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The Smithsonian Channel’s “Aerial Cities”: A Combination Of Water, Land And Light

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Photo courtesy of the Smithsonian Channel

How many ways are there to know a place?

The question has always been a complicated one to answer: there are the narrow, intimate ways of knowing (walking a city’s streets, living in a particular neighborhood or frequenting a certain café because it serves coffee roasted in that very place); but also the larger, more public ways. I’m thinking of the days when paper reigned and when maps (with complicated, worn folds that were bleached white with wear) created outlines of cities through the demarcation of streets, overlaying the physical features of the earth beneath it.

These were the baby siblings of atlases that, page by page, reframe a city to be more than itself. A city becomes a locus of waterways, of mountains, of people.

I am thinking, too, of the invention of the 19th century, the flaneur, who walked the city streets in search of no one thing in particular; walking and watching (then) was a way of knowing. But, actually, traveling through a city as a way of knowing it is even older than the flaneur. Wealthy, young men often undertook a “Grand Tour” as a part of their education in 17th-19th century Europe. Had there been smart phones back then, the Grand Tour was something like a self-produced documentary, an Aerial Cities without the aerial part: it was a litany of historic and cultural sites, the highlights of a place. Because the Grand Tour was accomplished on foot, it usually had installments— a person—or, I should be specific here, a young man saw the world— one city at a time.

This kind of journey might be compared to a pilgrimage, the walker en route to some mysterious, sacred place. Or, more contemporaneously, the backpacking trip when all of one’s necessities are weighted and tied upon one’s back and forays into (mostly) half wilderness, the point of which is not so much travel as much as it is survival.

Although there are plenty of backpackers still around, the United States has witnessed a shift in the way we know our places. Even though cars have been around much longer, the ontological shift seems to be centered in the 1950s and 60s, when we replaced walking with the novelty of driving; the dashboard roadmap a symbol of our ability to navigate any place, even without truly knowing it. Even though there were cars on the road well before those decades, the “road trip”— the stringing together of several cities and landmarks— was born alongside the technology capable of accomplishing such a task. And the roadmap, with is tangle of highways and frontage roads, was the tangible evidence that it could be done.

Today, now that these old paper relics are imbedded into our phones, articulated through Siri—or even the car we drive itself— how do we know a place?

The Smithsonian’s Channel series Aerial America answered that question in 2009: we know a place through a kind of virtual atlas-making: stunning aerial videography and a narrative that, frame by frame, plays the role of explorer and expert to offer a definitive portrait of a place, its history and its future. The series was so successful that the franchise has made a spinoff series—perhaps due to writer Rebecca Solnit’s observation that “cities are the world in miniature”— Aerial Cities takes the original show’s concept and narrows its focus on America’s large, iconic cities (the series includes shows on: New York, Las Vegas, Chicago, Seattle, Miami and Los Angeles.) And, on May 6th, San Francisco became the latest city for this new kind of mapping.

The show opens with the sun rising over the San Francisco bay and, using the progression of a “typical” day, walks its audience through “the bustling heart of one of America’s busiest cities.” Opening scenes feature light bathing the glass high rise buildings now iconic to the San Francisco skyline. Directed and Produced by Berkley resident, Toby Beach, the audience is treated to beautiful panoramic views of grape-pickers at the Promotory Winery, San Francisco’s famous Coit Tower and Transamerica Pyramid.

If, as writer Rebecca Solnit claims “a street can be like a core sample through a city,” then Aerial Cities isn’t interested in samples; instead, it attempts to take the entire city to your living room. In addition to footage of its famous hills, bridges and bay, the show’s narrator tells the story of the City’s becoming. For example, once a city that required extensive travel by water, the birth of San Francisco’s many bridges nearly put an end to the ferry business. However, heavy traffic caused by the area’s myriad commuters (who, due to their sheer volume, have clogged the city’s bridges) has brought an unexpected renaissance to the boat business.

While typical documentaries on a place are sprinkled with faded, black and white images throughout, Aerial Cities relies upon footage captured in present day—offering the viewer a continuous stream of vibrant, sharp images of the city, usually shot (as you would expect) from above. A discussion of the City’s “painted ladies,” for instance, doesn’t summon images from San Francisco’s turn of the century past, but instead, the colorful Victorians as they exist, today, accompanied by tourists, commuters and electronic buses—symbols of our era.

The perspective is an interesting one; the show’s narrator himself notes that “When you are seeing the city from the air, its sometimes impossible to see all its landmarks because of its famous marine layer.” And yet, despite this barrier, Aerial Cities manages to capture San Francisco’s beauty—and its complexity—within the constraints of an hour-long program. And yet, for those who are interested in a true mapping, there are some details that a bird’s eye view fails to capture: when you’re hundreds of feet in the air, it’s pretty silent up there.

Reminiscent of Maria Gripe’s re-telling of an old Swedish fairytale The Land Beyond, Aerial Cities calls to mind what happens when maps distort, rather than project, the reality we expect. Although the Aerial Cities’ version of San Fransisco and the one known by its viewing audience are hardly fighting kingdoms, the question of perspective comes into play: can an outsider present an insider’s map of a place? When does the objective slant too far into the foggy territory of subjectivity where, instead of county lines, the walls of San Quentin ache to represent or stand for something, anything. The narrator reverts to his Grand Tour persona, and maybe whatever you might have been expecting— an interview, a human voice, something gritty to contrast with the glimmering, glass high rises— fails to materialize.

And so, the footage often hovers outside—and above—residents. Nowhere is this more remarkable than the discussion of San Quentin, the infamous prison that houses some of California’s most notorious criminals. The camera angle never leaves the outside perimeter, even above the yard where inmates play basketball, and when the narrator mentions “Ear Hustle”—a podcast produced from within the prison walls. The audience remains safe—firmly outside and above—San Quentin. We don’t hear that podcast; we know it exists before we are ushered away to another stunning panoramic view.

The view reminded me essay I read on a plane once, somewhere in the sky between Cincinnati and Denver. Written by Michael Branch, “The V.E.C.T.O.R.L.O.S.S. Project” proposes a literal mapping of personal experience across a city-scape. What if a particular park bench was host to several wedding proposals? What if one dark alley hosted several murders? What would either mean? Although the essay was more of a thought experiment—a satirical account of science trying to map what can’t be mapped— the idea intrigued me: what would it look like to impose meaningful memories upon something like a road map? Would every place, by default, become a unique invention of experience and circumstance? Would then, I have my own San Francisco, and you would have yours?

These questions come to mind because I experienced the literal layering of a place not far from San Francisco in the green hills to the east of Berkeley. It’s an expanse of two-lanes paved road alongside Briones Reservoir known to cyclists as “the Three Bears.” It was a place I rode my bike in graduate school when I attended Saint Mary’s College of California en route to the MFA. I remember “the Three Bears” as long, summer twilights spend riding peacefully alongside the glistening reservoir, the sun low on the horizon, casting it all golden and shimmering. To return five years later brought all that memory-luggage with me.

Even though this time, I was in a cycling race with 40 other women, I remembered myself when I wasn’t that person, but someone else and this place spoke to me of hope and of beauty. It still did, of course: but now the I had a number pinned to the side of my team jersey, totally enmeshed in the world of competition, rankings and points. The trees, the pavement, the hills— those things hadn’t changed. And yet, my understanding of this place, did. It became a place where I could win or lose, and that would translate to the kind of person I am. The finish line— yet another arbitrary marking, rested on top of the longest climb, and forever changed how I will remember that place. No longer a long descent with the wind in my face and that glimmering reservoir, now I remember the climb: the cars that passed me too closely, the officials waving them off while I struggled up that hill to finish. Whatever I knew of “the Three Bears” changed— it became a new place; one I don’t know if an aerial view could have captured.

By no means a bad way to spend an evening, Aerial Cities shows us all that is marvelous, curious and, simply, beautiful about America’s iconic cities. For San Francisco, it is the show’s closing moments that justify its point of view. It is end of day, “…when the sun sets on the bay. It is a combination of water, land and light.” As the narrator waxes poetic, the scene shoes migratory birds upon the marshes near Point Reyes National Seashore before moving to the salt fields, a patchwork quilt of chemical color. The beauty is just about enough to make you forget about what we, as audience members, typically demand of our documentaries. We are watching because we want an intellectual map of this place, a way to understand and explain it, maybe without ever visiting.

And yet, unlike the flaneur of centuries past, the traveler, the backpacker or the cyclist, the show’s glossy-magazine quality misses some of the more human elements of a place: the voices of the people who live there. Even in a car, sometimes, you can roll down the window and ask for directions— or you are waved onward, because there are other people on the road, creating new geographies, pedal stroke by pedal stroke.