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The Accidental City: Improvising New Orleans

Lawrence N. Powell

(Harvard University Press; US: Mar 2012)

“The site was dreadful. It was prone to flooding and infested with snakes and mosquitoes. Hurricanes battered it regularly. Pestilence visited the town almost as often. But New Orleans’s situation—its strategic location near the mouth of one of history’s great arteries of commerce—was superb.”
—The Accidental City


The unique character that is often described in the history of American cities is usually directly associated to specific movements in art, literature, and other cultural shifts. Specific neighborhoods are usually cited as significant leaders in said cultural shifts.  In these areas or neighborhoods, specific figures are usually credited with catalyzing cultural movements. 


Geography also plays a significant role in the narrative of most American cities.  When thinking of these factors in the evolution of major American cities, one thinks of such cities as New York, Los Angeles, Chicago and Detroit as driving forces and shining leaders of influence for the culture and design of other cities in the United States.  Chicago and New York are American urban centers that have obviously influenced the evolution of other small cities.  Los Angeles has a younger and unique city history, and Detroit, while not currently thriving, is a template for booming mid-western cities.


So, how does New Orleans compare to other cities in the US? James Carville summarizes it perfectly in his blurb for The Accidental City, saying that although there are larger or more important cities, “no city is more interesting than New Orleans.”  So when diving into this book, it’s important to understand that the significance of this city cannot be measured by the same metrics as others. As New Orleans is a city unlike no other, so too is its history.


Lawrence Powell’s account of the early history of New Orleans indicates the similarities and differences between New Orleans and other major Americans cities; similar in general histories relative to colonialism and race, but specifically different in how its familiar themes shape and mold this particular American city.  Written as a historical text in narrative form, Powell manages to unpack several different American and American-related histories into one, which is the great success of the book.  He writes this history of New Orleans in the only way one can: carefully. Powell doesn’t stick to one narrative because the history of New Orleans is an ever-changing confluence of events, people, and cultures that lacks the same kind of linear story of other cities. 


Often in texts which attempt to cover the history of a city, certain issues are tough to explain or maybe, easy to omit.  Race is one of those issues. Powell, however, navigates and narrates several issues of American slavery as they relate to the broader context of the time period.  He describes the economic history of slavery in New Orleans as a part of a complex multi-cultural history rather than as a separate, isolated story.


“This much was obvious: few things could be taken directly from the African cultural storehouse.  Even cultural institutions that traveled well across ocean seas could ordinarily survive only in creolized guise.  Language was impossible to reconstitute when removed from a stable community of understanding.  That is why survivors of the Middle Passage faced no challenge more bewildering or pressing than improvising a pidgin patois built from chunks of trade jargon imposed by their enslavers.”


This story of New Orleans is not only told chronologically and topically, but the reader also gains significant information about the geography of the city. Powell uses basic lessons in the geography and geology of New Orleans in order to set up later events and support a multi-faceted array of topics. It begins by providing a basic understanding of just where New Orleans is located with reference to the Gulf. The influence of growth and development from the Mississippi river is obvious. 


Powell, resolves any preconceived notions. To use gumbo as a metaphor for Powell’s historical account of New Orleans would be too cheap and easy. The book, however, details the amalgam of cultures with the kind of fluidity, and clarity that could be a reminder of such a comparison.  Aptly titled as The Accidental City, what becomes clear is the sheer number of coincidences and unfortunate events that lead to New Orleans evolution.  Weaving together events that range from international politics to the socio-cultural development of poor American families, Powell’s comprehensive glimpse of the past is particularly important today. 


These stories are timely, as New Orleans seeks recovery from Hurricane Katrina today.  No other American 21st century city faces the kind of questions moving forward that New Orleans does.  Many of its flaws have been brought to light in the post-Katrina aftermath.  Many of these flaws have been bureaucratic or simply human.  Powell lets the reader know that some of these questions of New Orleans’ future aren’t new.  The reader learns that the array of challenges and successes of today’s New Orleans are akin to its history; a thought that can be comforting and positive without naiveté, but should be approached with caution.  Powell reminds or introduces the understanding that New Orleans is a city that always has had a rich history of tragedy, multiculturalism and eccentricity.


 

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