Infinite City

It’s notoften that an atlas can be described as experimental, or nostalgic, or poetic. Infinite City: A San Francisco Atlas, byRebecca 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. Themaps in this tall, slender volume, twenty-two in all, are meant not as guidesbut as provocations. They are designed to make the reader think anew about thecity of San Francisco—its history, natural habitat, economic function,political values—and, by extension, about the way we all imagine the places welive in. “A city,” Solnit writes in her introduction, “is aparticular kind of place, perhaps best described as many worlds in one place;it compounds many versions without reconciling them.” Ordinary maps showonly the physical infrastructure that these “many worlds” share—streets,rivers, monuments. The maps in InfiniteCity, on the other hand, treat the physical city as a blank slate, on whichmany different experiences can be overwritten, like texts on a palimpsest.

Like poems, some of these maps are inspired by wittyconceits and unlikely juxtapositions. “Death and Beauty” plots thelocations 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 toviolent death.” Another map, “Monarchs and Queens,” shows “ButterflyHabitats and Queer Public Spaces”—mostly gay bars, but also civil rightslandmarks and an AIDS memorial. In the essay accompanying this map—each mapserves as the jumping-off point for an essay, some by Solnit herself, many byother contributors—Aaron Shurin justifies the pairing. As a teenager in 1966San Francisco, he writes, coming out meant “to own your true nature andemerge in living color,” like a caterpillar into a butterfly. Or, Shurinnotes, like a drag performer into a stage persona: the names of drag artists—”GoldieGlitters,” “Pinkie Bubbles”—could be the names of butterflyspecies—”American painted lady,” “San Francisco silverspot”—andvice versa.

As the date of Shurin’s memory suggests, Infinite City is a book conceived innostalgia. Solnit herself, writing about the map titled “Cinema City”—whichplots locations from Hitchcock’s Vertigoin red, and locations from the life of photographic pioneer Eadweard Muybridgein purple—writes lovingly about the experience of going to see a movie in a bigtheater, one of San Francisco’s “dream palaces.” Today, she laments,people are more likely to see movies “on airplanes and laptops and cellphones as well as televisions and monitors at home.” This kind of culturalsentimentality blends easily into political sentimentality, about a traditionof San Francisco leftism that is now on the decline, after the great days ofthe 1930s labor movement and the 1960s counterculture. The map “Right Wingof the Dove: The Bay Area as Conservative/Military Brain Trust” plotsmilitary bases alongside conservative think tanks and the offices of Chevronand Walmart, secure in the assumption that all these things are equallydetestable to the book’s own contributors and readers. There is a parochialism,at times even a snobbishness, at work in InfiniteCity—which may be just another expression of its deep love of the place,and the past, it so ingeniously illustrates.


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