Book Review: ‘Infinite City: A San Francisco Atlas’ by Rebecca Solnit
Infinite City A San Francisco Atlas
University of California Press: 157 pp.
$49.95 (cloth), $24.95 (paper) (oversized format)
We often speak of inhabiting a place — a country, a city or our own small plot of land — but seldom do we pause to deeply consider how that place inhabits us: not just how we define it but also how it defines who we are.
Places exist in our minds, perhaps more vividly than they might in the moments we physically pass through them. Our understanding of a place — and how we might emotionally map it — is informed by what we bring to it; our past, present, future; expectations, hopes and disappointments color the legend.
It’s this symbiosis — the relationship between memory, imagination, anticipation and reality — that Rebecca Solnit’s captivating, deeply evocative collection of re-imagined maps and essays, “Infinite City: A San Francisco Atlas,” expertly charts.
Solnit, who has taken readers on inspired explorations — the history of walking in “Wanderlust,” a time-machine jaunt back to the invention of high-speed motion photography told through the lens of its inventor, Eadweard Muybridge (“River of Shadows”) — has called San Francisco home for about 30 years.
But the San Francisco she daily experiences is not the same San Francisco as that of her next-door neighbors, who may have spent precisely the same amount of time there and traversed a similar set of streets. Our perspective, relationships, chemistry and histories play a part in not just our sense of place but also our personal narratives of it. “No two people,” Solnit writes early on, “live in the same city.”
“Infinite City” examines that San Francisco, a physically compact place that contains multitudes, through a series of elegantly rendered maps and cleverly researched and well-wrought essays conceived by more than a dozen writers, cartographers and artists.
Passing through these newly mapped territories, we begin to see that “place,” as Solnit emphasizes, is an imprecise word, and even the idea of an atlas is beyond subjective: “An atlas,” she writes, “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.”
San Francisco is her “place” — and she writes from her unique pin on the map, as do the writers and artists who contribute their tiles of the story. They collectively, and intricately, render the 47-square-mile-city in 22 maps that glimpse the city through the prisms of politics, ideology, agriculture, social justice, film, counterculture, toxic dumps, shipyards, industry, the Wild West of identity (ethnic, sexual) and more.
Much like narrative histories, official atlases, in their most formal sense, are commissioned by those who have some modicum of influence: power to decide what or who is important, what is lingered on, what is elided and the paths we take to get there. This book alters the focus and point of view; it tells the story of a city through the voices of its inhabitants’ obsessions, dreams, predilections, passions. It allows what lies beneath the surface to speak.
This is where silenced history steps in, the pasts we have buried or that have been buried for us. While standard two-dimensional maps, as Solnit points out, “can only depict arbitrary selection of facts,” Solnit instead, by way of shifting perspectives, is embarking on a version of storytelling more along the lines of “today’s computer-driven Geographic Information System [G.I.S.] cartography with its ability to layer information,” much in the way we used to encounter in anatomy books of yore —those transparent pages that worked as overlays. This is how we can see through to the bones of a city and also what we have built upon them.
The city pulls into focus, not in the utilitarian way you might be used to by, say, looking at it on the MUNI grid to get from the Sunset to the Fillmore. Rather, Solnit has put San Francisco’s fluid identities — its resources, clichés and its contradictions — into conversation with one another. The idea is to reframe San Francisco’s history through provocative pairings and unexpected juxtapositions — putting opposing forces in conversation, even if the histories simply glance off one another.
These maps (and their accompanying essays) explore “the City” from the inside out and back again. Among them, the self-explanatory maps: “The Names Before the Names: The Indigenous Bay Area”; “Shipyards and Sounds: The Black Bay Area Since World War II”; “Graveyard Shift: The Lost Industrial City of 1960 and the Remnant 6 a.m. Bars”; “The Mission,” about the day laborers who haunt the sidewalks by day and “sleep between the car and curb” by night; “Right Wing of the Dove: The Bay Area Militant”; “Tribes of San Francisco”; and “Poison/Palate: The Bay Area in Your Body,” which juxtaposes San Francisco’s gourmet ghettos against its equally deep connections with Silicon Valley.
In a certain way, Solnit’s project approximates an experience much like that of Billy Pilgrim, Kurt Vonnegut’s time-slipping protagonist from “Slaughterhouse-Five,” in which past, present and future merge — so the actions and ramifications occur in close proximity: The past informs the future, the future is a product of the past. She’s joined the dots between our recorded past and an imagined one — a city’s motifs, its myths, its rewritable nature.
“What makes a city yours?” asks Heather Smith in “Dwellers and Drifters in the Shaky City,” an essay that accompanies a map titled “400 Years and 500 Evictions.” It’s not just how we make our mark, but also how we mark our spaces and stand our ground. As Solnit notes at the outset of this trip, maps are invitations: “You can enter a map, alter it, add to it, plan with it.”
And although those higher up on the rungs often see change, unequivocally, as “modernization” and “progress,” what’s more honest is that we’re always walking on bones — the hidden, the unknown. To call some place home is to understand this: “Every city is full of ghosts,” Solnit writes, “and learning to see some of them is one of the arts of becoming a true local.”
Lynell George is an L.A.-based journalist and an assistant professor of English and journalism at Loyola Marymount University.
Love a good book?
Get the latest news, events and more from the Los Angeles Times Book Club, and help us get L.A. reading and talking.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.