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Unfathomable City review

Editor’s note: Look out for our Atlas series the week of December 2, when NolaVie will debut a group of guest blogs from the book’s collaborators. We’ll hear from Atlas cartographers, researchers, and visual artists about their experiences and processes contributing to “Unfathomable City.”

Reviewed by Jeri Hilt


Unfathomable City begins with a look at the city of New Orleans as an exception and a paradox. The compilation of twenty-two maps and contributions from seventeen writers—as well as cartographers, researchers, and artists—is framed in its introduction by its two editors: best-selling California-based author Rebecca Solnit and native daughter Rebecca Snedeker, who has won an Emmy for her documentary film work. In references to the city’s unlikely existence, ever shifting coastlines, and impressive longevity, the series of maps firmly posits New Orleans outside of perceived norms. This contemporary atlas psychically and physically locates New Orleans as “an enchanted isle with its own rules” and declares that “to be oriented to the city is to be disoriented to the rest of the world.”

From this point of departure, readers are presented an array of topics that seem representative, if not reflective, of the title—Unfathomable City. The subjects of maps and their accompanying expositions in this ambitious work include oil and water, levees and prisons, civil rights and lemon ice, seafood and sex, rhythm and resistance, sounds and soils, juju and cuckoo, and lead and lies. While the text seeks to map both place and human experience, more often than not, the ironically connected themes of this work are more clever than informative, more paradox than reality.


“A City in Time: La Nouvelle-Orléans over 300 Years,” which accompanies an essay by Richard Campanella

The maps and essays can be roughly grouped into four categories: Commerce, Commentary, Crime, and Culture. The maps discussing commerce deal with New Orleans’ port economy, the centrality of trade and transit to the city’s genesis, and the definitive lines drawn by big business. “A City in Time: La Nouvelle-Orléans Over 300 Years,” which accompanies an essay by Richard Campanella, details the expansion and urbanization of New Orleans as the result of commerce. Other maps address the various transnational trade systems of which New Orleans was formerly or is currently a part: oil, sugar, bananas, seafood, and enslaved Africans.

The commentary category details the wanderings of non-locals and transplant residents. Maps like “Stationary Revelations: On a Strange Island,” which accompanies an essay by Billy Sothern, and “The Mississippi is Not the Nile: Arab New Orleans, Real and Imagined,” which accompanies an essay by Andy Young and Khaled Hegazzi, are derivative of the singular experiences of individuals here as travelers. We see what they encounter, deem valuable, and determine to be problematic, and, in the case of “Stationary Revelations,” come complete with a travel guide-style list of points of interest.

Maps that discuss crime include “Of Levees and Prisons: Failures of Containment, Surges of Freedom,” which accompanies an essay by Lydia Pelot-Hobbs. It juxtaposes the systematic mass incarceration of Louisiana residents—particularly African-American males—with the systematic containment of the Mississippi River through levee systems. Though not explicitly stated by the writer, this essay aptly displays the overlay of the criminalization and victimization of the African-American community—no place more than in New Orleans are we regarded so immutably as both criminals and victims.

Flanking the musings of travelers and a range of social justice issues, much of this compilation of maps and essays addresses New Orleans’ culture. “People Who,” which accompanies an essay by Lolis Eric Elie, conducts a brief historiography of immigrant communities in the city and points to the nonlinear ways that they have settled both within and outside of community lines. ”The Line Up: Live Oak Corridors and Live Parade Routes,” which accompanies an essay be Eve Abrams, couples the intentional planting of oak trees with the long-standing parade culture. “St. Claude Avenue: Loss and Recovery on an Inner-City Artery,” which accompanies an essay by Maurice Ruffin, mixes personal narrative with the stories of transition and displacement along the prominent corridor. Ruffin, a New Orleans native, makes the only explicit reference in the book to the displacement of New Orleans residents by post-Katrina gentrifiers, both residential and commercial.


“Repercussions: Rhythm and Resistance across the Atlantic,” which accompanies a discussion between Herreast Harrison and Donald Harrison, Jr.

Four of the twenty-two maps speak almost exclusively to the culture or cultural by-products of Black New Orleanians. These maps chronicle the intersection of Native-American and African-American forms of music and resistance, the second line tradition of the numerous (Black) Social Aid and Pleasure Clubs, the ancestry of jazz and brass band music in the city, and the genesis and exportation of Bounce music. The essays that accompany these maps offer much to readers about where and from whom many celebrated New Orleans cultural traditions have come—since “New Orleans culture” often translates to “things black people here like to do for enjoyment.”

In the interview that accompanies “Repercussions: Rhythm and Resistance across the Atlantic,” Herreast Harrison and Donald Harrison, Jr. speak frankly and eloquently about the misconceptions of the traditions most commonly identified as Mardi Gras Indians. Donald Harrison also describes the intellectualism embedded in jazz, as well as the transcendental nature of Black music from New Orleans as freedom and liberation music that has been both preserved and exported universally.

To read the full review, click here.

Room 220 will host the New Orleans launch of Unfathomable City: A New Orleans Atlas at a Happy Hour Salon from 4 – 7 p.m. on Saturday, Nov. 23, at the All Ways Lounge (2240 St. Claude Ave.). More details here.

This article was reprinted from Press Street : Room 220, a content parter of NolaVie.


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