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Unfathomable City

A New Orleans Atlas

Rebecca Solnit (Author), Rebecca Snedeker (Author)

Available worldwide

Paperback, 176 pages
ISBN: 9780520274044
November 2013
$29.95, £24.00
Other Formats Available:
Like the bestselling Infinite City: A San Francisco Atlas, this book is a brilliant reinvention of the traditional atlas, one that provides a vivid, complex look at the multi-faceted nature of New Orleans, a city replete with contradictions. More than twenty essays assemble a chorus of vibrant voices, including geographers, scholars of sugar and bananas, the city's remarkable musicians, prison activists, environmentalists, Arab and Native voices, and local experts, as well as the coauthors’ compelling contributions. Featuring 22 full-color two-page-spread maps, Unfathomable City plumbs the depths of this major tourist destination, pivotal scene of American history and culture and, most recently, site of monumental disasters such as Hurricane Katrina and the BP oil spill.

The innovative maps’ precision and specificity shift our notions of the Mississippi, the Caribbean, Mardi Gras, jazz, soils and trees, generational roots, and many other subjects, and expand our ideas of how any city is imagined and experienced. Together with the inspired texts, they show New Orleans as both an imperiled city—by erosion, crime, corruption, and sea level rise—and an ageless city that lives in music as a form of cultural resistance. Compact, lively, and completely original, Unfathomable City takes readers on a tour that will forever change the way they think about place.
Introduction: Sinking In and Reaching Out

Map 1. A City in Time: La Nouvelle-Orléans over 300 Years
How New Orleans Happened, by Richard Campanella

Map 2. Ebb and Flow: Migrations of the Houma, Erosions of the Coast
Southward into Vanishing Lands, by Monique Verdin

Map 3. Stationary Revelations: Sites of Contemplation and Delight
On a Strange Island, by Billy Sothern

Map 4. People Who
Here They Come, There They Go, by Lolis Eric Elie

Map 5. Moves, Remains: Hiding and Seeking the Dead
Bodies, by Nathaniel Rich

Map 6. Oil and Water: Extracting Petroleum, Exterminating Nature
When They Set the Sea on Fire, by Antonia Juhasz

Map 7. Of Levees and Prisons: Failures of Containment, Surges of Freedom
Lockdown Louisiana, by Lydia Pelot-Hobbs

Map 8. Civil Rights and Lemon Ice: Three Lives in the Old City
The Presence of the Past, by Dana Logsdon and Dawn Logsdon

Map 9. Sugar Heaven and Sugar Hell: Pleasures and Brutalities of a Commodity
No Sweetness Is Light, by Shirley Elizabeth Thompson

Map 10. ¡Bananas!
Fruits’ Fortunes at the Gate of the Tropics, by Joshua Jelly-Schapiro

Map 11. Hot and Steamy: Selling Seafood, Selling Sex
Salacious and Crustaceous, by Evan Casper-Futterman

Map 12. The Mississippi Is (Not) the Nile: Arab New Orleans, Real and Imagined
The Ibis-Headed God of New Orleans, by Khaled Hegazzi and Andy Young

Map 13. The Line-Up: Live Oak Corridors and Carnival Parade Routes
Sentinels and Celebrants, by Eve Abrams

Map 14. Repercussions: Rhythm and Resistance across the Atlantic
“It Enriches My Spirit to Be Linked to Such a Deep and Far-Reaching Piece of What This Universe Is”: A Conversation with Herreast Harrison and Donald Harrison Jr.

Map 15. Thirty-Nine Sundays: Social Aid and Pleasure Clubs Take It to the Streets
Rollin’ Wid It, by Joel Dinerstein

Map 16. Bass Lines: Deep Sounds and Soils
The Floating Cushion: George Porter Jr. on the City’s Low End

Map 17. Where Dey At: Bounce Calls Up a Vanished City
A Home in Song, by Garnette Cadogan

Map 18. Snakes and Ladders: What Rose Up, What Fell Down During Hurricane Katrina
Nothing Was Foreordained, by Rebecca Solnit

Map 19. St. Claude Avenue: Loss and Recovery on an Inner-City Artery
The Beginning of This Road, by Maurice Carlos Ruffin

Map 20. Juju and Cuckoo: Taking Care of Crazy
Holding It Together, Falling Apart, by Rebecca Snedeker

Map 21 . Lead and Lies: Mouths Full of Poison
Charting the Territories of Untruth, by Rebecca Solnit

Map 22. Waterland
The Cement Lily Pad, by Rebecca Snedeker

Rebecca Solnit is the author of many books, including Savage Dreams, Storming the Gates of Paradise, and Infinite City: A San Francisco Atlas, all from UC Press. Rebecca Snedeker is an Emmy Award–winning independent filmmaker and native New Orleanian.
"Rebecca Snedeker and Rebecca Solnit's Unfathomable City: A New Orleans Atlas is a book about New Orleans, but it's also a book about the kind of shared experiences and tensions that could exist in almost any city. Twenty-two maps illustrate ancient and recent histories of the Crescent City, with local tabs that inspire hums of pride. . . . Though many of those labels are specific to New Orleans, the themes they highlight exist other places, making the book not only a local's guide to the city, but also an anthropologist's guide to the idea of metropolis."—Jeanie Riess Gambit
"Unique maps and eclectic essays pair to create a thought-provoking portrait of a singular city."—Anita Perala Manhattan
"An elegant and fascinating volume of maps, essays and artwork. . . . The result is intelligent, often beautiful prose and compelling maps in an exciting exploration of the idiosyncratic details, gestures and rituals that determine how people inhabit, love and perceive this elusive and entrancing city."—Katie Walenter Gambit
"'Unfathomable City's' secret weapon is its imaginative cartography. . . . Each chart, like a plate in a restaurant, has ingredients and flavors that take the reader deep into the city's history. If you think you know these streets, this atlas will make you want to walk them again."—David D'Arcy San Francisco Chronicle
"A deeply illuminating assemblage of maps and essays."—Lynell George Chicago Tribune
"A vivid portrait of one of America's most culturally rich cities. More than an atlas or a travel guide, the book provides a compendium of perspectives and histories, comprised of 22 short essays and numerous colorful and beautifully illustrated companion maps. . . . A captivating read for tourists, Louisiana residents, and just about anyone looking to gain familiarity with United States history, folklore, and myth-culture." STARRED REVIEW—Publishers Weekly
"Unfathomable City is no standard atlas. . . . With beautiful maps and challenging essays, Unfathomable City presents New Orleans as infinitely complex and ultimately unknowable. The result is not a comprehensive guide, but an invitation." STARRED REVIEW—Pamela Toler Shelf Awareness
"New Orleans natives tell the same story in boardrooms and bus stops: Their city is a puzzle wrapped in a tease, a mystery scented by sweet olive and garbage, veiled by humidity, echoing with brass bands and the occasional gunshot. That’s the mystery probed on each page of 'Unfathomable City: A New Orleans Atlas,' the grand, map-laden anthology assembled by local filmmaker Rebecca Snedeker and the celebrated essayist and thinker Rebecca Solnit."—Chris Waddington New Orleans Times-Picayune
"The maps are playful, colorful and alive—in contrast to the utility we're used to with online mapping sites and apps. They're a joy to study; New Orleanians will no doubt pore over the map depicting the ongoing revival of once moribund St. Claude Avenue and the parade routes of the city's archaic but surviving social-aid and pleasure clubs. Tourists familiarizing themselves with the city may spend more time on the "Repercussions" map, tracing jazz history and club locations, or Billy Sothern's "sites of contemplation and delight," featuring sculpture gardens, synagogues and Meyer the Hatter. . . . Ms. Solnit and Ms. Snedeker prove that atlases can still fire the imagination and incite wonder."—Wayne Curtis Wall Street Journal
"Packed with colorful maps and essays by star writers, this atlas-with-attitude 'encompasses second-line parades, the banana trade, bounce music, the revival along the St. Claude Avenue corridor, and conversations with such iconic musicians as George Porter Jr. and Donald Harrison Jr.'” TOP 10 BOOKS OF 2013 FOR NEW ORLEANS READERS—Chris Waddington New Orleans Times-Picayune
"A brilliant reinvention of the traditional atlas. . . . Compact, lively, and completely original, Unfathomable City takes readers on a tour that will forever change the way they think about place."—Alan Petrucelli
"With “Unfathomable City,” Solnit and Snedeker have produced an idiosyncratic, luminous tribute to the greatest human creation defined by its audience participants: the city itself."—Daniel Brook New York Times
"The New Orleans the book charts is unfathomable 'because no two people live in quite the same city.' The twenty-two vignettes in this collection speak to that individual appreciation in twenty-three distinct voices, yet whatever the topic—apothecaries, lead poisoning, lemon ice, institutional abominations, sugar, bounce music, environmental calamities, shifts in the road, bananas—they burn bright, both breaking and gladdening your heart; and the handsome cartography is illuminating in the best tradition of maps: taking you there, for better or worse. . . . New Orleans may be porous as a sponge—in many ways, from its acceptance of refugees to water-charged soil types—but the writing here has a high specific gravity, a chewiness that makes you want to pay close attention and count your bites."—Peter Lewis B&N Review
"A fascinating look at New Orleans. Through 22 maps varying in their strange detail and beauty, each accompanied by an essay, Solnit and Snedeker put together a deep portrait of the city and so much of what makes it unique."—Vikas Turakhia Cleveland Plain Dealer
"Importantly, the book never fetishizes New Orleans. By addressing both the vibrant culture of public celebration (the second lines and the krewe parades and the near-constant festivals) and New Orleans’s bleaker side (environmental exploitation, the opportunism of the banana industry, the failures of post-Katrina authority), Solnit and Snedeker present an honest portrait. They delve deep into the city’s history, as far back as pre-European colonization, and resurface in the present, with bounce music and housing projects. Moreover, unlike many recent New Orleans books, they don’t overly dwell on Katrina to milk sympathy or a morbid interest from their readers. In short, Unfathomable City is beautifully balanced."—Delaney Nolan Oxford American
"A treasure trove of rich reminiscences that will be appreciated by the native, and appeal to past and future tourists."—Aron Row City Book Review
"The effect of Unfathomable City and the series of which it is a part is that of a healthy and bracing critique—one that we urgently need in this time of ubiquitous geographic information. It is a critique we should hope will extend to other American places as this lovely series continues."—Matthew Battles Orion
"A beautifully creative and colorful atlas of New Orleans . . . a rich visual and literary banquet, serving up a kaleidoscopic array of perspectives on the city's multifarious peoples and their struggles and victories."—Ed Conroy San Antonio Express-News
"New Orleans is suffused with history, with mystery, with violence, and with sublime beauty. From shrimp po-boys to extravagant Mardi Gras floats, from the enormous live oaks lining St. Charles Avenue like silent, ancient sentries to second-line parades with loud brass bands weaving their way over pothole-laden streets, New Orleans leaves an impression. Trying to understand and make sense of all the facets of the place, and all the attendant contradictions, is a task with seemingly no end. The beautiful Unfathomable City: A New Orleans Atlas can help with this, and I’d highly recommend it to anyone the least bit infatuated with the Crescent City. Part coffee table book, part history and culture guide, Unfathomable City is, like New Orleans herself, unique. Filled with twenty-two gorgeously illustrated and colored maps of the city, each spread across two pages, it’s an atlas that aims to both educate and challenge."—LouAnn Lofton Mississippi Business Journal
"Beautiful cartography and from-the-street, intimate essays by lives lived in this city. My wanderlust was sated."—Peace News
"Rebecca Solnit begins to unveil unexpected worlds in [New Orleans] by the creative act of combining elements that before are perceived as operating merely separately or even aspects working to the disadvantage of another: from cities of parts to whole, differently powerful entities."."—Books of the Southwest
"[New Orleans] history in tantalizing narrative nuggets; This book is part visionary road map, part post-­traumatic Katrina therapy and part poetic love ode/lament to our city; After reading this book you’ll want to go out and map things that are important or quirky to you."—Orissa Arend New Orleans Tribune
"I love reading anything Solnit writes, for she is a thinker, and I appreciate her take on things."—Rosemary Rosemary's Blog
"The book is a must . . . Unfathomable City is a real treasure."—Lili De Barbieri Reference Reviews
"A series of beautifully designed maps draw visual connections between the shifting landscape and points of human interest. Short and accessible essays discuss topics from reflective political commentary to whimsical points of intrigue . . . Distinctive, inviting, and will help draw you into this unique exploration of New Orleans.”—Scout Magazine
"This series of atlases is one of my absolute favorites. Vivid, beautiful, and deceptively meaningful, Unfathomable City successfully pushes cartographic conventions. It explores what it means to know a place, not just the street grid. A delight to behold, this is an incredible achievement rarely seen in modern cartography." —William McNulty, cartographer, former director of maps at National Geographic, former graphics editor, New York Times

"This bright, rolling river of a book carries a chorus of mapmakers, writers, and artists singing of deep memory in New Orleans. Unfathomable City is a book to cherish—and sure to be a classic." —Jason Berry, New Orleans–based journalist and coauthor of Up from the Cradle of Jazz: New Orleans Music since World War II

"Race, space, and place: this atlas is a people’s ecology of persistent resistance, an open-ended historical geography guiding toward an indomitable future—a permanent revolution no less likely than the city itself. Read this book!" —Ruth Wilson Gilmore, Professor of Earth and Environmental Sciences, CUNY Graduate Center
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Podcast interview with Rebecca Solnit and Rebecca Snedeker, authors of Unfathomable City


A City in Time

Imagine that a city grows like a tree, putting on ring after ring at the periphery. This is how the old walled cities of Europe expanded, though with a new-world one like New Orleans, which was born at the natural boundary of the river, the rings are erratic. This map with its fourteen rings shows nearly three centuries of expansion, carefully charted by New Orleans's preeminent geographer/cartographer, Richard Campanella. The map reminds us that when we speak of "New Orleans," we mean many different cities of many sizes and shapes. Into the twentieth century, builders mostly kept to the high ground, but then hope and hubris sent them into the marshy land and the low places that were snatched from water and that water periodically snatches back. Never forget that the fourteen rings here are not the full history of the city: that is yet to be written by storm and erosion, by pumping stations and levees and sea level rise and whatever comes after in a century, in a millennium, in the unfathomable future.

How New Orleans Happened

By Richard Campanella

There are no straight lines in nature. Nor are there any right angles. Rather, intricate tangles and irregular arcs merge and bifurcate recurrently. Look at any plant leaf, or spider web, or the veins of your arm for evidence. Nowhere is this sinuous geometry more apparent than in river deltas, where flowing waters, lacking the discipline that topography imposes, lazily meander in hairpin crescents, ever shifting, eroding, and depositing sediment-until they lunge into an adjacent channel and replicate the process nearby, all the while turning sea into land.

So formed the Mississippi Delta, over the span of a mere seven thousand years, producing what Mark Twain called "the youthfulest batch of country that lies around there anywhere." Dynamic, fluid, soft, warm, humid, tempestuous: flora and fauna flourish in such conditions, but humans resist them and endeavor to impose rigidity and rectitude upon them, so as to exploit the delta's resources and nodalities. The urban developmental history of New Orleans is essentially the story of overlaying orderly orthogonality on unruly curvaceousness.

Natives started the process, by shoring up middens, burning forest to tilt ecological cycles, and cultivating basic grains. Mostly, however, they adapted to fluidity by shifting their encampments to higher, drier ground when floodwaters came. Given technological limitations, they viewed deltas as conditions to which one conformed rather than as problems that demanded solving. Such a strategy does not, however, serve the aims of societies based on agriculture and resource extraction, seeking to expand territorial domains, subordinate natives, and elbow out similarly motivated competitors working to establish mercantilist nodes. For these societies, the fluidity and dynamism of deltas represented intolerable problems that had to be solved. And the premier tool to resolve these problems was the one feature utterly absent in deltas: the hard line.

From the European standpoint, hard lines and orthogonal angles introduced order to disorder, civilization to wilderness, godliness to the heathen, and the power of the Crown to the cowering native. These spatial concepts resonated with Spanish authorities in their aggressive New World colonization, producing hundreds of urban grids with central plazas fronted by institutions of church and state. Similar grand designs appeared in European cities during the 1600s and 1700s, and they spread as the Bourbon monarchy expanded its empire into Africa and the Americas.

New Orleans came into the French colonial fold in the midst of this design era. The city was conceived in 1717 by John Law's Company of the West (later the Company of the Indies), a speculative venture granted a monopoly by the Crown to develop the problematic Louisiana claim with tobacco plantations and other risky projects. The company needed a position on the lower Mississippi that could serve agricultural, ministerial, and defensive purposes; it was to be designated La Nouvelle-Orléans to flatter Law's royal patron, the Duc d'Orléans. So charged, the company's man in Louisiana, Jean-Baptiste Le Moyne, sieur de Bienville, selected in 1718 a riverbank roughly 95 miles upstream from the mouth of the Mississippi River for the foundation of New Orleans. The site took advantage of a portage route (Bayou Road) and inlet (Bayou St. John) that provided a convenient shortcut to the Gulf of Mexico via Lake Pontchartrain, thus avoiding a long contra-current river journey through the difficult-to-navigate mouth.

While Bienville's swampy and regularly inundated site appeared particularly precarious, its geographical situation-that is, how it connected with the rest of the seafaring world-seemed excellent. A city near the mouth of North America's greatest river perfectly positioned French colonials to exploit the unknown riches of the vast hinterland and to defend them from Spanish and English interests. Other potential sites were either more precarious or markedly less strategic. Should New Orleans be built on the safest site, despite its inconvenience? Or should it exploit the most strategic situation, despite its hazards? Bienville opted for the latter, setting the stage for three centuries of economic and environmental blessings and curses.

Urban order did not ensue immediately; instead, haphazard development prevailed for three years until a hurricane wiped it away in 1722. New Orleans started afresh shortly thereafter, this time as a planned city, designed and surveyed professionally. It consisted of a nine-by-six-block grid that neatly took advantage of the higher, better-drained natural levee while positioning a corner bastion to confront approaching enemy ships. The front-center cell featured a place d'armes fronted by edifices of church and state in perfect Vitruvian symmetry, while Vaubanian fortifications surrounded the grid, their carefully angled flanks enabling clear firing lines in all conceivable directions. By the mid-1720s, all streets and blocks were laid out and a few thousand colonists and slaves were settled in.

Colonial New Orleans remained within that platted grid even after France ceded the colony to Spain in the 1760s. The catastrophic Good Friday Fire of 1788, which charred 80 percent of the old housing stock, finally pushed citizens to expand the urban footprint. But where? At this point in New Orleans's urban developmental history, we see the inception of a pattern that would continue into the early twentieth century. It entailed municipal expansion that was planned (by surveyors) on an intra-subdivision scale, but unplanned (by authorities) at a citywide scale, guided invisibly by a series of conditions and unwritten "rules."

The first "rule" was immediate adjacency to an already urbanized area. The nature and scale of pedestrian traffic and limited omnibus service encouraged new developments to be situated, quite literally, across the street from existing ones. Faubourg Ste. Marie, New Orleans's first suburb, was laid out in 1788 immediately upriver from the original city, while the Faubourg Marigny was founded in 1805-1806 directly below it. Faubourg Tremé (1810) also closely adjoined an established urbanized area, across the old fort line from the original city. Existing development, then, was a strong predictor of the location of future development-until new transportation systems altered spatial relationships.

Roads, canals, streetcars, and railroads diminished the need for immediate adjacency, broadening the expansion rule to accessibility. Bayou Road, for example, had enabled a tiny agricultural community to thrive at Bayou St. John, about two miles from the city, since early colonial times; but this area was not subdivided into Faubourg Pontchartrain (Faubourg St. John, 1810) until the Carondelet Canal made it more accessible. Navigation canals also made distant Spanish Fort and West End into lakefront mini-ports and resorts in the early- to mid-1800s. The Pontchartrain Railroad (1831) turned Milneburg into a busy little lakefront port, while the New Orleans and Carrollton Railroad (1835) fueled the establishment of Lafayette, Jefferson, Carrollton, and other communities now comprising uptown, which were at the time otherwise unattached to the city proper. With these new conveyances, New Orleanians could now live farther from the city center yet still partake of its attributes, and real estate developers were more than eager to accommodate them.

In addition to adjacency and accessibility, land in New Orleans needed to be topographically elevated before the urban footprint could expand upon it. This important rule restricted the city to the crescent-shaped natural levee of the Mississippi River and the smaller Esplanade and Metairie/Gentilly ridges. The natural levee crested at 10 to 15 feet above sea level near the riverfront (the so-called front-of-town) and sloped downward to uninhabited swamp and marshland that lay inches above sea level.

A terrain's expansiveness and adjacency to the more prosperous, amenity-rich, desirable section of town also drove development patterns. Because of the broad river meander, uptown's natural levee sprawled wider than that abutting the straight section of river flowing below the French Quarter. Developers thus had more fine land to subdivide uptown than they did in the lower city. Fortuitously, those same uptown areas were also physically adjacent to the economically vibrant and socially fashionable part of New Orleans. This was the American section, where English predominated, business and industry reigned, Protestantism prevailed, and American culture predominated. Downtown communities, by contrast, looked more toward a European past than an American future. Residents of this predominantly Creole and immigrant section mostly spoke French, practiced Catholicism, and culturally referenced the fading colonial worlds of France and Spain and their Afro-Caribbean sphere of influence. Granted, the lower city boasted its share of professional districts, fancy hotels, theaters, and other amenities, but they could not match those of uptown. Uptown also benefited from a fundamental hydrological advantage: it evaded the sewage, debris, and pollutants that high-density downtown populations jettisoned into the river. New Orleans thus grew faster, bigger, and wealthier upriver, compared to down the river or back from the river.

One final criterion sorted spaces for urbanization. Areas closer to risky, noisy, smelly, unsightly, or otherwise offensive nuisances and hazards-flood zones, railroads, canals, dumps, wharves, industry-tended to be developed for lower-income residences and commercial or industrial land uses, while areas farther from such sites attracted higher-end development for a more moneyed crowd. Housing for the city's poorest residents, usually African American, was such a low priority for developers that other urbanization "rules," particularly for drainage and accessibility, carried little weight. This left the poor and the disenfranchised to settle in social and geographical isolation in the low-amenity, high-risk back-of-town or along the high-nuisance wharves along the immediate riverfront.

The ad hoc "rules" explaining the morphology of urban growth in New Orleans since 1788 encountered revolutionary new circumstances in the twentieth century. Electrified streetcar lines and automobiles undercut the historical need to develop adjacent to extant subdivisions. Municipal drainage negated the ancient requisite of building on higher ground. Modern water treatment, sewage, electrification, telephony, steel-frame high-rises, and other technological breakthroughs fostered the outward movement of residential land use and the transformation of the inner city into gritty, congested commercial use. Spacious subdivisions in Lakeview, Gentilly, and Metairie are products of these early twentieth-century conditions.

The new geography of American cities inspired a nationwide rethinking of the decentralized, individual-driven processes of urbanization. Authorities responded by creating city planning commissions and zoning ordinances, replacing bottom-up piecemeal development with top-down expert planning and regulation. New Orleans created its City Planning and Zoning Commission in 1923 and adopted its first Comprehensive Zoning Ordinance in 1929. "Complete individualism is anarchy," admonished the commissioners. "Something similar to anarchy has prevailed in the development of American cities.... Orderly living, public peace and convenience cannot exist without government power to control and direct the acts of individuals." They were right, of course. But one cannot help observing that the New Orleans cityscapes created by the bottom-up forces of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries are far more distinctive and appealing than those overseen by the top-down forces of the twentieth century.

Professionally planned suburbanization ratcheted up dramatically on the heels of the school integration crisis of 1960-1961 and the ensuing white flight. The Crescent City's population dropped by 23 percent from 1960 to 2000, representing a net loss of 143,000 mostly working-class and middle-class whites to adjacent Jefferson, St. Bernard, and St. Tammany parishes or beyond. Middle-class African Americans followed, beginning in the 1980s. Subdivisions in these late twentieth-century areas strikingly defy the rules of old: they require automobiles, depend on artificial drainage, rest on slabs that are flush with the grade, and have dropped below sea level because the pumps and the levees have starved these deltaic soils of their constituent element: water. The crescent-shaped historical city has morphed into a sprawling metropolis spread-eagled across sinking soils amid eroding coasts and rising seas, ever more unfathomable, ever less sustainable. And when viewed from afar, the one shape that overwhelmingly defines the unlikely conurbation is the one shape utterly alien to deltaic environments: the straight line.

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