- Remaking New Orleans: Beyond Exceptionalism and Authenticity ed. by Thomas J. Adams and Matt Sakakeeny
On March 26, 2020, the United States overtook China and Italy as the center of COVID-19 crisis and New Orleans, Louisiana (NOLA) was named a hotspot, along with New York City (Reuters Staff 2020). COVID-19 was another “world’s worst” for the city to add to a list that included world’s “prison capital” (Louisiana as a whole) and world’s fastest sinking place (NPR 2012, Marshall 2013). NOLA was exceptional, an outlier compared to most of the rest of the country, requiring a NOLA-specific explanation. Some commentators were quick to blame the Mardi Gras festivities that had taken place a month earlier (Fieldstadt 2020). However, others following in NOLA’s robust tradition of lambasting parachute journalism instead highlighted the federal government’s failure to provide the city with public health guidance (Adelson 2020, Hirsch 2020). Perhaps the situation, though dire, was not so exceptional (as would be confirmed by later surges in Detroit and rural parishes surrounding NOLA, not to mention the city’s long history of confronting epidemics) and perhaps it was not really a product of New Orleans’s distinctively spirituous and celebratory culture (Aldhous and Singer-Vine 2020, Jervis et al. 2020).
Adams and Sakakeeny’s Remaking New Orleans represents a remarkable collection of stories that strike at exactly these kinds of debates, through a range of essays on historical and contemporary topics written by scholars from literature studies to anthropology and political science. Topically, the volume enriches our historical geography of the city. It provides a roving review of everything from regional wrestling circuits of the 70s and 80s to mid-century gay bars, and more recently, Vietnamese Americans’ suburban farms. [End Page 279] It also aims to shift our approach to contemporary NOLA by changing what we ask of it: how is that authenticity came to be so crucial to how we view the city? In what ways is NOLA less an exception to – and more a part of or even a forerunner to – state, national, and international socio-cultural and socioeconomic trends?
The volume will interest many readers of the Southeastern Geographer, including urban and historical geographers fascinated by the city itself (see O’Hare 2018 for a summary of the journal’s literature on NOLA and Louisiana). It will also interest cultural geographers who are generally concerned with authenticity and exceptionalism as particular kinds of discourses to deconstruct. Although geographers may not be represented in the volume, (i.e., Helen A. Regis, author of chapter 6, is an anthropologist from Louisiana State University), much of the content of the book should be interest to human geographers.
The key concerns of the volume are inherently geographical, even if not described as such. Its motivating questions around authenticity and exceptionalism target two different spatial levels. First, remaking NOLA’s authenticity means looking towards the city itself. In a place that is politically determined to and financially dependent upon demonstrating its distinctiveness, volume contributors ask, who is it that gets to be authentic here? Who belongs and who does not? What cultural practices have come to count as traditional? As the “Producing Authenticity” section suggests, contributors’ take on this is less “let’s settle once and for all what is real New Orleans” and more “how is it that certain things have come to be described as true to city traditions? What are the social tensions that arise from this?” For instance, Nguyen in chapter ten shows us how Vietnamese Americans used their community gardening as a way to be taken seriously as authentic residents of the city before, during, and after Katrina; and Smith describes the history of the African-American-led Zulu krewe and its continued yet contested use of blackface in carnival parades in chapter four.
The second geographical approach works in the opposite direction: from the city outward. The volume considers New Orleans’s...