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Mapping a map: The evolution of “Unfathomable City”

Editor’s note:  This week, we’re running a series of guest blogs from the contributors of “Unfathomable City: A New Orleans Atlas.” With a collection of twenty-two full spread maps and twenty essays, the book features a diverse group of cartographers, writers, researchers, photographers, and visual artists who collaborated to create each individual work. This series gives voice to the premier cartographer, a researcher, and a visual artist. They discuss their role and reflect on participating in The Atlas, as well as their deeper exploration and understanding of New Orleans through this experience.

Today’s content comes from principal cartographer Shizue Seigel, about discovering this city through mapmaking. Check back tomorrow for the second installment of the series, from the book’s research perspective.

The map “Of Levees and Prisons: Failures of Containment; Surges of Freedom” was conceived by Rebecca Solnit, Rebecca Snedeker and Lydia Pelot-Hobbs, and is accompanied by Pelot-Hobbs’s essay “Lockdown Town.” The final version, designed by Lia Tjandra, was based on Shizue Seigel’s cartography.

The map “Of Levees and Prisons: Failures of Containment; Surges of Freedom” was conceived by Rebecca Solnit, Rebecca Snedeker and Lydia Pelot-Hobbs, and is accompanied by Pelot-Hobbs’s essay “Lockdown Town.” The final version, designed by Lia Tjandra, was based on Shizue Seigel’s cartography.

Some maps strive to be accurate enough to stake your life on. They lead you safely out of the wilderness or locate hospitals, subway stops and one-way streets. My partner, Ben Pease, loves the precise language of these maps: contour lines and elevations, trailheads, tree cover, seasonal and year-round streams… But I’m drawn to the unquantifiable — the alleyways and detours en route to a destination. These shed light on the vast and variegated terrain between life and death, wealth and poverty, perception and reality; they are indeterminate and evolving spaces that are neither here nor there.

Ben and I were introduced to the poetic potential of mapping when we divided cartographic duties on Rebecca Solnit’s 2010 Infinite City: A San Francisco Atlas. Starting with Ben’s existing maps of our hometown, we joyously chased Solnit’s cypress trees, homicide patterns, movie palaces, and social services, while the designer in me figured out how to map a person’s life, transform the City into a “Treasure Island” and add the Mexican border south of the Mission District.

In early 2011, we learned to work long-distance when Solnit invited us to tag along on Laramie: A Gem City Atlas, a graduate seminar culminating in an exhibition of maps and essays at the University of Wyoming art museum, and later in San Francisco.

So when Solnit and New Orleans filmmaker Rebecca Snedeker asked us to work on Unfathomable City: A New Orleans Atlas, we were ready for another wonderfully chaotic creative adventure. We began by exploring New Orleans for a week, in December 2011. From the air, we saw that New Orleans is surrounded by water, but it turns its back on the swamp pressing in and looks inward into a bowl. Once inside the city, one doesn’t see the river; it’s easy to forget that it’s there.

A week is barely a handshake with this richly complex city. We stayed at Mary Sue and Jack Roniger’s sweet 19th century cottage in Carrollton, received a list of projected topics from Snedeker and got a taste of geographer Richard Campanella’s deep knowledge of his city. Then we raced around town snapping photos, taking notes and talking to strangers, probing for the city’s physical skeleton and a glimpse of its many-layered soul.

We took in the tourist view: bead-garlanded trees and graceful mansions in the Garden District; beignets at Café du Monde; blues on Frenchman; steamboats, casinos and Bourbon Street strip clubs. Mary Sue drove us past old-establishment clubs, mansions, and exclusive schools, giving anchor to Snedeker’s documentary about the Mardi Gras elite, By Invitation Only. We talked to ordinary folks waiting at bus stops, sitting on stoops and barbequing in vacant lots.

We noted landmarks of Katrina: still-devastated neighborhoods and shuttered churches; Make It Right houses; and gentrification in Tremé and along St. Claude Avenue. Everywhere, the fabric of the present was shot through with threads and tangles of history: African, French and Spanish, Creole and Cajun; planters and slaves; educators and politicians; bluesmen and chain gangs; freeways and housing projects.

What would the two Rebeccas choose from all of these riches? There were so many possibilities! Back in San Francisco, we met with University of California Press’s art director, Lia Tjandra, and production manager, Dore Brown, to work out standards and protocols for working together. Ben put together a rough base map of greater New Orleans, the foundation on which I mapped fourteen chapter maps, and he charted “Thirty-Nine Sundays” worth of Social Aid and Pleasure Club parade routes.

Since essays and artwork were generally developed after the maps, I was working blind, relying on the unfailingly patient and gracious Snedeker, who coordinated the work of each chapter’s multiple contributors.  Her invaluable profiles for each chapter concisely, but evocatively, described each map’s intention and listed working titles, creative team, map footprint and aesthetic directives, followed by a list of locations and addresses to be placed on the map. Sometimes Snedeker, Rebecca Solnit, the essay writer or the researcher, supplied reference maps, placed points on Google maps and drew data in Illustrator. But when authors were too busy to provide much information, I trolled the Internet.

For each chapter, I laid out draft maps in Illustrator, in multiple, clearly labeled layers that Tjandra would be able to turn on and off, color and re-color. The Rebeccas had specific visual ideas, but they were also open to my ideas. For each map, we had many choices: Labels or dots?  Simple or detailed street grids? Street names? Neighborhoods or freeways? Inset maps? Space for artwork?

Often I tried multiple variations. As an ad agency art director in the 80s, I had learned to churn out ideas without attachment, as grist for the mill or a quick trip to the wastebasket. For the draft maps, I erred on the side of too much information, since it would be easier to delete than to add.

Snedeker and I were usually working on three or four maps at a time. Since she had many other duties, I flagged missing addresses or questions on both the map and the profile until we had definitive answers. Snedeker considered PDFs of draft maps and circulated them to Solnit, the writer and other team members before returning to me with revisions and requests for variations. I averaged eight or nine variations per map, sometimes over a dozen. Finally the maps moved on to the book’s designer, Lia Tjandra, who beautified the maps with borders, title plates, artists’ images and color variations; sometimes she made further changes as well.

2. Levees&PrisonsDraft copy

Draft map of “Of Levees and Prisons” by Shizue Seigel.


I was excited about “Of Levees and Prisons” because I was achingly familiar with the criminalization of African Americans, having worked in San Francisco public housing. And I was eager to understand the flood control policies that magnified the Katrina disaster. Snedeker and writer Lydia Pelot-Hobbs supplied a few reference maps, and I searched for the highways that prisoners’ families traveled to see their loved ones, the rivers that veined the landscape and details of levees and spillways.



atlas 7












5.topo lower miss6x3 copy

Source maps for “Of Levees and Prisons” included a historic map of the Great Flood of 1927, a map of floodway inundation zones, and a patchwork of maps showing levees in detail.




Shizue Seigel’s early draft of “¡Bananas!”


With map deadlines for “¡Bananas!” looming, some of the data was still being gathered. To help the writer, Joshua Jelly-Shapiro, I gave myself a crash course in the history of United and Standard Fruit, scrabbling on the internet for websites, books and maps that located where the companies had had invested in bananas — and hemp, cacao, oil palm and sugar, as well. I found shipping routes on, an extensive private collector’s archive with gorgeous period brochure covers and lists of ports of call. After finding a timeline listing major incidents of labor activism, countered by a shocking number of US military interventions, I designed icons for a draft map. It contrasted silhouettes of soldiers, striking workers and radio stations with colorful shipping routes on a tropical azure sea, and threw in an overly garish Carmen Miranda image to underscore the banana companies’ carefully groomed consumerist public image and the ugly reality behind it.

Too much information? Probably. But rough drafts and edits are a joyous part of any creative process, the hidden journey that leads to the final outcome. The team pondered various drafts and decided that less was more.

7. Bananas final copy

The final map, featuring Catherine Burke’s elegant ships and hues of ripe and unripe banana, is a thing of beauty.


8. St Claude copy

Lia Tjandra’s final version of “St. Claude Avenue” is similar to Seigel’s draft.

“St. Claude Avenue” was conceived as two narrow strip maps following the street through the Upper and Lower Ninth Wards, and highlighting pre- and post-Katrina businesses. As I cruised the street virtually, on Google Maps, double-checking addresses and business names, I savored the colorful mix of residential and business, 19th century bungalows alongside raw fast-food joints. Wishing I was in NOLA to take photos, I photoshopped together a dozen Google Map screenshots into a montage of Upper St. Claude facades. It was another gamble that might end up in the wastebasket. Instead, Snedeker replied, “It was so cool that you made the montages because when I was using Google Maps for research, I’d started imagining them running along the bottom of the essay pages.  Great minds…!” The idea became a reality, thanks to photographer and graphic designer Kourtney Keller.

The Rebeccas had also asked for a third strip map, a visual echo of the road trip Maurice Ruffin describes in his essay. He begins at road’s end, Shell Beach, and traces Hwy. 46 back through St. Barnard Parish, along St. Claude Avenue to its origin in the Marigny.

In our early explorations, before we knew there would be a St. Claude map, Ben and I had driven outbound on the same route, to Shell Beach and its memorial cross for victims of Katrina. As we returned from Campo’s Marina in the gathering dusk, we were stopped by a bizarre vision: two young men blowtorching the fur off dead mammals strung up on wires alongside the road. The animals were nutria, large semi-aquatic rodents transplanted to the Louisiana marsh in the 1930s to be trapped for their fur. By the 1960s, they had supplanted the native muskrat, and after the fur market collapsed in the 1980s, they bred wildly, speeding swamp erosion through over-grazing. Despite all appearances, those two human swamp rats were ecologists in their own way, trying to wrest a living and preserve the land they love deeply, even as it sinks deeper into the mire. It seemed a fitting symbol for the ironic complexities of location and history, and for a certain kind of mad passion that spawns atlases of the unfathomable.

Shizue Seigel was principal cartographer for Unfathomable City: a New Orleans Atlas. She is a San Francisco artist, writer and cartographer who has authored three books on Japanese American history and art, and has exhibited her artwork at local, national and international venues.



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