Set Tulane University professor Richard Campanella down at any intersection in New Orleans, and he can likely deduce what economic, political, or environmental forces determined that street’s spatial qualities. This knowledge and much else has been inscribed in Campanella’s latest book, Cityscapes of New Orleans.
Cityscapes is a compendium of essays that examines New Orleans’ landscape through the lenses of design, planning, and history. It is more than a rote demonstration of knowledge, though. The book is an energetic engagement with Campanella’s two great passions: New Orleans and geography.
Geography, though it has taken a backseat in the landscape discourse, has the unsettling ability to illuminate the larger patterns and systems in which we’re embedded. Consider the work of Allen Gathman, a biology professor at SE Missouri State University. After the 2008 presidential election, Gathman took interest in a string of counties, arcing across the southeast United States, that Barack Obama had won. These blue counties, surrounded by a sea of red, coincided with the cotton belt of the antebellum south, and thus had a primarily black populace. And why was the soil in those counties so well-suited for cotton production? It is a loamy, alluvial soil, deposited by a cretaceous-era ocean, the coastline of which would roughly align with those same blue counties. Past, as they say, is prologue.
That is one example of the insight that geography affords; Cityscapes offers many such insights. Like Gathman, Campanella is interested in the “why behind the where.” Take Campanella’s investigation of New Orleans’ “accidental forest,” for instance. How did a 27-acre patch of remnant forest in the heart of Gentilly survive this long without being developed? A series of near-misses and happenstance, it turns out. But it’s a part of the tapestry of curiosities that add to the city’s character.
New Orleans’ larger geographic context is perhaps as interesting as the city itself, and Campanella devotes a section of the book to exploring aspects of New Orlean’s regional relationships. This includes a portrait of the “Ozone Belt,” a pinewood landscape upland of Lake Pontchartrain that city residents previously visited like a health retreat. Certain that the swamplands of Lake Pontchartrain were the source of miasmas and sickness in the city, New Orleans residents who could afford to would stay at therapeutic inns in the Ozone Belt and enjoy what they believed to be the curative properties of the pine’s effervescence.
Staying on the subject of swamps, Campanella also devotes several essays to how their presence and eventual draining impacted the city’s entire terrain. City-wide drainage began in the 1890s with the development of a sophisticated runoff system that funneled water into surrounding water bodies. The effect was “nothing short of revolutionary,” according to Campanella.
The result was the withdrawal of the swamplands and the migration of inhabitants into these areas. The unforeseen effect was soil subsidence, which triggered the collapse of certain built structures. Continued draining in the following century led to the subversion of in-ground infrastructure. “Topography matters,” Campanella writes.