From time to time, SFist's erstwhile historical and geographic correspondent returns to these pages to bring us a lesson in the hidden corners of the city and the bay. Here now, a look at a handful of man-made and often overlooked features of the bay area.
By: Nicole Harvey
Flying into or out of San Francisco, there are more than a few of us who disregard the captain's warning to turn off all electronic devices. We're pressing camera lenses to the thick glass windows, attempting to capture some piece of land or water that recalls aspects of 20th century painting, all color field and geometry: the over-saturated bacterial reds of the southerly waters; blocky inland complexes that we imagine to be military, industrial, or both. We're looking at the inaccessible, and so we savor this vantage, unsurprisingly gaining a proper sense of perspective in leave-taking.
For dedicated Bay-spotters, Matthew Coolidge and The Center for Land Use Interpretation's new publication, Around the Bay: Man-Made Sites of Interest in the San Francisco Bay Region, is the book for which we’ve waited. Timed for release during the difficult rebirth of the not-named-for Emperor Norton San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge, this second volume from the non-profit CLUI won't excite fans of pretty picture books and postcard views--and this is a very good thing, as it fills a void of pictorial scholarship by focusing on the man-made features that have contributed to the Bay's coffers and industrial might. In photographs marvelously untouched by cottons of fog, Coolidge shows us what we’ve suspected to exist in those liminal places. You’ll see a few old favorites, like the unsung hero that is the Carquinez Bridge, but if you spend far too much time on Google Maps, poring over the nuclear facilities of former Soviet outposts, or the mass game pavilions of North Korea, this is the book for you.
That's not to say that this isn't a fine read, given the brief historical and social texts accompanying the images--it’s an easy entry to infrastructure. We’re reminded of the importance of the military in Bay Area history, and how the combination of water, railway, and eager workforce segued nicely into a booming post-war economy. It's also worth being reminded of the ignitable methane gas leaks of Shoreline Amphitheatre--sadly no longer a feature in attendance--and that from the air, Cooley Landing looks like a derpy-eyed duck. Because you're unlikely to bring the visiting in-laws to Coyote Hills or Point San Pedro when you could take them to Lands' End, here one is provided with a glimpse into the sediment-rich sapphire waters of those sites' quarries, lying like secret jeweled pools at the bottom of ridged gulches.
And therein lies the genius of the book. Perhaps we've grown to know the place names, but they're only names in the drift, far-sounding, and therefore what a city dweller might call "nowhere." Nowhere is an important point, given that the author led a California College of Art class on the subject, predicated on the fact that there is very little of the earth that does not have the touch of humans upon it. As a child I learned from my father the phrase, “There is no there there.” He never cited the source (Gertrude Stein speaking of her Oakland upbringing) but his own situation--stuck in the East Bay, an inability to afford more than a view of San Francisco--created within me an urban chauvinism that I shook only after sorties to the peripheries. Yes, these moments afforded fine views of the city socked in by fog, but also gave rise to another history, of Nike missile sites and industrial sludge.
Coolidge puts pins on a map that will doubtless change within the next fifty years, as the notoriously stodgy cogs are moving again: corporations attempt to play nice by restoring wetlands, and economic refugees discover what's outside the famously pretty city. CLUI does the hard work of calling attention to the marginal and offers up a completist's view of the Bay Area.
For: Fans of local architecture, especially those brave enough to move beyond the idyll of famous bridges and pointy architecture into the unsexy, physical reality of infrastructure.
Odd trivia: Brooks Island, in the Port of Richmond, once housed a private hunt club frequented by Bing Crosby.
Best feature: the tri-fold satellite map at the back that allows you to plot future reconnaissances.
Around the Bay: Man-Made Sites of Interest in the San Francisco Bay Region, by Matthew Coolidge and The Center for Land Use Interpretation
Blast Books, 152 pages, $19.95 via CLUI or Amazon.