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.”
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.
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.
a collection of maps.
Encyclopedic Entry: atlas Bay Area Noun
region surrounding San Francisco Bay in the U.S. state of California.
line separating geographical areas.
Encyclopedic Entry: boundary cartographer Noun
person who makes maps.
large settlement with a high population density.
to live at the same time or in the same place.
plant native to Africa whose dried berries and seeds are used for a drink of the same name.
something that completes or adds to something else in a pleasing way.
a disagreement or fight, usually over ideas or procedures.
to distort or bend out of shape.
having to do with cooking or food preparation.
type of evergreen tree.
having to do with the production of milk, cream, butter, or cheese.
data Plural Noun
(singular: datum) information collected during a scientific study.
conversation between two people or organizations.
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.
short piece of prose, usually nonfiction and on a specific topic.
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.
agreement or complementary association of several parts.
perfect and peaceful.
good traded from another area.
to have a relationship.
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.
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.
sense of taste.
serene and rural.
to locate exactly.
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.
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.
specific place where something is located.
group of similar organisms that can reproduce with each other.
exact or precise.
toxic waste Noun
chemical compound dangerous to humans and their environment.
poisonous substance, usually one produced by a living organism.