CRM Journal

Book Review

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

By Ari Kelman. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003; 296 pp., photographs, notes, bibliography, index; cloth $29.95.


Scholars have long focused on New Orleans' politics and literature, race relations, working class, food, and tourism. Within the past decade, the history of the city's public spaces has received increased attention. Kelman's new book examines the complex history of the waterfront and its changing character reflecting concerns about the waterfront as public space and business opportunity. Through a variety of attempts to enhance trade, control floodwaters, and rechannel the mighty Mississippi, the waterfront has remained the city's defining natural feature.

This broad-ranging and thoughtful book represents a gentle reaction against other historians, notably William Cronon, Michael Sorkin, and Mike Davis, who have decried the loss of public space in the face of the relentless power of modern corporate capitalism to redefine urban landscapes. Kelman's story purports to be more complex than merely seeing man against nature as he delves into the complex legal status of riverfront land use rights, conflicting engineering visions for water management, and the often weak constituency behind public access to the waterfront over the past several hundred years. Definitions of the public good are constantly changing, he notes, and conceptions of public access remain unclear.

The book presents episodes in the waterfront's history, from the torturous legal battles over the batture (parts of the riverbanks that are covered during high water and uncovered during low) in the late 18th century to the later legal fight over monopolistic power of steamship companies, from the impact of the yellow fever epidemic of 1853 on the waterfront, through the struggles to create levees and warehouses in the late 19th century to the dramatic impact of the 1927 flood. Kelman ends his story with the successful attempt to stop highway construction along the waterfront in the 1960s.

President Thomas Jefferson was involved in a major dispute over control of a portion of the batture that pitted him against an old antagonist, Edward Livingston, who had settled in New Orleans after scandals drove him from New York. Having become sensitized to the concerns of Westerners' access to the river since the 1780s, Jefferson eventually weighed in against Livingston's attempt to prove his ownership of the alluvial land. Yet Kelman notes, locals had a tradition of understanding nature's erratic force that Livingston could not grasp. In the end, (actually this is a never-ending story), Livingston's persistence extracted something of a compromise from city officials.

The impact of new technology, specifically the steamboat, reflected "the contingent nature of public space" for which Governor Claiborne advocated when trying to establish a monopoly for the Fulton group (those investors associated with Robert Fulton, inventor of the steamboat), a relatively common business practice in Jefferson's day. Yet competitors soon arrived in the form of Henry Shreve, who successfully challenged the Fulton group for the riparian common. Perceptions of "artifice and the river" became fused to notions of progress as American merchants subsequently battled Creole elites to define the waterfront in commercial terms, eventually and briefly breaking up city governance into three submunicipalities over the issue.

Kelman finds that "as commercial capitalism took root in cities, people no longer valued spaces for their uses but instead for the amount of capital proprietors could ask in exchange for them." His implicit message is that we need to rethink the intangible values of waterfronts and public access.

One of Kelman's recurring themes is that control over nature, frequently the bottom line of boosters' promotion of artifices such as wharves and levees, has always proved illusory in the long run. New forms of economic competition, from canals to railroads, shifted the trade along the Mississippi from east to west. But, the waterfront remained contested space as well, facilitating escape for slaves going upriver, notably during the 1853 yellow fever outbreak. The shape of control produced a variety of victims, such as those flooded out of their homes in 1927 when a portion of the levee was destroyed, sacrificing "the people of the poorer river parishes so that New Orleanians, and particularly the city's commercial community, could thrive." Manipulation of the news media during the flood as well as during the yellow fever epidemic underscores the powerful scope of elite bias in rationalizing river politics.

Although the breadth of Kelman's sources is impressive, there is an inadequate feel for how residents or seamen reacted to the waterfront. Besides the writings of Mark Twain and J. D. B. DeBow which he cites in early chapters, it would have been useful to read more about the complex sights and sounds of the area. What was it about the multicultural and cross-class aspect of the place that proved so alluring or off-putting? More attention might also have been paid to how the mentality of the commercial elite's redefinition of the waterfront as a public good overlapped with other aspects of their social, political, or business relations. Nonetheless, Kelman has made a valuable contribution that can help us re-examine how we think about urban waterfronts and our frequently faulty approaches in channeling nature.

Gregory Bush
University of Miami