Build your cities on the slopes of Vesuvius: An interview with Lawrence Powell

By Ari Braverman

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 resembles a surreal hodgepodge somewhat akin to a Hieronymus Bosch painting. Different people contributed to New Orleans’ formation, from Jean-Baptiste Le Moyne de Bienville (portrayed in the book as a cunning landjobber) to unnamed slaves that 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 settlement 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 history’s 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.

Room 220: How did this project begin?

Lawrence Powell: The idea of writing this book didn’t arise until after Katrina, when I saw the city fill up with water. The initial intent was to write the city’s whole history—from primordial ooze to Katrina sludge. And my early outlook was gloom and doom because I wasn’t convinced the city was going to come back. There was too much damage, and the economy was too fragile. I knew people were struggling simply to survive—or even find housing after the housing projects were Kevorkian-ed. I already saw the forces at work would try to keep people from returning—for example, that urban green space, that Bring Back New Orleans Commission plan. The infrastructure was in shambles, medical specialists were fleeing, lawyers were heading for Houston. The original title of the book reflected that doleful outlook:  New Orleans: An American Pompeii?  I was afraid the city would come back as a parody of itself.

When I first started preparing for the book, I read deeply into current events, because that was going to be my endpoint—the faltering recovery, the utopian schemes people were trying to inflict on us, the proposed jazz district, 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 were constantly being thrown in our faces after the storm. “Why are you here?  Why did they build 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 the weeds I realized the answer was more complicated, so complicated that I was compelled to focus on the 18th century simply to explain it.

Rm220: How did you determine which elements of the city’s history to include and which to leave out?

LP: 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, about Creolization, about 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 I needed to assimilate the insights of a lot of very sophisticated scholarship.

Rm220: What is it about academic theory that’s so off-putting?

LP: 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.

Rm220: I noticed many men in the book were rendered as fully as possible, in terms of personality and proclivity, but that wasn’t the case with almost any of the women. Why?

LP: 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.

Rm220: Did you find the same difficulties researching and writing about people of color?

LP: I did try to assign as much agency to slaves as I could. What we know about them largely comes from court cases, the judicial records, the records of the Superior Council of the Cabildo. The deeper 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 we can’t always measure its extent because their voices don’t come through. I speculate about this, too, in some of the things I said about slave women who were involved in interracial relationships. I think they had some agency too, notwithstanding the disadvantages they faced. 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—there’s no doubt about that whatsoever. But the fact that these relationships went on for as long as they did—and the children of these interracial unions were often freed—indicates a complexity that is not easy to penetrate.


Rm220: Why does the idea of the “accident” feel so important to you, in regard to New Orleans?

LP: The city’s placement here was the accident of a stock market crash. It underscores the notion 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 geographers, as a rule, see things a little differently than historians. They tend to be Euclidean in their approach. It’s almost as if they assume everything is rational—that 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,  and I don’t think the record supports that interpretation either. All that geography can tell us is that it was feasible to put a city here, not that its selection was inevitable.

Rm220: 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?

LP: 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! The lower delta has a definite shelf life, geologically speaking. I played that up in order to spotlight the challenges of the environment, but also—without coming out and saying it—to plant the suggestion in the reader’s mind that catastrophic contingencies must have entered into the psyches of early inhabitants without their being fully conscious of that fundamental reality. We are sojourners here, perched on probably the most unstable geography imaginable. Until Katrina, I think that precariousness was masked from us by modern hydrology and drainage technology and engineering. A lot of things have followed from the choice of place: an existential stance toward life and leisure and the chanciness of it all, for one. And the fact that people had to hug the banks of the river just to stay dry, for another. They were obliged to mix and coexist and share a culture by building one together. You still see vestiges of it here in our salt and pepper neighborhoods and the impossibility, until the back swamp was drained, of drifting off into separate ethnic enclaves.   The commingling created a pressure cooker for the transmission of and borrowings of culture in one of America’s most multicultural cities.

I suppose, in a sense, I am falling back on another geographical model, which, instead of seeing lines as boundaries, views 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.

Rm220: How do you think living in such a tumultuous geography has influenced the culture here?

LP: 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.

Rm220: 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?

LP: In some respects it is, in the way of cultural production. One reason the city has turned into a Hollywood backlot, beyond the allure of tax credits, is because the city must strike them as a back lot, in some respects, of possibility. It has always been a place where people come to reinvent themselves, to take off a mask by putting one on. I wish I could be as confident about the economy. I fear our best days are probably behind us. You want an economy that will generate democratic opportunity for a broad base. I don’t see that happening.  Today the economy is based too much on tourism. That’s been a problem for a long time, since the modernization of the port. Containerization was our de-industrialization. That’s when we joined the rustbelt, when those dock jobs vanished. 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.

Rm220: You think the moment has passed?

LP: 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 four hundred, six hundred 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 muddle 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.