Photo credit: Peter Simon
In some ways creating this book was driven by a desire to make walking around cities an official part of our jobs. Walking allows us to take in details at a human pace. We remember thinking we needed a new creative focus after finally finishing Portlandness
. In part we decided the next book should be about the cities in which we most wanted to spend time walking.
At first, the working title and vision for the project was Transects.
We thought that choosing five routes through each city would provide us with a solid platform from which to create maps and graphics, write essays, and tell stories. After working with that idea for about a year we decided that the concept was too limiting so we refocused on a cultural atlas in the spirit of Portlandness
We knew that one of the cites would be Portland — we wanted to continue to learn about and tell stories about our home, a place we care about and love. And we chose San Francisco and Seattle not only because they share many similarities with Portland, but also because we love and care about those places too.
Upper Left Cities
includes the work of some 40 contributors — students, alumni, long-time collaborators, and new colleagues. Working with them was an honor and a pleasure. Zuriel van Belle, Geoff Gibson, and Sachi Arakawa were all major contributors. Additionally, Zuriel joined us to form sort of an in-house editorial team. It was the mashing together of the strengths and passions of all the contributors that resulted in this book.
Making a book like this presents a wide range of challenges, and every page pair has its own development story. Some of those are related to data collection, which was especially problematic with three cities. Sometimes to make maps, we had to get creative and go out and collect the data ourselves. For example, the idea for 8-Bit City, a page-pair mapping video games in each city, came when stumbling upon a city permit on the back of a stand-up Ms. Pac-Man
console in the window of a Bishop’s Barber Shop. There were instant dreams of mapping the density of Donkey Kong
and Mortal Kombat
throughout Portland and maybe beyond. But that would require a city database that had a detailed list of which games could be found at which locations, something that doesn’t really exist for any of these places.
We did manage to get city information from Portland and Seattle (an incomplete data set in this case) about relative numbers of amusement devices (which includes arcade games, pool, and electric darts but excludes video gambling machines). For San Francisco, we needed to research and create our own dataset of places by using various lists posted online and then either cold call, visit in person or visit via Google street view to find out about the number of arcade games, pool tables, and electric dart boards. We ended up putting together a spreadsheet for each city with detailed information, much of which we ended up not really being able to use.
For the Analog: Backlash to Digital pages, one of our researchers tracked down the Yellow Pages from 1987 from each city to chronicle the number of film-developing stores, record stores, typewriter stores, and piano stores. Researching those locations for 2019 was conducted by a series of Internet searches. In many ways, collecting the 1987 data was much easier.
Another challenge for cultural atlas makers is coming up with interesting and often nontraditional mapping styles to help tell the stories we hope to tell. We thought that making maps of the 1987 analog store data by hand would be fitting, so a contributor created maps using various handmade art mediums including needlepoint. In the case of the video game maps, the cartographer stylized each map around the aesthetics of classic video games from eras past.
Cities are always changing and always planning for change. For example, we considered a project related to public space in each city. We looked at how in Portland and San Francisco, major freeways were torn out to make room for public space as Tom McCall Waterfront Park replaced Harbor Drive and a series of public spaces replaced the Embarcadero Freeway. In the case of Seattle, we revisited the abandoned plans for the Commons, a proposed public park that would have linked downtown and South Lake Union, an area now under heavy private development.
Some ideas seemed like good ones, but we just couldn’t get them to work. We spent hours talking about representing each city as a board game and going so far as to choose Candyland
for Portland, Clue
for Seattle, and Monopoly
for San Francisco. But those pages never happened. Months were spent conceptualizing ways to compare street names from city to city in a graphically interesting way — another idea that didn’t make it. Extensive work on pedestrian accidents ultimately needed to be cut so we could include 2020-page updates.
Exhausting at times, working on the book was also fun. An example is the crossword puzzle maps. We started by getting out some maps of San Francisco and a piece of graph paper and trying to create the puzzle with place names. After setting the puzzle, each place needed to be researched so that clues could be written. We wrote three to five clues for each answer and then polled our contributor on which clues worked best. Doing this for each city taught us a lot of detailed information we would have never otherwise known.
We completed the book in March 2020 just before COVID shut cities down across the country. Originally due for release in September 2020, the publishers pushed the release date back a year. This gave us just enough time to assemble pages relating to COVID, protests, and the 2020 election along with a few smaller updates. Most of the book provides a snapshot of the cities just before the pandemic changed so much.
Although the book is about San Francisco, Portland, and Seattle, we hope people will also see it as an invitation to re-examine the places that they love and care about. Not just the 30,000-foot view but the intimate human-scale spaces we occupy. It encourages us to see that cultural atlases of other cities periodically pop up. We are happy to be participants in this creative form.
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is a cultural geographer and assistant professor at Portland State University. He holds a PhD in geography from the University of Oregon and has more than 20 years of experience researching the cultural, political, and economic dimensions of how people connect to places and environments. Past studies focused on diverse topics, including the role of Football Club Barcelona in constructing urban identity in Barcelona, and national identity in Catalonia.
has managed the Center for Spatial Analysis and Research in the Geography Department at Portland State University since 2006, working with a wide variety of partners at the federal, state, and local levels. His work explores the diverse ways that cartographers can tell stories with maps, focusing on the mapping of nontraditional subjects.