In last week’s interview with Catherine Linka, she talked about how landscape is more than the physical and geographical aspects of an area—that it’s as much about the cultural and psychological make-up of a community. I couldn’t agree more.
This topic has lingered with me over the past week as I’ve pondered the cultural and psychological landscape of San Francisco’s unique, distinctive and diverse community. What is our cultural and psychological makeup?
|Map by Paz De La Calzada|
When people think of San Francisco, they think; liberal, left coast, tolerant, bohemian, weird, multicultural, QUILTBAG (thank you Catherine for introducing me to the correct term replacing LBGT) yuppie, old money, new money, fog, cold summers, steep hills, earthquakes, Victorian architecture, café society, high cost of living. We are home to the beat poets, topless clubs, Summer of Love, The Bohemian Club, Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, Those Darn Accordions, The Flaming Groovies, Twitter, Yelp, Pinterest, Mozella, Craigslist, Airbnb, Dashiell Hammett, Lemony Snicket, Mark Di Suvero, Richard Serra and Benny Bufano. (To name just a few.)
Thinking about all of this also brought to mind another writer and an atlas—a specific and interpretive atlas of San Francisco compiled and written by Rebecca Solnit, published in 2010 by University of California Press, called Infinite City—a San Francisco Atlas.
Listen to what Solnit has to say about the concept of geography and place in her prologue and introduction:
Places are leaky containers. They always refer beyond themselves, whether island or mainland, and can be imagined in various scales, from the drama of a back alley to transcontinental geopolitical forces and global climate. What we call places are stable locations with unstable converging forces that cannot be delineated either by fences on the ground or by boundaries in the imagination--or by the perimeter of a map. Something is always coming from elsewhere, whether it's wind, water, immigrants, trade goods or ideas. The local exists--an endemic species may evolve out of those circumstances, or the human equivalent--but it exists in relation, whether symbiotic with or sanctuary from the larger world...
|Map by Ben Pease and Sunaura Taylor|
Thinking like this, it seems a place is made up of many places, hard to define or pin down and constantly changing. It is fluid. There is so much about San Francisco that is fluid, liquid. We’re surrounded by water on three sides. Fog drifts in liquidy skeins of tiny droplets. There is a constant flow of visitors coming and going from all around the world. A constant influx of people, families, immigrating from all corners of the world with an equal out flux of those leaving to find more affordable living. Here, Solnit goes on to talk about urban space:
A city is a particular kind of place, perhaps best described as many worlds in one place; it compounds many versions without quite reconciling them, though some cross over to live in multiple worlds--in Chinatown or queer space, in a drug underworld or a university community, in a church's sphere or a hospital's intersections. An atlas is a collection of versions of a place, a compendium of perspectives, a snatching out of the infinite ether of potential versions a few that will be made concrete and visible...the place that is San Francisco has both a literal geography as the tip of the peninsula that juts upward like a hitchhiking thumb and another, cultural, geography as the most left part of the left coast, the un-American place where America invents itself.
|Map by Ben Pease and Mona Caron|
Every place is if not infinite then practically inexhaustible, and no quantity of maps will allow the distance to be completely traversed. Any single map can depict only an arbitrary selection of the facts on its two dimensional surface (and today's computer -driven Geographical Information System [GIS] cartography, with its ability to layer information, is only an elegantly maneuverable electronic equivalent of the transparent pages that were, in the age of paper, more common in anatomy books)...This city is, as all good cities are, a compilation of coexisting differences, of the Baptist church next to the dim sum dispensers, the homeless outside the Opera House.
I think Solnit’s comparison of books and libraries to people and the cities they live in is brilliant:
A book is an elegant technique for folding a lot of surface area into a compact, convenient volume; a library is likewise a compounding of such volumes, a temple of compression of many worlds. A city itself strikes me at times as a sort of library, folding many phenomena into one dense space--and San Francisco has the second densest concentration of people among American cities, trailing only New York, a folding together of cosmologies and riches and poverties and possibilities.
I’ve lived in San Francisco for more than 37 years and still gasp every time I leave and come back, crossing the Golden Gate Bridge into the city. I often wonder what I would think of the city today if I could see it with completely fresh eyes. Here, Solnit talks about coming home to San Francisco after living for a while in a homogenous rural area:
Every building, every storefront seemed to open onto a different world, compressing all the variety of human life into a jumble of conjunctions. Just as a bookshelf can jam together wildly different books, each book a small box opening onto a different world, so seemed the buildings of my city: every row of houses and shops brought near many kinds of abundance, opened onto many mysteries: crack houses, Zen centers, gospel churches tattoo parlors, produce stores, movie palaces, dim sum shops.
|Map by Shizue Seigel|
This gorgeous and infinitely fascinating book is a collection of 22 essays by 11 different writers; each essay is accompanied by a full spread artist's map of a different aspect of San Francisco, including: The Names Before the Names: The Indigenous Bay Area, 1769; Green Women: Open Spaces and Their Champions; Monarchs and Queens: Butterfly Habitats and Queer Public Spaces; Poison/Palate: The Bay Area In Your Body; The World In a Cup: Coffee Economics and Ecologies; and Treasure Map: The Forty Nine Jewels of San Francisco From the Giant Camera Obscura to The Bayview Opera House.
The book itself is a treasure and is available in bookstores and at the public library.
What is the cultural and psychological landscape where you live?
Take Good Care,