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On 'The Accidental City': An interview with Lawrence Powell

This article by Ari Braverman is reposted from the literary news site Press Street: Room 220.

In New Orleans, light and warmth mean flowers bloom in the Garden District all year long, but summer heat makes garbage fester until the smell pervades the city. It was in this atmosphere that I spoke with Lawrence Powell, author of The Accidental City: Improvising New Orleans.

This city is characterized by multiplicity, and that concept operates throughout The Accidental City, a portrait of New Orleans that is a surreal hodgepodge somewhat akin to a Hieronymus Bosch paintingVarious people contributed to New Orleans’ formation, from Jean-Baptiste Le Moyne de Bienville (portrayed in the book as a cunning landjobber) to unnamed slaves who congregated in Congo Square to barter, drum, and dance. The book posits the city as an “accidental” culmination of human and geographic elements, and covers its history from its inception until Louisiana statehood in 1812. The early city was not an irrational construction, but it wasn’t completely planned, either. At times dense and reflexive, the scope and structure of Powell’s book reflects this convoluted progression. Much like New Orleans itself, The Accidental City offers a varied narrative of human beings struggling to navigate their relationships to one another within an amorphous, inhospitable landscape.

Lawrence Powell (photos by Aubrey Edwards)

How did this project begin?

I didn’t plan on writing the book until after Katrina, when I saw the city fill up with water. I was going to write the city’s whole history—from primordial ooze to Katrina sludge. It was going to be almost all gloom and doom because I wasn’t convinced the city was going to come back. There was too much damage, and the economy is too fragile, and they Kevorkian-ed public housing. I knew people were struggling just to survive. I already saw the forces at work would try to keep people out—for example, that urban green space, that Bring Back New Orleans Commission plan. The infrastructure was in shambles, medical specialists were fleeing and doctors were fleeing. The original title of the book was New Orleans: An American Pompeii?  Because I thought it would come back as a parody of itself.

When I first started preparing for the book, I was reading as deep into current events as I was into the past, because that was going to be my endpoint—the faltering recovery, the utopian schemes people were trying to inflict on us, jazz history, and all the rest. Then I realized I couldn’t keep up with the journalists. I went back and started from the beginning.

But current events forced me to grapple with the questions that have been constantly thrown in our faces. “Why are you here? Why should they have built this place in the first place?  And why should we put more money back into it?”

I needed to answer those questions. I thought I could answer it with the geographers’ explanation, but as I got into it I realized it was a more complicated story. I had to focus on the 18th century.

How did you determine which elements of the city’s history to include and which to leave out?

There’s no rule of thumb. It’s more a matter of instinct. I was trying to lend the concepts a narrative and to keep the people in the forefront of the story.

People make history, even though they’re being constrained by it. But I needed a narrative also informed by the deep insights of people who’ve been writing about the Atlantic world, Creolization, the history of Africa, the constellation of all kinds of ethnicities and nationalities. A lot of professional history tends to go the way of the over-theorized construct, but I wanted to make this book accessible. I tried to avoid over-theorizing, but at the same time tried to assimilate the insights of some of those very rich theoretical literatures.

What is it about academic theory that’s so off-putting?

It tells the general reader: This is not meant for you, because you’re not part of the tribe, the club, the cognoscenti. And there’s all this arcane language and terminology. I don’t want to come across as a curmudgeon! I’ve gotten an awful lot from that literature. I don’t dismiss it at all. I’ve benefitted intellectually, tremendously. And morally!  Women’s history, for example, makes me see the world in a whole new way. There are whole aspects of history, of human consciousness, that I was blinded to. It’s important to have the veil removed.

Many men in the book are rendered as fully as possible, in terms of personality and proclivity, but that wasn’t the case with almost any women. Why?

Maybe it’s my gendered shortcomings. I do talk some about the Ursulines, and I do talk some about some of the free women of color. Partly, it’s because the record isn’t as clear. You don’t find the voices there as much as you do with men, because men were even controlling the voices of the records. To find the voices of the inarticulate you really have to dig a lot deeper. I should’ve done a better job of that. There’s no question about it. And if there is one shortcoming of the book, I think you put your finger on it.

Did you find the same difficulties researching and writing about people of color?

I did try to assign as much agency to slaves as I could, though I do think their absence in the book is a function of getting information from court cases, the judicial records, the records of the Superior Council of the Cabildo. I think the more historians dive into this material, the more that will surface, because we already know what the white men have said!

We really are looking for the voices of the inarticulate, of those who we know had agency, but their voices don’t come through. I speculate about this, too, in some of the things I said about slave women involved in interracial relationships. I think they had some agency, though constrained. I can’t imagine a years-long, ongoing relationship without some level of reciprocal power. We’re torn about treating women of color in relationship with white men at that time as victims. They were victims, but these relationships that went on for as long as they did—and the children were free—I think had to be more complicated than they’ve been historically portrayed.

Why does the idea of the “accident” feel so important to you, in regard to New Orleans?

The city’s placement here was the accident of a stock market crash. It throws up the idea of contingency and chance. I was pushing back against the idea of geographic determinism, even though I got a lot from the geographers. I’m a huge fan of my young colleague at Tulane, Rich Campanella. But I think they see things a little differently than historians do. They’re almost a little Euclidean in their approach. It’s almost as if they assume everything is rational—that and people make decisions based on rational, geographical criteria. They basically assert that the city’s founders thought, “Well you have to have the city here, close to the mouth of the river, in order to control it.” I didn’t see it that way.

Would it be safe to say that one of the underlying themes of this book is that the city’s geography and its human reality are really connected?

You know, one of my favorite parts of this book was the epigraph. I got it from Nietzche: “The secret for harvesting from existence the greatest fruitfulness and the greatest enjoyment is: live dangerously. Build your cities on the slopes of Vesuvius.”

This land may have been formed around 1400. This area has a definite shelf life, geologically speaking. I play that up because I want to underscore the challenges of the environment, but also without saying it, plant the suggestion in the reader’s mind, that that must have affected the psyche of people here without them knowing it. We are sojourners here, perched on probably the most unstable geography imaginable. Until Katrina, I think that was masked from us by modern hydrology and drainage technology and engineering.

But I do think the fact that we are here and have been constrained to develop along in a certain way, kind of shaped the human psyche. For example, the fact that people had to hug the banks of the river, just the natural levee, and they had to mix, coexist. You still see vestiges of it here in the salt and pepper neighborhood pattern.

Or the fact that the Irish Channel isn’t Irish. You have a lot of German and French. African. They couldn’t escape from one another because there was no where else to go, because of the landscape. They still tended to drift off into separate ethnic enclaves, but you can see how the transmission of culture and cultural borrowings would have been much more pressurized here.

I guess, in a sense, I am falling back on another geographical model, which, instead of seeing lines as boundaries, sees them as porous, spongy passages of osmotic cultural transfer. There was always, for a century, this sort of fluidity here, both figuratively and literally. I think that makes this place different and distinctive.

How do you think living in such a tumultuous geography has influenced the culture here?

Katrina brought this home to me: We have these built-in resources for rebounding. You can see it with Jazz Fest and Carnival. They’re organized traditions of cultural resilience. They’re not just celebratory. When you see them kick in the way they did after Katrina you realize that they’re almost instinctive. They’ve been reinforced by our disasters.

This is what we do when we have disasters. You see it in the birth of some African-American traditions, like the Mardi Gras Indians, or jazz, or Zulu. All that stuff was beginning to coalesce and crystalize just as Jim Crow and segregation reached their nadir at the end of the 19th century.

In one of the last pages you talk about how New Orleans was a wide-open city. Do you think it still is wide open in the way you meant?

In some respects it is, in the way of cultural production. I think maybe why you see so much Hollywood down here is not just the tax credit, but [because] it seems like a back lot in some respects, of possibility.

I wish I could say the same about the economy. I think our best days are probably behind us. You want an economy that will generate opportunity for a broad base. I don’t see that happening. Now the economy is too much based on tourism. It’s been a problem for a long time, since the modernization of the port and the loss of all those jobs. That was our de-industrialization. We became a rustbelt, the port became container-ized. A lot of those jobs on the docks and the wharves, stevedores and all the rest, disappeared. A lot of black and white New Orleanians moved because we lost the blue-collar jobs that produced an opportunity to send their kids to college and so on.

Now we’re losing even good white-collar jobs. I see an effort to build a new foundation under the economy, in that new biomedical corridor. I wish them well, but I’m a little dubious that it can happen.

You think the moment has passed?

It may have passed. You can’t conjure from nothing a whole semi-skilled sector of technicians and staff those jobs. I’m just not sure whether this mega hospital of 400, 600 beds makes sense anymore.

There’s a great line from Gabriel Garcia Marquez novel called Love in the Time of Cholera. A character named Dr. Juvenal, telling a friend—he’s referring to Cartegena, Columbia, a Spanish colonial port—he says, “Oh what a noble city this must be! They’ve been trying to finish us off for 400 years and they haven’t succeeded yet.”

That’s how I feel about New Orleans. We’re going to stumble through. Are we going to become a Silicon Valley of capital formation as we were before the Civil War? I don’t think so. Our economic glamor decades were 1830, 1840, 1850. But we’ll still be around, so long as the seas don’t rise.

Press Street: Room 220 is a content partner of NolaVie.