Unfathomable City: A New Orleans Atlas
By Rebecca Solnit and Rebecca Snedeker
University of California Press 2013
The authors write their own introduction and here it states:
“The problem with these technologies is that though they generally help get you where you’re going, that’s all they do. With a paper map, you take charge; with these other means, you take orders and don’t learn your way around, any more than you learn math by using a calculator. A map shows countless possible routes; a computer-generated itinerary shows one. Using the new navigational aids, you remain dependent, and your trajectory requires obedience to the technology–some GPS devices literally dictate voice commands you are meant to obey. When you navigate with a paper map, tracing your own route rather than having it issued as a line, a list, or a set of commands, you incrementally learn the lay of the land.
“The map becomes obsolete as you become oriented. The map is then no longer on paper in front of you but inside you; many maps are, as you contain knowledge of many kinds of history and community in one place. You no longer need help navigating but can offer it. You become a map, an atlas, a guide, a person who has absorbed maps, or who needs no map intermediaries because you know the place and the many ways to get here from there. You know where you are, which may become an increasingly rare thing in an era of digital intervention.
“As Unfathomable City’s editor-at-large, Joshua Jelly-Schapiro, put it in his Harper’s essay on cartography in the contemporary world, these new technologies of navigation don’t do ‘what maps are best at: providing context. Beyond simply getting us from one appointment to another, old-fashioned maps express what the geographer…Yi-Fu Tuan calls topophilia, our innate love of place, often shaped by sense and by memories.’ Jelly-Schapiro quotes the German scholar Julia Frankenstein, who concludes that ‘the more we rely on technology to find our way, the less we build up our cognitive maps.’ In other words, when you use the old-fashioned technology of paper maps, you build up the even more ancient resources of memory, mind, and spatial imagination–and you do it without monthly payments to a large corporation to gain access, or electricity, or a screen on which to read directions.
“Another aspect of the old maps to consider is beauty: many online maps have a cheerfully ugly aesthetic, one unlikely to provoke the wonder or craving of the handsome maps of yore; and what appears on screens may not inspire contemplation the way an atlas can. People do study the aerial photographs that function as online maps, and digital mapping has valuable roles to play in environmental defense, community mapping, and countermapping–the making of maps as acts of resistance to the powers that be. They have also extended some kinds of access to geographical information. But paper maps offer other strengths and glories–and beauties.
“Curiously, too, though the ephemerality of paper is often noted, there are hosts of maps and atlases half a millennium old; most digital maps are intended to be ephemeral, called up for a particular purpose, their pixels consigned to the past as soon as the use is over. So paper maps can offer beauty; they can also provide an edge on immortality; they never go blank; and the well-made ones are reliable in ways that aren’t always true of digital maps. One stormy summer evening when Jelly-Schapiro and this atlas’s two principal editors wer on a paddleboat on the Mississippi, one of us glanced at our location via smartphone. The device was not programmed to admit the possibility that we were boating rather than driving, so the dot showing where we were remained adamantly onshore. But we knew where we were, and we could’ve found it on a paper map.
“Modern road maps, like online maps, show highways, roads, and streets and generally don’t show cemeteries, bird migrations, histories, economies, ethnic groups, parade routes, and the thousand other things that can be mapped and have been mapped in old atlases and are, to some extent, in Unfathomable City. President Obama’s old map, issued by a gas station or an auto association, likely as not, was made to get you around but not to tell you where you are and who lives there. There are things that cannot be mapped, but much of what moves through and stays put in this world can be. And should be. A great map should stir up wonder and curiosity, prompt revelation, and deepen orientation. It should make the strange familiar and the familiar strange” (5-6).
I think this somehow captures the mystery of why I am drawn to maps. My husband and I had been to New Orleans more than once and it was capturing our hearts as one of our favorite cities. On a stormy afternoon we were flitting from store to store and in a bookstore I almost immediately found Unfathomable City and held it tightly to my breast in a statement of ownership. It is a collection of two things I love: maps and essays. I hear Solnit has done the same with San Francisco. I love the thought of seeing one city in dozens of ways and hearing people who actually live there discuss the meaning of the map. Brilliant concept.
From further in the introduction subtitled Lakeside, Riverside, Upriver, downriver, they write,
“(Before Katrina, we had the highest rate of nativity–the percentage of residents living in the same town where they were born–in the United States.)”
“Solnit came back and back again, which we locals call ‘the rubber-band effect’” (9).
Chapter 1: A City in Time
Map: A City in Time: La Nouvelle-Orleans Over 300 Years by Richard Campanella and Shizue Seigel
Essay How New Orleans Happened by Richard Campanella
The authors call Campanella “New Orleans’s preeminent geographer/cartographer. This map was created by Campanella and Shizue Seigel and shows the urbanization of the city from 1722 to 2000 buy using a color code.
“The city was conceived in 1717 by John Law’s Company of the West (later the Company of the Indies), a speculative venture granted a monopoly by the Crown to develop the problematic Louisiana claim with tobacco plantations and other risky projects.
“…designated La Nouvelle-Orleans to flatter Law’s royal patron, the Duc d’Orleans.
“France ceded the colony to Sapin in the 1760s.”
Here is a comment on how urban development can separate the haves from the have nots:
“One final criterion sorted spaces for urbanization. Areas closer to risky, noisy, smelly, unsightly, or otherwise offensive nuisances and hazards–flood zones, railroads, canals, dumps, wharves, industry–tended to be developed for lower-income residences and commercial or industrial land uses, while areas farther from such sites attracted higher-end development for a more moneyed crowd. Housing for the city’s poorest residents, usually African American, was such a low priority for developers that other urbanization ‘rules,’ particularly for drainage and accessibility, carried little weight. This left the poor and the disenfranchised to settle in social and geographical isolation in the low-amenity, high-risk back-of-town or along the high-nuisance wharves along the immediate riverfront” (18).
Chapter 2: Ebb and Flow
Map called Ebb and Flow: Migrations of the Houma, Erosions of the Coast by Shizue Seigel
Essay called Southward Into the Vanishing Lands by Monique Verdin
“Upriver, the Algonquian speakers identified it as ‘Missi sippi’ (large flowing water).
Chapter 3: People Who
Map by Molly Roy which, in a fun way, shows where different types of people live
Essay Here They Come, There They Go by Lolis Eric Elie
“Do not think of a South of railroad tracks and barbecue shacks and others who live at a predictably prescribed remove from us. Do not think of an America of ethnic enclaves and inviolable spaces, of hard immigrated boundaries. Even after you have formed your vision of our borders, do not cling to it, for every division awarits revision, which new history will reverse” (25).
Chapter 4: Moves, Remains
A map of Hiding and Seeking the Dead by Molly Roy
Essay called Bodies by Nathaniel Rich
“As a body decomposes, it fills with gases–cadaverine and putrescine–that cause it to bloat.
“…burying their dead in aboveground mausoleums. These are known colloquially as ‘ovens’ because the white stone chambers, heated by the merciless Louisiana sun, bake the corpses” (35).
Chapter 5: Stationary Revelations
“If you walk a city, if you love a city, if you put in your miles and years with open heart and mind, the city will reveal itself to you. Maybe it won’t become yours, but you will become its–its chronicler, its pilgrim, its ardent lover, its nonnative son or native daughter or defender. Billy Sothern trod these streets over the years, both defending the most desperate of this city, the people on Death Row, and pushing a baby carriage (and then, later, walking with his daughter) up and down the avenues, to Carnival parades and secret spots. This list of his own treasures is a testament to his conscience and his wanderings and an invitation to everyone, of this city or any city, to count up the stations of their own journeys home, the dusty miracles of the backstreets, and the stories to be told. Where are your treasures and your milestones, what mud is on your shoes, toward what shrines are you traveling on your pilgrimage?
Map by Shizue Seigel called Stationary Revelations: Sites of Contemplation and Delight
Essay On A Strange Island by Billy Sothern
“Who cares that the city is slowly falling into the Gulf of Mexico, that you know that the gunshots you hear at night are not fireworks because they are followed by sirens, that you no longer bother calling the city about the sinkhole that is consuming your street because it is clear that no one will fix it? Such concerns fade when you can sit on your porch and watch the world’s most amazing eheater of people talking, yelling, dancing, and eating, set against our amazing vernacular buildings and among our magnolias, crepe myrtles, swamp lilies, and Louisiana irises. You are part of that theater, and you talk to people as they pass, smell the jasmine and sweet olive in the air, and hear trains and boats from the river. You do not need to leave your porch to find treasures here” (37).
Chapter 6: Oil and Water
Map called Oil and Water: Extracting Petroleum, Exterminating Nature by Jakob Rosenzweig
Essay called When They Set the Sea of Fire by Antonia Juhasz
Chapter 7: Of Levees and Prisons
“Most incarcerated city…Louisiana…founded as a place to dump convicts…single largest prison in the United States, the Louisiana State Penitentiary, known as Angola, is situated on the lush land of a plantation of that same name founded by a slave trader.
Map called Of Levees and Prisons: Failures of Containment, Surges of Freedom by Shizue Seigel
Essay Lockdown Louisiana by Lydia Pelot-Hobbs
Chapter 8: Civil Rights and Lemon Ice
Map called Civil Rights and Lemon Ice: Three Lives in the Old City by Shizue Seigel
Essay The Presence of the Past by Dana Logsdon and Dawn Logsdon
Mentions an “anarchist geographer” by the name of Elisee Reclus.
I didn’t know there was such a thing, but now I want to know more.
Chapter 9: Sugar Heaven and Sugar Hell
Map called Sugar Heaven and Sugar Hell: Pleasures and Brutalities of a Commodity by Shizue Seigel
Essay No Sweetness is Light by Shirley Thompson
Chapter 10: Bananas!
Map of the same name by Shizue Seigel
Essay Fruits’ Fortunes at the Gate of the Tropics by Joshua Jelly-Schapiro
Chapter 11: Hot and Steamy
Map called Hot and Steamy: Selling Seafood, Selling Sex by Molly Roy
Essay Salacious and Crustaceous by Evan Casper-Futterman
“From Southern Decadence to Sissy Bounce, the Fruit Loop to Club Vibe, to Burlesque and Moulin Vieux, New Orleans proudly pushes the boundaries of ‘proper’ sexaul conduct and provides sanctuary (also the name of a lesbian bar) from a nightmarish value system of decency, chastity, and temperance” (84).
Chapter 12: The Mississippi is (Not) the Nile
Map called The Mississippi Is (Not) the Nile: Arab New Orleans, Real and Imagined by Shizue Seigel
Essay The Ibis-Headed God of New Orleans by Khaled Hegazzi and Andy Young
Chapter 13: The Line-Up
Map: The Line-Up: Live Oak Corridors and Carnival Parade Routes by Shizue Seigel
Essay Sentinels and Celebrants by Eve Abrams
“…the oldest, McDonogh Oak, resides in City Park. McDonogh Oak is more than eight hundred years old, and its girth exceeds 24 feet. The president of the Live Oak Society, Seven Sisters Oak, lives two blocks from Lake Pontchartrain’s North Shore. It’s approximately twelve hundred years old and has a waistline of more than 38 feet” (96).
Chapter 14: Repercussions
Map called Repercussions: Rhythm and Resistance Across the Atlantic by Shizue Seigel
Essay It Enriches My Spirit to be Linked to Such a Deep and Far-Reaching Piece of What This Universe Is: A Conversation with Herreast Harrison and Donald Harrison Jr.
Under the subtitle “They walked with this elegant air” Herreast Harrison says
“…some of them were not acutely aware of their own suffering, because they had accepted what was supposed to be the ‘norm.’ You grow up with all this inferiority implanted in you; you never feel like you’re worthy. But I always knew one thing–I can talk! [laughs] That hasn’t been taken away from me. So I can say what I want. And I had to get to the place where I was gonna say it, whether anyone appreciated it or not. So now, at seventy-five, I try to be congnizant of people’s feelings and all of that, but if it’s something I need to say–wow!–you better harness yourself because I’ll put it on trial” (102).
Chapter 15: Thirty-Nine Sundays
Map called Thirty-Nine Sundays: Social Aid and Pleasure Clubs Take It to the Streets by Benjamin Pease
Essay (my favorite of the bunch) called Rollin’ Wid It by Joel Dinerstein
Here is the essay in its entirety which I easily found on Joel Dinerstein’s website:
The day starts at 10 am at Spring Hill Missionary, a white stucco four-square Uptown Baptist church crowned with an all-watching steeple. Inside, we spread our tropical peach sleeves across the double rows of wooden pews, dark olive alligator shoes sticking out in the aisle. The pastor wears a pink power suit and reads from Corinthians about how Jesus might be anywhere, might even be on today’s second line (so I guess we should watch for him). We’re all mostly bored until one of our own, 72-year-old Sidney “Lil Bruh” Morris, stands up to act as a deacon and brings the message home with quiet dignity, asking the Lord for a good parade and a peaceful day of celebration and we all say Amen.
In New Orleans, the second Sunday of each October belongs to the Prince of Wales Social Aid and Pleasure Club and has for a very long time. Founded in 1928 by dockworkers and railroad men, there is some disagreement about the origin of the club name. Most members believed it was named for the love of the club ancestors for J&B scotch (it says “dedicated to the Prince of Wales” on the label) while a few believe it was named for the actual Prince of Wales, a renowned jazz hound who made his first visit that year to the source of the cultural river. Mostly in our 40s and 50s, many Walers are second- and third-generation paraders who recall watching second-lines as kids or remember when clubs sewed their own colorful suits every year. On our day, by police permit and with police escort, all traffic is stopped and cleared out a quarter-mile section at a time as the Prince of Wales and Lady Walers — and more than a thousand second-liners from all around — funk up four miles of bad New Orleans road.
After church, we drive over to take the annual club photo on the neutral ground across from Tipitina’s, the famous club and shrine to Professor Longhair on Napoleon and Tchoupitoulas. We line up all in the unity of our finery half-facing the photographer. Standing proud in the year’s colors — peach suits, dark olive accessories — we hold aloft two oval so-called “fans” upon which the club’s lion symbol roars from a field of velvet. Then we move on up the street a quarter-mile to our home base where there’s an hour until we launch ourselves onto the streets.
The Rockbottom Lounge is the staging ground for coming out the door, the parade’s kick-off at 1 pm. The core of the current club met here in the 1990s, many of them friends or relatives of Alonzo Landry, the President for most of that decade, while “White Boy Joe” Stern, our most veteran member, was adopted into Landry’s extended family. Here we start getting the spirit, talk to former members, watch mothers dress their kids, take pride in being told by past generations that this year’s peach three-piece with matching dark-olive hat and alligator shoes, has again made the grade: “Y’all look clean, ya look pretty,” the men tell us. We each pin up a long streamer that flows across our torsos and down to our knees, full of bows and ribbons with a nickname on the shoulder-strap. All the while we’re spiking our Sunday-go-to-second-line spirit with Heineken, Seagram’s 7, weed, Grey Goose — don’t forget the wine coolers for Phyllis — except for Miss Betty, a church-going woman soberly surviving with style at 65. Coming out in single file, we each by each hit the threshold, strike a pose and present this year’s model of our selves. It is a serious celebratory matter. As Betty says, “All I know is when I come out I want to look like the baddest motherfucker there is.”
We come out rocking Soul-Train style between the ropes held by our prop men and descend onto Tchoupitoulas Street powered by The Stooges brass band: kids first, girls skipping and mugging with their green hats, boys next, a twelve-year-old already with a quick hip-dip and touch of the hat, then the Lady Walers saunter out, cool and low-flowin’, Terina’s star-time smile followed by Phyllis’ slow boogie and Desiree crossdressed in a Prince’s suit working the glory of a threshold till its hers. Then the gents: Noland comes out lean and mean, a cool hustler as if with money to burn, White Boy Joe faces West and side-steps, sporting a matching dark olive bandanna under his olive Stetson, Bruce waves his booty round and round and covers the most ground, switching back through the ropes and up Peniston, Alvin does his gangster strut and runs his hand along his hat brim. Then Lil Bruh comes out holding his fans high and kicks his knees up higher than you’d imagine a 72-year-old man can, the very incarnation of the original “Grand Marshal,” the strutting dancer who led the second-lines back when Black New Orleanians first “made up the parades just for the pleasure of it,” as recalled by jazz legend Sidney Bechet from his childhood.
After only two blocks we slow the parade roll to honor the dead. The band downshifts into a dirge in front of the late Jimmy Parker’s house on Annunciation and The Walers fall into a halting step with a syncopated slip: we strut in two lines with a slight diagonal step, shaping the air into chords of ancestor worship. Maybe we pick up his spirit, maybe he’s satisfied we’re all still dancing for him. Once past, the tuba and snare drum pick up the groove and down the block we pick up the Queen and her Court. Elected from outside the club, she rides with her maids and throws a few beads, honorary royal figureheads in the ritual. While waiting, Paul and I buckjump together, his thrashing kicks set off my deep-knee corkscrewing, and the Walers gather around, throw their fans down and get busy with The Stooges. The tuba-man slows his beat and a pride of princesses and their children dance down the steps and ascend a half-sawn off Mardi Gras float with their children. Then the Queen comes down the steps in white taffeta approaching a vehicle that has to be seen to be believed: an open-air bare-bones stagecoach woven of wire and drawn by two stallion-sized white mules. The Queen steps in as if she’s a relief pitcher from Heaven. The driver flicks his switch and she is driven half a block to the awaiting float for a day of regal waves and champagne riding.
We set in to serious second-lining through the 12th Ward, a seamless sunny brassy carpet-ride of strolling, drinking, talking, and strutting, tuba-&-drum call and community response, until the parade turns onto Magazine Street and the Walers hit this commercial strip like a holiday: Alvin throws down his fans and we make a circle around him as he zigs back and forth with zip starts and stops, Desiree turns her palms up and damn near limbos, and everyone digs making the rich white folks wait and wonder as they stare from their cars with culture shock-and-awe. Second-lines run four hours over five-mile routes almost entirely through African-American neighborhoods — Treme, Central City, Carrollton — so many locals have never seen one due to residential segregation. Until recently, New Orleans culture was racially coded for locals: white and black Mardi Gras, white Krewes and Black Social Aid & Pleasure Clubs, white touristy second-lines and these black-cultural rolling block parties.
The Prince of Wales is a rare Uptown second-line and this ain’t no First Friday: it’s a community getting its collective freak on, working off the weekly tension so at some point everybody is a star (to riff on Sly Stone). The parade belongs as much to the second liners as to the first line: that’s why it’s named for them. As Louis Armstrong testified about his childhood: “The Second Line is a bunch of Guys who follows the parade. They’re not the members of the … Club. Anybody can be a Second Liner, whether they are Raggedy or dressed up. They seemed to have more fun than anybody.” This weekly ritual is named for the celebrants and not the sponsors, and at this point we all swing together onto the broad expanse of Louisiana Avenue and head up to The Sandpiper, a bar whose ’50s neon martini sign is a beacon in the late unholy NOLA night. This is the first scheduled ten-minute stop of the parade: we rest for a drink and momentarily de-compress.
Once we re-emerge we’re in the thick of it, between the dancers and the deep heat and the strolling crowd. Sometimes you look up from getting down and don’t even know where you’re at even in your own neighborhood. The music shapes the air, the band torques up our internal gyroscopes, the tuba syncs our bodies together. We’re getting the street into our system and putting our energy into the street. Like any good ritual, second-lines suspend everyday industrial time. And then it’s out LaSalle to Washington and on around to the stop at Charley Wright’s place, and we’re lettin’ the good times roll on, Walers out front.
On your club’s parade day, the suit is your club uniform and the band is your motorcade. “Shut that street down… I’m coming through here. That’s what it feel like,” Noland once said, having driven a cab and a truck and run assorted hustles as well as a home-repair business in his fifty-odd years. “You feel like, [there’s] nothing they can do [to stop you]… Eleven months they [we] slave, for one day out of the year.” Miss Betty distills this feeling: “That’s my day. I feel like a star. Everything’s got to stop for me.” On this day, the second-liners bask in refracted glory off our colorful shoulders and bad-ass shoes: our tropical blaze of body and soul lights up the community. “It’s your day, you the one shining,” Betty says.
If a city is a circulatory system of its residents’ energy — with streets like arteries and airwaves — then New Orleans is the city as dancing body, a place whose spirit is stomped into existence every Sunday. Every day musicians inhale the city and on Sundays, they exhale it through valves and pistons and put the music on the wind for dancers to make the city’s rhythms visible. There’s a third line, too — the platoon of photographers and tourists who think the main action is the first line when it’s more along the sidewalks, where two people lock eyes and drop into a dance-off full of fluid shimmies, spins, and pelvic pops, where an impromptu drum unit rings time on cowbells and pint bottles, where every surface becomes a platform of celebration — church steps, flatbeds, low rooftops, billboards — and I watch seven young men from the community pace the Prince of Wales single-file each with his own move (leap, hurdle, split, cartwheel) while a few women lean forward on a parked car and booty-pop their pleasure since it ain’t no sin to be glad you’re alive.
“There’s no place like this place,” Stan smiles at me as we swing onto St. Charles and hold up a streetcar, tourists’ eyes popping wide as their camera lenses. The Stooges shift into “Billie Jean” and pump up the volume, honoring the recently deceased Michael Jackson and blowing up the prized quiet real estate with brassy antagonism. “The tourists … be trying to see what’s going on, they taking pictures,” Phyllis says with pride, “but we own the streets that day.” Stan is originally from San Antonio and joined the club post-Katrina for one reason: “It became imperative [for me] to step up because they were trying to take the culture away.” In the immediate aftermath of “the Storm” (as it’s called here), the city doubled the cost of a police permit and spread the lie that violence was endemic to second-lines. The clubs sued to rescind the increase and the Walers’ own Joe Stern testified to the lack of parade violence over a generation. “They don’t help us at all,” Phyllis once said about the city, “if it was up to them, we wouldn’t even be second lining… That’s why we have the [Second-Line] 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.”
We have looped back around into the Garden District and arrive at our last stop, Commander’s Palace, the city’s #1 restaurant as rated by Zagat’s: this was a prestigious coup engineered by Bruce and Noland and represents very recent attempts by local businesses to embrace local Black culture for its spectacle value. Five feet from the door, Adrian, the youngest Waler, throws her hat to the ground and she dip-bam-double-skips and spins into a quick routine that The Stooges support with sustained, escalating riffs, and Adrian does a stutter-kick, a half-split and then a slight backbend from which she rolls her head back in to place, gives the band an appreciative side-eye, then bends gracefully to pick up her hat and sashays on in. It is her way of claiming this new terrain and honoring its prestige. We swirl into the restaurant, human birds of paradise swooping low past shocked faces in the midst of quiet mid-afternoon lunches. I toss back a gimlet with Alvin and Terina’s goldened smile spurs us back on out to Tchoupitoulas and the wide-open homestretch along the river that takes us home to the Rockbottom.
A second-line parade is an annual house party that moves lightly like the feathers on our fans yet inexorably like a tank through the streets. Gotta roll wid it or get the hell on outta the way.
Chapter 16: Bass Lines
“…whose name–funk–is perhaps derived from its Kongo slaves’ word for ‘strong body odor,’ lufuki…” (116).
Map called Bass Lines: Deep Sounds and Soils by Jakob Rosenzweig
Essay The Floating Cushion by George Porter Jr. on the City’s Low End
Chapter 17: Where Dey At
Map: Where Dey At: Bounce Calls Up A Vanished City by Molly Roy
Essay A Home In Song by Garnette Cadogan
Chapter 18: Snakes and Ladders
Map: Snakes and Ladders: What Rose Up, What Fell Down During Hurricane Katrina by Shizue Seigel
Essay Nothing was Foreordained by Rebecca Solnit
Chapter 19: St. Claude Avenue
Map: St. Claude Avenue: Loss and Recovery on an Inner-City Artery by Shizue Seigel
Essay The Beginning of This Road by Maurice Carlos Ruffin
Chapter 20: Juju and Cuckoo
Map Juju and Cuckoo: Taking Care of Crazy by Shizue Seigel
Essay Holding It Together, Falling Apart by Rebecca Snedeker
Mentions the “King and Queen Emporium International on Bayou Road” as well as “the F&F Botanica and Candle Shop on North Broad” (144).
Chapter 21: Lead and Lies
Map Lead and Lies: Mouths Full of Poison by Molly Roy
Essay Charting the Territories of Untruth by Rebecca Solnit
Chapter 22: Waterland
Map by the same name by Jakob Rosenzweig
Essay The Cement Lily Pad by Rebecca Snedeker