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Know the West

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


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.