How do we understand space? How to synthesize the history, culture, geography, wildlife, real estate and transportation of a place? What does it mean when all these disparate aspects of urban life collide with each other?
Rebecca Solnit, in her book Infinite City, re-imagines what the atlas can teach us about a place. Her project takes as its core belief that “every place is if not infinite than practically inexhaustible,” and that the individual narratives of a city’s inhabitants each result in a different map. Her San Francisco atlas, a collection of twenty-two maps and accompanying essays, takes aim at a series of unique, one-off themes, many of which are juxtaposed onto a single map.
The result is an utterly new way to understand urban space. One map, “Shipyard and Sounds,” tackles the theme of migration by illustrating World War II shipyards along the bay area’s many coastlines, and within those rings of commerce, highlights spaces of African-American cultural and political landmarks. Another, “Monarchs and Queens,” merges San Francisco’s butterfly habitats and queer public spaces. Species names like California Tortoiseshell and Green Hairstreak criss-cross with Eagle’s Tavern and The Stud into a successful metaphor about spreading wings and opening cocoons.
Some of the book’s maps explore the city through a more panoramic view. A map of San Francisco’s neighborhoods, called “Phrenological San Francisco,” transforms the city as into enormous face, and seeks to map the urban skull via its bumps. Each neighborhood contributes a solitary personality trait to the frothy, bubbling whole that is San Francisco’s personality. The Mission is “Desire for Liquids,” the Sunset, “Inhabitiveness.” “Benevolence” stretches from Pacific Heights to the Haight, and “Cautiousness” inhabits the Tenderloin.
What Solnit’s book teaches us is that a city is not a single place, and that geography is not constrained to the physical. A map can be more than just roads; it can teach us what it means to inhabit a place.