Richard Campanella writes about the places we live and why they look the way they do on maps.

He calls his field historical geography.

But lately he's been thinking about the path of his own historical geography, which is leading him back to Baton Rouge.

The capital city is where Campanella earned his master's degree in geography in mapping sciences from LSU before eventually finding his way to New Orleans, where he's a senior professor and associate dean for research in Tulane University's School of Architecture.

New Orleans also is the setting for his 11 books, which have brought him back to Baton Rouge as a featured author in the past for the Louisiana Book Festival.

On Saturday, Nov. 2, he'll be coming back again, this time to receive the Louisiana Writer Award, presented by the Louisiana Center for the Book in the State Library. 

He'll also join more than 240 other authors in signing and talking about their work at this year's Louisiana Book Festival.

Among them will be New Orleans actress and author Laura Cayouette, New Orleans author and playwright John Biguenet, National Book Award nominees Sarah Broom and Alfred Woodfox and children's book author Johnette Downing.   

And all will become part of Campanella's personal geographical history, because the festival will place them together on North Fourth Street on the same day.

Geographical history is all about place and time in Campanella's writing, some of which is occasionally published in The Times-Picayune | The New Orleans Advocate. 

"What I write about is fundamentally geography, and it's geography over the course of time," he said. "And I describe myself as a historical geographer. I'm called a historian all the time, and I understand where that comes from because I look to the past, I study the past.

"But while a traditional historian might look at Baton Rouge's past and talk about mayoral administrations and city management, I would look at the layout of downtown and its questions of space. As a historical geographer, I would describe what I do in exactly two words: spatial explanation."

But explaining the history of New Orleans' space is special to Campanella, because it was a quest that began with his Brooklyn boyhood.

Campanella was 5 years old in 1971 when he happened upon the 1965 children's book, "Meet Abraham Lincoln," in which author Barbara Cary described young Abe's trip down the Mississippi River to "a big exotic city."

Campanella remembers Cary's description of Abe's impressions, how he thought New Orleans was “a wonderful place,” but was disturbed by a "market where slaves were being sold.”

That was it. New Orleans would be Campanella’s destination, but it would take him almost three decades to get there through several detours in his own geographical history.

He left Brooklyn for Utah State, where he earned his bachelor's degree in economics, then worked as a wilderness ranger in Utah and Montana. After that, it was on to Honduras, where he served in the Peace Corps.

"It was there where I became intrigued with the tropical zone, the subtropical zone, the greater Caribbean basin, Vernacular architecture and the similarities between Caribbean and West Indian architecture and New Orleans architecture," Campanella said. "So, then I spent a year in Washington, D.C., and I went into geography and cartography, and I came to see that Louisiana State University had a nationally acclaimed department in geography and anthropology."

That was in 1991.

"And it was that moment that my childhood intrigue about this place and my career path kind of joined hands in the dark," Campanella said. "So, I first set foot in Louisiana in 1991, and it was as if I went back to that original moment and picked up exactly where I left off."

Campanella worked in Vicksburg, Mississippi, and Stennis Space Center on the Gulf Coast before landing a job at Tulane in 2000. 

"And now I've come full circle on New Orleans," said Campanella, who with his wife, Marina, parents son Jason, 7. "I guess 40 years later, one of my books is on Lincoln's trip to New Orleans. And so I eventually devoted my career and life to this region."

LSU Press will release Campanella's next book, "The West Bank of Greater New Orleans: A Historic Geography" in 2020.

"It will be the first ever in-depth analysis, looking at New Orleans across the river, looking at it as a cohesive cityscape with its own story to tell," he said. "It's one of those places that lives in the shadows of its more famous cross river half, and so it was untouched material on my behalf."

Campanella often tweets out photos of his son under the caption, "A New Orleans childhood," showing Jason's historical geography in the Crescent City.

"I think it is all connected, and deep down, I think I might be referencing that moment in my own childhood when a single page in a child's reader book ended up deeply influencing the rest of my life," he said. "I figured if that can happen with a book to a 5-year-old, then taking out my own son to the places and activities and exposing him to all the wonders of our environment, then any one of those moments might be equally influential in his future."

Louisiana Book Festival

WHEN: 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 2.

WHERE: Capitol Park and North Fourth Street, downtown Baton Rouge.



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