This place

Pub date April 26, 2011

LIT Begun in part as a series of maps accompanying public lectures, Rebecca Solnit’s Infinite City: A San Francisco Atlas (University of California Press, 167 pages, $24.95) is a remarkable act of gathering, one that presents myriad versions and visions of San Francisco and its surrounding areas that can inform a reader’s experience.

Infinite City was recently selected by the Northern California Independent Booksellers as one of its 2011 winners. Duality is a fundamental aspect of the book’s breadth and depth and sense of sharply critical appreciation — structurally, Solnit pairs distinct maps with corresponding chapter-length essays. In keeping with that characteristic, and also with the book’s group spirit (though admittedly on a much smaller and less intensive scale), I asked different Guardian contributors to share appraisals of one, or in most cases two, of the 22 sections. The result provides just a hint of what can be found within Infinite City. (Johnny Ray Huston)

MAP 3. “Cinema City: Muybridge Inventing Movies, Hitchcock Making Vertigo

The map for this chapter tracks the San Francisco life of Eadweard (sic) Muybridge, alongside landmarks from Alfred Hitchcock’s Bay Area masterpiece Vertigo. In “The Eyes of the Gods,” Solnit, who won the National Book Critics Circle award for her 2003 Muybridge bio River of Shadows, writes of the 19th century artist’s breakthrough high-speed photography, “It was as though the ice of frozen photographic time had broken free into a river of images.”

Many such rivers flowed all over this fair city when Vertigo premiered at the Stage Door Theatre at 420 Mason St. on May 9, 1958. Alas, only 10 of the more than 60 single-screen venues extant that year, all demarcated on Shizue Seigel’s fine map, are still functioning. Solnit rightly describes the shift to watching films on various digital delivery mechanisms as leaving contemporary culture with a “curious imagistic poverty.” As she concisely describes watching Milk and Once Upon a Time in the West on the Castro Theatre’s giant screen, we’re reminded that there is no comparison between enjoying cinema in such a grand setting and staring at a laptop. The great 20th century memoirist and observer Quentin Crisp wrote, “We ought to visit a cinema as we would go to a church. Those of us who wait for films to be made available for television are as deeply suspicious as lost souls who claim to be religious but who boast that they never go to church.”

That applies to you too, Netflix subscribers! The Roxie, Castro, Red Vic, Clay, and a small number of other houses of worship are still in business, so what are you waiting for? (Ben Terrall)

MAP 4. “Right Wing of the Dove: The Bay Area as Conservative/Military Brain Trust”

In “The Sinews of War are Boundless Money and the Brains of War Are in the Bay Area,” Solnit argues that antiwar, green, and left Bay Area hotspots are well known and don’t need to be charted again — unlike military contractors and assorted other forces of reaction in the region.

Solnit notes that many military bases that used to operate in the Bay Area are closed, “but the research, development, and profiteering continue as a dense tangle of civilian and military work, technological innovation, economic muscle, and political maneuvering for both economic and ideological purposes.”

Among the hard-right compounds providing counterevidence for that demonstration chestnut “the people united will never be defeated”: Lawrence Livermore National Labs (birthplace of Star Wars — the Reagan era money pit, not the George Lucas movie); Lockheed Martin, world’s largest “defense” contractor; the Hoover Institution, Stanford’s reactionary think tank; and Northrop Grumman, missile component designer. It’s useful to have so many of them in one place, if queasy-making.

On the lower left of the map sits Sandow Birk’s beautifully warped code of arms, which features the Cicero quote (Nervi belli pecunia infinita) that Solnit cites in her chapter title, under a half eagle/half dove, a rifle-toting soldier, and a scythe-clutching skeleton. It should be on the door of every U.S. military recruiting center. (Terrall)

MAP 6. “Monarchs and Queens: Butterfly Habits and Queer Public Spaces”

“How thoroughly the lexical landscape of gay history is invested with [a] paradigm of emergence,” notes poet Aaron Shurin in “Full Spectrum,” the chapter accompanying Infinite City‘s sixth map. Like one of the dazzlingly-named butterfly species rendered by Mona Caron on the map, Shurin flits gracefully between memoir and historiography as he tracks San Francisco’s ongoing evolution as a locus for queer emergence.

From North Beach to Polk Gulch, from Folsom to Castro, LGBT folk — be they American painted ladies, Satyr angel wings, or Mission blues — have continually migrated to and within the city to shed their cocoons and show their true colors. Local faux-queen Fauxnique traced this metamorphosis at the 2003 Miss Trannyshack Pageant when she climatically emerged as a regal butterfly to Elton John’s “Someone Saved My Life Tonight” (apropos to Shurin’s royalty motif, she won the crown). So too did the late Age of Aquarius painter Chuck Arnett, who often nestled butterfly imagery into his portraits of SoMa’s leather demimonde, and whose murals once adorned some of the many now-extinct bars also denoted by Ben Pease’s cartography. Only more than half a dozen of these “wildlife sanctuaries,” in Shurin’s parlance, have survived, with the Eagle Tavern’s announced closure marking another loss of habitat. Queers, though, are if anything adaptive, and my hope is that the future fluttering tribes of San Francisco will keep alighting on new ground to unfurl their wings. (Matt Sussman)

MAP 7. “Poison/Palate: The Bay Area in Your Body”

“Food is part of the Bay Area you hear about nowadays, exquisite upscale food at famous restaurants and gourmet markets. But it’s so boring we couldn’t stay focused on it in this map.” These refreshing, if rarely uttered words come two-thirds of the way through the chapter that accompanies the “Poison/Palate” map, Rebecca Solnit’s “What Doesn’t Kill You Makes You Gourmet.”

The phony Tuscany of Napa and the once-orchard-filled, now-EPA-Superfund-site-speckled Silicon Valley are wisely singled out for derision, a convenient duality in both geography and culture and the perfect framework on which to hang a critique of the local culinary community’s smug, myopic self-indulgence, by raising the not-so-elite-specters in Bay Area food history (the It’s It, the Popsicle, the Hangtown Fry, the Rice-a-Roni), and reintroducing the politics of food into the conversation, in the form of the chemical tonnage used to produce wine grapes, food giveaways at community gardens, Diet for a Small Planet, and Black Panther breakfast programs for school-kids. The sprawling topic is almost given too short a shrift, threatening to leap its mutant-mermaid-bedecked map.

Better is the 18th chapter, “How to Get From Ethiopia to Ocean Beach.” Solnit begins by loosely charting the ingredients that go into your cuppa joe: the water from Hetch Hetchy, the milk from West Marin, the coffee that courses through the port of Oakland, and, impishly, the leavings that flow toward the Southeast Water Pollution Control Plant. All that’s missing from the equation is the sugar that I need to make the darkest, brandy-and-cherry-tinged brew palatable. SF’s cafe culture is also deservedly lionized — though some might want to hurl china due to the exclusions on the accompanying map: why, for instance, call out Blue Danube Coffee House and not the grungier, more Chinese-populated Java Source? (Kimberly Chun)

MAP 8. “Shipyards and Sounds: The Black Bay Area since World War II”

Though author Joshua Jelly-Schapiro opens this chapter, subtitled “High Tide, Low Ebb,” with an eloquent invocation of Otis Redding’s “(Sittin’ on) The Dock of the Bay” — penned in Sausalito, by the way — it was the slight mention of Lowell Fulson’s “San Francisco Blues” that most resonated with me. “Ohh, San Francisco,” the lyric goes, “Please make room for me.” The facts presented in “Shipyards and Sounds” record The City’s answer as a genteel and progressive “No nigger.”

Beginning at the start of WWII, when Southern blacks migrated to the Bay Area to build ships in Hunters Point, Jelly-Schapiro points out that the main areas of wartime shipbuilding (Richmond, Hunters Point, Marin City) are “places that today remain centers of black population and of black poverty.” Indicating, to me, that little has changed since the 1940s in some significant ways. Don’t get mad at me, I didn’t say it. Jelly-Schapiro did.

Jelly-Schapiro also shows how terms like “redevelopment” displaced black Fillmore District residents to housing projects they’d been banned from during the war and land-grab euphemisms like “urban renewal” decimated black neighborhoods such as West Oakland. Electoral laws mandating that the SF Board of Supervisors be elected by citywide contests and not by district allowed a city that desegregated its schools and transit system in the 1860s to remain progressive and very, very white.

Jelly-Schapiro’s conclusion contains a critique of Bay Area celebrations when “Negro president” Barack Obama was elected in 2008. What he won’t say is covered in Shizue Seigel’s map. A sidebar shows the dwindling soul of a city, while the headers cover the founding of the Black Panthers and Sylvester’s solo debut at Bimbo’s. (D. Scot Miller)

MAP 9. “Fillmore: Promenading the Boulevard of Gone”

After the damned disheartening facts presented in the previous chapter, it’s both merciful and hopeful that “Little Pieces of Many Wars” — though just as rage-inducing — establishes some kind of equilibrium.

Gent Sturgeon’s incredible Rorschach-inspired artwork opens a thoroughly-researched piece on Fillmore Street and its many incarnations. Mary Ellen Pleasant’s abolitionist work and her eucalyptus trees — which still stand on the corners of Bush and Octavia streets — are a starting point for a leisurely stroll with Solnit, who runs the voodoo down, “The war between the states left its traces here,” she says, “as did the Second World War, and the war on poverty, the war on drugs, the stale and ancient war of racism, and the various forms of freelance violence.”

She remembers San Francisco as an abolitionist headquarters, and Fillmore Street as the first place Allen Ginsberg read “Howl.” Recalling the Fillmore’s rich heritage of jazz, poetry, and art, Solnit takes it even further, adding, “The wealthy sometimes claim to bring civilization to rough neighborhoods, but the Upper Fillmore neighborhood that was so culturally rich when it was the property of poor people in the 1950s is smoothed over in significance now.”

The tragedy of Japanese internment, and the cross-cultural exchange that was demolished by it and redevelopment loom like white sheets over the city to this day. But Solnit closes with an optimistic sense of resurgence, even though Nickie’s has gone Irish.

Ben Pease’s cartography shows the cross-currents of culture of yesterday’s Fillmore Street, but not much else. That’s not a complaint, really. (Miller)

 MAP 13. “The Mission: North of Home, South of Safe”

Two 2009 shootings on 24th Street pop out, in blood red, on the map accompanying Adriana Camarena’s “The Geography of the Unseen,” in much the same way that the spate of shooting deaths the previous year marked my brief time spent living in the Mission. In ’08, I lived in a Victorian flat at Treat and 23rd, distinguished by the fact that it was a favorite hang for the teenaged homies — its steps were slightly tucked back off the street, ideal when it came to hiding out, smoking dope, and snacking out — until my landlords installed a fence, ostensibly to keep the steps free of spit.

We were on the same block as an appliance-loaded junkyard; the last stop of an ancient Mission industrial railroad; and the Parque Niños Unidos, with its swampy, grassy corner, so often cordoned off to keep the tots from wading in the mud, its circling ice cream carts and its de facto refreshment stand, El Gallo Giro taco truck; and the community garden, where the feral kittens tumbled and hid and fresh produce was given away free every Sunday afternoon.

The Parque likely was the last thing 18-year-old poet Jorge Hurtado saw when he was shot and killed on our corner at 1 a.m. that year. I remember waking up that night to what sounded like a cannon boom, only the first of a slew that sweltering, ominous summer — Mark Guardado, president of the SF chapter of the Hells Angels, was killed a little over a week later, down Treat, in front of Dirty Thieves. The tension was thick and gooey in the air — who was next? The beauty of Shizue Seigel’s Mission map lies in how intimate it is, how it’s threaded around the shaggy-dog snatches of yarns Camarena catches among the day laborers waiting at Cesar Chavez and Bayshore, from the long litany of splintered families, time spent in the refuge of gangs at 24th and Shotwell, and then, in Frank Pena’s case, lives cut sadly short farther up 24th at Potrero. The included stories, rarely straying beyond the tellers’ voices and the facts they choose to reveal, stay with you — even if her sources’ internal lives remain, as the chapter’s subtitle goes, “the Geography of the Unseen.” (Chun)





Gold Boy, Emerald Girl, stories, Yiyun Li (Random House, 240 pages, $25)


Packing for Mars: The Curious Science of Life in the Void, Mary Roach (W.W. Norton and Company, 336 pages, $15.95)

Honorable Mention: Autobiography of Mark Twain, Vol. 1, (University of California, 760 pages, $34.95)



Come On All You Ghosts, Matthew Zapruder (Copper Canyon, 96 pages, $16)

Food Writing

My Calabria: Rustic Family Cooking from Italy’s Undiscovered South, Rosetta Costantino, Janet Fletcher, and Shelley Lindgren (W.W. Norton and Company, 416 pages, $35)

Children’s Picture Book

The Quiet Book, Deborah Underwood and Renata Liwska (Houghton Mifflin Books for Children, 32 pages, $12.95)

Honorable mention: Zero, Kathryn Otoshi (KO Kids, 32 pages, $17.95)



The Sky is Everywhere, Jandy Nelson (Dial, 288 pages, $17.99)

Honorable mention: The Mockingbirds, Daisy Whitney (Little, Brown Books for Young Readers, 352 pages, $16.99)



Infinite City: A San Francisco Atlas, Rebecca Solnit (University of California, 167 pages, $24.95)

Honorable mention: A State of Change: Forgotten Landscapes of California, Laura Cunningham (Heyday, 352 pages, $50)