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New Orleans and the Mississippi river : a braudelian time-geographic perspective

Nova Orleans e o rio Mississippi: um ponto de vista braudeliano geohistórico
La Nouvelle-Orléans et la rivière Mississippi : une perspective braudélienne géohistorique
Kent Mathewson


Le site et la situation de la Nouvelle-Orléans, ville d'entrepôt sur le fleuve Mississippi, le principal système fluvial de l'Amérique du Nord, constitue un cas idéal pour appliquer ce que j'ai appelé le point de vue "géotemporelle braudélienne". Depuis sa création au début des années 1700, la Nouvelle-Orléans et le fleuve Mississippi ont été intégralement connectés. Mais la relation a été variable. Une grande partie de cette variation provient des liaisons plus larges de la Nouvelle-Orléans avec son arrière-pays: l'une en amont, un demi-continent, et l'autre en aval et dans le bassin du Golfe / Caraïbes et ses environs. Cet article décrit les changements-clés dans les relations ville / rivière en utilisant un intervalle conjoncturel de changement historique à la Braudel d'une cinquantaine d'années. Le document applique également le concept de temps-géographie de Torsten Hägerstrand à la Nouvelle-Orléans en tant qu'organisme urbain, avec sa propre vie, mais toujours par l'entremise du Mississippi.

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1This paper considers the site and situation of New Orleans, port city on the Mississippi River. For the past three hundred years -- from New Orleans’ founding date until the present day, the city and the river have been intimately intertwined. This relationship, while continuous, has experienced variable modes and intensities. Much of this variation can been linked to shifting cultural, economic, and ecological changes occurring in New Orleans’ two great hinterlands – the vast upriver Mississippi drainage and the even greater Atlantic Basin. In charting these shifting city-river modes or intensities, it is useful to borrow two geographical models or constructs. First, Fernand Braudel’s (1972) geohistorical scalar temporalities – individual (annual or lesser divisions), social (centurial), and geographical or structural (millennial). Braudel’s “conjunctural” is paced at half-century durations, and best fits the long-view unfoldings of the New Orleans/Mississippi River relations. I will look at New Orleans’ relationship to the Mississippi River and its interior (upriver) and fore (Gulf/Caribbean) hinterlands at fifty-year or half-century intervals. Second, I propose that geographer Torsten Hägerstrand’s (1982) “time-geographic” methodology charting an individual’s spatial-biographical trajectories over lifetimes, can be adapted to aggregations like cities. Hägerstrand developed his time-geographic method to study the spatial dimensions of a person’s quotidian movements within a matrix of constraints, producing a “diorama” of paths and projects that produce the dialectic between structure and agency in spatially shaping an individual’s life. Analogously, New Orleans’ spatial-biographical trajectory can be charted within the Braudelian construct of fifty-year intervals and depicted as dioramas to show its ongoing relationship with its partner, the Mississippi River.

2Historically, New Orleans, with its riverine site and situation, has played role of mediator between the interior of the North American continent (drained by the Mississippi River) and the Caribbean Basin. Similar to individuals, cities have character traits and personalities, along with their own personal histories. A similar to people, they also have quasi-organic lives, in which they are often conceived, experience birth, youth, maturity, and senescence, and eventually death. New Orleans was conceived as the relocated site (from Mobile Bay) of the French Empire’s capital-to-be for the Gulf Coast region. It was founded (born) in 1718, and spent its youth in close contact with its Caribbean cousins – first Cap-Français (capital of the French colony of Saint-Domingue) and later with Havana (during the period of Spanish control of Louisiana from 1763-1803). New Orleans reached robust maturity during the decades before the American Civil War (1820s-1850s) when it was the unrivaled U.S. southern port city, and rivaled New York City in banking and commerce. Like Saint-Domingue in the 18th century, Louisiana’s sugar lands in the antebellum 19th century produced more wealth than almost any other region in the New World. For the next century after the Civil War (1860s-1960s) New Orleans, no longer in its precocious prime, underwent a slow-motion maturation, one foot planted firmly in the past, and one foot tentatively trying on various modes of modernity. In the past half century, since the mid-1960s, New Orleans has continued its aging maturity, but weathered a “near death” experience with the 2005 hurricane Katrina. Many have predicted New Orleans’ terminal decline if not death, but to paraphrase one of its most illustrious temporary residents – Samuel Clements (Mark Twain), “the rumors of New Orleans’ demise have been greatly exaggerated.” Approaching its tri-centennial (2018) New Orleans has experienced something of a rejuvenation in the wake of Katrina with many young people from all parts of the U.S. and other countries flooding in. Signs of senescence coexist with markers of regeneration, and this dialectic provides an important source of New Orleans’ enduring charm and alluring novelties.

3Cities are not like people in their mobility; they are for the most part fixed. Cities can and do expand and contract, or can even be relocated. However, river cities like New Orleans, with their fluvial situations, give them a quasi-mobility that connects it to far-flung places, and those contacts and relationships shift over time. From pre-Columbian portage, to French and Spanish colonial capital, to 19th century premier port city, to 20th century tourist destination, New Orleans has been remade many times (often falling within the Braudelian half-century conjunctural metric) through both its spatial and temporal connections. The resulting morphologies are not all symmetrical, but the flows these connections produce, go in various directions and at differing velocities or pacings. This can be mostly clearly seen in New Orleans’ changing position as the sometime northern metropole within the Circum-Gulf & Caribbean realm. On a less expansive scale, New Orleans’ ebbs and flows in prominence and promise is evident in its changing roles as a Southern Metropolis, and in its changing relations with its nearly continental-sized interior hinterland (basically all of the Mississippi-Missouri-Ohio River watersheds and then some). For much of its history, New Orleans has enjoyed being at the nexus of two vast funnel shaped territories – the interior of the North American continent to its north, and the Circum-Gulf-Caribbean to the south. From this riverine control point, it could monitor and often regulate the passages – cultural, commercial, demographic, and political – between America’s Mediterranean and North America’s heartlands.

4Within the course of the life of cities, and rivers for that matter (though they are on orders of magnitude greater in their temporal spans – truly Braudel’s geographical or structural span), certain dates signal abrupt change, which can fundamentally redirect the city’s historical course or trajectory. And rivers can literally change course. The Mississippi River has done this many times over the course of its lifetime to date, or the past 12,000 years. One could argue that New Orleans’ signal shift to date was with the Louisiana Purchase in 1803. It moved from its former personae as the Gulf Coast capital of the French and Spanish Louisiana colonies, to the southern entrepôt city of the expansive young North American nation. This date serves as a hinge-in-history, or perhaps a fulcrum between the pre-Columbian and colonial past, and its new future within a soon-to-be American imperium centered on its vast new Mississippi-Missouri-Ohio Valley interior territories and increasingly over the 19th and into the 20th century – projects and projections south into the Circum-Gulf-Caribbean sea and land spaces – what North American geopoliticians have called the “American Mediterranean” since late 19th century if not before. From the perspective of 1803, one can look back in time to the beginnings of both the Missisissippi River born of the fast receding glaciers and the coeval arrival of the first Americans – the Amerinds, and one can look into a future of now two centuries’ unfoldings to plot the Braudelian conjunctures.

5Using 1803 New Orleans as the time/space pivot point, and plotting key events and processes within Braudel’s fifty-year conjunctural divisions or time/spaces, we can see discern some of the points and patterns of stasis and change. What emerges is a dual face shaped by the major exchanges New Orleans mediated -- cultural, social, political and economic. This is not just a Janus face, monitoring time, past and future; it is also a geographical visage, mediating movements, both ancient and modern, from Canada to the Caribbean and increasingly beyond. Following the Janus-faced perspective, we can first move back in time from 1803 to the very beginnings New Orleans’ physical formation, followed by its first human inhabitation. Then we can proceed from 1803 in the opposite direction – forward to the present with an equally revealing sequence of twists and turns, not unlike the Mississippi River’s looping meanders across a larger canvas of time – the structural or geographical unit in Braudel’s deepest tempo.

1803 back to the 1750s

6The year 1803 ended with control of the Louisiana territory and New Orleans being transferred twice – from Spain back to France, November 30 and then ceded to the United States, December 20, 1803. Part of the reason for Napoleon’s Louisiana sale was that his dream of a renewed French Empire in the New World was ruined by the defeat of French forces in Hispaniola, equally by yellow fever and the slave insurgency. From the beginnings of the Haitian Revolution in the 1790s, refugees – white, black, and mixed (gens de couleur libre) – begin to find their way to New Orleans, but only after the 1804 did they flood into the Crescent City. From 1803 back to the 1750s, New Orleans had been a Spanish city for most of this time. It officially exchanged hands from French to Spanish control if not entirely in culture, in 1762 with the Treaty of Fontainebleau. It is often mistakenly thought that the transfer occurred with the Treaty of Paris in 1763 that ended the Seven Years War (1754-1763). This was the first global, or “world war,” and involved all of the European great powers except the Ottoman Empire, and was fought on every continent but Australia and Antarctica. France lost its remaining territory in North America and several Caribbean islands, but the vast Louisiana territory had already been added to Spanish North America.

7During this second Spanish period New Orleans began to mediate several flows with great material consequences. I say “second period” because Spain “on paper” or better “on the map” laid claim to all of North America, including what became Greater Louisiana, from 1494 until the British, Dutch, and French began their Atlantic coast and later interior conquests in the 17th century. However, unlike in Florida or in New Mexico, the Spanish never did effectively settle Greater Louisiana before the French staked claims to it in the late 1600s. Perhaps the most important development in this half-century was the implantation of the sugar industry. Both the plant and the technology used to produce its products (sugar, molasses, rum) came from Hispaniola. Sugar cane had been introduced at the outset of the colony, but it wasn’t until 1751 with Jesuit persistence that the crop took hold. Once it did, it came to largely define and refine New Orleans with its crucial sugar hinterlands for the next century and half.

8Not all the traffic and flows were coming from the New Orleans’ southern maritime extensions. River traffic flowing down the Mississippi began to have an impact on New Orleans as well. In 1782 Jacob Yoder, a Pennsylvania farmer is said to have invented the flatboat and took a load of flour to New Orleans, trading it to the Spanish merchants for furs. This innovation inaugurated a trade, mostly of agricultural products, brought down river from the Mississippi/ Missouri/Ohio valleys to New Orleans, and the portions of it on out into New Orleans’ forelands to the south. This was the complementary commercial down streaming that met and conjoined in New Orleans with the pulses of commerce coming up river out of Gulf-Caribbean lands and islands or from across the Atlantic, and more distantly, from across the Pacific via Veracruz or Panama. The other major flow that reached New Orleans during this Spanish half-century, were the refugees from the Acadian diaspora. These displaced French farmer-colonists of Canada’s Atlantic provinces were uprooted by British expansion, and after 1755 exiled to many places, most notably Louisiana. Few settled in New Orleans, but they helped establish the city’s expanding cultural and economic networks into the swamps, marshes, and prairies beyond the main river.

1750 back to 1700

9By 1750 New Orleans had become a city of considerable promise in the thirty years or so since its founding, despite a small population of a few thousand including African slaves. This was largely due to its location with access to the Gulf/Caribbean/ Atlantic maritime realm, as well as control over southern access to the North American interior. While New Orleans was never under serious threat from Native American reprisals, the French spent much of this period engaging with various tribes, both in trade but also in contention over lands and resources. The Natchez revolted in 1829 and either killed or captured about 10% of the non-native population. The French mounted a counter-offensive resulting in the defeat of the Natchez nation and the enslavement and transshipment of many Natchez to the Caribbean. New Orleans served as a way station in this process. At the same time John Law, Scottish economist and director of the Mississippi Company, brought several hundred Germans to settle what became know as the “German Coast” upriver 20-30 miles from New Orleans. Their farming and craft abilities helped keep New Orleans supplied with food and material goods before far-reaching commercial networks became firmly established. The other demographic trend, besides French of various backgrounds finding their way across the Atlantic or from the French Caribbean to New Orleans, were the imported African slaves. During this period most came from the Sene-Gambian region of West Africa, or from the French Caribbean colonies. The Sene-Gambians proved to be skillful agriculturalists and herders, and brought knowledge of wet rice cultivation with them. Rice was to become the staple crop of south Louisiana, as it remains today.

10New Orleans was founded in 1718. The site was carefully chosen – about 100 miles from the mouth of the Mississippi. -- far enough to be well protected from seaborne attack, but close enough for easy access to the Gulf. It also had easy access to Lake Pontchartrain via Bayou St. John, and a natural river levee that protected the platted grid-pattern urban design where the French first planned and built their city.

1700 back to 1650s

11During this half century, New Orleans did not exist, nor was it even an inchoate notion or vision in some adventurer’s or colonial official’s mind. However, the necessary steps were taken to set the stage for its emergence. In this regard, most of the action was directed from upriver far to the north. By the 1670s the French colonial officials in Canada were sponsoring expeditions to the west through the Great Lakes and linkages with the Mississippi River. The Mississippi expedition of Marquette and Joliet in 1673 was sent to survey the Mississippi to its mouth. They reached Arkansas before turning back. A second expedition led by LaSalle made it to the river’s mouth in 1682. He claimed the territory between the Great Lakes and the Gulf for France, and named it Louisiana for King Louis XIV. In 1699 D’Iberville sailed to coastal Louisiana, establishing a military garrison and solidifying the French claims to the area, and thereby laying the groundwork for its future colonization. D’Iberville’s brother, D’Bienville founded New Orleans two decades later.

1650s back to the beginnings

12Before the last two decades of the 17th century, New Orleans and its immediate environs had no European presence. However, a succession of native peoples occupied the site either periodically as hunters and gatherers, or later as settled agriculturalists. It is thought that Paleo-Indians arrived in south Louisiana by 12,000 BP. They hunted large as well as small game, including many of the last of the Pleistocene megafauna such as mastodons and mammoths. By about 8,000 BP the Meso-Indians developed a broader spectrum of subsistence strategies in the absence of the larger mammals that had been driven to extinction either through human predation and/or climate change. During this period trade items from the upper Mississippi watershed (as far away as Canada in the case of copper) found their way down the river. By about 500 BCE Neo-Indian agriculture communities began to develop in south Louisiana, including along the Mississippi River south to the mouth. The incursions of the Spanish entradas, including Hernando DeSoto’s march across the mid-Lower South, brought disease and disruption at a distance. With the exploration and colonization of the French a century and half later, the Neo-Indian phase ended, and native peoples, especially in the vicinity of New Orleans were reduced by disease and or largely displaced to more marginal areas – the swamps and marshes, or woodlands beyond the expanding urban and plantation precincts. Nevertheless, native peoples continued to have some presence in New Orleans, even if it was for periodic market days to sell the products gathered or hunted from their environs – fish, furs, game and herbal preparations.

1803 going forward to the 1850s

13In the first decades of this period, New Orleans’ Janus face was mostly turned downriver to the south. The original Louisiana Purchase ($10 million) was initially supposed to be only for New Orleans. In what turned out to be one of the most consequential real estate deals in history, the French sold the U.S. the entire territory for $15 million. In the wake of the Haitian Revolution, almost 10,000 refugees came to New Orleans from Hispaniola, many after stopping in Cuba for a few years. They were evenly divided between whites (largely French planters), free people of color (mulattos), and blacks (mostly slaves). This influx of exiles doubled the city’s population. By the 1820s the flow of population into the city was equally from upriver, “les Américains,” and via the sea, especially from Europe, but also from the Caribbean and elsewhere. New Orleans between 1810 and 1840 grew faster than any other U.S. city, and was the third largest in 1830 after New York and Baltimore. This development of steamboat travel further opened up commerce with the entire Mississippi/Missouri/Ohio River drainage. Robert Fulton’s The New Orleans made the first steamboat transit of the Ohio/Mississippi Rivers arriving from Pittsburgh in New Orleans in 1812. With New Orleans securely anchoring commerce at the lower end of the Mississippi, this also helped developed towns and cities, plantations and farms along the entire upriver system. In the 1830s and ‘40s New Orleans rivaled New York as the banking center of the nation, actually surpassing New York’s banking capital between 1835-42. By 1840 it was the country’s wealthiest city. Owing to its location, during the first half of the 19th century it led in trade with the Caribbean and Latin America. But all not the imports were salutary. In 1802 New Orleans suffered one of many epidemics, especially yellow fever, coming from the Caribbean and Latin America. The 1802 epidemic most likely came from Saint-Domingue with some of the earlier refugees.

1850s to 1900

14In many ways the decade of the 1850s represents New Orleans’ apogee. Certainly in terms of its position in various national hierarchies – especially urban indices, banking/financial, shipping and foreign trade, its position near the top has steadily declined over past the century and half. During this decade cotton surpassed sugar as the commodity that allowed New Orleans to reach these peaks. By 1860, on the eve of the Civil War, the U.S. was producing 60% of the world’s cotton, and most of this passed through New Orleans on its way to the world market. Great Britain received 75% of the U.S. cotton crop, and one in four Britons were involved in the cotton trade in one way or another. New Orleans, receiving the bulk of the U.S. cotton crop via the Mississippi, became the largest trading center in this commodity. But to get the commodity to market, it took labor growing and harvesting it, and labor to transport it. This labor was done largely by enslaved Africans and their progeny. In 1860 there were 4 million slaves in the U.S. South and border states. They represented the single largest financial asset, larger than the railroads and all manufacturing combined. New Orleans was the largest slave market in the U.S. Slaves comprised almost 50% of Louisiana’s population. People of African descent (both enslaved and free) were largely responsible for the actual construction (buildings, furnishings, and infrastructural features such as streets, canals, levees) of New Orleans before the Civil War. Like sugar, the two species of cotton grown in the American South, Gossypium hirsutum and G. barbadense, were introduced from Gulf-Caribbean lands and islands. Much of the cropping and commerce associated with cotton was directed by new elites. The Anglo-Americans and European immigrants made up an increasing share of New Orleans’ and Louisiana’s population, challenging the older French and Spanish creole elites. During the 1850s the flood of immigrants reached a peak in New Orleans, rivaled only by New York in numbers.

15Not all the travelled out of the Gulf and up the Mississippi contributed to New Orleans’ wealth and wellbeing. The yellow fever that visited nearly every year prior to the 1890s, usually came from the tropics, most likely from Saint-Domingue in the colonial period and more dispersed locations afterward. Mortality ranged from a few victims to several thousand. The epidemic of 1853 is remembered as the most severe with a third of the 120,000 residents contracting “yellow jack” and 7849 dying, or about 15% of the population. While tropical disease was a constant threat, New Orleans did manage send periodic plagues south in the form of “filibusters” or free-lance adventurers bent on political and economic conquest. The most famous was William Walker. A man of much professional training: theology, medicine, law, journalism (he edited the New Orleans Crescent 1847-49), he settled on filibusterism as his vocation. He invaded and attempted to set up an independent republic in Northwest Mexico, and was successful in his invasion of Nicaragua, becoming President in 1856 and reinstituting slavery before being ousted in 1857. He attempted two subsequent invasions of Nicaragua, the first was blocked by the U.S. Navy, and the second resulted in his capture and execution by the Hondurans. New Orleans served as the logistical base of operations in recruiting volunteers, organizing support and materiel including arms. Walker was following the path of another famous New Orleans-based filibuster campaign – that of Narciso Lopez, a Venezuelan adventurer and soldier who attempted to invade Cuba three times (1849-1851) and spark an uprising against the Spanish control. The first expedition (600 volunteers and three ships) was foiled before they could leave the Gulf Coast. The second reached Cuba but was rebuffed. Lopez and his invasion force managed to retreat to Key West. The third made it to Cuba, but was quickly defeated, and Lopez and many of his followers were executed. During these decades New Orleans, especially before the Civil War, was generally supportive of these campaigns to “liberate” various circum-Gulf-Caribbean countries or colonies. Southern U.S. political and economic interests hoped that once “liberated,” these tropical cousins of Louisiana could be annexed to the U.S. as slave states, or at least open up new frontiers for the expansion of the U.S. slavocrats’ interests.

16Dreams of imperial/territorial expansion into New Orleans’ southern forelands were dashed by the Civil War. The war also halted much of New Orleans’ forward motion in terms of population growth, expanding production, capital generation, and other measures of urban dynamism. New Orleans had been an occupied city for much of the war, and afterward bitterly divided between emancipated and (briefly) ascendant blacks and Afro-French creoles (who formed, and still do, a somewhat separate ethnic group) and the defeated white elites. If New Orleans provided a launching site for filibusters from the 1850s on, it also provided safe-haven for various Caribbean and Latin American revolutionaries, including Mexican liberator Benito Juarez in the 1850s and the Cuba independence leaders Antonio Maceo and Máximo Gómez in the 1880s. The Reconstruction period, wherein the U.S. Federal Government enforced certain reforms, was ended in 1877. After Reconstruction the old and newer elites and their co-ethnic underlings (Anglo, French, and recent European immigrants) quickly reasserted their power through both terror and more legal means. Blacks and Afro-French creoles continue to lose rights and economic viability through the rest of this period, symbolized by the court case of Plessey vs Ferguson. In 1896 Homer Plessy, an Afro-French creole tested the increasingly oppressive Jim Crow segregation laws, by buying a train ticket in the white section. He was arrested before the train left New Orleans and the trial went to the U.S. Supreme Court. He lost, and the “separate but equal” doctrine became the law of the land.

1900s to 1950

17At the start of the new century New Orleans was a city that looked back more than forward. Its prior moments of dynamism, largely produced by people and commodities arriving downriver from its hinterland, or from its forelands to the south, were more memory than current reality. However, this was to change with new commodity pulses, one locally produced and two others coming from its circum-Gulf/Caribbean forelands. Oil was discovered in coastal Louisiana and Texas in 1901. New Orleans along with Houston, Texas, became the regional centers for coordinating this enduring boom, though Houston eventually became the premier center relegating New Orleans to a secondary role in this decades-long bonanza. If petroleum was destined to be the fuel of U.S. industry and transportation after 1900, coffee was the fuel that helped stimulate the expansion of the service sector, especially the clerical subsector. New Orleans is, and always has been, the major U.S. coffee port. Coffee drinking in New Orleans dates to colonial times, but as an indispensible aid to daily awakening and keeping the U.S. workforce alert, coffee came unto its own in the U.S. after 1900. Some say that the custom of the morning coffee break originated in New Orleans. The other tropical commodity also became a fixture in the U.S. morning regimen. At first a novelty, but soon a breakfast necessity for many Americans, the banana entered U.S. culture through New Orleans. The first bananas came into the U.S. from Cuba in the post-Civil War period, but after 1900 New Orleans captured much of the trade, receiving bananas from the new plantations in Central America as well as the Caribbean. New Orleans banana baron, “Sam the Banana Man” Zemurray oversaw the creation of United Fruit as well as sponsoring a filibuster operation to successfully overthrow the Honduran government in 1911.

18Perhaps New Orleans’ greatest achievement and gift to the world was serving as the incubator of jazz music. Jazz’s origins, in part, stretch through the Caribbean back to Africa, and across the Atlantic to Europe where the brass band tradition was transferred to the New World. But it was in New Orleans where the two traditions were fused in the black and Afro-French creole communities in the late 19th century. After the Civil War a surplus of brass instruments became available to New Orleanians, and returning troops from the Cuban campaign in 1898 injected surplus horns and other instruments into the budding jazz scene. In turn New Orleans sent jazz upriver to new centers of its development and diffusing globally within a decade or two.

19Louisiana and New Orleans in particular (after Hurricane Katrina in 2005) have come to be seen as place of periodic natural disasters. Hurricanes hit the Louisiana coast with relentless regularity, on the average one every other year since European arrival in the 16th century and one serious hurricane every decade or so. Hurricanes striking New Orleans are spaced far enough apart that the inhabitants that New Orleans tend to become complacent until the next one reminds them of the hazards of living below sea level in much of the city and in one of the most active hurricane tracks. Flooding from the Mississippi River has also been a constant, originally an annual affair, but with levee construction and hydraulic pumping destructive flooding has been more on the order of once every other decade since its founding in 1718. The massive flood of 1927 narrowly missed destroying the city, but the city’s levees held as upriver levees were breached relieving the threat to New Orleans. With the election of 1928 the legendary populist politician Huey P. Long became governor, in part because of the incompetence of the state government responding to the needs of the public in the wake of the flood. Huey Long served only one term as governor, moving on the U.S. Senate and then was famously assassinated in 1935 in the state capitol building he built and controlled. The Long family political machine lived on however, in the person of his brother Earl (governor during the 1940s & 50s) and son Russell (U.S. Senator 1948-87). The Longs’ populist policies reinforced Louisiana’s distinctive political culture, one that has drawn comparison with Latin America.

1950s to 2000

20New Orleans in the 1950s and 60s saw new turbulence as the U.S. grappled with the issues of civil rights and desegregation. While New Orleans’ black and Afro-French creole communities were certainly engaged in the struggle, the most publicized battles took place elsewhere in the South. New Orleans was somewhat spared the repercussions and continued its decades’ long cultivation of its reputation as a romantic and exotic enclave of quasi-Latin traits and sensibilities. New Orleans had long since shed its aspirations as the premier U.S. financial center and the port of New Orleans has slipped from second to seventh largest U.S. port, but the Port of South Louisiana (along the river from New Orleans to Baton Rouge) has the largest tonnage of any U.S. port. The two combined have annual tonnage one and half times that of Houston, and nearly three times more than the Port of New York & New Jersey. Thus commerce remains central to New Orleans’ livelihood. A significant portion of the regional oil is directed to the refineries and chemical plants that have largely replaced the sugar plantations along the river. Grain coming down river from the Mississippi/Missouri/Ohio hinterland is both processed and/or shipped on to the rest of the world. With the Cuban Revolution and the resulting embargo in the 1960s New Orleans lost one of its key trading partners going back to the colonial times. In exchange, New Orleans received a number of Cuban exiles, but never to the extent that parts of South Florida. Since the beginning of the banana trade in late 19th century, New Orleans has attracted Central Americans, especially Hondurans. In New Orleans’ grand filibuster tradition, the city did serve as one of the provisioning sites for the Bay of Pigs invasion, and at least training camp was located in area, at Belle Chasse Naval Base ten miles downriver.

2000 to Present

21By any account, the New Orleans’ entry into the new century/millennium was indelibly marked by Hurricane Katrina and will be the enduring signature event of the first decades of the new century. A hurricane of this force was not unprecedented, but the extent to which failed levees allowed floodwaters to enter the city was. In the wake of the disaster, there was talked of New Orleans’ probable demise, and debate as to whether it should even exist going forward. All of those voices have been silenced, but there is a looming uncertainty as to whether the city can withstand a direct hit by a hurricane of Katrina’s intensity. The initial apocalyptic forecasting has subsided, and new rounds of immigrants have lent their identities to the social and cultural “gumbo” (the Afro/Amerind/Euro stew that is Louisiana’s signature food dish) that New Orleans likes to metaphorically describe itself. Latinos, Mexicans and Central Americans especially, came in large numbers to help clean, restore, and rebuild the city after Katrina. Many have stayed. More recently New Orleans has become a favored destination both for alternative culture (“hipster”) tourist/visitors, and for transient as well as permanent residents. Most of these immigrants are young and educated and involved in the postindustrial sectors of the economy. Unlike New Orleans’ the main migration flows of the past – up and down river, or from the sea routes to the port, the migration is largely overland from all directions, or by air from even more directions.

22As New Orleans proceeds into this new century/millennium it will undoubtedly take on new directions. The old north/south axes and its Janus-like position peering upriver and out to seas simultaneously may not be as fixed as they have been in the past. But it is difficult to predict what these directions may entail. In the short run, whether Braudel’s “individual” (annual rounds) or “social” (centurial) or “conjunctural” (half-centuries which I’ve used here) geohistorical temporalities, many of the benefits and some of the liabilities of this site/situation astride the Mississippi near its mouth will continue to shape its physiognomy and character. In the longer term, Braudel’s “structural or geographical” (millennial) duration is fairly clear. The earth system forces that are increasingly affected by human agency, are not on the city’s side. The continued deposition of sediment carried down the Mississippi that does not pass on to the Gulf, adds weight to the land not yet subject to coastal erosion. The result is subsidence, or the compressing of the remaining land. In short, the land is sinking. At the same time global warming is causing sea level rise. For New Orleans to withstand the slow motion inundation will require massive engineering projects and immense expenditures. More probably before this happens the city will be hit directly by a mega-force hurricane blasting out of its Gulf/Caribbean foreland with new intensities not yet witnessed but awaiting future hurricane seasons in much warmer oceans. Either way, to borrow from the title of Garcia Marquez’s river city novella, it probably will be a: Crónica de una muerte aununciada.


23Here, I have sketched one way to view a very distinctive river city using two geographical models or constructs: Hägerstrand’s time-geography, and Braudel’s three modalities of geohistorical time. It seems to me that this method may be useful in viewing the trajectories of other cities, especially those sited on rivers and situated between extensive hinterlands and expansive maritime territories. For Brazil, only Belem seems to approximate New Orleans’ site and situation. Both lie near the mouth of continent articulating rivers, mediating the flows of people and products to and from the continental interior, but Belem lacks a maritime exterior with the kind of historical linkages to island cultures and economies that New Orleans has developed. Salvador, Bahia is most often compared to New Orleans, but this is on the basis of cultural similarities: its food, its music, and especially its Afro-descended population. The construct or model that I have illustrated may not be well suited for Brazil’s first order cities, mostly situated on the coastal edge, but not sited on major rivers. However, at lesser scales it may fit some of the interior riverine cities – a prospect for further thought and investigation.

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BRAUDEL, Fernand. The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II. New York: Harper & Row, 1972.

HÄGERSTRAND, Torsten. Diorama, Path and Project. Tijdschrift voor Economische en Sociale Geografie, v. 73, n. 6, p. 329-339, 1982.

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Kent Mathewson, « New Orleans and the Mississippi river : a braudelian time-geographic perspective », Confins [En ligne], 31 | 2017, mis en ligne le 18 juin 2017, consulté le 24 juillet 2017. URL : ; DOI : 10.4000/confins.12063

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Kent Mathewson

Professor of Geography, Department of Geography & Anthropology, Louisiana State University, Baton Rouge, LA 70803,

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Licence Creative Commons
Confins – Revue franco-brésilienne de géographie est mis à disposition selon les termes de la licence Creative Commons Attribution - Pas d’Utilisation Commerciale - Partage dans les Mêmes Conditions 4.0 International.

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