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  • 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.”

    Artistic Atlas

    Bicephalous mermaids are not indigenous to the Bay Area.

    Gem City
    Inspired by Rebecca Solnits Infinite City, which maps the city of San Francisco in fresh ways, students at the University of Wyoming created Gem City Atlas. Gem City Atlas was an art project that used similar cartographic techniques (and several of Infinite Citys cartographers) to map the city of Laramie, Wyoming. Velocity, Ferocity, and the Gem City, for instance, maps the city's transportation corridors with incidents of violence, including hangings in the Old West and the 1998 murder of Matthew Shepard.

    Art Project
    I've worked with visual artists a lot of my life. That's been an important part of my creative life, so it felt real natural to make a visual book with these 22 illustrated maps.
    Rebecca Solnit, author of Infinite City: A San Francisco Atlas

  • Term Part of Speech Definition Encyclopedic Entry
    ample Adjective

    plenty or more than enough.

    atlas Noun

    a collection of maps.

    Encyclopedic Entry: atlas
    Bay Area Noun

    region surrounding San Francisco Bay in the U.S. state of California.

    boundary Noun

    line separating geographical areas.

    Encyclopedic Entry: boundary
    cartographer Noun

    person who makes maps.

    city Noun

    large settlement with a high population density.

    coexist Verb

    to live at the same time or in the same place.

    coffee Noun

    plant native to Africa whose dried berries and seeds are used for a drink of the same name.

    complementary Adjective

    something that completes or adds to something else in a pleasing way.

    conflict Noun

    a disagreement or fight, usually over ideas or procedures.

    contort Verb

    to distort or bend out of shape.

    culinary Adjective

    having to do with cooking or food preparation.

    cypress Noun

    type of evergreen tree.

    dairy Adjective

    having to do with the production of milk, cream, butter, or cheese.

    data Plural Noun

    (singular: datum) information collected during a scientific study.

    devastate Verb

    to destroy.

    dialogue Noun

    conversation between two people or organizations.

    ecology Noun

    branch of biology that studies the relationship between living organisms and their environment.

    Encyclopedic Entry: ecology
    economy Noun

    system of production, distribution, and consumption of goods and services.

    essay Noun

    short piece of prose, usually nonfiction and on a specific topic.

    familiar Adjective


    food Noun

    material, usually of plant or animal origin, that living organisms use to obtain nutrients.

    Encyclopedic Entry: food
    Golden Gate Bridge Noun

    (1937) suspension bridge connecting the strait between the San Francisco Bay and the Pacific Ocean.

    harmony Noun

    agreement or complementary association of several parts.

    idyllic Adjective

    perfect and peaceful.

    import Noun

    good traded from another area.

    interrelate Verb

    to have a relationship.

    lake Noun

    body of water surrounded by land.

    Encyclopedic Entry: lake
    landscape Noun

    the geographic features of a region.

    Encyclopedic Entry: landscape
    location Noun

    position of a particular point on the surface of the Earth.

    Encyclopedic Entry: location
    map Noun

    symbolic representation of selected characteristics of a place, usually drawn on a flat surface.

    Encyclopedic Entry: map
    murder Verb

    to kill a person.

    navigation Noun

    art and science of determining an object's position, course, and distance traveled.

    Encyclopedic Entry: navigation
    neighborhood Noun

    an area within a larger city or town where people live and interact with one another.

    Encyclopedic Entry: neighborhood
    oppositional Adjective

    resisting or opposing.

    palate Noun

    sense of taste.

    pastoral Adjective

    serene and rural.

    pinpoint Verb

    to locate exactly.

    poison Noun

    substance that harms health.

    queer adjective, noun

    (sometimes considered offensive) having to do with the LGBTQA community (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgendered, questioning, and allies), particularly as it relates to sexuality, gender identity, gender, race, class, ability, and age.

    region Noun

    any area on Earth with one or more common characteristics. Regions are the basic units of geography.

    Encyclopedic Entry: region
    reservoir Noun

    natural or man-made lake.

    Encyclopedic Entry: reservoir
    river Noun

    large stream of flowing fresh water.

    Encyclopedic Entry: river
    shipyard Noun

    protected harbor where ships are built or repaired.

    site Noun

    specific place where something is located.

    species Noun

    group of similar organisms that can reproduce with each other.

    specific Adjective

    exact or precise.

    toxic waste Noun

    chemical compound dangerous to humans and their environment.

    toxin Noun

    poisonous substance, usually one produced by a living organism.