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This book is adventurous, attentive, uneven, well-trodden yet revealing, much like the city it maps

Infinite City: A San Francisco Atlas

by Rebecca Solnit
University of California Press, Berkeley, CA, 2010
167 pp. Trade, $49.95; paper, $24.95
ISBN: 9780520262492; ISBN: 9780520262508.

Reviewed by Michael R. (Mike) Mosher
Saginaw Valley State University, Michigan


This reviewer lived in San Francisco for a decade in the last century, then forty-five miles away for its final dozen years. This book is adventurous, attentive, uneven, well-trodden yet revealing, much like the city it maps. An atlas of 22 maps; each map has an essay to accompany it. The essays are sometimes perceptive, sometimes more like Sunday newspaper magazine writing, for the style and substance of the contributors varies.

There are, however, numerous excellent maps, and informative essays by Rebecca Solnit and others that accompany them. "Shipyards and Sounds: The Black Bay Area Since World War II" is nicely followed by "Fillmore: Promenading the Boulevard of Gone", a major African American cultural center (my residence 1978-81, though by then no longer the nightclub-filled "Harlem of the West"). She erroneously says that Punk rock concerts were held at Reverend Jim Jones' Peoples' Temple, not the turn-of-the-century Congregation Beth Israel synagogue next door to it on Geary Street, called by music promoters Temple Beautiful, though all appear properly labeled on cartographers Ben Pease and Shizu Siegel's map. This lapse is forgiven, as Solnit says she arrived in town in 1980, just as the concerts all stopped. She does mention the block as the site of the Clash's first US concert; for contractual reasons, the flyers didn't name them but called them "THE ONLY ENGLISH BAND THAT MATTERS" and their fans understood.

"The Mission: North of Home, South of Safe" delineates Latin American institutions and agencies that serve that community, as well as the blocks supposedly under the domination of the Norteño and Sureño gangs. What does that really mean on a daily basis, to residents and small business owners? Adriana Camarena's impressionistic essay and its interviews paint a memorable picture but skirts that question. The map superimposes the U.S-Mexico border as snaking between about 27th and 30th Streets, a nice touch. "Tribes of San Francisco" broadly show some ethnic distributions, as if there's no overlap (i.e., between Gays, Whites and Hipsters near Church Street?). Mostly the map's an excuse for carefully drawn figures in colored pencil by Jaime Cortez, much like Dugald Stermer's illustrations in the 1980s.

"The Lost World: South of Market, 1960, Before Redevelopment" shows the low-rent community before the demographic cleansing to produce the Yerba Buena convention center district; why San Franciscans of a certain age spit at mention of the name Justin Herman, the 1960s head of the Redevelopment Agency.

One can jump between "The Third Street Phantom Coast", showing the shoreline at about the time of the Gold Rush, and "Once and Future Waters" juxtaposes nineteenth century bodies of water (like the Mission district's Lago des Duendes, which my wife always thought should be allowed to surface) and the likely shoreline of a century from now, should global warming continue and coastal waters all rise.

San Francisco likes its history, and has engendered unique historians. One of the best essays here is by Chris Carlsson on the industrial waterfront. A map of its past factories also includes the bars that opened at 6:00 a.m. to serve workers coming off the midnight shift. Author of both vibrant political histories and interesting future fiction (some shows a San Francisco of canals), autodidact and a typesetter-editor by trade, Carlsson has long been dedicated (see www.shapingsanfrancisco.org) to Howard Zinn-like excavation and publication of alternative and oppositional histories. He was a founder of the first Critical Mass bicycle events who sees his activism fitting into the historic radical traditions of his city.

Some juxtapositions upon a single map are inspired, like showing both violent deaths and Monterey pines, coffee shops with water and sewer system, centers of fine dining and wines vs. toxic polluters of the region. To contrast centers of gay and lesbian life with various species of butterflies found in the hills of San Francisco - some species endangered - brings a smile. Mona Caron illuminated this map with a nice painting of a bearded gay man in the nun's habit of the Sisters of the Perpetual Indulgence troupe among similarly- fluttering butterflies One map shows the biographies of four centenarians, and trajectories their movement around and out of the city. Fortunately they were spared eviction, like octogenarian Lola McKay, who soon died after her 2000 eviction from her apartment in the Mission. Meanwhile, evictions are depicted as grim red marks on the same map. A few maps feel a bit forced, like "Dharma Wheels and Fish Ladders", which juxtaposes salmon migrations and Soto Zen centers. No logical correlation between the two, but OK I guess.

There is a certain impatience welling up in the reader as the last maps approach; how's the author going to wrap this thing up? A logical ending to the book might have been the map of sites Solnit's personal history, all mapped along with those of her old friend Guillermo Gomez-Peña's, as if the two are nursing cognacs in their easy chairs. But it is followed by several more maps, including John LaFarge's phrenological map of the city as a great head in profile. Slight as it is, stretching the party game to map personality attributes to neighborhoods, LaFarge earns points for citing a demographic of people "who remember when the Dovre Club was in the Women's Building"; that's where I frequented (and was briefly employed by) the publican from Dublin Pat Nolan's memorable dive. The final map, "The Forty-Nine Jewels of San Francisco" assembles a great list of non-commercialized places to visit, cheap dates for young or mature couples like the wave organ, bison herd or Sutro Baths ruins. Mona Caron's murals and some other notable public artworks are included. Some landmarks, like the two pieces of the 17 REASONS WHY sign that long towered over 17th and Mission Streets, need special arrangement to be viewed, but that's not out of the realm of possibility.

Alllison Pebworth's line drawings on the title page mash-up the city's various architectures over time, while an Ohlone canoe of 1750 spotting a container ship of 2010. The lettering of the title on the book's cover would make a good tattoo, sprouting both floral and biotech DNA motifs. Unfortunately, unlike useful guidebooks and accordion-fold maps with durable laminated covers that withstand frequent use, Infinite City's covers are of an unvarnished cardboard that soaks up ever fingerprint and displays any grease spots in perpetuity. Perhaps the book designer Lia Tjandra was inspired by the matte covers of poetry and literature from (formerly-) northern California publisher Black Sparrow Press. The interior design is handsome, but there are some maps where streets and locations get lost in the gutter between pages, and the reader wishes a margin had been put there instead.

As with another recent celebration of the city by the bay, Annice Jacoby's rich but problematic Street Art San Francisco (2009, Abrams), there are often more snippets of information here - in Jacoby's case, visual - than are satisfyingly given context. As with the murals, stencils and graffiti tags in Jacoby's book, there are many, many stories yet to be told in the streets and streams of Solnit's book of maps. Yet every journey to, or within, San Francisco must begin with a single, comfortably shod step, so let it be here. This atlas is a good place to start.

Last Updated 7 March 2011

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