Lawrence Powell’s work The Accidental City: Improvising New Orleans is a comprehensive story of the development of a major American city that had a number of environmental and social factors standing in its way. The pairing of Richard Bushman’s The Refinement of America: Persons, Houses, Cities and Powell’s work is interesting, as the books both discussed the European influence on cultural growth in America yet, they told rather different stories. Bushman writes about the refined nature of American culture, while Powell chronicles the unrefined development of a city that arguably should never have developed. Together, these books add to the historiography of American cultural colonial growth as influenced by the European influence present in the growing new world, but Powell’s is more informative due to his focus on a specific location, which allows him to delve deeper into his research.
Bushman’s work is not an environmental history, but rather a cultural history in which he analyzes the growth of gentility in America, what it meant to members of different social classes, and how it eventually spread among the lower social classes. Bushman emphasizes the importance class had for wealthy Americans, as it was central to defining who they were and allowed them to identify themselves as superior to those with less money. Bushman uses descriptions such as “mansions divided society” to further get his point across. He then goes on to describe how at the turn of the century, ideas of gentility spread among the lower classes, as the idea of showing wealth (or greater wealth than one actually had) was of the utmost importance in American culture.
Powell tells the story of New Orleans in the eighteenth century, exploring how the city came to be and the struggles it went through to become what it was at the beginning of the nineteenth century. Powell studies the cities origins beginning with the rise to prominence of John Law and Jean Baptiste Le-Moyne, Sieur de Bienville and the decision to make New Orleans the center of the Mississippi Company. He discusses how essential Bienville was to the growth of New Orleans as a French colony, as Bienville “possessed the political skill and savoir-faire that usually served him well during his almost forty-year span of leadership in French Louisiana.” Bienville was ambitious in his pursuit of New Orleans’ existence that it “came at the cost of his job, and eventually his lands, though he later regained both.” Powell continues by writing about how the city came together, and how it was designed to be a place of order and balance influenced by the enlightenment, but that failed along with Bienville’s leadership in the Chickasaw Indian War, which led to his permanent return to France. Powell then writes about how smuggling and contraband were essential to New Orleans development, straying from the pure ideals the city was supposed to embody. He then discusses the transition of New Orleans into a Spanish colony, but explained how New Orleans “remained stubbornly French in ethos and identity.” As the book progresses, Powell focuses more on the racial composition of New Orleans, including the rise of the Creole community. He also discussed the history of slavery in New Orleans, which “was never static.” Slavery in New Orleans differed from other parts of America because of the focus on sugar plantations and was further complicated by the slave uprising in Haiti. Powell analyzes the slave lifestyle as well, providing anecdotes of their experience, like when he says, “the enslaved of the New Orleans region coped with the repressiveness engendered by the revival of the plantation system… through song and religion, and through the community building that ensued from family formation.” Powell ends his history of New Orleans with the transfer of power from Spain to France, and then from France to the United States, and with the future (with plenty of racial oppression) on the horizon.
The environmental elements of these works are in stark contrast with one another. Bushman has almost no intention of touching on the physical expansion of the United States but instead focuses on how America progressed culturally. Powell, on the other hand, is not necessarily trying to create an environmental history, but due to the nature of New Orleans growth, the environment is an essential element. Powell has a clear affection for New Orleans but is not afraid to be critical of it, as he writes how poor of a location it was to build a city.
Geographers and historians are fond of characterizing New Orleans as ‘the impossible but inevitable city.’ The site was dreadful. It was prone to flooding and infested with snakes and mosquitoes. Hurricanes battered it regularly. Pestilence visited the town almost as often.
Despite all this, New Orleans had a great advantage in terms of its development, and that was its location at the mouth of the Mississippi River, making it an ideal center for trade. This is one of the central points that Powell attempts to dissect with his study, explaining how New Orleans was seemingly a horrible location to build a city, but the ability for it to become a center of trade allowed it to thrive and grow. By being at the mouth of the Mississippi River, New Orleans became a cultural hub and overcame the size and swamp-like characteristics that made it such a non-ideal location. Powell’s work is a genuine piece of environmental history in this way, even if this discussion is a byproduct of Powell’s desire to tell the story of New Orleans. While Powell touches on the cultural, economic, and environmental growth of New Orleans, Bushman focuses just on the cultural and economic side of American history. Elements of environmental history linger in The Refinement of America but are subtle and the ideas are not expanded upon. Early in the work, when discussing the materialism among the gentility, Bushman writes about the contrast between the homes of different social classes: “Weather-beaten to a gray-brown and huddled among a motley assemblage of similarly dulled outbuildings, the predominant log house blended with trees and fields. The red brick, two-story house by contrast stood out against the land.” Here Bushman writes about how the ideas of ‘new’ and ‘clean’ represented class, while the natural, weather-beaten houses of old we seen as inferior. Bushman could have expanded on this idea of artifice being superior to natural, but he chose not to make that a central point. New Orleans is a city where it is impossible to ignore the environmental factors in its growth, but Bushman’s work misses out on the environmental aspects of gentility that could strengthen his argument.
Powell spends a significant amount of time while focusing on the culture that was trying to be fostered versus the culture that was created during the city’s development. Powell writes that New Orleans’ development occurred while the French “crown and court were experimenting with visionary projects for reorganizing the economy and addressing the ‘social problem,’” and that the layout of the city originally was “almost a textbook example of the Enlightenment mania for balance, order, and clarity.” This idea of European culture influencing the creation of a societal hierarchy is shared in The Refinement of America. A central theme of Bushman’s work is the influence English culture had over America’s developing social ladder, and it is the same influence that the French attempted to translate from their culture into New Orleans. However, in New Orleans, the intended influence did not last (although it persisted in other ways). Powell explains that each group of people “had ideas of their own about what constituted a community,” and as a result “utopianism collapsed into a puddle” and that “few in Paris objected when the crown transferred Louisiana to Spain during the waning days of the Seven Years War.” The European influence failed in the end to impose its societal values on New Orleans, but both Powell and Bushman relate in that they both display how the colonial powers attempted to dictate the formation of American culture.
Powell and Bushman’s works also relate in how they show that the European impact on the developing social hierarchy can only last for so long. In New Orleans, a number of factors in place prevented the city from embodying the Enlightenment ideals of structure that the French desired. The growth of the creole culture, the changing ideas towards slavery and development of sugar plantations, and the small size of the city all factored in. One large factor that Powell discusses is how the original makeup of the city was composed of forced migrants from Paris, and that any city where the population is composed of people who did not arrive willingly will not likely fall into their desired, structured roles. The hierarchy desired by the upper class as written about by Bushman also failed in its goal to create a distinction between the wealthy and those with less money. Bushman writes how during the nineteenth century, the middle- and lower-classes focused on creating the appearance of class, as their “desired goal was respectability.” The importance of gentility that was fostered was intended to separate the wealthy from the supposedly inferior, but as time wore on, the lower classes began creating the illusion of gentility and the separation dissipated. In both scenarios, the European influence failed to persist, and are examples of how strong a colonial influence can be at first, but how it can fail due to the physical distance in between the colony and parent country.
While studying the growth of American cities, it is almost impossible to ignore the environmental impacts on their growth. Lawrence Powell wrote The Accidental City because of his passion for New Orleans, and he wanted to give its growth justice. He embraced the environmental history, discussing how brutal the conditions of New Orleans were but also how its geographic location was essential for trade purposes. Some of his strongest arguments came in his discussions of race, but if he had avoided the natural aspects, he would have written an incomplete history. Bushman’s work is still successful, but it is weaker than Powell’s as he does not take advantage of the opportunity to discuss gentility and the environment. In the end, both works tell stories about colonial influence, but that influence only tells part of the story.
 Lawrence N. Powell, The Accidental City: Improvising New Orleans, (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2012)
 Richard Bushman, The Refinement of America: Persons, Houses, Cities, (New York, NY: Vintage Books, 1993)