Unfathomable City: A New Orleans Atlas

It will come as no surprise to regular readers of History in the Margins–or anyone who browses my office bookshelves–that I am fascinated by maps.   As I’ve mentioned before, history happens in both time and space.  How can you understand an event/culture/war/empire if you don’t have a feel for its geography?

As someone interested in the times and places where cultures meet, draws lines in the sand, and change each other, I am also fascinated by New Orleans*–a city formed by the meeting and melding of cultures.

You can imagine my delight when Shelf Awareness sent me a copy of Unfathomable City: A New Orleans Atlas to review.

Unfathomable City is no standard atlas. Essayist Rebecca Solnit and film-maker Rebecca Snedeker bring together writers, artists and cartographers to consider New Orleans,  a city in which the lines between races, cultures, and even water and land blur and shift.   Environmentalists, geographers, scholars, local experts and newcomers to the city explore New Orleans through the lenses of their respective concerns, their findings presented in 22 full-color, two-page maps and related essays.

The initial map and essay illustrate “How New Orleans Happened”, mapping three centuries of expansion and its causes. With the basic history and geography of the city established, the book goes on to explore both the things “everyone knows” about New Orleans and unexpected aspects of an eternally surprising city. Maps on cemeteries, the petroleum and natural gas industries and carnival parade routes are juxtaposed with maps on Arabs in New Orleans and the city’s role in the international banana trade  Several maps join topics that at first seem unrelated–  seafood and the sex trade, housing developments and the music industry–bringing new revelations in the process.

With beautiful maps and challenging essays, Unfathomable City presents New Orleans as infinitely complex and ultimately unknowable.  The result is not a comprehensive guide to the city, but an invitation.

*But then, who isn’t fascinated by New Orleans?

A version of this review previously appeared in Shelf Awareness for Readers.

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