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Unfathomable City A New Orleans Atlas

Read Chapter 1


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.