INFINITE CITY: A San Francisco Atlas. By REBECCA SOLNIT. vii and 157 pp.; maps, ills. Berkeley, University of California Press, 2010. $49.95 (cloth), ISBN 9780520262492; $24.95 (paper); ISBN 9780520262508.
Cultural geographers describe "sense of place" as the intimate, personal, and emotional experience with a locale or region and consider place as meaningful rather than as an abstraction in space. Critical geographers, in contrast, examines how spatial arrangement and representations in specific places serve and reproduce inequality and oppression and considers how space and place can be both tools and veils of power. In Infinite City: An Atlas of San Francisco, Rebecca Solnit synthesizes cultural and critical geographic inquiry into a readable, accessible, and visually stimulating collection of maps and narratives about one of the nation's most diverse metropolitan areas. She admits that the work is a love poem and celebration of a city she adores, but she is also quick to peel away the layers and expose the dark contradictions and flaws in her city. This makes Infinite City both a romantic valentine and a candid, critical introspection.
Divided into twenty-two chapters, each accompanied by a colorful full-page map, Infinite City pulls together twenty-nine diverse contributors with different and sometimes conflicting story lines about San Francisco. In the introduction Solnit explains how atlases are a collection of perceptions or versions of place and then outlines how the atlas playfully combines various disparate topics and themes from different viewpoints that produce not twenty-two or forty-four versions of San Francisco but an inexhaustible array of "infinite" perspectives on the city. However, she cautions, people's ability to absorb information is not infinite, so maps are selective and based on the mapmaker's own desires or questions about place.
Despite her emphasis that maps can be deeply arbitrary renderings, Infinite City does, I think, flesh out some important considerations about place in geographical thought. Most notable is that this atlas illustrates how place can be at once politically progressive and conservative, can be multicultural and outward-looking while also insular and exclusive, can be dynamic and connected in a globalizing world while also isolating, limiting belonging and attachment. In that vein several of the maps stand out.
In one of the boldest maps, the "Right Wing of the Dove" the Bay Area's leftist political history is juxtaposed against a long, complicated local history tangled with politically conservative think tanks such as the Hoover Institution at Stanford University. Solnit calls that institute the brains of the military machine, alluding to tech workers who are building missile-guidance systems at Lockheed or cobbling together nefarious surveillance systems at AT&T in downtown San Francisco. Though home to the nation's largest military disembarkation complex, Travis Air Force Base (in the northern suburbs), which distributes soldiers and cargo to battlefronts in Afghanistan and Iraq, the Bay Area also exports a politics of peace, fair trade, and green consumerism. A similar map, "Poison Palate: highlights the contradiction of the Bay Area as the intellectual center of high-tech corporations that are engaged in genetic modification of crops while also acting as the breadbasket of the local organic foods movement. The city, Solnit observes, is at once the deck of the Starship Enterprise and a Tuscan villa.
One of the key points Solnit makes in Infinite City is that local contradictions may not be resolved but must be recognized. She does not offer a way to expel the military-industrial complex or bioengineered food from the Bay Area, but she does force the reader to confront myths and engage in "truth to power." In another piercing map with that slogan, she outlines the complex political tangle of San Francisco's idealistic Civic Center buildings, juxtaposing iconic monumental Beaux Arts buildings against the disgrace of homelessness, mental illness, and alcoholism, pointing out that the young, idealistic city workers must navigate poverty and a failing economic structure during their commute and lunch hours. …