Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Cities, Buried by Signs

"Your gaze scans the streets as if they were written pages: the city says everything you must think, makes you repeat her discourse, and while you believe you're visiting Tamara you are only recording the names with which she defines herself and all her parts. However the city may really be, beneath this thick coating of signs, whatever it may contain or conceal, you leave Tamara without having discovered it. Outside, the land stretches, empty, to the horizon; the sky opens, with speeding clouds."
-Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities
They say that if you take someone who has never been to New York City, but has watched plenty of American movies - a Korean shopowner, for instance, or a Greek hotel clerk- and dropped them in the middle of midtown Manhattan, they would not feel completely lost, because American movies have created a global, subconscious familiarity with the city and its landmarks.

It's possible to wander through Harlem and navigate by landmarks like the university from Ghostbusters and the diner from Seinfeld, for instance, or to navigate through Central Park by recognizing the places where Harry Met Sally or where Macaulay Culkin feeds the pigeons in Home Alone 2.

In most movies, though, the city is only a backdrop. In my experience, books can have a bigger impact on how a city feels, especially with authors who create a strong sense of place in their writing - as though the city itself becomes a character.

Via the Strange Maps blog, I've come across two "literary maps" of cities with strong presences in literature. Here's one of San Francisco, originally published in the Chronicle earlier this summer:

The quotes in this map roughly match the neighborhoods they reflect: Joan Didion's passage about Janis Joplin singing in the Panhandle spans the southern edge of Golden Gate Park near Haight-Ashbury, and a Kerouac quote spans the Russian Hill neighborhood where the beat poets lived.

Today, of course, both Haight-Ashbury and Russian Hill are the opposite of bohemian, full of franchise stores and yuppies with expensive cars. And yet the song lyrics and sentences we've read about these places still somehow imbue them with a bohemian aura, contrary to all reality: aging hippies still come to Haight-Ashbury, wander among the high-end restaurants and boutiques, and manage to keep a few holdout head shops in business.

So where is the real Haight-Ashbury - the neighborhood that exists independently of the writers and musicians who wrote about it? Are the hippies and head shops merely the ghosts of the neighborhood that Joan Didion and Hunter S. Thompson wrote about? Or are the fancy boutiques the impostors, there only because the Haight has become a cultural icon and hence a desirable neighborhood?

Thinking about it, I've concluded that both of these are true: Haight-Ashbury has become a product of our cultural expectations of it. The "real" neighborhood isn't so much concealed by the "thick coating of signs" by which we know it, as defined by it. It's no wonder that these kinds of places in our cities - Times Square, The Alamo, the Las Vegas Strip, and all the other places we think we know from books, movies, or songs about them - can simultaneously feel very familiar and very strange when we finally experience them in person.

Here's another literary map of Saint Petersburg, a city with a much richer literary tradition than San Francisco's. Unfortunately, I've never been there - my understanding of St. Petersburg is completely defined by what I've read by Pushkin, Gogol, and Dostoyevsky. I studied Russian in college, but a part of me is actually afraid to visit the real St. Petersburg, lest I ruin the glorious nineteenth-century city of my imagination.

The St. Petersburg map is a limited-edition print, and if you really love this blog and want to give the author a great surprise, feel free to send a copy to 64 Winter Street, Portland, ME 04102.


The Ameliorator said...

I would like to see a literary map of London.

C Neal said...

I would like you to make a lit map of London. Here's some source material to get you started: