Unfathomable City: A New Orleans Atlas

Overview


"This series of atlases is one of my absolute favorites. Vivid, beautiful, and deceptively meaningful, Unfathomable City successfully pushes cartographic conventions. It explores what it means to know a place, not just the street grid. A delight to behold, this is an incredible achievement rarely seen in modern cartography." —William McNulty, cartographer, former director of maps at National Geographic, former graphics editor, New York Times

"This bright, rolling river of a book carries a chorus of mapmakers, ...

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Overview


"This series of atlases is one of my absolute favorites. Vivid, beautiful, and deceptively meaningful, Unfathomable City successfully pushes cartographic conventions. It explores what it means to know a place, not just the street grid. A delight to behold, this is an incredible achievement rarely seen in modern cartography." —William McNulty, cartographer, former director of maps at National Geographic, former graphics editor, New York Times

"This bright, rolling river of a book carries a chorus of mapmakers, writers, and artists singing of deep memory in New Orleans. Unfathomable City is a book to cherish—and sure to be a classic." —Jason Berry, New Orleans–based journalist and coauthor of Up from the Cradle of Jazz: New Orleans Music since World War II

"Race, space, and place: this atlas is a people’s ecology of persistent resistance, an open-ended historical geography guiding toward an indomitable future—a permanent revolution no less likely than the city itself. Read this book!" —Ruth Wilson Gilmore, Professor of Earth and Environmental Sciences, CUNY Graduate Center

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
★ 12/09/2013
Following the same form as the groundbreaking Infinite City: A San Francisco Atlas, Solnit (Savage Dreams) enlists the help of filmmaker and native New Orleanian Snedeker to create this vivid portrait of one of America's most culturally rich city. More than an atlas or a travel guide, the book provides compendium of perspectives and histories, comprised of 22 short essays and numerous colorful and beautifully illustrated companion maps. Each essay falls on a spectrum between whimsical and dour: from "Salacious and Crustaceous" by Evan Casper-Futterman, which covers the history of the seafood and sex industries of the city, to "When They Set the Sea on Fire," in which Antonia Juhasz revisits the 2010 British Petroleum oil spill and its environmental impact. In "Bodies," Nathaniel Rich, charts the land of the dead through a history of the city's burials. Up until around the mid-19th century, "every time it rained, bodies popped out of the ground" due to low ground and high water table. Culture, history, and current events are rendered in strong prose throughout the collection, especially in the essays penned by Solnit and Snedeker. A captivating read for tourists, Louisiana residents, and just about anyone looking to gain familiarity with United States history, folklore, and myth-culture. (Nov.)
The New York Times Book Review - Daniel Brook
…this objet d'art is as infectious as a second line, an urban art form that the scholar-parader Joel (Heavy D) Dinerstein points out is named for its audience participants instead of its leaders. With Unfathomable City, Solnit and Snedeker have produced an idiosyncratic, luminous tribute to the greatest human creation defined by its audience participants: the city itself.
Examiner.com - Alan Petrucelli

"A brilliant reinvention of the traditional atlas. . . . Compact, lively, and completely original, Unfathomable City takes readers on a tour that will forever change the way they think about place."
New York Times - Daniel Brook

"With “Unfathomable City,” Solnit and Snedeker have produced an idiosyncratic, luminous tribute to the greatest human creation defined by its audience participants: the city itself."
Chicago Tribune - Lynell George

"A deeply illuminating assemblage of maps and essays."
Shelf Awareness - Pamela Toler

"Unfathomable City is no standard atlas. . . . With beautiful maps and challenging essays, Unfathomable City presents New Orleans as infinitely complex and ultimately unknowable. The result is not a comprehensive guide, but an invitation."  STARRED REVIEW
New Orleans Times-Picayune - Chris Waddington

"Packed with colorful maps and essays by star writers, this atlas-with-attitude 'encompasses second-line parades, the banana trade, bounce music, the revival along the St. Claude Avenue corridor, and conversations with such iconic musicians as George Porter Jr. and Donald Harrison Jr.'” TOP 10 BOOKS OF 2013 FOR NEW ORLEANS READERS
Wall Street Journal - Wayne Curtis

"The maps are playful, colorful and alive—in contrast to the utility we're used to with online mapping sites and apps. They're a joy to study; New Orleanians will no doubt pore over the map depicting the ongoing revival of once moribund St. Claude Avenue and the parade routes of the city's archaic but surviving social-aid and pleasure clubs. Tourists familiarizing themselves with the city may spend more time on the "Repercussions" map, tracing jazz history and club locations, or Billy Sothern's "sites of contemplation and delight," featuring sculpture gardens, synagogues and Meyer the Hatter. . . . Ms. Solnit and Ms. Snedeker prove that atlases can still fire the imagination and incite wonder."
Gambit - Jeanie Riess

"Rebecca Snedeker and Rebecca Solnit's Unfathomable City: A New Orleans Atlas is a book about New Orleans, but it's also a book about the kind of shared experiences and tensions that could exist in almost any city. Twenty-two maps illustrate ancient and recent histories of the Crescent City, with local tabs that inspire hums of pride. . . . Though many of those labels are specific to New Orleans, the themes they highlight exist other places, making the book not only a local's guide to the city, but also an anthropologist's guide to the idea of metropolis."
Manhattan - Anita Perala

"Unique maps and eclectic essays pair to create a thought-provoking portrait of a singular city."
Gambit - Katie Walenter

"An elegant and fascinating volume of maps, essays and artwork. . . . The result is intelligent, often beautiful prose and compelling maps in an exciting exploration of the idiosyncratic details, gestures and rituals that determine how people inhabit, love and perceive this elusive and entrancing city."
San Francisco Chronicle - David D'Arcy

"'Unfathomable City's' secret weapon is its imaginative cartography. . . . Each chart, like a plate in a restaurant, has ingredients and flavors that take the reader deep into the city's history. If you think you know these streets, this atlas will make you want to walk them again."
B&N Review - Peter Lewis

"The New Orleans the book charts is unfathomable 'because no two people live in quite the same city.' The twenty-two vignettes in this collection speak to that individual appreciation in twenty-three distinct voices, yet whatever the topic—apothecaries, lead poisoning, lemon ice, institutional abominations, sugar, bounce music, environmental calamities, shifts in the road, bananas—they burn bright, both breaking and gladdening your heart; and the handsome cartography is illuminating in the best tradition of maps: taking you there, for better or worse. . . . New Orleans may be porous as a sponge—in many ways, from its acceptance of refugees to water-charged soil types—but the writing here has a high specific gravity, a chewiness that makes you want to pay close attention and count your bites."
Cleveland Plain Dealer - Vikas Turakhia

"A fascinating look at New Orleans. Through 22 maps varying in their strange detail and beauty, each accompanied by an essay, Solnit and Snedeker put together a deep portrait of the city and so much of what makes it unique."
Oxford American - Delaney Nolan

"Importantly, the book never fetishizes New Orleans. By addressing both the vibrant culture of public celebration (the second lines and the krewe parades and the near-constant festivals) and New Orleans’s bleaker side (environmental exploitation, the opportunism of the banana industry, the failures of post-Katrina authority), Solnit and Snedeker present an honest portrait. They delve deep into the city’s history, as far back as pre-European colonization, and resurface in the present, with bounce music and housing projects. Moreover, unlike many recent New Orleans books, they don’t overly dwell on Katrina to milk sympathy or a morbid interest from their readers. In short, Unfathomable City is beautifully balanced."
City Book Review - Aron Row

"A treasure trove of rich reminiscences that will be appreciated by the native, and appeal to past and future tourists."
Orion - Matthew Battles

"The effect of Unfathomable City and the series of which it is a part is that of a healthy and bracing critique—one that we urgently need in this time of ubiquitous geographic information. It is a critique we should hope will extend to other American places as this lovely series continues."
San Antonio Express-News - Ed Conroy

"A beautifully creative and colorful atlas of New Orleans . . . a rich visual and literary banquet, serving up a kaleidoscopic array of perspectives on the city's multifarious peoples and their struggles and victories."
Peace News

"Beautiful cartography and from-the-street, intimate essays by lives lived in this city. My wanderlust was sated."
The Barnes & Noble Review

Even the toughest city has a soft side, where you can crack the concrete like a weed and leave an impression, make your mark, if for no other reason than your soul's sake. That's local color — and why cities have eight million stories to tell, naked or otherwise.

"New Orleans is all kinds of unfathomable," write Rebecca Snedeker and Rebecca Solnit in their introduction to the deep-dyed, fine, and unconventionally drawn Unfathomable City: A New Orleans Atlas, "a city of amorphous boundaries, where land is forever turning into water, water devours the land, and a thousand degrees of marshy, muddy, oozing in-between exist; where lines that elsewhere seem firmly drawn are blurry; where whatever you say requires more elaboration; where most rules are full of exceptions."

The New Orleans they chart is unfathomable "because no two people live in quite the same city." The twenty-two vignettes in this collection speak to that individual appreciation in twenty-three distinct voices, yet whatever the topic — apothecaries, lead poisoning, lemon ice, institutional abominations, sugar, bounce music, environmental calamities, shifts in the road, bananas — they burn bright, both breaking and gladdening your heart; and the handsome cartography is illuminating in the best tradition of maps: taking you there, for better or worse.

The twenty-two pieces — calling them essays feels too formal for such intimacy — are shaved to concision by their length, typically a couple thousand words, and project a sense of quickening as well as a close familiarity with their subject and place. New Orleans may be porous as a sponge — in many ways, from its acceptance of refugees to water- charged soil types — but the writing here has a high specific gravity, a chewiness that makes you want to pay close attention and count your bites. The writing commands that time slow here and jump there, and to simply disappear when you enter the various maps. As Richard Campanella remarks, the "history of New Orleans is essentially the story of overlaying orderly orthogonality on unruly curvaceousness." That memorable juxtaposition provides embracing cartographic backdrop, while special points of consideration sting (slave pens), sing (Sugar Boy Crawford records "Jock-a-Mo/Iko-Iko" in Congo Square), and stagger (the jackstraw of oil and gas pipelines). Photographs, cartoons, and spidery line drawings as spooky as sharks' eyes complement the map art.

The coverage sweeps where it wants, like the storm surges that bedevil the city. There are stories and maps of carnival krewe parade routes; the rapacious histories of the sugar and banana trades (one extirpating the cypress forest buffer and the other, our friends at United Fruit boasting that "anything less than nine inches won't do"); corridors along which live oaks canopy the streets; the peregrinations of Tennessee Williams; the complex checkerboard of the city's segregation; prisons (a growth industry); the birthplaces of New Orleans' rambunctious variant on hip- hop; Houma migrations; the evolution of St. Claude Avenue; tuba bands; Arab neighborhoods; the dance of seafood and sex; and places that attend to the crazy, even if it's all in their heads.

There is a darkly comic geography of the city's dead, where the high water table made ground burial a problem. "As a body decomposes, it fills with gases — cadaverine and putrescine — that cause it to bloat. A coffin containing a bloated corpse will rise through the mud like a bubble in a carbonated drink... This is what happened for more than a hundred years after New Orleans was founded: every time it rained, bodies popped out of the ground." Now bodies are buried in great crowds of mausoleums, but hidden necropolises continue to deliver their startling cargo to the surface when the watery graves are disturbed.

The last decade has not been kind to the people of New Orleans. First came Hurricane Katrina in 2005, which can't be said to have scarred the city — the wounds remain open. To read the story of those terrible events now is to confront a stark instance of justice and beauty struggling with ugliness and wrong, when the city's most vulnerable were demonized, abandoned, and murdered by agencies of state, then sensationalized by a particularly yellow media — though all that was unevenly balanced by many acts of common goodwill that reached all the way to heroic deeds.

Adding insult to injury was the 2010 blowout of British Petroleum's Deepwater Horizon drilling rig in the Gulf of Mexico — spilling 210 million gallons of oil and 500,000 tons of natural gas, compounded by 1.8 million gallons of toxic chemical dispersants, not to forget also killing eleven rig workers — and the subsequent corporate evildoing. Prison sentences for the miscreants are cold comfort to the fishing communities and oyster farmers. " 'The tribe eats what we catch,' Jamie [Billiot of the United Houma Nation] tells me. 'Today, whether it's shrimp, oysters, or crab, there's less to catch, less to eat, and less to sell. Can we completely recover from this? Probably not. At what level will we recover? I don't know.' "

New Orleans, our subversively cheerful sanctuary from the uptight, isn't doomed, but something has ended that throws a long, melancholic shadow. "We fear endings most," writes one contributor. "After an ending, we accept a dimmer reality." In 2012, the New Orleans Police Department was taken over by the federal government. Last year, former mayor Ray Nagin was charged with twenty-one federal corruption charges. A recent congressman is in the tank for bribery, and so was a recent governor for racketeering and money laundering. This isn't same- as-it-ever-was; it's past that. This is the Delta blues calling all the shots.

Peter Lewis is the director of the American Geographical Society in New York City. A selection of his work can be found at writesformoney.com.

Reviewer: Peter Lewis

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780520274044
  • Publisher: University of California Press
  • Publication date: 11/18/2013
  • Pages: 176
  • Sales rank: 91,664
  • Product dimensions: 7.10 (w) x 11.90 (h) x 0.60 (d)

Meet the Author


Rebecca Solnit is the author of many books, including Savage Dreams, Storming the Gates of Paradise, and Infinite City: A San Francisco Atlas, all from UC Press. Rebecca Snedeker is an Emmy Award–winning independent filmmaker and native New Orleanian.
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Table of Contents


Introduction: Sinking In and Reaching Out

Map 1. A City in Time: La Nouvelle-Orléans over 300 Years
How New Orleans Happened, by Richard Campanella

Map 2. Ebb and Flow: Migrations of the Houma, Erosions of the Coast
Southward into Vanishing Lands, by Monique Verdin

Map 3. Stationary Revelations: Sites of Contemplation and Delight
On a Strange Island, by Billy Sothern

Map 4. People Who
Here They Come, There They Go, by Lolis Eric Elie

Map 5. Moves, Remains: Hiding and Seeking the Dead
Bodies, by Nathaniel Rich

Map 6. Oil and Water: Extracting Petroleum, Exterminating Nature
When They Set the Sea on Fire, by Antonia Juhasz

Map 7. Of Levees and Prisons: Failures of Containment, Surges of Freedom
Lockdown Louisiana, by Lydia Pelot-Hobbs

Map 8. Civil Rights and Lemon Ice: Three Lives in the Old City
The Presence of the Past, by Dana Logsdon and Dawn Logsdon

Map 9. Sugar Heaven and Sugar Hell: Pleasures and Brutalities of a Commodity
No Sweetness Is Light, by Shirley Elizabeth Thompson

Map 10. ¡Bananas!
Fruits’ Fortunes at the Gate of the Tropics, by Joshua Jelly-Schapiro

Map 11. Hot and Steamy: Selling Seafood, Selling Sex
Salacious and Crustaceous, by Evan Casper-Futterman

Map 12. The Mississippi Is (Not) the Nile: Arab New Orleans, Real and Imagined
The Ibis-Headed God of New Orleans, by Khaled Hegazzi and Andy Young 

Map 13. The Line-Up: Live Oak Corridors and Carnival Parade Routes
Sentinels and Celebrants, by Eve Abrams

Map 14. Repercussions: Rhythm and Resistance across the Atlantic
“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.

Map 15. Thirty-Nine Sundays: Social Aid and Pleasure Clubs Take It to the Streets
Rollin’ Wid It, by Joel Dinerstein

Map 16. Bass Lines: Deep Sounds and Soils
The Floating Cushion: George Porter Jr. on the City’s Low End

Map 17. Where Dey At: Bounce Calls Up a Vanished City
A Home in Song, by Garnette Cadogan

Map 18. Snakes and Ladders: What Rose Up, What Fell Down During Hurricane Katrina
Nothing Was Foreordained, by Rebecca Solnit

Map 19. St. Claude Avenue: Loss and Recovery on an Inner-City Artery
The Beginning of This Road, by Maurice Carlos Ruffin

Map 20. Juju and Cuckoo: Taking Care of Crazy
Holding It Together, Falling Apart, by Rebecca Snedeker

Map 21 . Lead and Lies: Mouths Full of Poison
Charting the Territories of Untruth, by Rebecca Solnit

Map 22. Waterland
The Cement Lily Pad, by Rebecca Snedeker

Acknowledgments
Contributors

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