I’m currently reading a book called “Infinite City – A San Francisco Atlas” by Rebecca Solnit
When most people hear the word “Atlas” they think of boring school subjects and perhaps don’t bother to lift the cover. For me however, I opened the cover and this book has kept me spellbound.
As any reader of this blog knows, I enjoy language, culture, history, politics and general discovery. As it happens, these things often come all at once. My mind is able to paint a fuller picture of the things which surround me by combining my knowledge of language, my travels to places not yet explored (by me), interest in history and reading of current events.
I am reminded of this quote by Thomas Paine ““The mind once enlightened cannot again become dark.” Once that spark of curiosity has been ignited it turns into a conflagration consuming as much knowledge as it possibly can.
The “Infinite City” has definitely poured much fuel on the fire.
The first thing I really like about this book is how it talks about “Ghosts.” These ghosts are the past, the forgotten that have been built over yet have contributed so much and define the character of the city.
Every neighborhood in San Francisco is full of these ghosts. Most people cannot see them, they are disconnected from the past by that veil which grows thicker with each passing year.
As I mentioned I have great interest in many things and from my world travels and experiences I actively seek out these ghosts. Sometimes, I know they are there but really have no understanding of the history until I have found the right book and have done my studies. Only then, do they really come alive.
I will not go into the details of these ghosts in this post but instead will just give you a few examples of what I think about when walking through San Francisco.
1. Japan Town – I see the Japanese being boarded onto buses for concentration camps courtesy of the US Government. I see a shell of a place that once was a thriving Japanese community now being bought up by Koreans.
2. The Fillmore – A heart of African American culture where many famous Jazz musicians once played. This was gutted by redevelopment. I also think of how it is named after the US President Millard Fillmore
3. The Embarcadero – In Spanish, a “Barca” is a boat, thus the “Embarcadero” is the place where you board the boats.
Now, take these examples and multiply them by a million and that is how I have come to see this city. Much of my knowledge comes directly from the book I have mentioned.
Now, how can we understand the present without understanding the past?
The fact is, we really cannot. Reading this book I can make greater sense of what is happening politically right now. The 99% vs. the 1% has happened all before.
Very few people would remember the United Fruit Company. It was the UFC that coined the term “Banana Republic” as they controlled many third world nations. This was the behemoth that exploited the poor in the third world countries and put people out of work in the US. In early 1995 the exploitation was expanded by NAFTA to not only include fruit, but also anything possible of being manufactured that really put a lot of people in the US out of work.
I believe it just took a decade or so for the process to lubricate properly, the US citizens to realize that their jobs are disappearing and should they have a job it is stagnant. Meanwhile, the executives of these international companies are making a killing.
The crisis did not start with Wall Street, they are only the profiteers of a system designed to make American citizens much poorer while trumpeting the horn of “efficiency and progress.”
A great point the author makes in this book is in regards to shipping containers. Yes, those large bulky containers they put on ships to transport goods. These are directly responsible for the exploitation of cheap labor from other countries and the declining industrial jobs in the USA. The “working man” started to lose power long before NAFTA, long before Wall Street and Finance went into overdrive.
These containers were responsible for the loss of industrial jobs in SF and the USA as a whole. An interesting fact she makes is that SF could not receive these containers do to limited space thus they went to Oakland and later Seattle and LA where space was available.
She talks about the transition of SF going from human labor to the industrial and technological economy. My favorite parts are here.
“The truth is that we’re drowning in busywork, nonproductive work, everything from “creative” bankingand 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 shoudl just stop.
The modernization and progress that gave this soul-destroying process a certain inevitability did indeed affect the whole country, and even most of the world. It was not invented in the Bay Area, but San Francisco was one of its earliest epicenters……. As this process unfolded, the white working class lost its identity as workers, mostly fled the cities, sent the kids to college, and took full advantage (by going into massive debt) of the wealth that US militarism and multinational business poured into U.S. coffers.”
Now look at our current environment. We have the Republicans who are the defenders of these multinational robber barons and the Democrats who try to put a few curbs on them but are basically in league as well.
We can never turn back the clock but I think it is about time we take another look at the meaning of “progress.” In the current Capitalistic climate, “progress” means making the profits ever higher no matter what the expense, no matter who is hurt financially. Make more money so you can buy more stuff is the meaning of “progress” in the USA.
Thankfully, the tide is turning ever so slightly. People (in California) at least are more apt to purchase locally, at least where foodstuffs are concerned. Some people are questioning the need to buy ever more goods and giving a thought to at least saving some money.
But, it is all a dream, I highly doubt that the tide can be turned and that people will look away from greed and the desire to purchase more things. On one side you have the business people that employ armies of marketers to make people want to buy, to make them feel they do not have enough. On the other, you have a handful of thoughtful people who realize they are being suckered and would like to opt out of the system. These people are the ones who shop at the local farmers markets and do not fall for every single sales pitch thrown at them on a day to day basis.
To sum up the current climate in the USA, I’d like to take a line from the failed presidential contender Herman Cain. “It’s you’re own fault if you’re not rich.” It seems that in the USA becoming wealthy is the whole purpose of being, the purpose of life, at least in the Republican party.
But, I digress, as I’ve gone off on a tangent again. I guess my point is that I find it so enlightening to uncover a book like “Infinite City” and realize that these class struggles have been fought way before the current crisis. It is fun to be able to look past all the sound bites from the politicians and realize that we’ve been here all before.
I guess if I were to strive for a point which sums it all up, in the USA we have an electorate who is incredibly ignorant of the past and believe all these issues just started as soon as a Hannity or a Limbaugh opened their mouths.
My advice, is to become interested in the past, to look for those ghosts. Only then, can we really understand where we are and where we are going.
Until we can do that, a “Banana Republic” will remain a clothing store and the world would have begun in 1990.