New Orleans Speaking in the Fair Grinds Coffeehouse Common Space in a book signing event organized by the Faubourg St. John branch of the Maple Street Bookstore, Lawrence Powell, Tulane University professor conceded that when he first agreed to write what he hoped would be 300-400 history of New Orleans in 2006 in the aftermath of Katrina, he was “not bearish on a comeback” for New Orleans. Pulling a reference from HBO’s Treme, he added that he wasn’t to the point of the John Goodman character, which is a signal for ranting and raving in the doom of depression and post-traumatic stress syndrome, but he wasn’t that far off. His surprisingly hot seller, The Accidental City: Improvising New Orleans, which retells the story of the founding of the city with both a different slant and a 21st century understanding of the inordinate role of economic actors and real estate speculation , along with time itself and observations since the storm, have now turned him around to “cautious optimism.”
The heart of the book goes to finding an answer to the question posed by former House of Representatives Speaker Dennis Hastert after Katrina which essentially asked what fools would locate a city where New Orleans was built. Powell’s book tells the stories of those “fools,” and the disputes between France, its Francophone wheelers and dealers from Canada, and other countries, John Law, one of the shrewdest economic barons of the early 18th century, and Bienville, which pushed and shoved between what became the city’s location between Lake Pontchartrain through Bayou St. John to the River, and the location preferred by Gulf Coast and other interests at Bayou Manchac between the lakes. In Powell’s version Bienville “seized the time” to found the city almost 300 years ago (1718), and held on as the Law a strategy of force marching a tobacco based, plantation economy in Louisiana that sweltered and struggled as a business model.
It says something about New Orleans that looking forward could entail so much looking backwards that Powell’s book would create so much interest. David Carr, the Times’ media columnist makes a similar point in an odd “on this hand and then on the other” vacillating piece today as he discusses the coffeehouse culture of the city and the daily arguments on the news that frequently include brandishing a copy of the Times-Picayune as pointer and potential weapon. Even in the column, Carr is unable to see which trees warranted chopping or not, since all of his views are blinded by the forest of challenges for newspapers to find a new business model.
Powell more astutely comes down clearly and firmly on the challenges that face New Orleans (and many cities!) rebuilding that are deeply planted at dividing lines of race and inequities of income, jobs, and opportunity. He left the crowd at Fair Grinds Coffeehouse with a comment that perhaps what he called the “enjoyment culture,” meaning the attractive and addictive life style and joie de vivre of New Orleans might actually be the bridge between these great divides and hold the secret as well to the long term success and survival of the city for the next 300 years. Readers still moving past the first chapters of The Accidental City were desperately trying to speed Powell up on his work on that next book!