Infinite City, A San Francisco Atlas

Rebecca Solnit

Review by: Bill Dietrich, President & CEO, Downtown Council of Kansas City

David Byrne of Talking Heads and New York arts scene fame once said in his 1986 movie True Stories (and I paraphrase), ‘sometimes you have to leave a place for awhile to be able to see it again as it really is, with fresh eyes and new perspective’.  Later at a suburban mall he ironically reflects on the abandonment of our Downtowns for easy parking, ‘what time is it?  No time to look back.’  But we need to look back, to remember where we’ve been, how we came to be and who we are.   To experience something new in our Downtowns we need to explore them from differing perspectives, through multiple lenses and filters.

Rebecca Solnit’s fascinatingly researched and beautifully illustrated book, Infinite City, A San Francisco Atlas, accomplishes exactly that.  It is an atlas of sorts, exploring seven square miles of the San Francisca Bay area.  It transports one through time, topic, geography, culture, experience and a few other realms I’m sure I’m leaving out.  Telling the story of San Francisco through artists, writers and cartographers, Ms Solnit provides illumination enabling us to see connections we are unaware of or had forgotten.  The book’s maps, illustrated by cartographers Ben Pease and Shizue Sigel are alone worth the price of admission.

Ms Solnit takes us on a tour.  Chapters and topics are defined by their maps with titles like “The Names, Before the Names, Green Women, Cinema City, Monarchs and Queens and the Right Wing of the Dove.”  Summarizing “The Right Wing of the Dove”; we are all familiar with the stereotype of San Francisco as a bastion of liberal values ensconced on the “left” coast, but do you recall it is also the home of military industrial giants, Northrup Gruman, Lawrence Livermore (remember Reagan’s Star Wars?), Bechtel, Travis Air Force Base and the right wing think tank Hoover Institute?  The chapter captures another unique and individual layer of San Francisco drawn to the fore in all its ambiguity by Ms Solnit’s research.

The chapters and maps tell the story of many different cities sharing the same seven square miles.  History, politics, butterfly habitats, Buddhists centers, notorious murder sites and alternative lifestyles each a unique city and set of experiences.  Ms Solnit’s gift through this book is one we can all apply to the place we live and work, one of perspective, too seeing our homes and Downtown’s through fresh eyes for what they are and have been, places often difficult to understand and categorize but more interesting and richer for their complexity.

Find the book on Amazon or in your local bookstore.