City Notes: San Francisco

A very unusual guide book came across my desk last week. And though City Notes: San Francisco by Jesse Coburn from Terry Warner Press is certainly a beautiful object (dig the clean design by Martin Schapiro, the photos by Constance Smith, and the engraved wooden cover by Dave Marcoullier) it's a puzzling little artifact of Coburn's love of San Francisco. You see, there are no addresses listed, the spots chosen are lovely but obscure and strange, and the histories provided of each location defy any guide book convention. If a Frommer's guide is a city's greatest hits, City Notes is a mixtape of deep cuts wilfully free of liner notes.

City Notes Cover
Image courtesy of 2010.

I traded emails with Coburn (he lives in Berlin now) and here's how he describes his guide:

"City Notes: San Francisco is only a guidebook in the loosest sense of the term. I was more interested in giving an account of these places than I was in leading people to them. That being said, an ambitious reader wouldn't have too hard of a time locating the sites, and the book would make for a great weekend itinerary. But it could just as easily live on a coffee table across the country. My hope was to offer a depiction of the city that would entertain life long residents and strangers to the Bay alike—a depiction that pushed against predominant notions of 'authentic' San Francisco."

And as for how the idea for such an unusual guide came to be, Coburn mentions W.G. Sebald, Alvaro Mutis, and how it very nearly came to him in a dream. "As trite as it may sound," he wrote, "the idea for City Notes actually came to me one night as I was falling asleep. It presented itself fully-formed: title, layout, style, everything. Amazingly, the book that we put on shelves 6 months later differs very little from that original conception."

Here's a typical spread from City Notes. It describes Molinari-Mana Park, an out-of-the-way spot where former waste management man Giovanni Molinari planted an acacia tree sometime in the 1950s.
Here's a typical spread from City Notes. It describes Molinari-Mana Park, an out-of-the-way spot where former waste management man Giovanni Molinari planted an acacia tree sometime in the 1950s. Image courtesy of 2010.

Coburn and his team have printed only 100 copies of the book, some of which are for sale in San Francisco at William Stout Architectural Books. Each misleadingly engraved cover (it shows the Golden Gate Bridge, both a landmark and a ruse) is numbered, and the book is bound with twine.

Here you can see the two wood covers and the stitched binding.
Here you can see the two wood covers and the stitched binding. Image courtesy of 2010.

Part of what I like about City Notes is its desire to show off some of San Francisco's under-loved locales like the Bison paddock in Golden Gate Park, a statue-cum-drinking fountain in Washington Square Park, and Mission Substation, a power facility. Equal parts architecture, landscape, infrastructure, and curiosity make up the 25 entries here. In a city rife with eye-popping icons, it does feel just a shake subversive to pass over Coit Tower, the TransAmerica Pyramid, and every farm-to-table chophouse in town in favor of the rain gutters that line the sidewalks in Buena Vista park. An idiosyncratic view indeed.

This page describes the University Mound Nursery, a block of abandoned greenhouses. Roses still bloom there.
This page describes the University Mound Nursery, a block of abandoned greenhouses. Roses still bloom there. Image courtesy of 2010.

Word is Coburn is cooking up a Berlin edition as we speak.

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