With Infinite City: A San Francisco Atlas, San Francisco-based writer Rebecca Solnit has proved that atlases can be more than navigational aids. The book, featuring 22 maps and 19 essays, provides ample evidence that atlases can allow readers to look at familiar geographic regions in new ways—and can also be strikingly beautiful pieces of art.
Solnit says living in San Francisco inspired the work.
“It was the city of San Francisco itself,” she says. “I’ve been exploring it for 30 years, and I wanted to describe some of the things I have discovered about it over the course of all that time as a writer, as well as a person who walks a lot and explores and reads and pays attention and talks to different kinds of people.”
One of the maps in Infinite City, “Poison/Palate: The Bay Area in Your Body,” pinpoints the Bay Area’s toxic waste sites, such as the former Hunters Point Naval Shipyard, as well as the region’s many culinary attractions, such as the Ghirardelli Chocolate Factory in San Leandro.
Another map, “Death and Beauty: A Year of Murders, and a Noble Species of Tree,” maps San Francisco’s Monterey cypress trees, along with the location of the 99 murders that occurred in the city in 2009.
Other maps are artistically contorted, like “Truth to Power: Race and Justice in the City’s Heart.” In this map, the city’s center is depicted as a human heart.
Although Solnit worked with a team of cartographers, artists, and researchers, she says mapping two different sets of data on the same map was her idea.
“I started this project knowing that I wanted to do it to create a kind of dialogue between two forces, whether they are oppositional like food and toxins in the ‘Poison/Palate’ map or complementary like ‘Death and Beauty’ or ‘Monarchs and Queens,’ which is butterflies and queer public spaces,” she says. “It is also about co-existence. Any place is full of co-existences of things that are extremely different, whether that existence is conflicted or harmonious.”
Solnit also sought to use some of the maps to illustrate how different places are interrelated. “The World in a Cup: Coffee Economies and Ecologies” outlines the sources of different elements of coffee in San Francisco.
Solnit explains how “The World in a Cup” got her thinking of places far outside of the city’s boundaries.
“Something as simple as a cup of coffee has all these different landscapes in it,” she says. “Café con leche, or coffee with milk, has the milk from some local dairy landscape that is kind of pastoral and idyllic . . . .
“The water probably comes from some reservoir or river or lake. To ask where the water in your coffee comes from is to ask what is the water system in your region. What water is feeding your town or city?
“Then there is the coffee itself. Other than Hawaii, there is no coffee grown in the United States. If you are drinking coffee, you are drinking an import. You can start thinking of Vietnam or El Salvador or Guatemala or Colombia.”
Some of the maps in Infinite City forced Solnit to hit the streets in her city for research purposes. One of those maps was “Treasure Map: The 49 Jewels of San Francisco,” which reveals key San Francisco sites, including the famous Golden Gate Bridge and the lesser-known “Golden Hydrant,” which helped save a neighborhood from the devastating fire of 1906.
“For the ‘Treasure Map,’ I went and confirmed some locations and did some really specific exploring,” she says. “For the ‘Death and Beauty’ map, I actually went and mapped Monterey cypresses around San Francisco.”
Solnit came to think of San Francisco differently after interviewing longtime city resident Add Bonn. Bonn’s input is reflected in the map “400 Years and 500 Evictions in the City.”
“She has had a view of the Golden Gate Bridge for 65 or 70 years,” Solnit says. “And when I said something about it, she said to me, ‘I don’t like the bridge. It ruined the view.’ It was so exciting for me to meet someone who remembered what the Golden Gate looked like before there was a bridge there. That made San Francisco new for me again.”
Though there were rewarding experiences for Solnit while creating Infinite City, she also had the demanding task of keeping track of all the research, cartography, design, art, and essays that would go into the finished atlas.
“The biggest challenge for me was just keeping all the different pieces together,” she says.
Solnit hopes people are able to find two major inspirations from Infinite City. The first is simply joy and pleasure from the maps and essays in the book.
“Second, I hope that they start to think about what do maps do, and what else can maps do,” she says. “What do I want maps to do? What do they tell me about place? I hope they also inspire people to explore whatever place they happen to live in and ask more questions about it.”
The book has already inspired people to make innovative maps of their regions. Currently, Solnit is working with a collaborator to do an Infinite City-like atlas of New Orleans, Louisiana.
“I’m talking to people in a few other places about potential atlases that I’m excited about,” she says, “so the mapping continues.”