Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Cities within cities

A number of years ago I bought a large framed map of THE WORLD: Compiled and Drawn in the Cartographic Division of the National Geographic Society, 1965 from a Chicago antique shop. It's a pretty thing to look at: a wash of variegated blues with cream-colored continents, their individual countries demarcated by pink, green, and yellow lines. As an instrument, it does not inform the viewer of the world today (it contains Rhodesia, Bechuanaland, the USSR), nor even of the world as it was in 1965 (in order to position the United States front and center on the map, China has been cleaved in two, with everything east of the Himalayas pushed to the far right side of the frame and everything west of the Himalayas pushed to the far left), so much as it suggests the way the Cartographic Division of the National Geographic Society envisioned the world in 1965. This is not a map of the world but a map of one particular vision of the world.

It is a political map in the technical sense—it demarcates governmental boundaries between nations and the regions inside those nations, with small dots and large dots indicating cities and capitals. But it is also political insofar as it makes a statement; it reveals a specific bias. This version of political mapping is the one Rebecca Solnit and her team of collaborators put into practice in the atlas Infinite City. "A map is in its essence and intent an arbitrary selection of information, " Solnit writes. Defining places as "stable locations with unstable converging forces," she seeks to present a version—or rather, versions—of San Francisco that highlight those converging forces most poignant to her own experience.

I haven't read a great deal of Solnit's other writing, but I'm familiar enough to know that the subjects she seeks to chart on the maps of this atlas--environmentalism, militarism and social justice among others--are of regular concern to her. She draws much attention to the fact that we are getting her "perspective, with all its limits" which is a nod to the more theoretical aspect of her project. If this atlas can be read as a love letter to San Francisco, it is also making a fascinating and more broadly reaching argument about the ways in which "the description will never close the distance entirely between itself and its subject". As Italo Calvino's narrator says in Invisible Cities, which Solnit takes as her atlas's namesake, "The city must never be confused with the words that describe it." Or the maps. And this gap—where each description invariably falls short of the thing it means to describe—is fertile imaginative ground, limitless in possibility. "It is in the myriad descriptions that the maps begin to approximate the rich complexity of the place, of a place, of any place," Solnit writes in her introduction. From this perspective, approximation is both a more honest and more interesting attempt than accuracy. For accuracy is an impossible myth.

The more San Francisco is described, the more it seemingly eludes description. Solnit and her team heighten this sensation by illustrating a place in flux. The city changes geographically as the sea level rises, altering the location of the shore to submerge some neighborhoods and shift the marshes inland. The city changes demographically: Solnit notes the influx of African Americans during the Great Migration (Map 8: "Shipyards and Sounds: The Black Bay Area since World War II") and pointedly ignores the migration of upwardly mobile hipsters to the Mission ("Leaving out the gentrified Mission…was one of the pleasures of making this version of the place" she writes of Map 13: "The Mission" North of Home, South of Safe"). And the city changes across time, as indigenous languages are forgotten or revived, as buildings are razed and rebuilt, as residents are born or die or move away. This city—every city—is haunted by infinite ghosts, and "learning to see some of them is one of the arts of becoming a true local," Solnit writes (76).

I find the maps most effective when they call up strange and thought-provoking associations. Bizarre juxtaposition of subjects mapped on a single page—for instance, murders in 2008 and Monterrey Cyprus trees in 2009 on the map "Death and Beauty" (p.109)—allow these subjects to be seen both on their own terms and as placeholders for myriad other subjects. (Couldn't we instead map sites of heartbreak and bougainvillea?) A fairly straightforward street map focused on Fillmore Street (p. 66) is stippled with site markings, small black dots affixed to labels marked in white ink on black backgrounds. Viewed on its own, it presents as an average tourist map with designated tourist sites: galleries, bookstores, roller rinks and churches. Yet it faces a Rorschach-like ink blot that is so formally suggestive of the arrangement of labels on the Fillmore map as to cause the viewer to see the map as a Rorschach blot of its own. Just as no two people interpret a Rorschach test in the same way, Solnit writes that "no two people live in the same city."

This idea might strike a reader as disheartening, a suggestion of our fundamental alienation from one another, but the nature of Solnit's project undercuts such a reading. It is, after all, a collaboration. Solnit may be at the helm of this project, but she shares these pages with a wide-ranging group of artists and intellectuals. Each brings his or her own voice to the page, from measured tones of the geographer Joshua Jelly-Schapiro ("High Tide, Low Ebb") to the ecstatic lyricism of Aaron Shurin in the essay "Full Spectrum" (from my favorite section, "Monarchs and Queens"): "Did the city itself bust out, bank into flight? […] Didn't the city itself change shape, burst through, take wing, blaze into color, catch fire and light? This is a map of incendiary lights!"

Infinite City is dense and takes a long time to get through, though the getting through is largely pleasurable. Is it an essay? One essay? I believe the project as a unified whole may well be essaying: "In the course of making it, I have discovered how many more maps each of us contains," Solnit writes, and that sensation is passed onto the reader through the accretion of the 22 maps presented here. Still, I prefer to read it as a collection, picking it up and putting it down again, reading it out of page order and never in one sitting.

Solnit invites her readers to "map their own lives and imagine other ways of mapping… perhaps to become themselves some of the living books of this city or their cities." And one of the testaments to this book's strength is that after reading it, I find it virtually impossible to decline her invitation. Weeks after finishing Infinite City, the image that lingered for me was not one of Solnit's San Francisco, but rather a half-forgotten memory of my own, come alive again through the reading of this book.

During the first winter I lived in Chicago, I found myself driving through snowbound alleys in a north-side neighborhood late one night. Chicago's geography arranges itself in a near perfect grid, the north-south and east-west streets evenly spaced and situated at clear perpendiculars. Alleys run between these streets, superimposing a smaller but proportionate grid over the main one. Where the main streets are populated by fences and front doors and pedestrians, the alleys are home to garage doors, trailing vines, trash cans, house pets prowling through narrow unkempt backyards. It is possible to wander an entire neighborhood through its alleys, and it makes for an entirely different experience—inverted, seen only from behind, the familiar becomes strange. That night the snow lay thick over the road and roofs, so the alleys appeared like tunnels, and without streetlights I only had the moon and my headlights to cut through the dark. Though I was blocks from my apartment, I quickly became lost as the alleys branched away unrecognizable and indistinguishable. I felt then not only that I was no longer in Chicago, but that I was no longer anywhere really. I felt as though I'd slid through a crack in the city's façade and entered a sort of parallel dimension. The magical otherworldliness of that experience, faded in the years since, is what comes rushing back reading Infinite City.

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