NOLA Unfathomable City Atlas

NOLA Unfathomable City – Blog

“A great map should stir up wonder and curiosity, prompt revelation, and deepen orientation.  It should make the strange familiar and the familiar strange.”  Rebecca Solnit & Rebecca Snedeker, Unfathomable City, A New Orleans Atlas

We at VanDam couldn’t wait to read Solnit’s Unfathomable City, a New Orleans Atlas, given the imaginative provocations of her previous “atlas” about San Francisco, Infinite City.  In this new volume Solnit has teamed up with New Orleans native and filmmaker, Rebecca Snedeker, to challenge us once again to think afresh about maps, atlases and how we understand cities.

“In a sense, every place is unfathomable, infinite, impossible to describe, because it exists in innumerable versions, because no two people live in quite the same city but live side by side in parallel universes that may or may no intersect, because the minute you map it the map becomes obsolete, because the place is constantly arising and decaying.”

In her Infinite City atlas about San Francisco,  Solnit assembled essayists, artists and cartographers to prove that to describe and investigate a city demands multiple perspectives and angles, many contexts, and contrasting phenomena.  Solnit explained her mission as “a small, modest and deeply arbitrary rendering of one citizens’ sense of her place in conversation and collaboration with others.”  She seems to be saying we all see the world differently.  Her essayists and cartographers mapped coffee shops, murders, greenspaces, food, queer public spaces and monarch butterflies…












Her approach implies that any city is inexhaustible “any place, if you look at it, directly and through books, conversations, maps, photographs, dreams and desires.”

In Unfathomable City, Solnit and Snedeker  assemble a thoughtful and idiosyncratic passel of writers and specialists and through 22 essays, each accompanied by a map, have touched on a broad array of subjects and themes, histories and questions.  Most pairing seemingly unrelated ideas like the essay “Salacious and Crustaceous” that compares the economies of sex workers and the shellfish trade.

Cities are filled with “enigmas” and “contradictions,” the editors claim.

This is not a comprehensive guide, but “a provocation, an invitation for you to argue with our versions,  take them further, to go map on your own, in your head or online or on paper.  …You can row across unfathomable waters.”

Throughout, the writing is complex, rich, provocative, illuminating.  The approach fires the imagination.  The tracking of the history of the banana trade is fascinating. The entry about gentrification “loss and recovery” is powerful.  Deeply troubling is the essay and map on “Oil and Water.”

Cartographers usually delineate clear boundaries between what is land and what is water. But with the Louisiana coast and NOLA “The lines blur and melt.”

“If conventional maps make the land here more solid and stable than it often is, they tend to make the waters of the Gulf look more like pristine open waters than they actually are.  Specialized maps show the same region as a checkerboard of oil and gas leases:  this aquatic space has all been carved up as extractive-industry real estate.”

In this collection the map “Oil and Water”  “shows how many pipelines crisscross the sea here.”  The essay indicates how destructive they are.

While we found the text essays of the book inspired.  Ironically, it is the maps which are the weakest elements of this re-invented Atlas, and we hope that in future projects Solnit and her team will re-examine and re-think their approach.  Examples to wit:  On several maps the gutter eats critical information, and color keys are hard to read and distinguish from another.  Some of the info being mapped seems unrelated. Most importantly, though, each map should speak for itself without the need to read pages of text to get the full story.  Our favorite is the Banana Map which shows growing trade routes and the location of various republics. What the book tells, but the map omits is the most poignant part, namely the killing of hundreds of thousands of Guatemalan banana workers at the behest of “El Pulpo,” (The Octopus), the United Fruit Company, which convinced the CIA to overthrow the Arbenz government to insure banana profits.

What a great opportunity to do a comparative info graphic right on the map tying the popularity of bananas to the overthrow of governments by the CIA at the behest of El Pulpo.

But for us at VanDam the editors comments about maps compensates for this inconsistency.

“There are two endangered phenomena at the very center of Unfathomable City.  The future of New Orleans and the Gulf Coast is deeply uncertain.  And paper maps themselves seem to be fading from everyday use and losing status as a valuable technology, half a millennium after their use.”

“The problem with …the new digital technologies…  is that though they generally help get you where you’re going, that’s all they do.  With a paper map, you take charge; with these other means, you take orders and don’t learn your way around, any more than you learn math by using a calculator.”

“When you navigate with a paper map, tracing your own route rather than having it issued a line, a list, or a set of commands, you incrementally learn the lay of the land.”

As Unfathomable City’s editor-at-large, Joshua Jelly-Schapiro, put it in his Harper’s essay on cartography last year, these new technologies of navigation don’t do “what maps are best at:  providing context.  Beyond simply getting us from one appointment to another, old-fashioned maps express what the geographer…Yi-Fu Tuan calls topophilia, our innate love of place, often shaped by sense and by memories.”

From the editors, Solnit & Snedeker:

“Another aspect of the old maps to consider is beauty:  many online maps have a cheerfully ugly aesthetic, one unlikely to provoke the wonder or craving of the handsome maps of yore; and what appears on screens may not inspire contemplation the way an atlas can.”

“Most digital maps are intended to be ephemeral, called up for a particular purpose, their pixels consigned to the past as soon as the use is over.  So paper maps can offer beauty; they can also provide an edge on immortality; they never go blank; and the well-made ones are reliable in ways that aren’t always true of digital maps.”


Gail Pellett & Stephan Van Dam