A River and Its City: The Nature of Landscape in New Orleans

Article excerpt

Ari Kelman, A River and its City: the nature of landscape in New Orleans, Berkeley and Los Angeles CA, University of California Press (2003), 310 pp., US$29.95.

The relatively new discipline of 'environmental history' has a great deal to offer historians of transport. Historians, geographers, sociologists, cultural theorists and others have pioneered an integrative approach whereby urban and planning history, the history of landscape, aspects of economic and industrial history and social and political approaches have combined within a context shaped by a concern with the interactive and constantly changing relationship between human societies and the environment in which they live. A historical approach that recognises the constantly fluctuating dynamics governing the interaction within such relationships is inevitably going to concern itself centrally with systems of movement, mobility, circulation and exchange, and thus with transport. Scholars from the United States have tended to lead the way in this area, with the work of Mike Davies on Los Angeles and William Cronon on Chicago being notable examples. Now Ari Kelman has joined the front ranks of scholarship in this field with a brilliant study of the dialectic between the city of New Orleans and the Mississippi river.

Ari Kelman's fascinating account of the relationship between New Orleans and its waterfront is a model of this kind of history, not least for the way in which transport is considered as a system embedded within other systems rather than as a self-referential closed system in its own right. The foremost illustration of this approach is naturally the place of the Mississippi itself and its traffic in Kelman's account. Kelman analyses the paradoxical story of a great riverine city that turned its back on its river. Built upon drained marshlands, squeezed between the Mississippi and Lake Pontchartrain, New Orleans flourished by keeping the waters of the river in their place, hidden behind dockyards and railroad tracks, constrained between the great earth ramparts of the levee. This paradox worked itself out through floods, destruction and disease as well as through the production of commerce, wealth and civic pride.

Kelman takes the history of the city's relationship with its river from the early nineteenth century, years in which the landscape between New Orleans and the Mississippi was literally formed both geographically and conceptually, to the revived, heritage-themed waterfront - 'more a commercial carnival than an idealised public space or riparian wilderness' (p. …