New Orleans and the Cartography of Erosion

A city that defies definition, New Orleans requires an atlas that takes into account the erosion of the landscape and the mystique of its history.

Unfathomable City New Orleans

New Orleans is slowly vanishing into the Gulf of Mexico, a fact that makes cartography of the city a daunting task.

Photo By Fotolia/PaulDidsayabutra

Content Tools

Unfathomable City (University of California Press, 2013) is a brilliant reinvention of the traditional atlas, one that provides a vivid, complex look at the multi-faceted nature of New Orleans, a city replete with mystique and contradictions. Authors Rebecca Solnit and Rebecca Snedeker plumb the depths of the city, a pivotal scene of American history and culture. In this excerpt from the introduction, the physical definition of “New Orleans” is difficult due to the nature of the Mississippi River and the erosion of the landscape.

Sinking In and Reaching Out

“Fathom” is an Old English word that meant outstretched arms and an embrace by those arms. It came to mean a measurement of about 6 feet, the width a man’s arms could reach, as well as the embrace of an idea. To fathom is to understand. Sailors kept the word in circulation as a measurement of depth, and it survives into the present day mostly as a negative, as unfathomable, the water so deep its depths cannot be plumbed, the phenomenon that cannot be fully grasped.

New Orleans is all kinds of unfathomable, a city of amorphous boundaries, where land is forever turning into water, water devours 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 way most land here is full of water. A fathom was an embrace, but you can put your arms around a mystery, and maybe you truly love something only by granting it its full complexity, its unknowability. And maybe love is always an attempt to embrace what cannot be fathomed and to embrace the mystery of it, too.

In a sense, every place is unfathomable, infinite, impossible to describe, because it exists in innumerable versions, because no two people live in quite the same city but live side by side in parallel universes that may or may not intersect, because the minute you map it the map becomes obsolete, because the place is constantly arising and decaying. Cincinnati has its enigmas and Albuquerque its contradictions, but New Orleans is particularly rich in these things. We have mapped New Orleans and its surroundings twenty-two times, sometimes with two or more subjects per map, but we have not drained the well with these few bucketloads.

Instead, we hope we have indicated how rich and various, how inexhaustible is this place, and any place, if you look at it, directly and through books, conversations, maps, photographs, dreams, and desires. We never intended to make a comprehensive guide to New Orleans, only a provocation, an invitation for you to argue with our versions, to take them further, to go map on your own, in your head or online or on paper, whether you map this city or your own region from scratch. You can row across unfathomable waters.

Eroding Definitions

There are so many ways to define New Orleans, and none of them can contain it. Trying to define New Orleans is like trying to hold water in your hands, like trying to walk through a wetland, like trying to draw a coastline that keeps shifting. Here, all that is solid dissolves into water, and much of it seems to exist in an amorphous state of muddiness and murkiness. You can’t hold it, but it sticks to you. Southern Louisiana was built up over millennia as the Mississippi River continually laid down sediment, so that even what is solid was dissolved into and delivered by water and even what is local came from afar.

New Orleans, founded in 1718 and drenched in the past, might be one of the oldest places in the United States in terms of culture and memory, but geologically it is part of the youngest, a region of soft alluvial soil that turns to mud, melts away, and erodes into the surrounding waters, a land so watery that bodies have to be buried aboveground, and those bodies in their marble tombs still get snatched away by floodwaters from time to time (as Nathaniel Rich describes in his essay “Bodies”). It’s newborn mud through which the last dinosaurs, the alligators, creep. All around New Orleans is a landscape abundant with migratory birds—ibises, egrets, gulls, terns, and pelicans, to name only a few of the hundreds of species—with possums, armadillos, poisonous copperheads and cottonmouths (or water moccasins); with oysters, crawfish, crabs, and shrimp; and now with nitrates washed downstream from farms in the heartland and the toxic byproducts of petroleum production, which always ooze and drift even when they don’t spill.

A medical expert once described the difficulty of surgery on the liver, a soft, fragile organ that can shred in your hands and rip with every stitch. The heart is a hard lump of muscle, but the liver is delicate spongy tissue. Manhattan is a rocky island, San Francisco is as solid and situated at the end of a long peninsula; those cities are as clearly defined as a fist or a heart. But think of New Orleans as a liver, an expanse of soggy land doing some of what a liver does, filtering poisons, keeping the body going, necessary to survival and infinitely fragile, hard to pullout of context, and nowadays deteriorating from more poison than it can absorb, including the ongoing toxins of the petroleum industry and the colossal overdose delivered by the 2010 BP blowout (whose devastation Antonia Juhasz describes in her essay “When They Set the Sea on Fire”).

To draw New Orleans, what systems should you include? The Mississippi River drainage extends over much of the North American interior up into Canada, so New Orleans perches at the southern tip of that vast system. But it’s not just the bottom of the north. It’s the top of the south, sometimes said to be the northernmost city of the Caribbean. It is part of that region in many ways—in climate, in culture, in the origin of many of its residents in West Africa, in music (which is part of the subject matter of the map “Repercussions: Rhythm and Resistance across the Atlantic”). New Orleans belongs to the Catholic world of Carnival, a realm that stretches from remnant parts of southern Europe through the Caribbean and Latin America (the Carnival float parade routes of New Orleans are celebrated in the map called “The Line-Up”). All these places still celebrate the several weeks of Carnival, the festival American outsiders know by the name of its last day, the day before Lent begins: Fat Tuesday, Mardi Gras. From the waters south of Louisiana the Gulf Stream emerges, the flow of warm water that keeps the North Atlantic world all the way up to the edge of the Arctic far warmer than the latitudes would otherwise allow. New Orleans is tiny and it is vast.

It is hard to explain and understand its geography. It is not quite at the bottom of the Mississippi, not quite on the Gulf of Mexico, a crescent of high ground along the river that early explorers looking for a place to start a colony missed repeatedly, once they’d located the elusive mouth of the Mississippi. Here, the river that everyone knows flows south is actually flowing more or less west to east along the southern edge of the city, though what is below it is called the West Bank. The river curves and bends and loops so that direction itself is uncertain, and there are parts of the Mississippi abutting New Orleans that flow north.

Above the city is more water, in Lake Pontchartrain, which isn’t a lake but a vast brackish estuary. All around, the land is soft and marshy. This is not quite the Mississippi Delta, “the land where the blues began,” but something below it where jazz and funk began, where American cultural immortality launched itself and still sings all night if it’s not busy in bed.

But the region itself is vanishing. Coastal southern Louisiana, as Monique Verdin points out in her essay “Southward into the Vanishing Lands,” is one of the fastest-eroding coastlines on earth. More than an acre of land is lost every hour, about 25 to 35 square miles a year. Nearly 2,000 square miles have already vanished in less than a century. Normally a chunk that size doesn’t disappear without fanfare, but this region of wetlands and backwoods and people who are as at home on water as on land remains out of sight to the rest of the world. This land disappears because of the intervention of industry, which channels the river and limits its sediment flows, carves up the Gulf of Mexico into oil and gas leases, and draws straight lines for ships and pipes through the soft wetlands into which saltwater flows, ripping and shredding the land into nonexistence.

Cartography Lines

This soft, shifting landscape poses a specifically cartographic problem, because mapmakers ordinarily draw clear lines and delineate coherent bodies: this is and, this is water. That is the most basic distinction in cartography. On the Louisiana coast, the land is so pervaded with water that it’s both or neither. As we created this atlas, we asked whether we should show the old coastline before the colossal erosion of recent times and how we should indicate land in the process of disappearing and the stuff that is neither solid nor liquid. The lines blur and melt.

And if conventional maps make the land here more solid and stable than it often is, they tend to make the waters of the Gulf look more like pristine open waters than they actually are. Specialized maps show the same region as a checkerboard of oil and gas leases: this aquatic space has all been carved up as extractive-industry real estate. Other maps show the oil platforms and other industrial apparatus, and still other maps—including “Oil and Water” in this volume—show how many pipelines crisscross the sea here.

These actual lines destroy this place: the straight lines cut for oil and gas pipelines open up space for water to move faster and harder than it does in meanders, and the water works like a saw to cut away land. Native American activist and bayou dweller Rosina Philippe once took one of us through open water channels 30 feet wide and more between low islands of grass and described the landscape a sit had been in her father’s time: a forested place where you could jump across the channels. A world is being lost.

A bigger straight line, the Mississippi River Gulf Outlet, cut to let ships come into New Orleans from the Gulf without bothering to follow the meanders of the river, was nicknamed the Hurricane Highway. Its saltwater killed the swamp cypress groves that buffered the city from hurricanes and brought storm surges from the open ocean that devastated the Lower Ninth Ward and flooded large swaths of the city. The Lower Ninth itself and New Orleans East were isolated from the rest of the city by the Industrial Canal, completed in 1923, which was designed to facilitate shipping between Lake Pontchartrain and the river.

New Orleans itself is a place of bad boundaries, one where the Orleans Parish boundaries don’t match the city limits and neither quite define the cultural area. As Richard Campanella’s map and essay demonstrate, the early city arose on the arc of high ground—the Crescent City’s “sliver by the river”—and then spread into lowlands and drained wetlands, some of which have sunk below sea level and continue to sink as the water beneath and within them is pumped out.

To understand this small city has required this atlas to venture outward, to the whole state to understand the problems of both water management and incarceration (in the map “Of Levees and Prisons”) and into the Gulf of Mexico to look at the oil industry there (in the map “Oil and Water”). Perhaps because the city is such a watery place, it is unbounded, or its boundaries are literally fluid. New Orleans’s fate is tied to the river that gathers waters from afar, to the Gulf, and to the whole Caribbean, even to the Atlantic, as various maps here testify.

There are firm boundaries between uptown and downtown, and the Seventh Ward has different dance steps than the Ninth, but neat lines don’t define it. There is, along with the better-known poetry of the streets named after the nine muses and Desire and Piety and Sister streets, a short street in New Orleans named Mystery.

Much of what you can say about this place you can also contradict. New Orleans is a city of firm racial divides and enthusiastic racial mixing, a city that contains both a poverty that can be measured by statistics and an extraordinary wealth of festivity and memory that cannot be quantified, a city that holds tremendous violence and what might be the opposite of violence: collective, confident, urban rejoicing in public, over and over again, in parades and music and greetings from strangers on the street. It is an insular city through which several million visitors stream every year; strangers fuel the principal economy of this deep-rooted place, along with its port, which is the thirteenth largest in the United States by value of cargo.

New Orleans is an anomaly. Like San Francisco, it is an anti-America in which America invents itself, a place whose eccentric and libertine behavior and innovation have been deplored but also desired and often emulated. It’s a small, parochial city that connects the vast interior of North America drained by the Mississippi to the Caribbean—Latin American south and has shaped much of the music now listened to around the world. New Orleans is unfathomable, endless, protean, immortal, and fragile.

Reprinted with permission from Unfathomable City: A New Orleans Atlas by Rebecca Solnit and Rebecca Snedeker and published by University of California Press, 2013.