When Richard Campanella releases a new book, the citizens of New Orleans take note.
A geographer with the Tulane University School of Architecture, Campanella has penned a total of 10 well-received books since 1999, when he and his wife, Marina, wrote “New Orleans Then and Now."
His newest publication, “Cityscapes of New Orleans” (LSU Press, October 2017) is a collection of columns written for the local website nola.com|The Times-Picayune, as well as others he has written for the Preservation Resource Center’s monthly, Preservation in Print, and the Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities’ quarterly, Cultural Vistas.
Included in his body of work is the 2008 release, “Bienville's Dilemma,” which outlines the challenges faced in 1718 when choosing a site for the new city. In 2010, his book “Lincoln in New Orleans” explores the two visits Lincoln made to the city (in 1828 and 1831) and the future president’s encounter with the city’s slave trade.
In “Bourbon Street: A History” (2014), Campanella describes the street’s evolution and makes a convincing case that stately residences were the forerunners of the strip joints and T-shirt that define the character of the milelong street today.
In “Cityscapes,” a reader will find dozens of essays (77 total), each about four pages long. The mix is just right: A chapter on “The Origins of Go Cups,” for example, is followed by an essay on “Gentrification,” a far more sober topic (all puns intended). Campanella utilizes his teaching abilities to make even the most complex concepts clear.
Architecture fans will appreciate the fact that the section titled “Architectural Geographies and the Built Environment” contains almost 30 essays (the most of any section), starting with several that trace the evolution of the city’s vernacular architecture and concluding with the tale of the LeBeau plantation house and the fire that consumed it. As always, Campanella’s witty titles (“If Walls Could Talk, This Starbucks would Speak of Lincoln”) make it impossible to stop reading.
The most reader-friendly aspect of the 400-page book is the fact that all of the essays are stand-alone pieces that can be read in any order. On a lighthearted day, one might choose the chapter on go-cups; in a more serious mood, a reader might choose to read “New Orleans East's Core Problem.” The book is assembled so that topics such as “The Great Algiers Fire of 1895” are balanced by essays about the city’s lost Chinatown or nightclubs of the 1930s.
In the preface, Campanella says the book “pretends to be neither a traditional chronology nor a comprehensive history of the city,” but a collection of stories “for those who know and love” New Orleans. Perhaps he’s right about the nontraditional chronology, but somehow he has managed — despite his intentions — to produce a comprehensive history of New Orleans in a patchwork fashion. Anyone with a library of books on New Orleans will want this one. And unlike some other reference books, Campanella’s is destined to be one that comes off the shelf over and over again.