WHAT MAKES A PLACE?
Infinite City, Rebecca Solnit’s brilliant reinvention of the traditional atlas, searches out the answer by examining the many layers of meaning in one place, the San Francisco Bay Area. Aided by artists, writers, cartographers, and twenty-two gorgeous color maps, each of which illuminates the city and its surroundings as experienced by different inhabitants, Solnit takes us on a tour that will forever change the way we think about place. She explores the area thematically—connecting, for example, Eadweard Muybridge’s foundation of motion-picture technology with Alfred Hitchcock’s filming of Vertigo. Across an urban grid of just seven by seven miles, she finds seemingly unlimited landmarks and treasures—butterfly habitats, queer sites, murders, World War II shipyards, blues clubs, Zen Buddhist centers. She roams the political terrain, both progressive and conservative, and details the cultural geographies of the Mission District, the culture wars of the Fillmore, the South of Market world being devoured by redevelopment, and much, much more. Breathtakingly original, this atlas of the imagination invites us to search out the layers of San Francisco that carry meaning for us—or to discover our own infinite city, be it Cleveland, Toulouse, or Shanghai.
Cartographers: Ben Pease and Shizue Seigel
Designer: Lia Tjandra
Artists: Sandow Birk, Mona Caron, Jaime Cortez, Hugh D’Andrade, Robert Dawson, Paz de la Calzada, Jim Herrington, Ira Nowinski, Alison Pebworth, Michael Rauner, Gent Sturgeon, Sunaura Taylor
Writers and researchers: Summer Brenner, Adriana Camarena, Chris Carlsson, Lisa Conrad, Guillermo Gómez-Peña, Joshua Jelly-Schapiro, Paul La Farge, Genine Lentine, Stella Lochman, Aaron Shurin, Heather Smith, Richard Walker
Additional cartography: Darin Jensen; Robin Grossinger and Ruth Askevold, San Francisco Estuary Institute
The Names Before the Names
Monarchs and Queens
The Lost World
Infinite City tips its hat to Italo Calvino’sInvisible Cities , and there is plenty of Calvino’s whimsical cosmi-comedy to be found here. Its subtitle is (and I offer a heavily abridged version): “A San Francisco Atlas of Principal Landmarks and Treasures of the Region, Including Butterfly Species, Queer Sites, Murders, Coffee, Water, Power, Contingent Identities and other Significant Phenomena, Vanished and Extant”. What Solnit, like Borges, well knows is that the science of cartography is limited: no map can hope to represent all aspects of any site, however small. “What we call places are stable locations with unstable converging forces,” she writes in her opening essay, and so her atlas records a vision of San Francisco as utterly specific but also involved with wider networks and flows (of capital, species, migration, language). Infinite City has been more than four years in the making. The book bears Solnit’s name and was her idea, but is warmly acknowledged to be the work of a cooperative of artists, writers, historians, researchers and cartographers from the Bay Area, all of whom have laboured together to produce this complex valentine to a complex place. It takes the form of 22 inventive maps of San Francisco and its environs, each with an accompanying essay. Those familiar with Solnit’s astonishingly varied career as activist, writer, essayist, urbanist, historian and landscape aesthetician will be unsurprised at this latest generic twist. Since 1990 Solnit has published 12 books, dissimilar in mode but united by her argumentative fire and her elegance as a stylist. There is no one quite like her at work in this country, and I wish there were.
The maps that her atlas comprises are various in style. A baroque map with inset cartouches, elaborate borders and corner curlicues plots the activities of San Francisco’s “Green Women”, who battled to preserve parks and green space as the city grew rapidly in the 20th century. Another, taking its design cue from tattoo art, represents “The Bay Area As Conservative/Military Brain Trust” and locates the Northrop Grumman missile-component company, Travis Air Force Base and the Chevron refinery (“where Iraqi crude oil is refined”). My favourite map, called “Monarchs and Queens”, colourfully co-maps “Butterfly Habitats and Queer Public Spaces” in the city. Painted Ladies and painted ladies dance gaily in its margins (though there is, it is worth noting, no overlap of habitat between San Francisco’s gay culture and its butterflies, except that the Western Tiger Swallowtail occasionally strays near to the Ramrod, the Stud, Toolbox and Mona’s Barrel House). Its closest map-relative is the wonderful “Dharma Wheels and Fish Ladders”, which plots the routes of salmon migrations up the Bay Area rivers alongside the spread of Soto Zen Buddhism in the region.
—Robert MacFarlane, Guardian