January 2014

Kati Nolfi


Unfathomable City: A New Orleans Atlas by Rebecca Solnit and Rebecca Snedeker

In Rebecca Solnit's Unfathomable City: A New Orleans Atlas, she and many contributors put forth their interpretations of New Orleans, a city of contradictions, the city with the highest percentage of native-born residents in the U.S. and a city marked by tourists; of Mardi Gras, of disasters, of nonprofits and charter schools. This kind of book begs readers to defend their own New Orleans, to challenge their assumptions of the city, to have a relationship with this place and their hometown, the places they've visited and lived. I don't have a New Orleans. My New Orleans is probably the popular New Orleans of misfortune, oppression, disaster, crime and corruption, music, celebration, and excess, informed by news, memoir, and documentary. The people I've known who've loved this city have been sinners and helpers, the frivolous, damaged, and virtuous.

Solnit calls this place the northernmost city of the Caribbean, which sounds about right. I watched the television-news version of New Orleans and so many other places unfold from a far remove, like many others, with no connection to them aside from human compassion. The struggling, the starving, the surviving, and the low-down should never be pitied; they should be celebrated for their grit and resilience. And the oppressors should be shamed and brought down. The disasters and the survival are most likely an important part of people's identity in these places but they are not everything. And in fact, they are antithetical to the spirit of festival and conviviality in a city like New Orleans that Solnit says is marked by contradictions and is in fact, "leaky," impossible to contain and define. For all the misery though, the dystopians would claim that the most troubled places whose people have to dig deep for ingenious solutions to disaster, to find a new way in a post-climate, late-stage-capitalist, everyone-scrabbling-for-finite-resources, peak-oil world, are predictors, pioneers in a way, of a hard future for most.

Everyone's city is his or her own. How many of us are truly living enough, living in our bodies and our cities enough for this to be true? But this is Rebecca Solnit's hope and claim. She claims as well that every city, every place deserves an atlas, not just the famous and sexy places. And that everyone's experience of a place is its own story. This atlas is certainly gorgeous enough and crammed with information. And juxtapositions, such as "Oil and Water: Extracting Petroleum" and "Sugar Heaven and Sugar Hell," are compelling, mining truth from a complex place. In a way, this is an elegy for such a watery place. This soft marshy land is certainly leaky, losing twenty-five to thirty-five square miles of coastal territory a year. But its people stay for generation after generation. If they must leave, they return if they can. The rootedness of New Orleans is not something I can understand. "Nobody knew me there" is a cause for celebration for me, but for the man who moved to Texas and thrived, but moved back, this was uncomfortable. I prefer anonymity.

Rebecca Solnit has written about the environment, history, politics, and art. Prior to Unfathomable City, she published Infinite City, an atlas for her native San Francisco, a city that evokes different impressions than New Orleans, a city whose present status is quite different but then maybe not. Both cities have vast inequality. They are granular, arbitrary, loving, and arcane travelogues and histories of cities with baggage and stereotypes, of ethnic groups displaced, of dynamic flux and redefinitions of identity. For conceiving this atlas, Solnit had a host and tour guide in Rebecca Snedeker, a native New Orleanian. Solnit visited the city six months after Hurricane Katrina and was wary of being a disaster tourist. This book has twenty-two maps and essays, written and researched by many scholars and experts. It is a work of many dedicated people, a meaningful work.

This book will convince you that the "city at the bottom of the Mississippi drainage of the interior of the North American continent and at the top of the Gulf of Mexico" is also "at the center of the American unconscious." New Orleans is the "anti-America where America invents itself, a place whose eccentric and libertine behavior and innovation have been deplored but also desired and often emulated." That is the place where great music was born, it is Catholic, Carnival, of water and disappearing coast, poetic street names, bounty and ecological disaster, feast and festival, tourism and the local, a place of division and mixing, crime and community, beautiful wilderness and the wild ugliness of oil and gas infrastructure and explosions.

At the very least, how refreshing it is read about a city without having to contend with the so-called vibrancy epidemic of the new urban center with its homogeneity of bike lanes, food trucks, cupcakes, cocktails, and other hipster clichés.

Unfathomable City: A New Orleans Atlas by Rebecca Solnit and Rebecca Snedeker
University of California Press
ISBN: 978-0520274044
176 pages