SF Lunchwalk: Forty-three Ambient Slices of the City

Why even bother with the names of streets?  In a world of sound, the names of streets ring silent.  They are dwarfed by the din of traffic, overwhelmed by thousands of diffuse sounds from the city hulking above.  Market Street, for instance, beckons to be renamed every time I walk out onto it.  My feet are willing to forget, but my head still wants to know: where am I going today?

East.  The Lunchwalker needs not the guidance of familiar street names.  It's not as though these walks are to be repeated.  Nor could they be.  Tracing the footsteps of a previous day's walk is not possible.  (Although that would make a fascinating walk to attempt to do so, even memorizing the sounds as though scripted by iambic pentameter, and to recite and overlay the previous day's walk upon a new day's walk.)  The soundtrack on a given day, at the same time and with the same route, will capriciously yield an entirely different experience.  So I walk east, and I could walk east every day and still find new things to hear, new worlds of sound to discover even though the world we see appears much the same.

What is that funny thing about an urban walk which enables the feeling: "I've walked here many times and yet I've never seen that before."?  Getting lost in a familiar place is part of it.  We all read the street signs and use them to familiarize ourselves with our whereabouts and communicate to others our experiences there.  Practicality aside, the real advantage of an urban walk is ignoring precisely the need to communicate the location.  Streets should be named instead for the sounds one may hear on them.

I have provided this recurring satellite view of my walkable terrain, but I even question its value other than to give a sense of scale of the walk.  For example, the spaces which continue from the outside to the inside -- how are these sonic continuities to overcome the familiar delimiting of interiors and exteriors?  The satellite photo is blind to interiors and numb to the scale of individual sounds.

But there are unexpected relationships between quadrants of the island which in fact drive me to explore more every time I go out.  Deeper into the grain of the city, similarities between two different spaces in different moments of time could be knitted together by a precise framework.

The spaces of the city could be taxonomized by a host of sonic qualities: loudness, frequency range (Hz), frequency of occurance, breadth, height, reverb, diffuseness, velocity, proximity, timbre, fuzzyness, reproducibility, and even its inaudibility i.e. vibrations which are below the threshold of hearing.  These new names, not just for streets but for all thoroughfares and places for pause, might go this way:

Street of Cars Bowling for People
Garden of Circling Sparrows
Garden of Reverse Waterfalls
Sidewalk Spouting 700 Hz
Cranes Thumping Every 15 Seconds Alley
Muzak's Shortcut
The Street Where I Heard a Strange Bird but Maybe It Was a Machine

For this sixth Lunchwalk, I took 43 slices of sound out of the walk and glued the slices back together.  Each slice is potentially a new entry into the sonic taxonomy of the city.  Listen:


SF Lunchwalk: Taco Truck

On this fifth lunchwalk, where I take a walk instead of eating lunch, I broke the only rule: I ate lunch.  Two shrimp tacos, to be exact.  I also did not walk alone but wandered out with a friend, Marc Wiedenbaum of disquiet  fame.  Our walking discussion ranged across current projects of his, on the reasons we walk and listen, and, as we descended upon a taco truck, the sound of food.  So, here is a lunchwalk that was more of a walk to find lunch rather than a walk to capitalize on the time saved by not eating lunch.  (Indeed this series could be about walks to a constellation of food spots in the city not frequented by the Market Street workers.  Food and sound will be recurring, I am sure.)

The space carved out by the Taco Truck, sitting in the corner of a parking lot off of Bryant St., fits the spatiality produced in these walks.  The truck extends the sidewalk perpendicular to the street, expanding the realm for interaction, disregarding even the separate domains of "sidewalk" and "parking lot".  As I move through the city I too shrug off familiar boundaries.  Neighborhood lines and so-called historic districts do not exist.  Building lobbies and rooftop gardens are as fair game as parking garages and subway tunnels.  Tall fences, open water, and security guards are the only things to keep me from walking somewhere.

The Taco Truck is similarly disobedient to artificial lines, though to be sure, the truck is under a set of regulations and is permitted for certain locations only.  But like me, the truck is gone when lunch is over.  Have a listen:

 SF Lunchwalk: Taco Truck by nicksowers 

The soundscape before the truck is hemmed in by the propped-up metal flap, forming an awning over the space of ordering and eating.  Small, crappy speakers are embedded in the flap, drizzling out the fuzzy sound of a traditional Mexican orchestra.  Inside the truck, pans slide off the grill, carnitas sizzles, a cash register bangs close, and someone's order is called out: 95!  That's me. Shrimp tacos!


SF Lunchwalk: North-northeast

Market, the street I always begin on because my office's front door faces it, is a long street.  It is the only street which bisects the entire island--the island defined by an hour round-trip walk on my lunch break.  At the northeast edge, there is water.  So to the water's edge I aimed my stride, and off I went.

Down the canyon called Market, sirens wail and horns resonate.  The canyon is the city's great collector of sound.  The confluence of transit is witnessed here: footsteps crossing north to south, street cars sliding southwest to northeast, and buses amassing and separating like a caterpillar.  There is a definite meter to the modes of travel, a reliable space in time between each footstep, bus brake, taxi horn, and emergency siren.

Walking down this long cut through the sediments of skyscrapers, I am listening in particular to certain set of footsteps in front of me when a firetruck's blaring horn shreds my attention.  The city walk is full of these moments, where a certain rhythm is suddenly knocked out by shrill interruption of another scale or tempo of  movement.

In the compression of my hour of sound recording down into the sample below, I took a pair of scissors to the moments of dead space between such sounds as heels striking pavement, or the hiss of pneumatic brakes.  Listen:

During the track of the walk along Market Street, I also take a step off of the busy sidewalk into a bank, the first interior exploration of many to come.  Applying this same technique of cutting up the space between footsteps, I took the five minutes of wandering around the bank and sliced up its own meted-out moments, starting at 1:37.

At last, I reach the watery edge, but it turns out that wasn't the point.
Reaching the water at the midpoint of the walk is completely anticlimactic.  The rippling surface shrouds a depth I have not the technical means to plumb.  Not yet, at least.

Near the water was a man in a blue jumpsuit working for the city, raking leaves near one of the large waterfront sculptures.  I paused to record the sound of his labor, the metal tines of his rake scratching the concrete over and over.  I would soon return to my own labor, as an architect, at a desk, clicking a mouse over and over.  For me, walking in the city on the lunch hour was pure liberation.  Observing the groundskeeper's labor gave me new-found appreciation for that fact.


Notes from the Desert

1.  I took an overnight trip to Nevada with my brother about two weeks ago.  I was a city dweller in need of a desert fix, an injection of sand, a shower of still air.  My brother had never been to the desert.  So, I picked a spot about six hours by car from San Francisco—a small town that nobody makes a destination of: Hawthorne, Nevada.

2.  To travel to Hawthorne in the winter, when the road through Yosemite is closed, one drives through Reno.  Thankfully, I had a reason to be in Reno: to see two exhibitions at the Nevada Museum of Art.  Even aside from the museum, the city is something fun to pass through, like running one's fingers through a faux fur coat in a thrift shop.  (You know that fur coat has been to Burning Man and back).  The casinos of Reno present a sonic glitter and sensory spectacle at great contrast to the outlying desert.

3. The first exhibition I saw at the museum was Landscape Futures, guest-curated by Geoff Manaugh.  (Hurry to get out there, it closes Feb. 12th)  This room, packed with objects, contraptions, drawings, and dreams at all scales, reminds me of Borges' citation of "a certain Chinese encyclopedia" in which animals are categorized: "a. those that belong to the Emperor, b. embalmed ones, c. those that are trained, .... h. those included in the present classification, i. those that tremble as if they were mad, j. innumerable ones, k. those drawn with a very fine camelhair brush... " and so on.    How is it that all these things exist in a single space? We could say it is testament to the imaginative power of the curator, which is no doubt true.  It is also compelling to look at the atmosphere which allows these things to exist together.

One must hold in suspense a certain scale, say 1:48, when looking at mountains of vegetation and models of drone/ferret hybrids scurrying about.  Swelling to fill a two-story volume immediately adjacent is a Goldbergian machine without scale, standing in for some planetary hydrological system consisting of wind sails, pumps, and a simulator for the moon's gravitational pull on the earth.  On a wall nearby, large images of London and New York are shown as living museums in a world not much more absurd than the one we know.  Then, glossy faceted objects painted in bright colors - things made at a 1:1 scale - are to be worn by human beings in order to experience the sensory kaleidoscope of an ant.  We don't get to try them on, but that's part of the point.

What holds all of these things together is the visitor's willingness to go one step further than the separation already exercised from the city to the museum (the city itself a separation we unconsciously make from the landscape).  If not in a desert, and then if not in a city, and then if not in the building which we call the museum... what is the space of the exhibition but a fictional world swirling inside of my head.  Landscape Futures says to me: Why not imagine all landscapes as infinitely malleable.

4.  The other show at the Nevada Museum of Art is The Altered Landscape, a selection of photography which in a broad swath,  "examine(s) human interaction and intervention with environments".  My brother, on our drive out of Reno, made it clear to me the value of having just witnessed all of these photographs of massive-scale interventions in the landscape--rock quarries, gold mines, river deltas, and Christo.  We were flying past some gravel yard on the I-80 and it was though we were seeing these trucks and mounds of rock as alien interventions.  Who is it that makes piles out of earth, who carves terraces out of mountains and yet, as large as these interventions may seem, how small they are, and how unchanging the earth is.  So, the opposite is also true: when viewed at a large enough scale, a landscape is immutable.

5.  The museum was our threshold to the desert, the vestibule which permitted a shift in atmosphere as we left behind the anthropocentric city.  I gained a new appreciation for the museum as a perceptual acclimatizer, just as it is necessary to physically acclimatize in order occupy the desert (warm clothes for the winter, drinking water, chapstick, etc)  The museum enabled us to see on another level, which, in turn, I am always translating to the world of sound.  What kind of space in a museum might permit an acoustic threshold.  Further, how might we hear in the small space of a gallery a sound at the grand scale of the desert.

6.  Over halfway to Hawthorne, we pulled off the road to eat a lunch of Manchego cheese, salted almonds, and olives.  Foods from some far off, verdant land, preserved by salt.  What a luxury to eat salty things in the desert, for we could quest our thirst with the greatest ease with the water we drove in with.  In that case it wasn't a true desert.  Each town which offered us human comforts negated the desert.  Even the road itself, while beautiful in its simplicity, negates the desert.  It is the string which reminds us we are still tethered to the city.

7.  A lake stretched out below us, its blues shifting into greens superimposed by the reflection of yellow hills on the far shore.  Hundreds of small white objects appeared to float motionless in the lake.  As we scrambled down the rocks, I could see these were not inanimate objects but rather birds, probably Loons.  Here and there, the birds ducked down to get something in the water.  They were a long distance off, probably a quarter-mile away.  And yet, when we stopped rummaging through the bag of almonds and sat silent, you could hear each of the birds make their tiny moves in the water.  The astounding thing was this: the landscape was so massive, and here were these tiny sounds that were almost negligible yet still audible. There would be no way to hear them at that distance if not for the stillness of the air.

8.  T.E. Lawrence said he liked the desert because it was clean.

9.  The United States Navy also liked the desert because it was clean.  In 1930, by order of Congress, a new ammunition depot was opened which would later service the war in the Pacific.  And so Hawthorne, Nevada--our destination--became a bunker city.  There are over 2,400 bunkers containing 600,000 square feet of storage for weapons, bombs, and other such not-so-clean things.  Curiously, the Wikipedia article linked to above lists as "capabilities of the center" both "demilitarization" and "ammunition renovation".

But that's par for the course when it comes to the history of the military and the desert.  The apparent 'cleanliness' of the desert has always provided an excuse to drop bombs and test missiles.  I have witnessed this elsewhere--for example, at White Sands, New Mexico.  The desert does not demonstrate the same malleability when it comes to demilitarizing.

Hawthorne Army Depot via Google Maps

10.  I had recently finished reading Seeing is Forgetting the Name of the Thing One Sees, a conversation with the artist Robert Irwin.  He describes visits to the desert outside Los Angeles as incredible sensory experiences that he wished to share with others.  But to intervene in the desert, to add something (or subtract something ala Michael Heizer) so as to signify "PAY ATTENTION" would be pointless.  Whatever it would be, even something as simple as a painted rock or an arrow, would be mistaken for part of the experience itself.  The experience of the desert is already complete.