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Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Read Local: You've Never Seen S.F. Like This -- Rebecca Solnit's Infinite City

Posted By on Wed, Jan 9, 2013 at 10:00 AM


New York City might be home to the big houses, but this scrappy city just happens to be the epicenter of publishing on the Best Coast. Join Alexis Coe every Wednesday for Read Local, a series focused on books produced in the Bay Area.

In the Bay Area, Rebecca Solnit seems to be everywhere, and with good reason. She is the prolific author of 13 books, and her list of accolades, from a Guggenheim Fellowship to the National Book Critics Circle Award in criticism, runs even longer. She's been called an art historian, environmentalist, political critic, landscape writer, activist, and California's cultural historian, among other things.

In other words, the Novato-born, San Francisco resident has much to offer readers, but if I was to select one Solnit book integral to the Bay Area home, it would most certainly be Infinite City.

See also:

Death in the Tenderloin Chronicles 100 Lives from S.F.'s Poorest Neighborhoods

Chronicle Books Guaranteed to Please Everyone

Infinite City (University of California) is called a San Francisco atlas, but that paltry description is a bit like calling the nine-pound fluffball on my lap a dog. Apt, but staggeringly deficient. As Solnit said, "What we call places are stable locations with unstable converging forces," all of which she considers in the 22 pieces of gorgeous, inventive cartography presented alongside the same number of essays.

Rebecca Solnit
  • Rebecca Solnit

The project began as a commission from the SFMOMA, and is now a $24.95 homage to the city. Solnit selected personalized topographies and invited local writers, including Chris Carlsson and Richard Walker, to contribute essays alongside illustrations by artists ranging from Sandow Birk to Paz de la Calzada. Ben Pease and Shizue Seigel served as cartographers.


This might seem like a precious selection, but each offering is a complicated political, cultural, and environmental history that incorporates the flora and fauna, and even climate change, gang wars, and female environmentalists. The Mission District consists of Latino landmarks, not high-end furniture stores and restaurants.


Perhaps my favorite of all, the poet Aaron Shurin's essay, "Monarchs and Queens," is placed next to a map of "Butterfly Habitats and Queer Public Spaces." A close second, "Shipyards and Sounds," reconciles World War II shipyards alongside African-American landmarks.


Often, seemingly mutually exclusive titles accompany the pages, including "Poison/Palate," which features Superfund sites alongside ranch and farmlands. In other words, this is the polar opposite of Google street views, and certainly that affront Apple has put on our iPhones.

Like all maps, Infinite City is about a place, but many times reinvented. Solnit digs deep to upend the many layers of history in San Francisco for readers to not only discover, but to contend.

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