Infinite City: Mapping my memories

[Alyson Kuhn] Yesterday, we featured an interview with Lia Tjandra, the designer of Rebecca Solnit’s current bestseller, Infinite City, an extraordinary atlas of San Francisco and its residents, past and present. I am a second-generation San Franciscan, and particular points on certain maps in the book hold marvelous memories — and memorabilia — for me. Here are some of my (almost infinite) San Francisco ephemera.

“Cinema City: Muybridge inventing movies, Hitchcock making Vertigo” (above, from Infinite City) pinpoints spots in San Francisco where Eadweard Muybridge (famous for his photographs of people and animals in motion) lived, loved, lost and shot the cityscape, and locations where, 70 years later, Alfred Hitchcock set the action in Vertigo. My own Muybridge ephemera (at the top of this article and directly below) is an accordion-fold brochure from a 1994 exhibition at the Musée Carnavalet in Paris, “Eadweard Muybridge et la panorama photographique de San Francisco, 1850–1880.” Muybridge shot his sequence of panoramic photos of San Francisco from the cupola of Mark Hopkins’ mansion at 999 California Street atop Nob Hill.

In Vertigo, Ransohoff’s department store (magenta 15 below) is where Scottie obliges Judy to dress as Madeleine.

In my childhood, my mother and I shopped at Ransohoff’s, near Union Square, on many occasions. The store’s logo is one of my earliest “brand memories” (along with the cream-and-tan stripes of I. Magnin) — and may explain my lifelong fondness for lavender and black.

A decade after the filming of Vertigo, a rather prominent San Franciscan bought a pair of frocks at Ransohoff’s … and a decade after that, a friend of mine came across the empty boxes in a storeroom and gave them to me. I immediately converted them into repositories for wrapping paper, old issues of W and U&lc, and sundry ephemera.

Ghirardelli Square, the retail complex, is located on the former site of the Ghirardelli chocolate factory, overlooking San Francisco Bay. The Golden Gate Bridge is a couple of miles to the west, and the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge is a couple of miles to the east. The map “400 Years and 500 Evictions” (two details below, also from Infinite City) does not show either bridge, but their future sites are there. The magenta circle no. 15, in the detail just below, refers to an entry stating that Adrienne Bonn, an artist born in San Francisco in 1911, felt that the Golden Gate Bridge (completed in 1937) “ruined the view.” Toward the eastern end of the city’s northern shoreline (lower detail) , we see manmade Treasure Island, today accessed via an extraordinarily scenic mid-Bay exit on the Bay Bridge.

The 1939 San Francisco World’s Fair, called the Golden Gate International Exposition, also celebrated the recently dedicated San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge and was held on Treasure Island. I received the commemorative matchbook below as a gift in the early ’80s.

Adrienne Bonn’s comment about the Golden Gate notwithstanding, the bridge provided dazzling new perspectives from its spectacular span, allowing motorists, pedestrians and cyclists to admire the city, the bay and the Pacific Ocean. In August of 1970, I had the extraordinary experience of going to the top of the bridge. My father had arranged this treat on the occasion of a visit from my college roommate from Southern California, with her older brother. (Below left, from front to back: my sister Nancy, my roommate Claudie, me, my brother Bruce, our father, Claudie’s brother Tommie.) My sister has been the keeper of these photos and our father’s “signature” typed index card for decades.

“Fillmore Street: Promenading the Boulevard of Gone” (below), again from the book Infinite City, showcases a century’s worth of retail, recreation and religion along the street’s commercial corridor. Browser Books (upper left) has been in the same location since 1983.

The independent bookstore was also, back in the early ’80s, home to the first letterpress printer I’d ever heard of, Julie Holcomb. Her press was in a room behind the shop, and her oversized card was an object of great fascination to me. Almost 15 years later, Julie Holcomb Printers would be the first letterpress shop in the country to produce a retail album of letterpress-printed wedding invitations.

From Browser Books, if you head down (meaning south) Fillmore Street a mile, turn right on Fulton and walk four blocks west, you’ll come to the site of my grandfather’s tailor shop at 807 Divisadero, two doors north of Fulton. The front of the shop was a sort of showroom, and I loved to arrange the hinged side panels of the big mirrors so I could see infinite copies of myself. Today the former shop is a Yardbirds video store. I still use one of my grandfather’s iron fabric-weights as a doorstop.

My grandfather retired in the late 1960s, and the final “edition” of his business card was not letterpress printed, but there is a letterpress connection. He made suits for the father of letterpress printer Harold Berliner, whose daughter Judith, also a letterpress printer, is a friend of mine. One of the two hangers above was a gift to me from the Berliners; the other was a gift from my mother. Speaking of my mother: For several years in the late ’60s, she served as president on the board of the Emanu-El Residence Club (indicated at lower right on the map detail below). Today, the building, designed by Julia Morgan (with whom my mother shares a birthday), is the San Francisco Zen Center.

Several months ago, I received an invitation to a ceremony at the Zen Center from graphic designer (and Felt & Wire contributor) Tom Ingalls.

In advance of the publication of Infinite City in November 2010, SFMOMA sponsored a series of public programs exploring the subjects of six of the maps. Fittingly, the museum incorporated the maps into commemorative broadsides, which were given away at selected bookstores and in the SFMOMA shop. Essays, photographs, and good design make the broadsides themselves a veritable ephemera etxravaganza.

Alyson Kuhn was born in San Francisco on a dark and stormy Nov. 30 morning, so dark and stormy that the Golden Gate Bridge was closed to traffic for the first time in its history.

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Comments (2)

  1. Posted by Shelf Appeal on 03.18.11 at 10:17 am

    What a great project, story, bit of research, images, memories, ephemera, maps and blog post!

  2. Posted by Brad Bunnin on 02.17.17 at 4:51 pm

    The best history is personal history. Likewise geography!

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