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LOUANN LOFTON: A book of maps for lovers of New Orleans

» Unfathomable City: A New Orleans Atlas By Rebecca Solnit and Rebecca Snedeker  Published by University of California Press     $29.95 softback

» Unfathomable City: A New Orleans Atlas
By Rebecca Solnit and Rebecca Snedeker
Published by University of California Press
$29.95 softback

New Orleans is suffused with history, with mystery, with violence, and with sublime beauty. From shrimp po-boys to extravagant Mardi Gras floats, from the enormous live oaks lining St. Charles Avenue like silent, ancient sentries to second-line parades with loud brass bands weaving their way over pothole-laden streets, New Orleans leaves an impression. Trying to understand and make sense of all the facets of the place, and all the attendant contradictions, is a task with seemingly no end. The beautiful Unfathomable City: A New Orleans Atlas can help with this, and I’d highly recommend it to anyone the least bit infatuated with the Crescent City.

Part coffee table book, part history and culture guide, Unfathomable City is, like New Orleans herself, unique. Filled with twenty-two gorgeously illustrated and colored maps of the city, each spread across two pages, it’s an atlas that aims to both educate and challenge. Essays accompany each map, written by different people, giving us a host of voices as we traverse across the city. They all guide us to consider something different about the history of New Orleans – or about its future.

You won’t find staid street maps here, showing you how to get from the French Quarter to Audubon Park. Instead, you’ll uncover, for instance, the history and purpose of the social aid and pleasure clubs that dot the city, along with a map showing the routes and dates for all of their second-line parades. Several maps detail the city’s rich musical heritage, tracing its roots to its African lineage. Another eulogizes the city’s dead by highlighting its above-ground cemeteries. Yet another pays homage to the Native American tribes who were there first, including the Houma, who’ve been forced out over the years into the bayou communities south of the city proper – bayou communities that themselves are now facing extinction as the land continues to erode.

Maps bring to mind certainty: hard lines, boundaries, clarity. Certainty’s hard to come by here, though. The story of this atlas is change. Whether we’re looking at physical changes in the land near New Orleans (one acre of Louisiana coast disappears into the Gulf each hour) or troubling changes in the city after Hurricane Katrina (like the closure of Charity Hospital, which had been operating since 1736), the maps and essays here document history as well as evolution. They also focus on both pleasure and despair, like so much of New Orleans culture.

Unfathomable City is aptly named, but that “unfathomable” quality doesn’t diminish appreciation, it heightens it.

— LouAnn Lofton, mbj@msbusiness.com

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