The endless atlas: A review of Infinite City: A San Francisco Atlas

  • Aaron Shurin
  • Paul La Farge
 

Infinite City: A San Francisco Atlas
Rebecca Solnit
167 pages, softcover: $24.95.
University of California Press, 2010.

San Francisco author Rebecca Solnit's latest release, Infinite City, can be loosely described as an atlas of her hometown. But Solnit is interested in far more than geographical representation, as she writes in the book's foreword: "An atlas is a collection of versions of a place, a compendium of perspectives, a snatching out of the infinite ether of potential versions a few that will be made concrete and visible."

"Topographical ode" or "geospatial paean" might better describe what the author is up to here. Interweaving vivid maps with short historical travelogues, Solnit and her fellow contributors offer unique perspectives on a city that is continually rising up and ebbing away. "Third Street Phantom Coast," for example, is a map of the peninsula's eastern fringe that depicts a now-forgotten city of ancient shell middens, long-buried streams and concretized serpentine outcrops. It shows how, over the last 150 years, the city's waterfront expanded as successive layers of landfill were dumped on the tidelands of the Bay. Vanished landmarks from the late 19th and early 20th centuries  --  the "Tubbs Cordage Company" and the "Site of rancho bear and bull fights," among others  --  haunt the rendering.

Another map titled "Poison/Palate" plots organic farms and iconic eateries  --  Chez Panisse, See's Candies and Petaluma Poultry  --  alongside the region's many "poison" and Superfund sites  --  the New Almaden mercury mine, Shell's Martinez oil refinery and the wineries of Sonoma, which, in 2008, we learn from a small annotation, utilized nearly 1,300 tons of chemicals in order to produce 168,000 tons of wine grapes. In the lower left-hand corner, two mermaids  --  one two-headed and Medusa-haired  --  frolic in a triangle ominously labeled "Nuclear waste disposal sites."

Some maps strain a little to make their point. "Right Wing of the Dove," for example, plots the Bay Area's military-industrial complex beside the likes of the conservative radio station KSFO, the headquarters of Walmart.com and Stanford University, "employer of professor Condoleezza Rice."

But there are few misfires, and at their very best Solnit's maps rise to the level of cartographic literature. "Shipyards and Sounds," for example, juxtaposes the shipbuilding sites that emerged across the Bay Area during World War II (and lured workers from the Jim Crow South) with important local black history sites, such as the North Oakland founding place of the Black Panther Party, Mercury Recording Studio, where Tower of Power recorded "East Bay Grease," and the spot overlooking Richardson Bay where Otis Redding wrote "Sittin' on the Dock of the Bay" (a mere stone's throw from where gangsta rapper Tupac Shakur lived in the late '80s and '90s).

With academic wit and an explorer's eye, Solnit teases out the interplay of forces that have guided the city's cycles of growth and destruction, development and decay. But it's not the public city she is charting so much as it is the private  --  the idiosyncratic inner guides we city dwellers develop (often unconsciously) and navigate by daily. "San Francisco has eight hundred thousand inhabitants, more or less," Solnit writes, "and each of them possesses his or her own map of the place, a world of amities, amours, transit routes, resources, and perils, radiating out from home."

Infinite City, in fact, reinvigorates the old cliché: It gives us the universal in the particular, together with maps to help us find our way.

High Country News Classifieds
  • CANYONLANDS FIELD INSTITUTE
    Field Seminars for adults: cultural and natural history of the Colorado Plateau. With guest experts, local insights, small groups, and lodge or base camp formats....
  • PLANNED GIVING OFFICER
    National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA), the nation's oldest and largest national parks nonprofit advocacy organization seeks a Planned Giving Officer. Do you find energy in...
  • DEPUTY DIRECTOR
    The Methow Valley Citizens Council has a distinguished history of advocating for progressive land use and environmental values in the Methow Valley and Okanogan County...
  • ACTING INDIGENOUS AFFAIRS DESK EDITOR
    High Country News is seeking an Acting Indigenous Affairs Editor to oversee the work of our award-winning Indigenous Affairs Desk while our editor is on...
  • GRANTS PROGRAM DIRECTOR
    The Cinnabar Foundation seeks an enthusiastic, team-oriented and knowledgeable Grants Program Director to work from their home in Montana. Established in 1983, the Cinnabar Foundation...
  • ARTEMIS PROGRAM MANAGER
    The Artemis Program Manager will work with National Wildlife Federation sporting and public lands staff to change this dynamic, continue to build upon our successful...
  • ALASKA SEA KAYAK BUSINESS FOR SALE
    Well-known and successful sea kayak, raft, hike, camp guiding & water taxi service. Sale includes everything needed to run the business, including office & gear...
  • MEMBERSHIP AND EVENTS PROGRAM COORDINATOR
    Great Old Broads for Wilderness seeks a detail-oriented and enthusiastic Membership and Events Coordinator to join our small, but mighty-fun team to oversee our membership...
  • PROGRAM DEVELOPMENT FACILITATOR
    ABOUT THE HIGH DESERT MUSEUM Since opening in 1982, HIGH DESERT MUSEUM has brought together wildlife, culture, art and natural resources to promote an understanding...
  • LAND STEWARD, ARAVAIPA
    Steward will live on-site in housing provided by TNC and maintains preserve areas frequented by the visiting public and performs land management activities. The Land...
  • DEVELOPMENT WRITER
    Who We Are: The Nature Conservancy's mission is to protect the lands and waters upon which all life depends. As a science-based organization, we create...
  • CONNECTIVITY SCIENCE COORDINATOR
    Position type: Full time, exempt Location: Bozeman preferred; remote negotiable Compensation: $48,000 - $52,000 Benefits: Major medical insurance, up to 5% match on a 401k,...
  • EXECUTIVE ASSISTANT
    ArenaLife is looking for an Executive Assistant who wants to work in a fast-paced, exciting, and growing organization. We are looking for someone to support...
  • DEVELOPMENT DIRECTOR
    Driggs, ID based non-profit. Full time. Full job description available at tvtap.org. Submit cover letter and resume to [email protected]
  • ENVIRONMENTAL AND CONSTRUCTION GEOPHYSICS
    - We find groundwater, buried debris and assist with new construction projects for a fraction of drilling costs.
  • SPRING MOUNTAINS SOLAR OFF GRID MOUNTAIN HOME
    Located 50 miles northwest of Las Vegas, Nevada in the pine forest of Lee Canyon at 8000 feet elevation. One of a kind property surrounded...
  • MAJOR GIFTS MANAGER - MOUNTAIN WEST, THE CONSERVATION FUND
    Cultivate, solicit and steward a portfolio of 75-125 donors.
  • NATURE'S BEST IN ARAVAIPA CANYON
    10 acre private oasis in one of Arizona's beautiful canyons. Fully furnished, 2123 sq ft architectural custom-built contemporary home with spectacular views and many extras....
  • HEALTH FOOD STORE IN NW MONTANA
    Turn-key business includes 2500 sq ft commercial building in main business district of Libby, Montana. 406.293.6771 /or [email protected]
  • LUNATEC ODOR-FREE DISHCLOTHS
    are a must try. They stay odor-free, dry fast, are durable and don't require machine washing. Try today.