As I was walking home from work in San Francisco a number of years ago, a Days Inn caught my eye. The hotel itself is nothing special, but it sat at an odd angle to the street. Why would anyone build that way, I wondered. Next to it was a wide-open parking lot, something of a rarity in the city. Clearly, something had prevented the hotel owners from building on a rectangular footprint. But what could it have been?
At home, I pored over aerial photographs of the building and the parking lot. Upon zooming out, the answer was apparent. A trail of parking lots and angled buildings snaked through the neighborhood back to the freeway. Oddly shaped buildings remained, accommodating an interloper that is now gone. The disruptive structure was a double-decker spur of the Central Freeway built in the 1960s amidst the San Francisco freeway revolts. Like other double-decker freeways in the Bay Area, it was badly damaged during the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake and had to be removed.
Parts of the old right-of-way have been reclaimed. The old ramps leading to and from Fell St. and Oak St. are now the Hayes Valley Farm. Octavia Boulevard has been transformed into a bike and pedestrian friendly thoroughfare. And buildings now stand in other places.
Such ghosts of geography are everywhere. Old land uses and geologic processes can leave marks on the landscape that are sometimes blurred but not always expunged. Chicago is full of geographic ghosts that resulted from the removal of old train tracks. Trees trace the path of an old section of the Green Line.
And buildings balloon to fill old right-of-ways formerly used by freight trains.
Even geology expresses itself in today’s land uses. Farmers planting on drumlins unwittingly map the direction of the Wisconsinan glaciers.
The Appalachian Mountains dictate where people farm and live.
Ghosts of geography may be obvious, like New York City’s High Line…
..or more subtle like the trees in Sue Bierman Park that used to line the on and off ramps that fed the now-dismantled Embarcadero Freeway in San Francisco.
The past is reflected everywhere in geography. What ghosts are in your neighborhood?