JULY 28, 2011
AFFECTION FOR PLACE RUNS like a red thread through Rebecca Solnit’s work. Solnit is a writer without portfolio who has already produced histories, bestiaries, catalogs, travelogues, and field guides; her formal ambition is tempered only by her interest in exploration, in introducing herself and her readers to unknown territories. In her latest work, a gorgeously produced collection of maps and essays called Infinite City: A San Francisco Atlas, she turns to another locality-determined genre, adding “cartographer” to her CV. “The atlas you have in your hands,” Solnit writes in her introduction, “is a small, modest, and deeply arbitrary rendering of one citizen’s sense of her place in conversation and collaboration with others.”
“Modest” and “infinite” might seem like strange bedfellows, but Solnit uses both adjectives to acknowledge that her title’s reach must necessarily exceed its grasp, since it “aspires to suggest something of the inexhaustibility of even a small city but is itself finite and even capricious in its mappings.” On the journey that led to the creation of Infinite City, Solnit discovered how many invisible San Franciscos lie mapped within the minds of her fellow citizens: geographies she may have been vaguely aware of but never really knew, as if their streets and landmarks lay shrouded in the city’s perennial fog.
Still, even an infinite city is a shared space, and if Solnit’s frank declarations of the book’s limits occasionally seem like protesting too much — a preemptive strike against any number of predictable, small-minded criticisms about things left out — they also suggest that her project encompasses not simply her own idiosyncrasies but something much larger. As Solnit herself surely knows, all citizens have not only their own peculiar, private thoughts about the place they live but also a deep commonality and tacitly agreed-upon set of norms and ideas about what the place represents, derived from years of living there. One of our oldest words for such a pool of agreed-upon norms and ideas from people living in a shared space is “politics,” and Infinite City, like its subject (and author), is political through and through.
As Infinite City shows, San Francisco’s politics, even given their famously perpendicular relationship to the politics of the country at large, are stranger than they seem, full of internal contradictions. “Contradiction” is a key word in the book, the conceptual model for understanding the motion of history (as it was for Karl Marx). “The Bay Area is good at containing contradictions,” Solnit argues, in a passage that could easily stand for the book as a whole:
being both the great laboratory for new military technologies and the capital of opposition to militarism, being both Tuscany and the starship Enterprise, making both delights for the palate and poison for the body. Behind the latter conundrum lies its constant tension between being more sensual and engaged with place, substance, and pleasure, on the one hand, and more sped-up, technological, profitable, and disembodied, on the other.
These contradictions are visualized and spatialized in Infinite City’s gorgeously produced maps, drawn by cartographers Ben Pease, Shizue Siegel, and Darin Jensen. Each illustrates some theme pursued in the ensuing prose essays, most of them written by Solnit, the others by Guillermo Gómez-Peña, Lisa Conrad, Joshua Jelly-Schapiro, Paul La Farge, and a half-dozen others. While many of the illustrations resurrect lost worlds — such as the opening map of indigenous Bay Area tribes, or the original coastline along San Francisco’s north-south-running Third Street — the characteristic gambit of the more explicitly political maps is to expose some dissonance in the Bay Area’s smug self-image, whether as a haven for antiwar hippies or a utopia of locally grown, organic goods. For example, a map titled “The Right Wing of the Dove,” illustrated with a grim emblem of a two-headed hawk-dove by California artist Sandow Birk, draws attention to the deep implication of the Bay Area in the military-industrial complex, pointing to the headquarters of nuclear, oil, and defense contractor Bechtel in downtown San Francisco and acknowledging the Travis Air Force Base in the North Bay and Concord Naval Weapons Station, a munitions shipment point, in the East. On the page, the argument looks slightly weak. There are only a few locations, and some descriptions strain to make their point, even when they shouldn’t have to, as when Stanford University is labeled as “employer of Professor Condoleezza Rice, instigator of war in Iraq”; more apposite, surely, is Stanford’s decades-long reliance on Defense Department money.
A more effective, even chilling juxtaposition of opposites appears in “Poison/Palate,” a greenish-blue portrait of the entire Bay which lists Northern California foodie havens like sustainable meat farmers Niman Ranch and Point Reyes’ Hog Island Oyster Company alongside Dow Chemical and Shell’s Martinez oil refinery and Silicon Valley’s toxic-waste-producing giants like Intel and Raytheon. “Food is part of the Bay Area you hear about nowadays, exquisite upscale food at famous restaurants and gourmet markets,” Solnit writes in her accompanying essay. “But it’s so boring we couldn’t stay focused on it in this map.” Instead, the map and essay zero in on the way “food and poisons are intertwined,” as well as how food and social justice are inextricable — such as in the farmworkers’ struggles led by César Chávez.
Here, as elsewhere, Infinite City draws less upon individual caprice and whimsy and more upon the author’s — and city’s — deep store of political seriousness, accumulated over years of attempting to come to terms with how things really are, locally and nationally, and to develop strategies to change them, or, sometimes, just to regret them. One of the more surprising aspects of this seriousness is its willingness to tumble deeply into nostalgia — a feeling more typically associated with a reactionary “good old days” conservatism. But the maps and essays that chart the disruption of African American life by urban renewal in the Fillmore District, or the destruction of factories listed in the “lost industrial city of 1960” along with the 6 AM bars that served men working the graveyard shift, are refreshingly frank and unsentimental in evoking the tragedy of San Francisco’s banished working-class. The most magnificent cartographic achievement in this vein has to be the map that reconstructs the working-class neighborhood south of Market Street (or, in gentrifiers’ parlance, SoMa) as it was in 1960, before a storm of corrupt redevelopment schemes changed the neighborhood irrevocably. Providing a sentimental snapshot of what has since become a desolate stretch of live/work lofts, tech firms, galleries, and empty warehouses, Ben Pease’s map discloses a vanished world of almost impossible economic diversity. A single block contains a tailor, bookshop, barbershop, hardware store, hat works, and tavern, within spitting distance of flophouses and small workshops that offered housing and employment to the truly disadvantaged — a kind of existence all but extinguished in the San Francisco of today. As Chester Hartman documents in his great book, Yerba Buena: Land Grab and Community Resistance in San Francisco (upon which Solnit draws for her own essay), this mostly male, working-poor district organized itself to fight mightily against developers backed by the city — winning many battles, but finally losing the war to keep the area an entryway into the city for the poor and uneducated. “It is a lost world,” Solnit writes eloquently,
not only because these diners and hat blockers and watch repair shops were scraped off the earth long ago but also because something of the dignity of these old laborers in their hats and suspenders, their modest pleasures and fierce commitments, will never exist in the same form again.
If these portions of the book indulge freely in wistful imaginings of San Francisco’s past, Adriana Camarena’s essay — the book’s best — on the overlapping worlds of Hispanic day-laborers and gangs in the Mission District looks unflinchingly at the violence underwriting the city’s present. A Mexican immigrant herself, Camarena has an uncanny gift for talking to strangers. Her essay records conversations she’s had with the jornaleros — the day-laborers usually strung along César Chávez Street — and members of the two largest gangs, the Norteños and the Sureños (who weirdly, as Shizue Siegel’s map discloses, occupy the south and north of the mission, respectively, rather than the other way around). The border between the laborers and the gangs is porous; the jornaleros have often traveled through conditions of the utmost brutality — sun-bleached deserts, caved-in tunnels, police dogs, and Minuteman guns — to arrive in a profoundly unequal and hostile place, the fourth most expensive city in the country, and then find themselves integrated into the gang world that invisibly controls the Mission, relying on the informal economy of gang life to supplement the bare income that odd jobs unreliably bring in. Camarena has an admirably clipped, cold style, which registers impassively all the injustices which Mission immigrants endure daily, and which sharpens the bitterness of the verdicts she levels on the society that allows such injustices to take place:
Victor, over by 22nd and Harrison, tells me he has been in and out of jail six times for “petty shit” — he is only twenty-one. He is tired of the harassment. He held down a job in Daly City, as a waiter serving sushi. When I went looking for him again, his brother told me Victor was back in prison. They had returned from a 49ers game and were hanging outside their building when a neighbor called the cops on them because she saw Victor wearing the color red (a 49ers T-shirt). The cops arrested him for breaking the terms of his parole. That cements a young man’s life in the gang system and as a second-class citizen.”
One of the provocative pleasures of Camarena’s essay and Siegel’s accompanying map is their deliberate omission of any trace of the “hipster” Mission that has sprung up in the last 20 years. That’s the neighborhood most middle- and upper-class white San Franciscans will know best — ground zero for the instant gentrification that took place during the dot-com years, due to its good housing stock and easy access to Silicon Valley-bound freeways. Gentrification persisted through the jobless boom that followed the bursting of the bubble, but its onward march seems to have largely halted at Valencia Street. The limit of its incursion into the mostly Mexican Mission is starkly visible when walking east from Valencia, now filled with popular restaurants and airy retail shops selling craft-y baubles, to Mission Street, still full of Spanish language bookshops, Mexican grocery stores, and bodegas — though the occasional upscale bar and restaurant are signs of impending transformation.
Solnit uses Infinite City’s unusual form to represent the consistency and strength of a particular brand of local politics: not quite the “San Francisco values” mocked by the right wing, nor even the city government’s narrow spectrum of liberal, left-liberal, and left politicians. Rather, the politics of the book comes out of a larger and deeper historical process, best analyzed by the scholar Richard DeLeon in his masterful Left Coast City: San Francisco Politics, 1975-1991. There, DeLeon wrote of the development of an urban “antiregime” that recognized the existential threat to the city contained in the predatory real estate schemes of late capitalism, which in the 1980s were busy remaking downtown San Francisco into the mirror image of Manhattan. In response, the left stopped critiquing and plotting and started affirming. “Its first priority is not revolution,” DeLeon wrote of this antiregime, “but protection — protection of the city’s environment, architectural heritage, neighborhoods, diversity, and overall quality of life from the radical transformations of turbulent American capitalism.”
If Infinite City has a unifying ethos, it’s that of this reactive, protective, and affirmative antiregime — an attitude that, far from being “arbitrary” or “capricious,” as she self-deprecatingly suggests, is thoroughly intertwined with the city’s unique political history. This isn’t your Marxist grandfather’s leftism; these days, wild revolutionary futurology has become the province of the right, while the left has had its most ardent hopes tamed by a recognition of the rights of the earth, as well as the limits of political engineering to deliver abundance. Not that Solnit isn’t attuned to the dreams embodied in the most spectacular virtual technologies. What made River of Shadows, her 2003 book on Eadweard Muybridge, such a masterpiece was the tension Solnit maintained between the technological promise of Muybridge’s photography and the vast human failures of his historical epoch. In all of Solnit’s books, one sees a desire to illuminate and preserve those moments of human dignity and hope, moments otherwise condemned to obsolescence.
Infinite City sides openly — perhaps, from a certain perspective, a bit conservatively — with the older San Francisco of working-class traditions and tightly knit communities against the gentrifying pockets of itinerant hipsters in the Mission and the Haight, and still more against the commanding vistas of northern San Francisco’s Pacific Heights, frothing with overaccumulated venture capital. The figures from this latter San Francisco make appearances in the book as the enemy, heavily satirized or easily dismissed. “When I look into the cafés,” Camarena writes, describing the gentrified Mission, “I see the hip sip liberally on Fair Trade roasts, while their laptop screens suction their brains into the ether-web.” Paul La Farge’s whimsical “phrenological” reading of San Francisco as a giant head divided into zones of personality renders the Marina, one of the city’s wealthier neighborhoods, as the zone of Blandness, Agreeableness, and Youthfulness, “where firm-thighed consultants rollerblade on a bed of landfill” (referring to the Marina’s land reclamation soon after the 1906 Earthquake). Such advocacy of a flabbier-thighed (read: honest, economical, down-to-earth) urban life runs through the book. What’s being registered here, of course, is the ethos of the antiregime: the feeling that capital poses a threat to San Francisco’s diversity and liveliness — the very things, of course, that attract capital to an urban environment in the first place. If these threats are to be beaten back, Infinite City seems to suggest, the costs of the transformation have to be exposed, the existence of what is best about the city affirmed.
That affirmation, finally, is a source of strength. One of the book’s great virtues is its refusal to let nostalgia and lamentation over the city’s violent changes prompt a regression into left-wing nausea. Much of that achievement derives from Solnit’s mood, which — unlike, say, the cloud of nameless dread that hangs around her one-time neighbor to the south Joan Didion — seems to sustain her in a near-constant state of political reverie. Little everyday gestures begin to seem in her hands like grand historical ones, a stance that allies her with the late Jane Jacobs, for whom the mere maintenance of human networks in neighborhoods and the enhancement of capacities for public life constituted heroic forces. In her essay on the Civic Center complex in the city’s heart (which partly reprises her earlier “The Heart of the City”), Solnit makes going to the farmer’s market held at United Nations Plaza every Wednesday and Sunday seem like “an embodiment of the hopes of the United Nations” — a sublime idea that Solnit, with her canny sense for contradiction, deflates in the same sentence, noting that
all around the stands selling pomegranates and beautiful lavender and violet Chinese eggplants and roses and beets and Two Dog Farm’s famous dry-farmed tomatoes are monuments to the tangled history of race, rights, and power in San Francisco, California, and the United States.
Whether she’s describing a dinner with “the Chicano and Chilango performance artists Roberto Sifuentes and Guillermo Gómez-Peña … one night at Tadich Grill” or, in her essay on San Francisco movie theaters, offering a lovely, tactile memory of old movie tickets (“torn from a roll and made of a particular kind of soft, fibrous, colored cardboard, red most often, sometimes orange or lavender or gray, to be found later crumpled in pockets”) one senses Solnit’s passion for preserving and affirming those small pleasures — pleasures that are at once antithetical to and completely implicated in the Bay Area’s preference for the “sped-up, technological, profitable, and disembodied.” In much the same vein, Infinite City celebrates the unofficial capital of Silicon Valley while reveling in its own physical, tangible qualities as a printed book — it is a book that, at the time of this writing, still cannot be purchased in any electronic version. That’s a contradiction too, of course, whose resolution can only add more paradoxes to this strange and enduringly beautiful part of the world where so many other contradictions have been born.