I have another entry for my Maps I Love Collection, a series of blog postings celebrating maps that display in imaginative ways where we are and where we have been. The new addition is Rebecca Solnit's Infinite City: A San Francisco Atlas (2010), a gorgeously published book by the University of California Press.
I have only been to San Francisco a couple of times and that was decades ago, but that matters little because Solnit's collaborative effort – where she enlists the help of other writers along with cartographers and artists – is more about our relationships to a place than a simple Rand McNally travel guide. Solnit summarizes her atlas in the Acknowledgements as a “valentine of sorts to a complex place...one that tries to see the place whole, with its toxic sites and crimes and tragedies as well as its treasures and cultures.”
Using variations of 22 maps of San Francisco and the San Francisco Bay Area, Solnit and her co-creators deftly juxtapose seemingly disparate subjects: Culinary landmarks with toxic sites, murder statistics with locations of Monterrey Cypresses, butterflies and the gay population (both “come out,” so to speak) or the locations of the area's shipyards and its rich musical heritage, both heavily influenced by the great Southern black migration of World War II that supplied the labor for the building of navy vessels at the rate of one a day. (The Joshua Jelly-Schapiro essay begins with the Otis Redding lyric from “Sitting on the Dock of the Bay”: I left my home in Georgia/Headed for the 'Frisco Bay). Other essays focus on a particular district like the Mission or Fillmore neighborhoods or more singular subjects like the importance of coffee or a tour of film sites via Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo.
After you have finished savoring this book, which deserves to be read slowly and thoughtfully, you feel like you have been living for decades in San Francisco. And you also wonder, “Doesn't every place deserve such a bittersweet love song?”