Infinite City

It's not often that an atlas can be described as experimental, or nostalgic, or poetic. Infinite City: A San Francisco Atlas, by Rebecca Solnit, deserves all those adjectives; but then, despite its subtitle, this is not a book you would take with you on a San Francisco road trip. The maps in this tall, slender volume, twenty-two in all, are meant not as guides but as provocations. They are designed to make the reader think anew about the city of San Francisco—its history, natural habitat, economic function, political values—and, by extension, about the way we all imagine the places we live in. "A city," Solnit writes in her introduction, "is a particular kind of place, perhaps best described as many worlds in one place; it compounds many versions without reconciling them." Ordinary maps show only the physical infrastructure that these "many worlds" share—streets, rivers, monuments. The maps in Infinite City, on the other hand, treat the physical city as a blank slate, on which many different experiences can be overwritten, like texts on a palimpsest.


Like poems, some of these maps are inspired by witty conceits and unlikely juxtapositions. "Death and Beauty" plots the locations of the 99 murders that took place in San Francisco in 2008 and, on the same map, shows where to find stands of Monterey cypress—trees whose "stable, silent lives," Solnit writes, "made them the right counterweight to violent death." Another map, "Monarchs and Queens," shows "Butterfly Habitats and Queer Public Spaces"—mostly gay bars, but also civil rights landmarks and an AIDS memorial. In the essay accompanying this map—each map serves as the jumping-off point for an essay, some by Solnit herself, many by other contributors—Aaron Shurin justifies the pairing. As a teenager in 1966 San Francisco, he writes, coming out meant "to own your true nature and emerge in living color," like a caterpillar into a butterfly. Or, Shurin notes, like a drag performer into a stage persona: the names of drag artists—"Goldie Glitters," "Pinkie Bubbles"—could be the names of butterfly species—"American painted lady," "San Francisco silverspot"—and vice versa.


As the date of Shurin's memory suggests, Infinite City is a book conceived in nostalgia. Solnit herself, writing about the map titled "Cinema City"—which plots locations from Hitchcock's Vertigo in red, and locations from the life of photographic pioneer Eadweard Muybridge in purple—writes lovingly about the experience of going to see a movie in a big theater, one of San Francisco's "dream palaces." Today, she laments, people are more likely to see movies "on airplanes and laptops and cell phones as well as televisions and monitors at home." This kind of cultural sentimentality blends easily into political sentimentality, about a tradition of San Francisco leftism that is now on the decline, after the great days of the 1930s labor movement and the 1960s counterculture. The map "Right Wing of the Dove: The Bay Area as Conservative/Military Brain Trust" plots military bases alongside conservative think tanks and the offices of Chevron and Walmart, secure in the assumption that all these things are equally detestable to the book's own contributors and readers. There is a parochialism, at times even a snobbishness, at work in Infinite City—which may be just another expression of its deep love of the place, and the past, it so ingeniously illustrates.




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