Friday, February 18, 2011

Infinite City of San Francisco: Which 'Prose Universe' Belongs to You?

Map from Infinite City, by Rebecca Solnit
Four months ago, I read a blog post at curbside treasure, about the joy of picking up a complimentary map, pictured above, at an independent San Francisco bookstore. I was intrigued by the map and the overall Infinite City atlas project--a collaboration of writers, artists and cartographers, conceived by Rebecca Solnit to commemorate SF MOMA's 75th Anniversary. It was only when I recently read the book for my MFA literature class (Constructing the World: Time and Space in Nonfiction) that I recalled the map.

According to the SF MOMA website, "Monarchs and Queens juxtaposes the habitats of local butterflies with the shifting locations of queer public space. By paralleling two dozen butterflies with both vibrant and lost LGBTQ landmarks, a particularly shimmering flight pattern of San Francisco denizens comes to light." (But hey, where are the deleted lesbian-dyke spaces of Red Dora's Bearded Lady Cafe, Cafe San Marcos, and Luna Sea--where I did my first public reading?)

Even more beautiful than the map is the accompanying two-page essay by Aaron Shurin--poet, essayist, and Professor of Writing at University of San Francisco:
"This is a map of 'monarchs and queens,' of butterflies and flutter-bys, of caterpillars in drag and men and women with wings... a map of cocoons torn open and places of refuge for winged creatures..."
This is not your typical atlas with its geographical-typographical statistics. Most of the maps and essays contain two seemingly disparate aspects of parallel worlds that become intricately linked, as most things in our lives tend to be: Zen centers and salmon migration; gourmet food and poisonous toxins; WWII shipyards and African American music. The list of contributors range from poet and fiction writer Summer Brenner, who wrote a stunning essay on murder and Monterey cypress trees, to Ira Nowinski, a photographer who documented the South of Market (SOMA) region's single men of 1970 before gentrification altered the neighborhood.

In our class discussion, we debated the book's intended audience. Does an atlas or book of essays on a particular place have inherent value for those who aren't its residents? Just as the book itself is textured with many layers, so too is a city. To a recent resident, studying the information was overwhelming, whereas I found myself matching histories I wasn't aware of with places I thought I knew.

I also noticed how many associations I had with my own experiences: the burnt coffee smell upon entering the city from the east bay in the early '80s (The Industrial City of 1960); the Ohlone prehistoric burial site under the current Yerba Buena center, which I helped uncover in an archeological dig around 1990 (Third Street Phantom Coast).

Our instructor Lewis Buzbee noted the infinite ways one could approach any location. He said that each of us has a 'city' (whether an actual place, an emotional state, etc.) that we want to convey to readers. "What is your 'city'? What is the prose universe that belongs to you?" I thought of creating my own map of the city, with each landmark or public space connecting to a particular memory that makes up my (and my family's) history.

If you haven't lived in or even been to the Golden Gate, you may want to start with the end--Treasure Map: 49 Jewels of San Francisco, which, like a travel guide, lists phenomenal places to begin.

1 comment:

rosaria said...

Such a rich way to look at a city! Great topic!

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