Infinite City – A San Francisco Atlas

It has been a decade or so since I first read this book. I’ve been meaning to re-read it for the past couple of years as I remembered it had some interesting information that I wanted to highlight and record in this journal and hadn’t done so before.

This atlas shows San Francisco in times gone by and through various lenses. I really enjoy this paragraph found in the beginning of the book.

San Francisco has eight hundred thousand inhabitants, more or less, and each of them possesses his or her own map of the place, a world of amities, amours, transit routes, resources, and perils, radiating out from home. But even to say this is to vastly underestimate. San Francisco contains many more than eight hundred thousand living maps, because each of these citizens contains multiple maps: areas of knowledge, rumors, fears, friendships, remembered histories and facts, alternate versions, desires, the map of everyday activity versus the map of occasional disco very, the past versus the present, the map of thsi place in relation to others that could be confined to a few neighborhoods, or could include multiple continents of ancestral origin, immigration routes and lost homelands, social ties, or cultural work. Be wildly reductive: say that every San Franciscan possesses only ten maps and that this has been true for all those who preceded us, and we’re already imagining tens of millions of maps.

Being a resident of San Francisco and The Bay, I too have my own personal map with its center being Union Square, my old neighborhood, and it started with my arrival in 2006. That year was a wonderful time to be introduced to the city as the economy was humming along, everything seemed so lively and it was just the right place to be at that time. But when San Francisco changes it does so dramatically, and in just under twenty years I’ve been witness to four big transformations.

The first came with the financial crash of 2008. Entire businesses went bust overnight, stealthily vacating their high rise offices so they could skip out on the rent. I had a front row seat for this as I worked for an industrial supply company called Grainger and my customers were the building maintenance engineers in those skyscrapers. I saw the empty offices firsthand when just a week before they were packed with employees. The Embarcadero Center has four identical skyscrapers and there were always crowds down below going here and there, getting coffee, lunch, checking out the stores and so on. Then there was nobody, it became almost a ghost town in just a few weeks.

Another example of the crisis was the famous San Francisco company Charles Schwab when it vacated its offices in the prestigious Financial District moving to the less than fashionable South of Market area. I remember talking to a stock trader in a bar around 2014 and him telling me how many of the traders were no longer in San Francisco but were now based out of Denver and Texas. Fast forward to today and the Charles Schwab headquarters is in Texas.

The second great transformation on my personal San Francisco map was the invasion of the tech scene. This is when South of Market really started to get built up with sky scrapers and S.F. overall began feeling a bit ‘hectic.’ There were suddenly a bunch of white, twenty something, nerdy tech drones scurrying about in their own little worlds with everything else blocked out by iPods and iPhone they only diverted their attention from if they were about to walk into someone or something. Suddenly we could no longer get a reservation at our favorite restaurants and if we did, the bill was 25% more.

The third and fourth transformations occurred when I had been safely tucked away in my little ocean hamlet of Pacifica for almost a decade. COVID decimated San Francisco and it was so sad to see all the boarded up businesses around Union Square, my former neighborhood. To see the Sir Francis Drake boarded up, with no Beefeaters on the sidewalk to greet and help tourists seemed to me that a part of San Francisco had died. In fact, I had a dark dream where I was in the Union Square of 2006, when everything was normal and lively, but it was dark, a relic from the past that my mind was pulling out of my subconscious. I believe it was seeing the beloved landmark of the Sir Francis Drake boarded up like that which brought on the dream.

The nerdy tech workers had fled the city, working from home with many of them absconding from California completely to who knows where, in both the USA and the world. Now the problem with reservations at restaurants were there were no patrons at all and caused many great eateries to close forever.

The forth and most current transformation on my personal map is post-COVID. It is when I see San Francisco from afar, reading about the homeless, drug and crime epidemics, lamenting the closure of even more shopping venues such as the Westfield and just seeing the city decay. It is very sad.

I first read this book about ten to fifteen years ago when San Francisco was new to me. My personal San Francisco map was blank and I was intrigued about all of this history, how much San Francisco had changed over the centuries and learning where I could see the shadows of the past if I paid attention. Rereading this book in 2023, I have now lived through four great transformations myself and am a bit shocked at the passage of time and how much has changed. When I first read this book I learned about places and people that no longer exist. Reading now, I have been to places and known people that no longer exist.

Where are the Beefeaters outside of the Sir Francis Drake? Where are the famous twins Marian and Vivian Brown walking side by side in matching attire? Nobody visits The Westfield Mall anymore and I hear it has closed? How many days has it been since the luxury stores around Union Square have been robbed?

San Francisco continues to change with a new character every decade. Same city underneath but entirely new clothes. Let’s continue on with the highlights.

I remember when the bar Toronado was the flying wedge prying open the Lower Haight for white kids in the hitherto African American zone.

For me, the Toronado was a standard stop when I’d give my friends tours. They were the only bar I knew of that had ‘Pliny the Elder’ on tap. For those not familiar with that beer it is from the Russian River brewery and along with its brother ‘Pliny the Younger,’ were regarded as some of the world’s best beer.

Another reason for the stop is it was right next to the hole-in-the-wall sausage joint called Rosamunde which unfortunately closed in 2019. You’d get your sausage at Rosamunde then take it in to Toronado for beer. Here is an article from Eater San Francisco about the closure.

the mai tai at Trader Vic’s in Oakland

It is said that the mai tai was invented at Trader Vic’s in Oakland. I remember Trader Vic’s but believe she is referring to their only location in Emeryville unless there was one in Oakland that I’m not aware of. I highlighted this restaurant because I remember it fondly as it makes up part of my ‘personal map.’ From 2006 through 2008 and then again from 2012 through 2018 I would often go to the North Bay on sales calls. Trader Vic’s was a fancy restaurant right on the Bay that I’d been to a few times. It sticks out in my mind especially from those first visits from 2006 – 2008 when I had just come from Asia and was highly impressed by its old school atmosphere and being right on the Bay. I then forgot about it and was reminded many years later when I worked for a different company. The customers I was calling on had changed but not Trader Vics. It still stood although seemed to be on life support and in danger of eminent closure (I believe it did close for a while). But checking Google Maps it is still there and that makes me glad.

This map could be imagined as a detail of the map of the Great Migration from the Jim Crow South, which created concentrations of formerly rural African Americans in many northern cities and helped to shape the histories of their new homes. This migration brought a flood of African Americans from the South to the Bay Area for shipyard jobs during teh Second World War and then, when the jobs evaporated, left many stranded here in isolated neighborhoods and housing projects – though other from this Great Migration did well afterward and traveled through the region and beyond. For the Bay Area, this human tide launched a rich new musical and political era whose impact was felt nationally, and the music and the politics were often intertwined.

This is the only paragraph I remembered from my first read and the reason I wanted to re-read the book. I had always wondered why Richmond, Vacaville and Oakland had such large African American populations and this gave me the answer.

An “instant shipyard” like its Kaiser cousins, the Marin shipyard was dismantled as soon as the war was over – but it left behind, just across Highway 101, the housing projects that had been built for the wartime work force. Many of the now unemployed African American shipyard workers were unable to find other housing, and the projects becamse an island of impoverished blackness in athe sea of white affluence that is Marin County. That community, Marin City, is best known today as the teenage home of rapper Tupac Shakur.
To list the centers of wartime shipbuilding – Richmond, Vallejo, and Oakland, Hunters Point, Marin City – is to reel off the names of places that today remain centers of both black population and of black poverty.

I thought how sad it must have been for thousand of African American families when the men lost their jobs at the shipyard. I thought about how much strain this would have put on families and caused many to break apart. The men would have been downtrodden and due to so much discrimination it would have been very difficult to find more work. It is from this era that those North Bay cities have become what they are today. Think of how different things may have been if those men did have jobs, if society wasn’t so racist? It is so sad to think about.

And yet here we are today with some politicians wanting to erase the reality of historical discrimination because it may make some white kids ‘feel bad.’ To heal a wound you have to start with recognizing the wound is actually there, not ignoring it.

Other new arrivals gravitated to areas where the region’s small black communities had previously been centered. Best-known of these was San Francisco’s Fillmore District, a mixed working-class neighborhood west of downtown, which had long. been home to a majority of the city’s black citizens (who in 1940 numbered just 4,086 of San Francisco’s 635,000 residents). As that black population grew by nearly 700 percent during the war, reaching 32,000 in 1945 (when African Americans officially replaced Asians as the city’s largest non-white minority), the Filllmore became a black neighborhood. It was able to absorb so many new arrivals – and to do so, moreover, without the racial riots that followed the4 wartime influx of southern blacks in cities such as Los Angeles and Detroit – in part because the government had forcibly removed and sent to internment camps several thousand Japanese residents from an area of the Fillmore known, until 1941, as Japantown. In the Victorians and storefronts left behind by the Japanese, black immigrants opened dozens of nightclubs and bars that would play host, from the early 1940s to the 1960s, to all the major figures in jazz, making the Fillmore perhaps the key West Coast hub for the evolution of that music.

I remembered this entry as well. It perfectly explains how Japantown went from being a true Japantown to all of a sudden being a hotspot for jazz music.

San Francisco’s Japantown, the oldest in the continental United States, celebrated its 100th birthday in 2006, but it’s a ghost-haunted shadow of itself,” writes Shizue Seigel, one of the cartographers for this atlas.

It is a ghost town to this day. I can offer some personal insight here. The Japanese people I know only go there for the supermarket Nijia to buy rice and other Japanese products. However, now most Japanese live in San Mateo near the technology companies they work for and rarely venture to San Francisco’s Japantown. Another tidbit that may contribute to its decline is I remember my Japanese colleague at Japan Airlines complain that the Japantown governance was run by old Japanese Americans that were resistant to change. He may have wanted to participate but it is hard to break in when the governance members had been around for decades and weren’t very welcoming to new members or ideas. I’m not sure how true this is today but I can say that Japantown has tried to revitalize a couple of times but nothing seems to really work. It only comes alive during the Cherry Blossom Festival while at all other times of the year it is primarily a secondary tourist attraction.

African Americans had come here to escape the Jim Crow and take shipbuilding jobs during the Second World War, and the African American scene had flourished, on the site of what had been a flourishing Japanese community until almost all its residents were incarcerated during that war solely on account of their race. Japantown was rebuilt as a modernist island-complex of shops whose slow failure has led to various plans for revamping it yet again. The Redford’s Sundance empire, and teh San Francisco Film Society often screens documentaries and non-mainstream films there. But its big blank wall facing Fillmore in an attempt to turn its back on the street.

A paragraph pretty much emphasizing what I wrote above.

Meanwhile, other Italian clans set themselves up as scavengers throughout the city, slowly amalgamating during the early twentieth century into two great cooperative associations, Sunset Scavenger Company and the Scavengers Protective Association. Few recall that in these co-ops the men on the wagons and trucks (who are said to have sung opera in top hats while picking up the pre-dawn garbage) were paid the same as the executives in the offices until 1972. After that, the co-ops were convinced to become ESOPs (Employee Stock Ownership Plans), which allowed corporate control to pass to the behemoth Norcal Waste (recently renamed Recology), leaving the egalitarian roots of the Italian clans far behind.

This was insightful, especially since Recology is a former customer of mine when I worked for an industrial supply company. I’ve visited the headquarters as well as the recycling plants which are impressive. I have two stories, one nice and the other not so nice.

The first story is of the kind gentleman who was the head of the recycling center whose name I won’t mention but will always remember him. He had a child’s crayon artwork on the wall behind his desk which showed a man all in black with a scowl on his face. One of his young relatives drew it and said it was him. This greatly saddened the man as this is how the child saw him, a very angry and dark person. Well, the picture changed him completely and since I had known him he was the nicest and kindest man, all due to the artwork of a young child. Isn’t that a nice story?

The second one is not a nice story. When visiting customers I usually made an appointment but on one particular day was out with a superior. We were driving by the Sunset Scavenger HQ (It wasn’t renamed Recology yet) and my superior suggested we drop in unannounced. I had a name and we asked the secretary to let him know we were there. Well, he came out and when he realized we simply wanted to introduce ourselves he became livid and yelled at us for a solid minute. It was the only time in my career I’d been yelled at and it was a berating. He was angry because he thought we were there for something important and was pulled out of a meeting. We were shocked. I don’t believe I ever contacted that specific customer again preferring to work with others. Given the Italian history of Sunset Scavenger and his level of anger made me wonder if he was part of the Italian mafia.

What happened to the Port of San Francisco? In a word, the shipping container, which Mills described to me as “the technological underpinning of the global economy… the container has been the physical means of explointing cheap labor throughout the world.”

Given San Francisco’s peninsular location and lack of expansive flat areas to store stacks of containers, not to mention the absence of direct rail lines heading north and east, the once vibrant waterfront shiriveled in little over a decade, as shipping moved to the quickly automating and expanding Port of Oakland (and, as the huge expansion in global trade continued from the 1970s to the present, the ports of Los Angeles, Long Beach, and Seattle superseded Oakland.)

I imagine this is a good thing. San Francisco has enough traffic and gridlock as it is. Massive freight trucks would create traffic that would be unbearable.

The truth is that we’re drowning in busywork, nonproductive work, everything from “creative” banking and insurance bureaucracies to the pointless shuffling of data and the manufacturing of products designed to be obsolescent almost immediately – and I would argue that a great deal of what we’re doing should just stop.

Agree! There are too many distractions, busywork, notifications, nonsense that go on. Perhaps much of it helps to prop up a system where the numbers must continually go up. It is unnecessary and bad for the environment. I could go on about this topic forever but in the interest of finally getting this posted will save it for another time.

The world shaped by capitalist modernization is not good for human life and is certainly rought on the health of the planet. The hollowing out of communities whose lives were once anchored in the old Produce Market area or who shared life along the vibrant Fillmore blues corridor is precisely what people are trying to overcome.

When I first arrived, the city echoed with the sound of luggage snapping shut. The dot-com era was finished, and when people talked about the city that I had newly met, the unspoken assumption was that it was a trend that had played out completely, like leg warmers. Bags were being packed for Seattle, Boston, Vancouver, New Delhi. At a nightclub perched on the edge of the shipbuilding docks, a banker from Moscow leaned into me and said, by way of explanation, “Some birds, they travel twice around the world before they die.” In the black light, she glowed ultraviolet. She had sold her house, and was taking flight.
In 1851, Nathaniel Hawthorne, one of America’s first writers of science fiction, viewed the railroads, which began to link the ocuntry together during his lifetime, as the solution to the prudishness and greed that he saw reaching out from the old world to calcify the new one. “Transition being so facile,” he wrote, in The House of the Seven Gables, “what can be any man’s inducement to tarry in once spot? Why should he build a more cumbrous habitation that can be readily carried off with him? Why should he make himself a prisoner fro life in brick, and stone, and old worm-eaten timber when he may just as easily dwell nowhere?

I remember the “suitcases snapping shut” paragraph and wondered what it must have been like to live in San Francisco at the dawn of the technology revolution. The bubble burst and I was lucky (or unlucky) enough to be there for the second technology revolution which came about with social media.

I enjoyed the second paragraph about “tarrying in one spot.” My life from 1997 through 2006 was one where I lived in five different countries: Spain, France, Mexico, Japan and Vietnam. Those were exciting times. Now, I have ‘tarried’ in one spot for the past thirteen years and time has flown by. I can tell you many details of when I lived in the different countries but would be hard pressed to tell you even about one day from 2010 through 2020. Thankfully I have this blog to remind me otherwise a huge chunk of my life might simply be forgotten and that is a tragedy.

What is the self? Ask a chinook, and it might reply, “The river.” It might tell you the self extends for hundreds of miles, the distance it has traveled to spawn. It might identify the dam blocking its passage or refer you to the teeming aggregate. Or ask you, as the water washes away a cluster of eggs, “Where does the body begin?”
Asked to sum up Buddhism, Suzuki-Roshi answered, “Everything changes.”

I was thrilled to see zen Buddhism and meditation have an entire chapter in this book. Over the past year I’ve really gotten back into meditation with zen being the style I practice. ‘Everything changes’ indeed and my personal map here in San Francisco has changed greatly. At midlife I find myself reminiscing more and more with a touch of sadness for the places and times gone-by. Again, I’m fortunate to have this journal so I can easily remember my life. I’ve found that my contemporaries who I’ve shared many experiences with have simply forgotten, our bonds of friendship become weaker without new shared experiences to strengthen them. How sad it is that most people forget much about their own lives and the past in general. Some people prefer to forget. Time marches on and everything changes indeed.

By Mateo de Colón

Global Citizen! こんにちは!僕の名前はマットです. Es decir soy Mateo. Aussi, je m'appelle Mathieu. Likes: Languages, Cultures, Computers, History, being Alive! \(^.^)/