Truth, meaning, and location can be lost, even in a book of maps: A review of UNFATHOMABLE CITY: A NEW ORLEANS ATLAS

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.

Unfathomable City: A New Orleans Atlas
Edited by Rebecca Solnit and Rebecca Snedeker
University of California Press

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.

In the essay that accompanies “Thirty-Nine Sundays: Social Aid and Pleasure Clubs Take it to the Streets,” Joel Dinerstein offers one of few ever-published accounts of the second line tradition from the perspective of a club member recalling the actual—rather than perceived—second line experience. Dinerstein turns a critical eye to the exploitative policies of the city and “platoon of photographers and tourists” that have emerged post-Katrina. This reality is captured in a quote from a member of the Second Line Task Force: “That’s why we have the task force … because we’re trying to fight for our culture … Any kind of commercial dealing with New Orleans, the first thing you see is a second line. But they don’t support us.”

The map and accompanying piece about New Orleans bounce music, by Garnette Cadogan, refers often to its “sex-drenched” and “raunchy” lyrics—however, to focus on these perceptions would be to severely truncate the contribution of this art form. As many avid listeners and consumers of Bounce music would know, “trigger-man beats” have contributed to the physical and emotional health of its constituents (providing hidden workouts disguised as fun), assuaging homophobia, and giving both voice and place to longstanding communities who are often marginally referred to by one word: projects. The roll-call style of this newest form of New Orleans musical genius has done much to put populations on the map, as evidenced by its inclusion in this project.

George Porter, Jr., an interview with whom accompanies the map “Bass Lines: Deep Sounds and Soils.” Porter is best known as the singer and bassist for The Meters.

Finally, the aspect of New Orleans most worthy of the title “unfathomable” is captured by George Porter in his interview that accompanies the map “Bass Lines: Deep Sound and Soil.” Interviewer Joshua Jelly-Schapiro prompted Porter’s response by saying:

“…[New Orleans] has a particular resonance in our nation’s mind—people are drawn here, but also repelled; they come to visit, but then they want to be away from it to be clean.”

It is apparent in his response that Porter does not agree with what is presented as the “national” resonance/portrayal of New Orleans. His rebuttal is swift, funny, and illuminating:

“Yeah, yeah. And that connects to how we’re collecting the waste from the rest of the country; they dropping it in our neighborhood. And if they want to call us dirty—we say. Yeah, well it’s your shit! {laughs} But we’ve taken their crap and made something wonderful out of it. So now they have to come down here and visit they own shit! {laughs}”

There is depth and substance embedded in many of these expositions, but too often we find it in glimpses and fragments. In the haphazard coupling of themes like “Civil Rights and Lemon Ice” and “Selling Seafood, Selling Sex,” we lose both the significance and context of these issues. While topics sound creative and paradoxical together, there is no guarantee that the meanings intersect or that the analysis that follows is enhanced by the association of divergent or otherwise unrelated concepts. When the trajectory focuses on the “peculiar” and the “exceptional,” truth, meaning, and location can be lost, even in a book of maps.

“Civil Rights and Lemon Ice: Three Lives in the Old City,” which accompanies an essay by Dana Logsdon and Dawn Logsdon

If one looks holistically at the collection, the descriptions of Black New Orleans still fall in the familiar places. A quick flip through locates this community visually and spatially in kitchens, prisons, and slavery; the selling of sex, music, resistance, and dance. As a member of this community, I am familiar with this gaze. It comes in many forms—even local ones—and can feel seductively accurate. Although I agree vehemently that these art forms are rooted in resistance and resilience, we are more than the music we make, the food we cook, and the dances we do.

These are also not the only expressions of resistance and resilience that Blacks of New Orleans have accomplished. New Orleans is also the site of some of the oldest Black political structures in this country—only recently supplanted by Katrina. It is also a place where blacks have founded and built more of their own universities and schools than anywhere else in America. In Unfathomable City, as with so many other texts, Black creative genius and the collective ability to transcend circumstance are limited to those sectors that the world deems (albeit often respectfully) as entertainment.

This perception relegates many of the people of New Orleans—a majority-black city—to a deviant periphery, even while the products and genius of those people are appropriated, exploited, observed, appreciated, written about, read about, and sold in the context of the unfathomable. The introduction asserts a desire to map the human experience, but those humans are, more often than not, never actually located in the text. It is, in essence, the discussion of communities without their actual presence, funneled through the oldest American tradition: discovery. It is the implication that something does not exist until the moment that you find out that it always has. But one cannot discover a community simply by learning of it.

Unfathomable City presents New Orleans as the exceptional, the ironic, the temptations of filth and sex, the allure of African drums and sexual dance; The book is surprising and predictable, trite and original, liberating and limiting, deceptively accurate … and full of jazzy shit!