While seeking direction during the raging of the pandemic, as if existentially isolated in those days when anxieties ramped up, vulnerability to a virus crossing borders brought a vulnerability and a keen sense of the absence of all infrastructure able to sustain. The danger of introsepection was tempered by alarm, as a shock at the unaccustomed sense of the evanescence omade us turn to distant if suddenly proximate stories of plague past to process the new normal of pandemics. As many, seeking orientation to what was unfolding, exasperated at the overflow of global maps of pandemic spread that were intellectually impossible to balance with one’s fears for those loved, many looked to the classics–Defoe (Journal of a Plague Year), Manzoni (The Betrothed), or Camus (The Plague)–as if in an attempt to find bearings that fit our time of epidemiological disorientation, as I fancied to find an early urban infrastructure encoded in the century-old names stamped into the ground, pavers’ stamps of a tactile legibility I’d long ignored, but seemed removed from the dizzying distance of records of mortality, hospitalization, and viral spread that seemed almost impossible to comprehend or assess, and both reassuringly material–and present.
It was more than a matter of curiosity that with less people on the streets, and human geography altered in ways that reminded one 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. This was something like a revenge of the local in the midst of the pandemic, and 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.
As much as fiction provided a respite from the specter of infection that became existential as it approached our space, blurring boundaries and destabilizing ourselves left us searching for a playbook, pavement provided a needed form of orientation, the work calendar interrupted. The storied names of the pavers of the cement sidewalks on the Berkeley-Oakland bore offered a parallel text to one of loss, as the names of contractors and pavers gained presence as a story of urbanization, and urban inequities, reactivated by the landscapes of loss.
The old sidewalk stamps left by pavers’ that dotted the border between these Bayside cities of a patriarch of one of the family of pavers whose work fed the city’s increased population after the 1906 Earthquake killed over 3,000 and destroyed 28,000 buildings–leaving some 25,000 homeless, growing the East Bay residential centers seemed in the pandemic to gain a commemorative cast as sites of mourning. It seemed that on or about April 18, 1906, the pavement set by men who owned quarries in different parts of the East Bay–Oakland; Rockridge; Berkeley; El Cerrito–set a new infrastructure for residential housing, whose echoes we felt, living on the edges of a real estate market of extreme gentrification.
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 1922 as “Master of Concrete.”
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.
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.
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.
The attempt to gain purchase on space, or on the global space of disease, led me to look at the flatness of space that I negotiated on walks, examining the pavement of Berkeley CA to find orientation in the markers on the pavement, often left as stamps in the concrete by the sidewalk pavers whose lives and urban infrastructure I payed more attention to as a reminder of the incomprehensible loss of life. The stability of these old paving marks suggested a sense of the often overlooked–if not unexamined–traces of urban infrastructure, that expanded from the time that horse-drawn wagons carried gravel from quarries as far as Alameda or El Cerrito to motorized fleets carrying over 300,000 cubic yards of gravel, macadam, and rock around the Bay Area.
These often broken sidewalks seemed grim evidence of the breakdown of our public health framework. While no one much cites Tom Friedman these days, “disease” was one of the few ways in which the world appeared unflat for the journalist who became a booster of globalization: the “un-flat” nature of India and China was, Friedman feared, most apparent in risks of disease, but where he argued the internet offered the closest to salvation of an impending flattening; yet the rise of this new emergent disease arose on account of accelerated modernization of China where the encroaching of urban expansion and growth into the hinterland from where this new pathogen seem to have hailed, per the World Health Organization. And we looked at the maps of infection’s spread from this point in the map to find that the world was indeed rather flat, in the unpredictable pathways it frictionlessly spread among populations by trains, planes, and ships without any barriers among developed countries, in the shock that we suddenly perceived that regarding this pathogen, the world was hardly “un-flat” at all, and the flattening effects of technologies of sequencing of the virus were less pronounced than how the virus moved along or disrupted the “large, complex, global supply chains extending across oceans” that for Friedman were such an unmitigated good that the “unflat” experience of the world was remedied by Bill Gates.
We are, or were, trying to process a topography of death rates but fell back looking for tools to process the effects of the arrival “emergent infectious diseases” as we entertained their origins in the degradation of ecosystems and encroachment of formerly protective boundaries between humans and animals that have increased the risks of pandemic disease as zoonotic diseases have entered densely inhabited cities as if marauding dogs. The incommensurability of all earlier literature with the global pandemic is nicely suggested in Phase Six, the novel Jim Shepherd wrote before the outbreak, whose ominous title is the term that marks the start of a global pandemic–“designating for anyone who might have missed it by this point by this point that a global pandemic was officially underway.”
The novel that tried to tell a global story in compelling local detail before COVID-19 broke, but after Global Public Health reported 90% of epidemiologists foresaw the emergence of a pathogen, not yet identified, would lead to over 150 million deaths, a toll one-and-a-half to three times as great the global influenza pandemic of 1918-20. Shepherd may literalize ’emergent diseases’ of unknown transmission vectors and incubation for the pathogen that emerged from the frozen tundra that was being mined for rare metals, one of the array of cataclysms of global melting with which we have not yet come to terms, whose emergence a pair of CDC epidemiologists compellingly struggle to map in Shepherd’s chilling novel.
As we returned to the influenza pandemic misidentified as the “Spanish” Flu, to seek bearings on the growth of an actual pandemic threat, feeling a vulnerability for which we lacked clear guidelines of response. The recurrence of the dates before the Spanish Flu arrived in San Fransisco that I crossed on some stretches of pavement alone seemed significant as they suggested an apparent lacuna in the marks left on Berkeley sidewalks and across North Oakland’s residential geography. As I stared at the pavement on nearly abandoned streets, scanning the asphalt for signs of understanding, I found the strikes of old contractors or pavers something like an interruption or a punctum, making me pause in my tracks. COVID was forcing us to come to terms with those we lost, in new ways, and as I took breaks for psychological balance, single names seemed like community remembrances of those forgotten in the last century. I had recently moved from one of the leafier areas of north Oakland to an area of far “oranger” hue, at least not of the kelly green canopy I’d been accustomed, and the marks left by pavers were perhaps more evident, as the streets were certainly less populated than they once were.
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.
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.
The strikes of pavers that popped from the pavement as discoveries of surviving snapshots of the residential expansion that escalated in the East Bay from around the time of the 1906 San Francisco Earthquake, in a search for residential stability and safety became, mutatis mutandis, sites of bearing and orientation on the pandemic’s escalating trends.
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.
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.
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.
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,
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
–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.
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.
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.
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.
As newspapers came to be too exhausting to read and depressing in news, or the dashboards devised by tracking apps devised to convert databases of infections to the palettes of webmaps for ready legibility,–
–even as we had no clear sense of the mechanism or spread of contagion, or the arrival of the first cases of infection in California and the United States. If walks seemed to create a fragile measure of normalcy, tentatively, before electrifying news, the comfort of the tangibility of old traces on concrete seemed a form of security. If Walter Benjamin had famously looked back on the dangers of mechanical reproduction as a premonition of fascist media in the 1930s, after fleeing Nazi Germany to Paris, perhaps the craft-like manual nature of the individual imprints struck from frames and contractors individual signatures from bygone eras of Oakland and Berkeley’s past–strikes that continue to the present, and current dates–offered a reassuring micro geography of meaning.
Benjamin had of course fled Germany seeking signs of reorientation in the course of the flâneur in Paris, habituating himself with the modern sense of the streets as an exotic immersion in the senses. For me, the thin sense of contact that these stones offered in the time of social distancing were a far more muted surpise, but a new form of “botanizing the pavement” abandoned by most other passersby. Moving along empty streets without familiar faces, I read names of the architects of the sidewalk, taking comfort in and searched for names as if I could better acquaint myself with where we were. At times, as I collected them as an alternative therapy, I fantasized it was a taking stock that rectified an imbalance, a micro-reparation of sorts before the increased evidence of the social costs that the pandemic revealed.
How could such rates of infection be processed, especially as they were woefully incomplete? The epistemic unease at the security of mapping, or objectivity of these data maps that were queried, questioned, and re-examined, contrasted with the pressing urgency of trying to read the multiplying varieties of the novel virus itself, suggesting just how much we were still learning and needed to learn; the conceit of tallying the signs that seemed in full gave my apparently aimless walks a sense of purpose, as a form of reparation for a world out of whack, whose discrepancies of health-care, infection rates, and uneven levels of public trust seemed finally unmasked and on full view. Amidst the pandemic’s increasingly uncertain ground, I started to walk farther than usual from home, and walk with greater intensity of seeking an imagined goal, or justify my new status as something of a flâneur, dedicated to find the first pavers of main arteries like Telegraph Avenue and College Avenue in Berkeley CA from around 1908-9–most often from “Burnham,” or shortly after the Great Fire and Earthquake of 1906, at the same time as outmigration from San Francisco across the Bay had led to Berkeley’s growth, registered by the surviving names of pavers, one sharing the name of a contemporary city planner, Daniel Burnham, who worked in San Francisco and others, as the Spring Construction Co, tied to local monuments as the Claremont Hotel.
–or the overworn escutcheon on Telegraph Avenue, off Alcatraz, apparently lain in 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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.Continue reading