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Transforming New Orleans & Its Environs

Transforming New Orleans & Its Environs: Centuries Of Change

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    Transforming New Orleans & Its Environs
    Book Description:

    Human settlement of the Lower Mississippi River Valley-especially in New Orleans, the region's largest metropolis-has produced profound and dramatic environmental change. From prehistoric midden building to late-twentieth century industrial pollution,Transforming New Orleans and Its Environstraces through history the impact of human activity upon the environment of this fascinating and unpredictable region.

    In eleven essays, scholars across disciplines--including anthropology, architecture, history, natural history, and geography--chronicle how societies have worked to transform untamed wetlands and volatile floodplains into a present-day sprawling urban center and industrial complex, and how they have responded to the environmental changes brought about by the disruption of the natural setting.

    This new text follows the trials of native and colonial settlers as they struggled to shape the environment to fit the needs of urbanization. It demonstrates how the Mississippi River, while providing great avenues for commerce, transportation, and colonization also presented the region's greatest threat to urban centers, and details how engineers set about taming the mighty river. Also featured is an analysis of the impact of modern New Orleans upon the surrounding rural parishes and the effect urban pollution has had on the city's water supply and aquatic life.

    eISBN: 978-0-8229-7219-8
    Subjects: History, Environmental Science

Table of Contents

  1. 1 Introduction: Transforming the Lower Mississippi River Valley
    (pp. 1-6)
    Craig E. Colten

    The majority of Americans live in cities today. Wrapped in an urban infrastructure, we easily forget that cities occupy places carved out of the natural environment and that city building transforms the local setting. While pavement and structures obscure local geology and hydrology, natural systems continue to operate. Making or remaking a place to be habitable is a long-term process that involves many generations. This volume considers one American urban area, New Orleans and the lower Mississippi River valley, to expose the lineaments of environmental systems, how they continue to function within a metropolitan region, and how human actions over...

  2. Part 1: Transformation before Urbanization

    • Introduction
      (pp. 7-8)

      Cities stand as the ultimate expression of human transformation of the natural environment. Streets conquer topography, and structures obscure the natural lay of the land and displace vegetation. Drainage and sewerage systems reconfigure the local hydrology. Urban civilization was not unknown in either the Americas or in the Mississippi valley when Europeans arrived. Cahokia, near present-day St. Louis, was perhaps the greatest example north of the Rio Grande; and it remained the largest city in the Mississippi valley even after the founding of New Orleans. But urbanization is not the only modification wrought by human society. In the New World,...

    • 2 Making the City Inevitable: Native Americans and the Geography of New Orleans
      (pp. 9-21)
      Tristram R. Kidder

      The geographer Peirce Lewis has called New Orleans an “inevitable city,” asserting that its colonization and subsequent development were influenced by the particular geography of the Mississippi River and the deltaic plain. Discussions of New Orleans as an inevitable city suggest that European colonists chose the site for strategic reasons without consideration of the role existing Native American habitation played in the selection of the site for settlement. Such thinking reflects one of two popular explanations for how humans interact with the physical environment. The first can be identified with the “Ecologically Noble Savage” and the other “Homo Devastans.”¹ The...

    • 3 Impenetrable but Easy: The French Transformation of the Lower Mississippi Valley and the Founding of New Orleans
      (pp. 22-42)
      Christopher Morris

      As he paddled up the Mississippi River in March 1699, Pierre Le Moyne d’Iberville remarked on the landscape in the vicinity of the future city of New Orleans: “Both banks of the river, almost the entire distance above the sea, are so thickly covered with canes of every size—one inch, two inches, three, four, five, and six in circumference—that one cannot walk through them. It is impenetrable country, which would be easy to clear.”¹ The apparent contradiction in Iberville’s observation—“impenetrable” but “easy”—expresses both an awareness of the realities of the foreign environment in which he found...

  3. Part 2: Environment in Service of the City

    • Introduction
      (pp. 43-44)

      The Louisiana Purchase in 1803 greatly enhanced New Orleans’s role as entrepôt to the Mississippi valley. Once the full drainage basin became U.S. territory, trade legally moved downstream to the port near the Gulf of Mexico. With the wholehearted adoption of steam navigation during the 1820 s, New Orleans’s position became even more prominent. Reliable transportation fostered the expansion of the cotton plantation from the lowermost stretches of the river to the Mississippi delta country and upstream to the northern limits of cotton cultivation. With an enlarged cotton-producing hinterland, New Orleans’s interests expanded in kind. Where planters sowed cotton, New...

    • 4 Forests and Other River Perils
      (pp. 45-63)
      Ari Kelman

      On March 24, 1817, a riverboat pilot named Henry Shreve boarded his steamboat, theWashington,at New Orleans’s waterfront.¹ Shreve rushed as he prepared his vessel for a long voyage, fearful his departure might be blocked by members of the so-called Fulton group, intent as they were on protecting their exclusive right to power steamboats on the lower Mississippi.² After arriving at theWashington,Shreve ordered his crew to fire the vessel’s boilers, and then he steered his craft into the Mississippi’s current, bound for Louisville, Kentucky. The pilot kept a log of the trip, noting that the voyage took...

    • 5 Subduing Nature through Engineering: Caleb G. Forshey and the Levees-only Policy, 1851–1881
      (pp. 64-83)
      George S. Pabis

      From the time French engineer Dumont de la Tour outlined the need for a levee in 1717 to protect New Orleans from Mississippi floods, an epic struggle has evolved between humanity and nature over control of the rich alluvial soil along the river. To the founders and early settlers of New Orleans, levees appeared as the most practical solution to the inundation problem. For over a century they constructed walls of soil and sand to keep the waters of the river from intruding onto their property. They were successful, or so it seemed. After 1815 Americans began a campaign of...

    • 6 Historical Perspective on Crevasses, Levees, and the Mississippi River
      (pp. 84-106)
      Donald W. Davis

      As noted by Percy Viosca in the late 1920s, Louisiana’s wetland environments faced a serious dilemma that continues today. The problem is related directly to humankind’s interference with the Mississippi River’s natural flow regime, compounded by the effects of sea-level rise, subsidence, saltwater intrusion, and erosion created by natural and human-induced processes. As a result Louisiana’s coastal margins and wetlands are vanishing. In these near sea-level habitats, wetland loss exceeds thirty-five square miles per year,² a rate that appears to be decreasing but nevertheless remains significant. When equated with the entire United States, these land loss assessments are exceptionally high.³...

  4. Part 3: Growing Demands of the City

    • Introduction
      (pp. 107-108)

      Urban areas place different demands on the environment than rural areas. The intensity of land uses and the concentration of activity require adjustments in natural systems to sustain urban activity. As New Orleans’s population more than quadrupled, from about 100,000 in 1850 to over 450,000 in 1930, the urbanized territory pressed outward from a small core along the natural levees near the French Quarter. By 1930 residential development stretched from the upper parish line to the lower parish line along the well-drained natural levee and back toward the lakefront.

      The extension of New Orleans toward the lakefront was dependent on...

    • 7 Perspective, Power, and Priorities: New Orleans and the Mississippi River Flood of 1927
      (pp. 109-120)
      Gay M. Gomez

      Who manipulates nature? A simple answer would be “those with the power and resources to do so.” But who are these people, and where does their motivation and empowerment lie? Furthermore, what effects do their actions have on the nonhuman world and on those who lack the power to manipulate it on the same scale? This chapter examines these questions in the context of the New Orleans area’s experience in the Mississippi River Flood of 1927. It portrays a confrontation between urban and rural perspectives and priorities—a clash that echoes across time and place—and one that in 1927...

    • 8 In the Wake of Hurricane Betsy
      (pp. 121-138)
      Todd Shallat

      A Hurricane is a tropical furnace that draws hot air inward and up. Water vapor condenses, releasing energy: enough power to swirl one billion tons of moisture at 1,000 feet per second, enough to run a 300-trillion-horsepower motor or light and heat the United States for a year. The fury spins with a force indifferent to civilization, but damage results from human factors. Its power to kill and destroy is a variable, closely dependent on human caution or daring, on sound or shoddy construction, on the lure of seaside housing with an open view of the beachfront and sprawling urbanization...

  5. Part 4: Response to Environmental Change

    • Introduction
      (pp. 139-140)

      When human societies alter their environment they generally must adjust to the changes wrought. Ian Douglas speaks of the city as a system of integrated energy flows in which one change prompts additional changes.¹ But he recognizes the city as more than a physical system. It is also a social creation. By acknowledging both physical and human dimensions, he recognizes that policy and its implementation contribute to environmental change, which in turn leads to further adjustments in policy and the environment. If we consider the larger urban industrial corridor stretching from Baton Rouge to New Orleans as a sociophysical environment,...

    • 9 Too Much of a Good Thing: Industrial Pollution in the Lower Mississippi River
      (pp. 141-159)
      Craig E. Colten

      New Orleans draws its drinking water from the Mississippi River. Throughout most of this century government and industry officials viewed the Mississippi’s gargantuan diluting capacity as adequate to protect urban water consumers. The average flow of some 600,000 cubic feet per second that coursed by Baton Rouge and New Orleans had, in the minds of the authorities, an almost limitless capacity to assimilate discharges to the point that they were harmless. Not only was the river a bottomless “sink,” the state touted its huge quantities of fresh process water to prospective industries that built plants along the waterway in the...

    • 10 Baton Rouge: The Making (and Breaking) of a Petrochemical Paradise
      (pp. 160-177)
      Raymond J. Burby

      Some things never change. In 1891:

      Irritated by the foul stenches that wafted through their northeast Brooklyn neighborhood, members of the Fifteenth Ward Smelling Committee embarked on a boat trip up Newtown Creek in September . . . in search of the responsible parties. As their tug negotiated its way among cargo ships and manure scows, the odors were more pronounced until they reached a point across from the oil refineries where, according to the committee’s report, “the stenches began asserting themselves with all the vigor of fully developed stenches.” What the Smelling Committee quickly discovered was that an unusually...

    • 11 The Popular Geography of Illness in the Industrial Corridor
      (pp. 178-201)
      Barbara Allen

      Recently, the 130-mile stretch of the Mississippi River between New Orleans and Baton Rouge, sometimes called “Cancer Alley” or the “industrial corridor,” has become a focus area for the national environmental justice movement. This corridor along the Mississippi was, at one time, lined with ribbons of sugar-cane plantations; today it has over 130 petroleum processors and chemical plants displacing agriculture as the region’s most lucrative industry. Poor people and people of color are now voicing concern over the unjust burden to both their health and their environment that industry has wrought on them with seemingly little reward or restitution.


    • 12 Fish Diversity in a Heavily Industrialized Stretch of the Lower Mississippi River
      (pp. 202-218)
      H. L. Bart

      The Mississippi River Basin drains 41 percent of the coterminous United States and receives discharges and runoff over this entire area from industry, municipal sewage-treatment facilities, and agricultural lands. Nowhere is the assault on river water quality greater than in the final 300 miles of the river in Louisiana. Here, over 350 industrial and municipal facilities line the river. Roughly 175 of them discharge waste water into the river.¹ The 130 miles of river between Baton Rouge to New Orleans—the so-called industrial corridor—is an area of concentrated industrial activity, with 126 petrochemical plants and seven oil refineries. Toxic...