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The Accidental City: Improvising New Orleans

3.75 of 5 stars 3.75  ·  rating details  ·  215 ratings  ·  45 reviews
This is the story of a city that shouldn't exist. In the seventeenth century, what is now America's most beguiling metropolis was nothing more than a swamp: prone to flooding, infested with snakes, battered by hurricanes. But through the intense imperial rivalries of Spain, France, and England, and the ambitious, entrepreneurial merchants and settlers from four continents ...more
Hardcover, 422 pages
Published March 30th 2012 by Harvard University Press
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Minyoung Lee
Pleasant read and overview on the history of New Orleans as a city if you can survive getting over the French building of the city. Yes, as mentioned in the book, I also found that New Orleanians tend to be more proud of their French roots than their Spanish roots, but based on the "funness" of the read and cultural impact implied in the book, it's the Spanish and their absurd self-identification as Catholic warriors that really built and shaped the intricateness of the city. Honestly, I was sad ...more
Rooks
An extremely fact-dense but interesting read about New Orleans from the city's founding until roughly the Battle of New Orleans. For all the time lovingly spent on the city's origins, the chapter(s) after the American acquisition seemed comparatively rushed. Over the course of the book, I felt the narrative structure left some few things to be desired - my kingdom for a timeline! - but I learned so much that I decided to give it a four anyway.
John
A genuine "hey this looks interesting" grab off the shelf at the library. Again I ask, what are we going to do when everything is online and we only read on devices? How will we make fortuitous finds? The stacks are important! We need the stacks.
I'm really fascinated by urban history, in part because cities tend to have unique, interesting histories, but also because I don't really know what to do with it. How do you work urban history into American History grand scale? It would be really hard t
...more
Brandon
2015 Reading Challenge: A Nonfiction Book

"The Accidental City: Improvising New Orleans" is a very well-researched history of the first few centuries of New Orleans' founding. As a NOLA lover, this was an invaluable work that answers so many questions about the hows and whys of New Orleans.

I particularly enjoyed learning about the rampant contraband culture that was part of N.O. from the start, as well as the very complex slave society and racial caste system every person of every hue helped to
...more
Maureen M
I really wanted to love this book now that we have family in New Orleans. And there is a lot to like. It provides some fascinating details into how New Orleans became the freewheeling place it is today. (It has been that way from the beginning.) Powell traces some of the strange characters and stranger dealings that built New Orleans from a fetid swamp into a French backwater, then a Spanish backwater, then a French boomerang and finally an American city with its own set of rules. But the tracin ...more
Manuel
I picked this up at a local bookstore during my first visit to New Orleans, hoping to learn about the town’s early settlement. Hoo boy it is detailed! The narrative woven through is that of a city that happened to be in the right place at a lot of right times.

The chapters after the transfer to Spain are written from more of a sociological perspective and explore the tripartite racial system (whites, slaves, free blacks), which lays a good foundation for understanding the cultural makeup and powe
...more
Mark
The Accidental City: Improvising New Orleans
Author: Lawrence N. Powell
Publisher: Harvard University Press
Published In: Cambridge, Massachusetts / London, England
Date: 2012
Pgs: 422

REVIEW MAY CONTAIN SPOILERS

Summary:
New Orleans stands at the confluence of the American Heartland at the drain of the watershed of the entire Midwest and Great Plains region. The city shouldn’t exist...or it should be somewhere other than where it’s at. Prone to flooding, below sea level, battered by hurricanes, and ris
...more
Chelsey Langland
Sigh. I read an article about this book and loved the premise - it was written by a Tulane professor in response to the post-Katrina question of, "Why are you even bothering to rebuild this city when it was so poorly placed?" The product, though, is the absolute worst of academic writing. It is dry, he uses big words when small ones would be better. He makes good points about the three-part racial system in the city, but in doing so he seems to really minimize the effects of slavery.
Maureen Forys
I haven't read a book this dense since college history classes, but it was fascinating. I never thought much about the early history of New Orleans beyond it being a French city that America eventually picked up during the Louisiana Purchase. There's (obviously) so much more to it than that. This book is full of easily mixed up French names and dates, but it's extremely interesting and makes me love New Orleans so much more.
John Walker
Great Book on the founding of New Orleans. I had been told that this would to boring and that I would give up after a few chapters, boy were they wrong.
Happily I found two more books on the subject that I want to read. I'm sorry that I can only give this five stars.
KW
Fascinating, well-researched book that provides behind-the-scenes look at the influences that shaped New Orleans: the family alliances and squabbles, international politics, geography, and all those other things they didn't tell you in high school. It's startling to realize how many of the influential families who are mentioned are still among the power brokers of New Orleans. Good explanation of the differences between French, Spanish, and American New Orleans and a very readable combination of ...more
Robin Riopelle
Fascinating read about the early origins of NOLA, from the struggle between France and England to establish a presence at the mouth of the Mississippi to the Louisiana Purchase. As a Canadian of French descent, it was eye-opening to understand the connection between New France and New Orleans, beyond the Acadian-Cajun story, which came along later and seemed to affect the areas around New Orleans more than the city itself.

In addition to an expansive knowledge of the main characters of colonial
...more
John
Only read about 60%. It's a history of the founding of New Orleans and its early decades. It has several interesting tidbits. For instance, New Orleans was known as a semi-lawless, debauched town with love of gambling and masking parties from its very beginnings. It was also wiped out by a hurricane just a few years after the first settlement. The location was also ridiculous - it should have been upriver in Baton Rouge. The land itself (i.e., most of the crescent) is naturally a swamp (and so K ...more
Jeff Clarke
A very interesting history of New Orleans from its founding until shortly after its purchase by America. Depending on your interest in / tolerance of history and history writing, add or subtract a star - there's a lot detail, and it's not always the easiest to follow, but there's incredible context and information about the city within, and so many of New Orleans's strange and unique aspects make a lot more sense after reading it.
Elizabeth
This was a really well researched book with a lot of information about the Spanish rule in New Orleans and the slave, free people of culture, and Creole culture. I was a little disappointed that there was not more information about the nineteenth century when the Americans came, but apparently the editor put the limits on the length. The ending was kind of abrupt and incongruous with the rest of this extremely thorough book. Powell has a marvelously detailed way of describing the main cast of ch ...more
Kelly
Really good history of early New Orleans (founding through the Louisiana Purchase). I came away with a much better understanding of why and how New Orleans is the unique city that it is: the shifting economic pressures (in parallel, but not always caused by, shifting ruling governments) as well as the constantly fluctuating "rules" around slavery meant that New Orleans was truly a foreign acquisition in 1803.
Peter Lehu
I made my way through most of this book and learned a good deal, but overall I found it dry and meandering. This book mostly tells the story of the leaders of New Orleans, while the lives and cultures of the rest of its citizens are only considered important insofar as they affected the barons, mayors, and governors. Lots of politics and not much else.
Charles Stephen
Powell directs the New Orleans Center for the Gulf South at Tulane. He wrote this book as a rejoinder to critics who proclaimed, post-Katrina, that the city should be allowed to sink back into the river mud from which it arose three centuries ago. He explained how Spain's (Catholic) manumission laws affected the rise of a tripartite racial order--white, free people of color, and African slaves. He mentioned the exact year (1764) and reason for the Jesuits' expulsion from Louisiana. He detailed t ...more
Mark Field
Having bought this while in New Orleans, I was fascinated by the history of the city and its evolution. This is an incredibly detailed and dense history. I enjoyed it's historical panorama but overall an exhausting read.
Andi
Pretty freakin' dry read, but way better than any textbook. I went to a "night w/ the author" at Latter Library in New Orleans (and with a rather enthusiastic urban planning comrade whose family can be traced to new orleans for hundreds of years) before reading this book, and decided it would be well worth my time.

The information is intriguing, and each section is chalk-full of details that highlight just how unique (for better or worse) new orleans has been from the get-go. While I generally pr
...more
Shauna Mulligan
I learned some interesting things about New Orleans, and also that I don't care to read every page of books about history.
Octavia A.
Well-written. Good voice - but noticed no primary resources. Complies other scholars' works and research.
Richard Anderson
Fine history of New Orleans from its founding to the Battle of New Orleans. Occasionally awkward verbally.
Janet
Obviously it helps to enjoy this book if you have a personal interest as I do in New Orleans.
Luke
Loved it

An excellent companion piece to "The World that Made New Orleans" by Sublette.
Bruce Jones
A very well written historical accounting of the founding of new Orleans.
Bill Loehfelm
Really fascinating. Stunning how much the city still functions (or doesn't) in the same ways as almost 300 years ago. You learn the roots of a lot of things, and great insight into the importance of the Spanish years.
Koen
Not really the book i was looking for. Extensive history on how The Crescent City came to be. The book stops at about 1840 and deals mostly about those early day politics and the role of slavery in the French, Spanish and American New Orleans society. It is by all means an interesting read. There's plenty of history in NOLA and it is in a lot of ways not the average US city. It is also a bit boring and very serious. I came to realize i really wanted to read more about the 19th and 20th century t ...more
Rosie
I want to give this book four or five stars because the author definitely did an incredible amount of research for it. Unfortunately, all the names and dates made it difficult for me to stay focused on the book for any length of time. That said, the vocabulary and writing style of the author were very skillful. I would highly recommend for a history buff - but a little too intense for the average reader.
Sean Chick
A long and sprawling account of New Orleans under the French and Spanish, this book is both scholarly and popular in tone. Would rate it a five but the discussion of slavery under the Spanish is painfully long. The topic is interesting, but the minute detail is excessive and Powell often repeats himself.
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Lawrence N. Powell, former holder of the James H. Clark Endowed Chair in American Civilization, is Professor Emeritus of History at Tulane University.
More about Lawrence N. Powell...
Troubled Memory: Anne Levy, the Holocaust, and David Duke's Louisiana The New Orleans of George Washington Cable: The 1887 Census Office Report The Accidental City: Improvising New Orleans New Masters: Northern Planters During the Civil War and Reconstruction New Masters: Northern Planters During the Civil War and Reconstruction                             L Publications. Miscellany, No 124 (Yale Historical Publications : Miscellany, 124)

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“Sometime in the 1920s or 1930s, a Cajun trapper reportedly found the tablet La Salle had buried near the river’s mouth in 1682. Unable to make sense of its Latin inscription, he melted the lead into fishing weights and buckshot. 21” 0 likes
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