safe a transition, several governors claim “favorable data” to justify opening shuttered businesses. But when @RealDonaldTrump retweeted an attack on public safety measures against COVID-19 that were enacted in California and other states to slow airborne viral infection that labeled the closures of bars, restaurants, and theaters as revealing local states’ “totalitarian impulses” in the face of COVID-19, as having effectively “impaired the fundamental rights of tens of millions of persons” and flagrantly abrogating constitutional rights and natural liberties: the endorsing of a tweet of former judge, Andrew Napolitano, of an open “assault our freedom in violation of Constitution” demeaning sheltering policies as”nanny-state rules . . . unlawful and unworthy of respect or compliance,” inviting the sort of social disobedience, encouraging the stress-test on our nation that the pandemic poses be generalized?

COVID-19 Infection Rates in United States/New York Times/March 27, 2020

While the calls to prevent violations of the U.S. Constitution have grown in recent weeks from March to April, it makes sense to question the validity of an eighteenth-century document to a public health emergency–or to abilities to respond to a zoonotic disease of the twenty-first century. Never mind that such arguments ignore the reserving of rights of state governors in the U.S. Constitutions Tenth Amendment to protect the safety, health, and welfare of the inhabitants of their territory, is the ability to manage state health not a calculus for public health officers, rather than a partisan debate? There is a despicable false populism and rabble rousing in decrying “nanny-state rules” as “unlawful and unworthy of compliance,” and covers for “assaults on freedom” as a Lockeian natural right. Yet in retweeting such charges and denigrating policies of social distancing as “subject to the whims of politicians in power,” President Trump perpetuated the notion that medical consensus was akin to an individual removed from public concerns. In doing so, Trump echoed the opinion of a member of his own Coronavirus Economic Advisory Task Force, Heritage Foundation member Stephen Moore, to protest “government injustices” echoing false populist calls to “liberate” Michigan and Minnesota from decrees of Democratic governors. As Moore called for further protests, opening a group, Save Our Country, dedicated to agitating for the reopening of states, out of concern for the “abridgment of freedom” of sheltering in place.

The call to arms over a rejection of social distancing emphasized the translation of the pandemic into purely partisan terms, and echoed the partisan resistance to the states-right discourse of a rejection of health care, using the panmdemic to divide the nation along party lines.

3. The weekend before SIP was announced in the East Bay, my daughter’s High School suspended, and I snuck out in the mask-free days for a Monday morning coffee at my favorite café, where my friend Mike caused some consternation in line by ordering through his black 3M facemask. The mood was survivalist and grim, but we stopped outside our local Safeway, as if to provisions before an impending lockdown, looking for half-and-half. Staring me in the eyes, Mike said with some resignation that the massive mortalities in northern Italy were our future in a week at most, as the spreading waves of infections migrated crosscountry, approaching in something like a delayed real time; the question was only when “It’s gonna happen here.

What was happening across the Atlantic Ocean was trending not only on social media, but was being attentively followed by epidemiologists like Dr. Cody, apprehensive of the state of development of pubic health across the entire East Bay.

The Public Health Officers in the region had been haunted by the vision, alerted by the tangible fears of the Santa Clara Public Health Officer, Dr. Sara Cody. That very day, Cody was convening the coming early Monday morning, gripped by a sense of panic for a need for action, as the public drinking festivities of St. Patrick’s Day loomed, and as Chinese health authorities curbed travel and cancelled New Years celebration, even if its airborne communication was doubted, in hopes to contain an outbreak that still seemed centered in its largest numbers in Wuhan province–

Quartz, January 22, 2020

4. It was if we were watching in real-time image the global ballooning of COVID-19 infections in the Bay Area feared was on its way to Silicon Valley, or the entire Bay Area, as the virus traveled overseas. The lockdown that had begun in northern Italian towns in a very localized manner from late February when a hundred and fifty two cases were found in Turin, Milan, and the Veneto, had, after all, only recently expanded to the peninsula, filling Intensive Care Units of hospitals or transforming them to morgues. Although elegant graphics provided a compelling narrative, with the benefit of retrospect, that “Italy’s Virus Shutdown Came Too Late,” the interactive story of a “delayed” shutdown after the February 24 shutdown of sites of outbreak within days of the first identification of an infection in Milan, across two “red zones” around Italian cities, and the March 3 cordoning of larger areas.

February 24, 2020 Lockdowns in Northern Italy
Lockdown in Response to COVID-19, March 8 2020

The reluctance to impose a broader shutdown over the northern economy created a tension between commerce and public health that led to a late ‘shutdown’ of the movement across the peninsula by March 10 to prevent infection risks, haunted by public health disaster.

Multiplication of COVID-19 Cases in Italy, February 27-March 12, 2020 BBC

Fears of the actuality of a similar public health disaster spreading under her nose led Dr. Cody to convene a quick check-up with local public health officers to see if they registered a similar alarm, and what policy changes were available across a region whose populations are so tightly tied. And the need to convene a mini-summit of Public Health Officers to take the temperature of willingness to recommend immediate public policy changes was on the front burner, as one looked at the huge difficulty of containing the outbreak in Italy–often argued to not have been responded to immediately enough, but revealing a full public health response that the Bay Area might not be able to muster, as Italy’s hospitals were flooded by patients with infections and was on its way to become the site of the most Coronavirus deaths.

Vivid fears a growth of COVID-19 filling the hospitals and emergency rooms after St. Patrick’s Day–an event for a far larger audience contracting the aggressive virus–led Dr. Cody to arrange a group call among the Public Health Officers in San Matteo and San Francisco early Monda. Dr. Cody had broad epidemiological training was rooted in an appreciation of contagious disease–including contagious diseases outbreaks like SARS, H1N1 influenza, and salmonella, and had worked on planning for public health emergencies and completed a two yer fellowship in Epidemiolgoy and Public Health, managing E. coli outbreaks as an Epidemic Intelligence Service Officer with CDC. Fears “crystallized” quickly of a scenario of similarly exponential rise in case loads making Silicon Valley a new epicenter outbreak of an epidemic overwhelming the public health services. As she quickly contacted Public Health Officers in San Francisco and San Matteo, to contemplate a response, by March 8, a lockdown in all Lombardy and other states was declared, as COVID-19 cases multiplied, in a chilling public health disaster replicating the lockdown in China.

In contrast to the uncertain public health numbers from China, as the city’s airport, highways, and rail stations, images of massive mortality from health care disasters in Italy were haunting and suddenly far closer in space, even if cases of viral infection were already reported in each province, Macao, Hong Kong, and Taiwan–revealing a global pandemic that linked place to a global space in ways difficult for some to get their minds around. The honesty that came out of Italy was an alarm.

The Bay Area health authorities were looked with apprehension at the arrival of St. Patrick’s Day celebrations, after the exponential growth of infections from COVID-19 in the region: Dr. Mirco Nacoti had just published an eye-catching account of the catastrophic conditions of Ospedale Pap Giovanni XXIII in Bergamo that weekend, describing the levels of general contamination of caring for COVID-19 patients, for whom over two thirds of ICU beds were reserved, and filled a third of 900 rooms in thd peer-reviewed NEJM Catalyst; he described phantasmagoric scenes of a hospital near collapse as patients occupied mattresses on the grounds, intensive care beds had long waiting lines and with shortages of both masks and ventilators, and poorly sterilized hospitals became conduits for the expansion of diseases. The clinical model for private care incapacitated, as patients were left without palliative care; a surge of deaths in overcrowded wards overtook China’s community-based clinics at such higher death rates of 7,3% Italian doctors plead felt incapacitated by the surge of cases overflowing at intensive care units from March 9-11 as a model for mass infection, before COVID-19 was declared a pandemic.

The desperation of a staged re-enactment of Michelangelo’s Pietà of L’Espresso were a few weeks or so off. While the spread of infections in our region had not yet begun, ant eh below photoshoot by Fabio Buciarelli did not appear until April 5, we were still formulation the desperation of confronting the ravages of disease we lacked time to develop any reactions, processing current or impending mortality rates.

Fabrizio Bucciarelli/COVID-19 Pietà. 5 aprile 2020, L’Espresso

The danger of trusting scientific modeling, or data, and fostering deep suspicions of trusting data on confirmed infections, or modeling that suggested the danger of failing to practice social distancing.

5. Decisions to “shelter in place” promised to “slow the spread” of COVID-19 transmitted widely in group settings, and able to create a public health disaster in the Bay Area, and was quickly followed by Santa Cruz county. After the growth of cases in Santa Clara county–whose rates of infection doubled over the weekend to 138 as of Monday–the absence of a any national restraining order save a suggestion to social distance, as Seattle cases of infection had grown to 400–and some 273 cases of infection had appeared over th weekend, despite limited testing availability.

The clear eventuality of a public health disaster, after a directive closing bars, night clubs, and large gatherings, as well as many school closures in San Francisco and the East Bay–where my daughter attends Berkeley High, whose doors shuttered on March 13; Los Angeles’ mayor, Eric Garcetti, closed bars, gyms, movie theaters, bowling alleys and indoor entertainment on late Sunday night, as Gov. Newsom encourage all elderly to self-isolate immediately. The 6.7 million in the Bay Area early agreed on the need for a “shelter in place” order as a basis to control the spread of COVID-19 that had been discovered in the region on March 16, 2020, anticipating the nation by some time.

The closure of all non-essential businesses in the seven counties sprung from the epicenter of Santa Clara county–Silicon Valley–but included affected a much larger area of commuters, no doubt, across an interlinked region of commuting far across the northern state to twelve other counties.

The cases in Italy would only grow, creating a textbook case of the exponential expansion of illness that killed a terrifying number of physicians in hospitals on the front lines against its expansion, as the arrival of medical supplies and medical viral specialists from China increased the logic of the lockdown as a response to its spread.

The evident stresses on the health care system of Lombardy, where a terrifying number of physicians on the front line contracted the virus and died, in the wealthy region of Lombardy, distanced the disease whose effects were projected or distanced onto China, and provided a clear scenario that Cody understood could be repeated, with even worse consequences, in the crowded population and limited health facilities of Santa Clara County: her own close ties to public health authorities in Italy made the exponential growth of cases from February 21 across the peninsula seem a preparatory run-through for a future disaster, as China was sending increasing medical supplies and specialists to Italy in a global story as a pandemic was declared in China March 11; northern provinces were declared under lockdown March 8 quickly extended to the nation, as a spike in 1,247 cases were found on the previous day.

When Cody urgently alerted San Francisco Public Health Officer, Dr. Tomás Aragón, to discuss the fears of a new epicenter of COVID-19 spread in Silicon Valley, they did not start by contemplating their authority to issue a legally binding directive to shutter businesses in the region. But as they discussed consequences of the exponential increase in Santa Clara County and the greater danger of facing an analogous overwhelming of pubic health hospitals as in Italy, haunted by a danger of a similar scenario overwhelming public health, and Cody’s tangible fear, Aragón floated the idea of a shutdown, acknowledging their authority of acting without permission of governors.or mayors or county supervisors; the call touched on a series of calls to debate options, including the most dramatic — a lockdown order–which seemed the only certain means to enforce isolation and social distancing haunted by the image of the increased diagnosis of COVID-19 across the Italian peninsula that would indeed only be publicly released March 18. Two days later, Governor Newsom expanded the policy to the entire state; the time lag meant that by late April, almost half of all infected with the novel Coronavirus in California were found in Los Angeles County, and were facing the prospect of overloading its public health system and hospitals.

Diagnoses of COVID-19 in Italy/ Ministero di Sanitá, March 18 2020

The influence of the health care provider Kaiser Permanente was unseen, but the preventive agenda of the health provider can be seen in a sense in the shadows of this quick consensus among six Public Health Officers. But the qyuick defense of the decision–soon followed by dozens of states since–suggests the prominence of Kaiser Health Care in the dynamic of emphasizing preventive health care, and in anticipating epidemiological spread. Cody’s brave insight into the fact that northern Italy provided a rehearsal for the public health disaster, shifting from the ban on mass gatherings to a concerted effort to isolate millions, was less apparent to the nation.

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Get Me Out of Here, Fast: Escape from D.C.?

The forced monotone of Donald Trump’s public address to the nation on March 12 was a striking contrast from his most recent State of the Union address. He sought to calm the nation as it faced the pandemic of the novel coronavirus COVID-19 in what was perhaps his most important public address. On the verge of breaking beneath the gravity of circumstances that spun far out of his control, however, rather than show his customary confidence, Trump seemed a President scrambling and in panic mode trying to rehearse stale tropes, but immobilized by events.

President Trump tried to look as presidential as possible, re-inhabiting a role of authority that he had long disdained, as he was forced to address a nation whose well-being he was not in control. The national narrative, as it was begun by WHO’s declaration of a pandemic, was perhaps seen as a narrative which seemed to spin out of his control, below his eyes, as he tried to calm markets by addressing the nation in what he must have imagined to have been as reassuring tones as he could summon. With his hands grasped but thumbs flickering, as if they were a fire under which he sat, as if he were wriggling like a kid strapped in the back seat of a car where he was a passenger to God-knows-where, wrestling with the increasing urgency that his aides demanded he address the outbreak of the virus in the United States that he had long tried to deny. Serial flag-waving continued to fuel President Trump’s attacks on China and the World Health Organization, as if trying to toe the line of adherence to America First policies of nationalism before a global catastrophe, that did not compute. If America First as a doctrine allows little room for empathy, affirming national greatness and the importance of a logic of border closures was all he could offer, and would be predictably lacking reassurance or empathy as he attempted to create a connection at a defining moment of his Presidency, but looked particularly pained.

March 11, 2020

If Trump rarely trusted himself to make hand gestures as he plighted through the speech, thumbs flickering, hands clasped, he every so often seemed distinctly out of synch with his austere surroundings, gold curtains drawn to reveal two flags, barely aware, perhaps, that the eyes of the world were very much on his performance in this new sound studio to which he was not fully accustomed, trying to explain that he had undertaken measures that had made us safe, even if he must have been worrying that the lack of worry he had been projecting and urging in previous weeks had risen across the nation, and his performance was not calming them at all. He was tasked with describing the vulnerability of the nation to the novel coronavirus whose effects he had downplayed repeatedly, but was no longer able to dismiss, and no longer able to concede posed a far greater threat to the American economy than the danger of “illegal” migrants he had so often pointed to as a cause of national decline: the virus that had already crossed our borders repeatedly, since the first cases of COVID-19 were diagnosed in San Jose and Seattle, would potentially bring down his presidency, and he lacked any ability to explain the scale of the effects of the virus that he had effectively helped release by ignoring warning signs.

Oval Office address of Wednesday, March, 11, 2020. Doug Mills / The New York Times)

The link of America to the world defined in his America First candidacy–even made the very identification of a pandemic difficult to process. And he did so in the starkest national backdrop possible, vaunting his closing of borders, suspension of “flights” from China, and ties to Europe–even as he encouraged Americans to return from abroad, and had allowed unmonitored entrance of Europeans and world travelers into New York that would make it the site of the entrance of the disease to the majority of American cities where the viral load arrived, with over 900 people entering America through New York daily for months after China suspended travel from Wuhan on January 23–after China called the outbreak “controllable” on New Year’s Eve. The declaration that echoed the concerns of the World Health Organization may have been buried in global celebrations, even as Trump blamed it for starting a sense of false complacence before undeniably “real” news that he feared would come to define his Presidency.

Trump was unable to accept declarations of the World Health Organization had just called the coronavirus outbreak–an outbreak which, we now know, he had in fact been hearing alerts from American intelligence as early as November 17, about the outbreak of cases of the novel coronavirus in Hubei province, rather than January, when initial infections in the United States were reported. As much as Trump found it difficult to admit the vulnerability of the United States to a global pandemic–or to the recommendations issued by WHO–who set the caduceus that symbolized medical ethics authority over the North American continent–at which he bristled at the notion of a global scope of edicts across boundaries, as if a map where national divides were erased as if it compromised national authority for a disease the President has been uncannily persistent in localizing in China, even before an increasing preponderance of evidence of its global circulation and transmission over a series of months.

Fabric Coffrini, AFP

As cascading fears grew in markets across the world, Trump was perhaps forced to realize his new relation to the world, even as the German stock exchanges plummeted as the measures he announced seem either difficult to process, or failing to address the importance of maintaining trade ties–or of taking adequately prudent steps of public health.

Slumping in his seat at the Resolute Desk, perhaps contemplating how no predecessor had ever delivered on air unprepared remarks from the desk, and visibly discomfited in doing so. He must have hoped to make up for his televised performance by sending surrogates scrambling to social media, issuing clarifications for misstatements–as the exemption offered U.S. citizens to return from China, or the exemption of Ireland, as well as England, and an assurance that trade would “in no way be affected” by the ban, as markets had reacted poorly to his performance. While it seemed that Trump was cognitively unable to process the possibility of a crumbling American economy–and a decline of America’s place in a global economy–under his watch, a prospect faced since he had met with airline executives with whom he discussed the effects of stopping flights of foreign nationals from China in a March 4 meeting, offering them a bailout that limited the impact economic effects of heightened travel advisories, is it possible he had no sense of the massive fallout on the national economy?

March 11 Address/Ralph Orlowski/Reuters

As Trump spoke, global markets not only failed to register confidence–but plummeted, as he revealed no clear plans to to call for social distancing to contain the spread of the virus, and revealed that lack of national preparation for confronting an infectious disease that had no vaccine. He may have remembered that he had outright fired a former cabinet member, barely remembered in the rogue’s gallery of administration, Tom Bossert, who had demanded preparedness “against pandemics” and a “comprehensive biodefence strategy” of the sort the previous administration of Pres. Barack Obama had tried to institute, or that a simulation of a pandemic that could devastate the American economy and kill up to half a million revealed in October 2019 “just how underfunded, underprepared and uncoordinated the federal government would be for a life-or-death battle with a virus for which no treatment existed.”

It seems likely he was rather trying to conceal the massive scale of lying to the nation about the effects of an economic downturn unprecedented in scale, but which the increased lines at Wuhan’s Tianyou Hospital the previous November had already indicated had a problem of infectious diseases on their hands that would have a potentially global consequence. Trump tried to spin the consequences as purely local, in an unprecedented wishful thinking whose scale of deception far exceeded the pathological deceits he had long taken to perpetrate on investors, business partners, and even on family members–from hiding his older brother’s treasured trucks that were a Christmas gift and then admonishing him not to cry, or he would destroy them before his eyes. Even as satellite imagery showed a clear rush to hospital emergency rooms in Wuhan in November, as clusters of cars marked in red crowded the emergency rooms that revealed “a steep increase in volume starting in August 2019 and culminating in a peak in December 2019,” when China began epidemiological investigations that led to identifying and sequence of the novel coronavirus by January 12, ten days before the city went on lockdown to contain its spread.

Annotated Satellite Photographs of Wuhan’s Tianyou Hospital in September 2019

While Trump registered no alarm at the arrival of the very pandemic whose global impact American simulations feared would cripple the national economy, he tried to offer spin on having closed borders to the virus, as if it were not already diffused within the country, in a mind over matter sort of exercise that suggested limits purchase on reality, as if he was able to recognize the risk earlier administrations had identified as a national priority.

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Filed under borders, Coronavirus, COVID-19, data visualization, national borders