The Power of Urban Improvisation: Lawrence Powell’s The Accidental City

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Phillip Pittman, Plan of New Orleans, 1770, Geography and Maps Division, Library of Congress

Famed geographer Carl Suer once wrote: “Culture is the agent, the natural area the medium, the cultural landscape the result.” To put it less eloquently, people shape the landscape through husbandry, conservation, and architecture, and the end results speak volumes.

While New Orleans might not be the perfect encapsulation of such an idea, as evidenced by Lawrence Powell in his 2012 work, The Accidental City: Improvising New Orleans, the city’s collective attitude toward planning, culture, and economics emerged from a combination of human endeavor and environmental reality. The self interest of founder Sieur de Bienville—coupled with French distraction at humanitarian disaster along the Gulf Coast and in France itself— enabled Beinville to direct settlers to the developing, flood prone settlement. Bienville ignored, and actively plotted against, French plans to establish a colonial city at Bayou Manchac or even Biloxi. Land grants and slaves proffered to new arrivals in exchange for their residence quickly built up the local population.

With rising numbers of slaves and colonists, Bienville had established a demographic threshold beyond those of his colonial counterparts. By late November of 1721, and despite insect infestations, disease, floods, political rivalry, and official condemnation from France, New Orleans emerged as the most “densely settled territory along the entire Mississippi.” Over 450 persons resided in today’s French Quarter; nearly another 450 along St. Bayou St. John and in the Chapitoulas District. Counting the West Bank settlements that stretched from modern day Algiers Point to English Turn, over 1,200 people resided in the region. A great number of those counted were slaves, mostly African and some Native American; none willingly residing in the area, but as Powell writes, numbers were numbers “whether black, red or white. And to the extent that demographic facts might carry weight at the end of the day, no one could deny Bienville was holding a strong hand.”[1]

Bienville’s machinations provide an instructive lens from which to view Powell’s book and the history of New Orleans it presents. From the outset, the New Orleans economy seemed to produce more money for itself than its colonial masters; residents did so by hook or by crook, engaging in economic pursuits beyond the purview of officialdom that far more often flowed into the coffers of locals more than into European capitals overseas. This viewpoint makes greater sense when one considers how many masters the city endured: French, Spanish, and of course American. The town always figured out a way to line its own pockets; smuggling, vice, and black markets frequently made up for much of the city’s economy. Second, but no less important the physical environment deeply impacted its culture in at least two ways: the introduction of slavery to build infrastructure and establish an economy and the sense of fatalism due to frequent storms, floods, and fires that seemed to beset the city.

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Plan showing the the boundaries of the great conflagration of 21st of March 1788, Geography and Maps Division, Library of Congress

Slavery, as was the case in much of the New World, played a central role in New Orleans’ growth, though much differently than its Anglo neighbors to the northeast. Plantation slavery grew much faster than in the English colonies where it began on a smaller scale and slaves largely came from the West Indies. With the explosion of tobacco and later cotton, the English colonies transformed from “societies with slaves” to “full fledged slave societies where the norms of agro-export plantation agriculture permeated all areas of life: the economy, culture, law, politics.” In contrast, Louisiana experienced what Powell describes as the “big bang of slavery” almost overnight, incorporating large-scale slavery into its economy and culture. Though according to scholars such as Jennifer Spear and Emily Epstein Landau, it took decades before Louisiana “became a settled plantation society.”[2] Slavery imprinted itself onto the New Orleans landscape very early and attempts at state regulation followed. The Code Noir, to paraphrase Powell, did not gradually crystallize from experience but instead arrived as law, fully-grown, drawn largely from Saint Domingue’s 1685 slave code.[3]

Needless to say, it would be slaves that pulled “Louisiana and New Orleans out of the mud.” They built the infrastructure of its early streets, drainage systems, and levees that would prove vital to the city’s survival. They populated the city and brought artisan skills sorely lacking among its white settlers. Slaves hailing from Senegal largely designed and built “the complex drainage and mortar and pestle technology of rice cultivation” that saved the colony from starvation. “France may have founded Louisiana … but it was slaves from Senegal and Congo who laid the foundation,” writes Powell.[4] In 1731, the African slave trade ended when the Companies of the Indies relinquished its charter; creole slaves would fill the void. Together, Africans and creoles not only shaped its physical landscape but also nearly every other aspect of New Orleans life.

“The creation of a hybrid culture – a Creole culture, whose whole was always greater than the sum of its ethnic parts,” notes Powell, “is one of the Atlantic World’s most vital contributions to modernity.”[5] The French and Haitian Revolutions furthered such developments as refugees from both settled in New Orleans. The addition of Spanish and later American rule added additional cultural flavors and an ad-hoc sense of addressing problems. “They say New Orleans was a Creole city,” Powell muses, but “It’s probably just as accurate to call it a creolized city, for that’s how the place was cobbled together – from the bricolage of cultural borrowings and solutions improvised on the fly.”[6]

As often is the case with colonies, the distance from the home country gave settlers and colonial leaders a certain amount of license. Attempts to build a large-scale tobacco industry failed; the climate simply would not allow for the production of a high quality product that could compete with that of its English competitors. Smuggling, gambling, and other forms of vice laid a basic economic foundation for residents, and this underground economy even drew in the ruling classes. This distance also led to a great deal of interracial interaction ranging from business dealings and gambling wagers in the backrooms of taverns to sexual couplings in the bedrooms of the common and elite.

Mixed race sexual relations occurred from the city’s founding. Male settlers first cohabited with local Native American women and while institutionalizing relationships between enslaved and free peoples through marriage was not legal, sexual relations were common and in many cases led to the growing free black population. “For here, especially during the Spanish period, interracial unions were a significant well spring of free black growth,” writes Powell. By 1791, the free black community made up 20 percent of New Orleans’s population and within that 20 percent over half were of racially mixed ancestry.[7]

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I. Tanesse, William Rollinson, Charles Del Vecchio, and P. Maspero, Plan of the city and suburbs of New Orleans: from an actual survey in 1815, Geography and Maps Division, Library of Congress

For readers not versed in New Orleans history prior to incorporation into the U.S., as is the case with this writer, Spain’s influence on New Orleans might prove surprising. Powell credits Spain with the city’s iconic “vernacular architecture.” Spanish colonial rulers even established New Orleans’ first public market, The French Market. However, Spain struggled to deliver comprehensive infrastructure projects. This was not unique to the Spanish. The physical environment often proved simply too powerful an actor for any governing body. “New Orleans’ quasi liquid landscape continually mocked European efforts to erase nature from the landscape,” Powell points out.[8]

As always, an exception to this rule existed. By the end of the eighteenth century the levee system, though problematic, still subject to seepage, and vulnerable to inundation, did largely avoid mass flooding. The town, however, remained filthy: “the wet garbage of New Orleans seemed nastier than the dry garbage elsewhere.”[9]

Powell also highlights the ways in which Spanish slave policy, though hardly humane, contributed to a growing free black population that would influence the city in countless ways. The colonial Spanish caste system, though clearly invested in racial hierarchy, had some fluidity. Individuals could change their racial status. ‘The truly remarkable feature about the sistema de castas was its malleability,” Powell points out. “Racial identity might be ascribed at birth, bit it wasn’t fixed at birth.” The system could be “played,” and baptism, marriage, and acquired wealth were just three ways to “lighten” one’s complexion and advance up the colonial Spanish caste system. One can find similar examples in Spanish and Mexican California.

Yet this malleability also led many free blacks to invest in the same system. After all, if one could find “cracks” in the system to advance socially and economically, that system might be worth protecting: “And herein lay the genius of the caste system: it encouraged subaltern classes to be unequal partners in erecting this distinctive tripartite structure of racial segmentation.”[10] Oppressors might have imposed the system, but, to paraphrase Gramsci, hegemony takes work. In this case, free blacks shared the work with New Orleans’s European settlers.

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Benjamin Moore Norman, Henry Mollhausen and Shields and Hammong, Norman’s plan of New Orleans & environs, 1845, Geography and Maps Division, Library of Congress

In The Accidental City, Powell synthesizes a wealth of scholarship on the city and in doing so covers a great deal more ground than that which is discussed here. Much of the book’s first half explores the economics and politics of colonial New Orleans, while the second half devotes more attention to the ramifications of slavery and the creation of a creole culture. It largely ends with American rule of the city, though he does spend some time describing the tightening of racial lines and other aspects of the city’s incorporation into the United States.

Stylistically, Powell is more gifted than most; the Tulane professor knows how to turn a phrase. When discussing the end of the French period, Powell describes the city’s improvisational nature, flouting of Enlightenment ideals, and wayward relationship to the law as “though the entire town had been populated with inhabitants parachuted from a Hieronymus Bosch painting.”[11] The shift in architecture and urban planning during the Spanish period meant the spilling out of the city’s boundaries physically and demographically; the expansion of Creole cottages with four square rooms, most with a front room louvered door and “a shuttered casement window that peered out on the street like some heavy lidded favorite uncle.”[12] The increased number of freed slaves, while under Spanish rule, though not welcome, were eventually accepted by slave owners since “replacement costs were defrayed by cash provided by self purchaser whom the new slaves were replacing. This was not the first time, nor would it be the last, that the road to freedom was paved with the millstones of bondage”[13] One could go on with other examples.

Admittedly, women make far fewer appearances than men. Powell devotes several pages to the efforts and political stature of the Ursuline Nuns and there is some discussion of women in more general terms be they enslaved, free women of color, or white, but whether due to lack of sources or scholarship on the subject, they remain largely a secondary focus, not exactly ignored but also not at the forefront.

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Currier and Ives, The city of New Orleans, and the Mississippi River Lake Pontchartrain in distance, Geography and Maps Division, Library of Congress

In the end, The Accidental City accomplishes quite a lot. For anyone starting their work on New Orleans or who issimply interested in dipping their toe into the city’s rich history, the book offers much. Powell’s love for the city comes through clearly. He believes it to be a singular contribution to global society. More than “a mere entrepot for a continent” the city emerged as a “state of mind built on the edge of disaster. The people of three continents of innumerable races and ethnic backgrounds “were forced to crowd together on slopes of the natural levee and somehow learned to improvise a coexistence whose legacy may be America’s only original contribution to world culture.”[14]

 

[1] Lawrence Powell, The Accidental City: Improvising New Orleans, (Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 2012), 55.

[2] Jennifer Spear, Race, Sex, and Social Order in Early New Orleans, (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 2009); Emily Epstein Landau, Spectacular Wickedness: Race, Sex, and Memory in Storyville, New Orleans, (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University, 2013), 34.

[3] Powell, The Accidental City, 72-73.

[4] Powell, The Accidental City, 74.

[5] Powell, The Accidental City, 97.

[6] Powell, The Accidental City, 205.

[7] Powell, The Accidental City, 286.

[8] Powell, The Accidental City, 205.

[9] Powell, The Accidental City, 207.

[10] Powell, The Accidental City, 294-296.

[11] Powell, The Accidental City, 120.

[12] Powell, The Accidental City, 202.

[13] Powell, The Accidental City, 283.

[14] Powell, The Accidental City, 163.

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