Wednesday, June 02, 2010

An Unnatural Metropolis

I'm ready Craig Colten's book, An Unnatural Metropolis: Wresting New Orleans From Nature.
It's short, scholarly, and deeply-researched, a book about the establishment of the city of New Orleans. From LSU Press, where Colten is a professor of geography.

Written and published just before Katrina stomped in and drowned the city, it pretty much allows as how it was never a matter of "if," but "when," and since I've always believed that, I found it fascinating reading. Gets right down into the nitty-gritty. Or, more like, the potty-wotty, since the city is below sea-level, essentially a bowl in the middle of a swamp and surrounded by water. Weather, pestilence, alligators and mosquitoes, it's a miracle the place has lasted this long, and Colten's sometimes dry recitation about the Big Easy tells you why. (Big-wet-slimy-and-nasty is a better term. People were hardier then they are are now, they'd have to be to survive those conditions.)

I particularly like the sections on sewage and water supply postbellum 1800's. How there were special agents called vidangeurs who were responsible for cleaning out the outdoor privy vaults before all of the muck leached out into the ground. Wells in the city were pretty much poisoned, because when you are at the bottom of a bowl, the sewage has nowhere to go but down, and even "graveyard water" was considered cleaner than city wells. In the mid-1800's, most drinking and bathing water came from cisterns, which was a good thing. Early attempts to supplant these with water pumped from the river caused more sickness than it prevented.

What the vidangeurs did with all the crap they scooped from the privies? Why, they dumped it into the river, of course. Most of the cities on the Mississippi did that. Drinking untreated water from the river was a really bad idea.

Still is.

I also enjoyed the section where the city finally got around to forbidding the slaugherhouses allowing the blood and offal to run in the streets. All the assorted guts and whatnot was then barreled up and trucked to the river. And they did this for years before somebody got around to passing a law that forbid them from doing it upriver from the city's water intake.

This was back in the day when "nusiance" had a somewhat different meaning than it does today, grounded in English law.

If you have a strong stomach and southern history interests you, check it out. There are places where you just shake your head in wonder.

1 comment:

Mike Byers said...

Sounds like a good book; I'll have to see if our library can get it. And New Orleans in the mid 1800s sounds a lot like London during the same time period. Read W. Hodding Carter's "Flushed: How the Plumber Saved Civilization" for more on how historical plumbing systems worked (or didn't). It's a good read.