The accidental city Improvising New Orleans

Lawrence N. Powell

Book - 2012

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Cambridge, Mass. : Harvard University Press 2012.
Physical Description
422 p. : ill., maps ; 25 cm
Includes bibliographical references (p. [361]-400) and index.
Main Author
Lawrence N. Powell (-)
  • An impossible river
  • A landjobbing scheme
  • Utopian by design
  • Improvising a city
  • Changing of the guard
  • In contraband we trust
  • A Creole city
  • Slavery and the struggle for mastery
  • The slaves remake themselves
  • A new people, a new racial order
  • The American gateway.
Review by Choice Reviews

Few North American cities enjoy the extremes in perception that characterize New Orleans. Some visitors relish the nonstop partying on Bourbon Street and the general carefree abandon evident citywide; others loath the stifling heat and humidity, fear the ubiquitous crime, and/or resent the perceived ascendance of pagan ribaldry. Prevailing perceptions of the Crescent City are long established, but the disaster of Hurricane Katrina recast interpretations of New Orleans to include acknowledgement of its humanity. Powell (Tulane) advances sympathetic understanding of what very well may be the US's most curious city. He traces the dynamics of politics and business that ultimately located a city in virtually uninhabitable swampland. The lively narrative continues from the French through the Spanish colonial periods, concluding with Louisiana statehood in 1812, all the while revealing the disparate forces that bound the city together just as they threatened to tear it apart. Consistent with the author's established interests, race and race relations remain central to this interpretation. Readers may not agree with all aspects of Powell's argument, but they are certain to find this an intriguing read that answers scores of questions about a complex city. Summing Up: Recommended. General readers and undergraduate collections. General Readers; Lower-division Undergraduates; Upper-division Undergraduates; Two-year Technical Program Students. S. C. Hyde Southeastern Louisiana University Copyright 2012 American Library Association.

Review by Library Journal Reviews

Erected on infested swampland, New Orleans is a city that, in practical terms, never should have existed. However, its location at the mouth of the mighty Mississippi—the largest river in North America and fourth largest in the world—meant that this was a city destined to flourish. Profiling its founders, Powell (James H. Clark Endowed Chair in American Civilization & director, New Orleans Ctr. for the Gulf South, Tulane Univ.) details the late 17th-century birth and evolution of this diverse city that has a love-hate relationship with its residents. His research, which focuses on those emerging years rather than recent history, coupled with his profound understanding of his subject, deepens readers' appreciation and understanding of this city. VERDICT Though this volume, complete with illustrations and maps, could easily serve as a source for a sophisticated formal study of New Orleans/Louisiana history, it is also accessible to general readers seeking deep and contextualized information on this topic, especially if they're prepared to dive right into the subject without much lead-in. Recommended for all collections covering the early history of New Orleans and Louisiana.—Sonnet Ireland, Univ. of New Orleans Lib. [Page 85]. (c) Copyright 2012. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

Review by Publishers Weekly Reviews

This rich story of the emergence of the Crescent City from its unlikely floodplain site is the best history of early New Orleans ever written. Despite Powell's claim that the Big Easy was an accidental, improvised city, in this respect it was not unlike many other human habitations. But from its origins in the late 17th century, New Orleans was unlike all others on this continent in its mixed population; its distinctive overlay of French, Spanish, African, and American peoples, languages, and ways; and its unfavorable location. "he place was cobbled together from the bricolage of cultural borrowings and solutions improvised on the fly." Nothing in this book surpasses Powell's portrayal of the city's mixed American-born people and its free people of color. "Early New Orleans was a place of reinvented identities, a crossroads of improvisation. People came there to make themselves anew." In Katrina's aftermath and the shock of nature's claims on our lives, this timely work brings out the complexities of New Orleans's history as well as the rich tapestry of its gritty people. Scholarly but readable, this is a splendid telling presented in a clear, robust voice. 19 illus., 2 maps. (Mar.) [Page ]. Copyright 2011 PWxyz LLC

Review by Publisher Summary 1

Chronicles the history of the city from its being contended over as swampland through Louisiana's statehood in 1812, discussing its motley identities as a French village, African market town, Spanish fortress, and trade center.

Review by Publisher Summary 2

Powell (American civilization, Tulane U.) presents a history of the first two centuries of the city of New Orleans, from its founding to the early 19th century. Powell's account emphasizes change and contingency, highlighting how factors of geography, weather, imperial rivalry, politics, economics, language, culture, and ethnicity have shaped and re-shaped New Orleans over time. Annotation ©2012 Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (

Review by Publisher Summary 3

This is the story of a city that shouldn't exist. In the seventeenth century, what is now America's most beguiling metropolis was nothing more than a swamp: prone to flooding, infested with snakes, battered by hurricanes. But through the intense imperial rivalries of Spain, France, and England, and the ambitious, entrepreneurial merchants and settlers from four continents who risked their lives to succeed in colonial America, this unpromising site became a crossroads for the whole Atlantic world.Lawrence N. Powell, a decades-long resident and observer of New Orleans, gives us the full sweep of the city's history from its founding through Louisiana statehood in 1812. We see the Crescent City evolve from a French village, to an African market town, to a Spanish fortress, and finally to an Anglo-American center of trade and commerce. We hear and feel the mix of peoples, religions, and languages from four continents that make the place electric-and always on the verge of unraveling.The Accidental City is the story of land-jobbing schemes, stock market crashes, and nonstop squabbles over status, power, and position, with enough rogues, smugglers, and self-fashioners to fill a picaresque novel.Powell's tale underscores the fluidity and contingency of the past, revealing a place where people made their own history. This is a city, and a history, marked by challenges and perpetual shifts in shape and direction, like the sinuous river on which it is perched.

Review by Publisher Summary 4

America’s most beguiling metropolis started out as a snake-infested, hurricane-battered swamp. Through intense imperial rivalries and ambitious settlers who risked their lives to succeed in colonial America, the site became a crossroads for the Atlantic world. Powell gives us the full sweep of the city’s history from its founding through statehood.