New Book: The Accidental City: Improvising New Orleans

Kathleen Daley reviews Lawrence Powell’s The Accidental City (Harvard UP) for

Most visitors to New Orleans know it is a magical city. But “accidental”? A strange word, but appropriate, according to this fascinating account of the origin and history of what the author describes as “America’s only original contribution to world culture.”

Muddling through the first chapter about the structure of the Mississippi River is a chore, even with the help of ancient maps. But the town carved out of a “semi-aquatic wilderness” in 1721 by a French Canadian named Bienville can arguably be described as accidental.

The control of this strategic port, close to flourishing Caribbean trade routes, passes between the French and the Spanish until the Americans purchased it in 1803. Powell describes the colorful characters involved in the development and management of the city through those decades in the context of money and power — age-old political realities.

But the heart of this story lies in the rich chapters devoted to the African-Americans who came as slaves. Many of them attained their freedom because they held the city together through their strength and ingenuity. From the three-tiered culture that developed — white planters, free blacks and slaves — grew the cuisine and music that make New Orleans the queen of the delta.

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