Ever since the tragedy caused by hurricanes Katrina and Rita in 2008, the world has had its doubts about the longevity of "The City that Care Forgot". Long associated with carefree music and fleshly pleasures, it suddenly looked like a lost cause. Since then, New Orleanians themselves have produced stirring and inspirational writing about their city. Lawrence Powell explains that he started writing The Accidental City about this "topsy-turvy town" out of defensiveness: "Why rebuild a sinking metropolis on a site that shouldn't have been selected in the first place?" His book addresses the reasons New Orleans has survived and thrived, against impossible odds, and what makes this "accidental" city so fascinating and precious.
New Orleans provides a splendid example of how serendipity, political wrangling, human entrepreneurialism and stubbornness, ethnic mixtures and patterns of immigration can improvise a city into fragile existence. Powell's brilliant study meticulously traces the story of the city's founding in a swamp and its first century of growth into an extraordinary hybrid Indian-European-Caribbean-African-American place. The first chapter is called "An Impossible River" and the conclusion is "The American Gateway". These chart the establishment in the early 18th century of a village, built on a swampy, snake-infested site threatened by flooding and fire, to a triumphalist city that in 1815 routed the British in what has been called The Second War for Independence, Andrew Jackson's anarchic, magnificent Battle of New Orleans.
The siting of the new capital of Louisiana - "a floating city", as it has been called - is a story of personal ambition, colonial shenanigans, corruption and bloody-mindedness. Powell argues that, far from being sited there by geographical imperative, New Orleans was built against colonial France's directives but following the ambition and guile of the Canadian Jean-Baptiste Le Moyne, Sieur de Bienville and the shrewd banker John Law. A political football over the centuries, it has been the focus of colonial rivalries between the French, Spanish and English, and it is a constant source of amazement that these people - together with the native peoples and African-Americans who became so crucial to its cultural development - managed to make a go of a most unlikely spot.
The narrative traces the early French settlers' conflicts and relationships with Indians, slaves and free people of colour around the settlement and its architectural designs, through the short but significant period of Spanish rule, and finally to the famous Louisiana Purchase and American political, though never social and cultural, domination. It documents with compelling detail and anecdote the disputes and compromises involved in the settlement's design and post-conflagration rebuilt versions, and illuminates the complex history of the city's smuggling, tripartite racial order, slave and free population and African-American "cultural creation", métissage (race mixing), marronnage (fugitive slaves), Creolisation and hybrid religions (notably Catholicism and voodoo). Finally - and frustratingly briefly for cultural readers rather than historians - it explores those qualities that make us adore New Orleans, despite everything: sensual pleasures such as foodways, prostitution, costume, dance, music and carnival. Fittingly, the book concludes with the rise of Mardi Gras as an uneasily unifying symbol of the utopian vision of the early settlers.
This will become the definitive study of New Orleans' early history. When, I ask impatiently, can we read Powell on the next two centuries of this "accidental" city's life?
The Accidental City: Improvising New Orleans
By Lawrence N. Powell Harvard University Press. 448pp, £22.95. ISBN 9780674059870. Published 29 March 2012