Geographer and author Richard Campanella of the Tulane University School of Architecture is the recipient of the 2019 Louisiana Writer Award, presented annually by the Louisiana Center for the Book in the State Library of Louisiana.
Over the past twenty-plus years, Campanella has written 11 books and 220 articles on the geography, history, architecture, and culture of Louisiana. Describing himself as a historical geographer, he aims to explain, using words, maps, and images, how Louisiana landscapes and cityscapes came to be: their terrain, environment, peoples, waterways, industries, infrastructure, and neighborhoods, past and present. Campanella’s research has been praised in the New York Review of Books, Journal of Southern History, Urban History, Places, Louisiana History, Journal of the Abraham Lincoln Association, and Bloomsbury Review. The only two-time winner of the Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities Book of the Year Award, Campanella has also received the Louisiana Literary Award, the Williams Prize, the Malcolm Heard Award for Excellence in Teaching, the Hannah Arendt Prize for Public Scholarship, and the Tulane Honors Professor of the Year Award. In 2016, the Government of France named Campanella as Chevalier dans l’Ordre des Palmes Académiques.
Originally from Brooklyn, New York, Campanella remembers the moment, around 1971, when his curiosity was first piqued about far-away Louisiana. His parents were helping him read Meet Abraham Lincoln, in which author Barbara Cary described how “excited” young Abe felt about traveling “almost 1,000 miles” to a big exotic city “at the very end [of] the great Mississippi River.” Abe thought New Orleans “a wonderful place,” Cary explained to her juvenile readers, “but then he saw a market where slaves were being sold, [and] Abe did not like what he saw.”
That did it. New Orleans. Louisiana. The Mississippi River. Geography. History. Troubled history. For the next twenty years, Campanella’s ears perked whenever those themes arose, even as life took him to the Rocky Mountains, where he studied at Utah State University and worked as a wilderness ranger; to Honduras, where as a Peace Corps volunteer he helped established a forest reserve; and to Washington, D.C., where he worked for the Department of Energy.
While in Washington, Campanella decided to go to graduate school to study the mapping sciences, and when he learned that Louisiana State University had a well-regarded Department of Geography and Anthropology, he realized he could finally pursue that childhood intrigue. He completed his M.S. in Geography/Mapping Sciences in 1993.
Living in Louisiana and Mississippi during the 1990s, Campanella honed his mapping skills working at NASA's Stennis Space Center, while on evenings and weekends he read everything he could find on New Orleans and explored the city and region. His first book, New Orleans Then and Now (Pelican Publishing Company) came out in 1999, by which time he was well underway researching a major geographical study, Time and Place in New Orleans: Past Geographies in the Present-Day (Pelican, 2002). “Detailed and analytical,” the Journal of Southern History called it in its review. “As the most extensive geographical description of the city to date, Campanella’s book fills a great need…. [A]nyone who has an interest in the distinctive city of New Orleans must have this book.”
Campanella joined Tulane University in 2000, at which point he and his wife Marina moved from Waveland, Mississippi into the Bywater neighborhood of New Orleans. Over the next two decades, he would research and write another nine books and over 200 articles, columns, editorials, and book chapters on the historical and present-day human geography of our region, published in peer-reviewed journals as well as his monthly columns in the Picayune-Advocate, Preservation in Print, and 64 Parishes. In 2012, he joined the Tulane School of Architecture as a Senior Professor of Practice and became Associate Dean for Research in 2018.
Campanella’s other books include Bienville’s Dilemma: A Historical Geography of New Orleans (University of Louisiana Press, 2008), which the New York Review of Books (Nathanial Rich) described as “the single best history of the city….masterful.” His biggest project, Geographies of New Orleans: Urban Fabrics Before the Storm (University of Louisiana Press, 2006), which he says “took five years and weighs five pounds,” came out just after Hurricane Katrina. “Stunning in its analytical precision[,] wrote The Times-Picayune; “filled with photographs, maps, timelines and beautifully written essays[;] it is, indeed, difficult to imagine just how much painstaking research went into this book…. Geographies of New Orleans is a powerful [and] dazzling book, unparalleled in its scope, precision, clarity and detail.”
He published Delta Urbanism: New Orleans through the American Planning Association in 2010, and Lost New Orleans through Pavilion Books in London in 2015. Through Louisiana State University Press, Campanella wrote The Photojournalism of Del Hall; Cityscapes of New Orleans; and Bourbon Street: A History. Wrote critic John King of SFGATE, “the smartest book I’ve read this year about American cities is ‘Bourbon Street: A History,’ by Richard Campanella.” The New York Review of Books describeditas“absorbing… persuasive.... gleefully subversive... Bourbon Street: A History is at its heart a history of how New Orleans has seen itself, and how it has been seen by the rest of the world. There may be no one better qualified to write such a history than Campanella.” During the tricentennial of the founding of New Orleans, members of the Carnival organization Krewe du Vieux selected Campanella as the king of their 2018 parade, the theme of which spoofed his book Bienville’s Dilemma: “Bienville’s Wet Dream”!
One of Campanella’s favorite research experiences entailed that original childhood fascination. In 2010, after three years of research in Indiana, Illinois, and the archives of New Orleans, he published Lincoln in New Orleans: The 1828-1831 Flatboat Voyages and Their Place in History (University of Louisiana Press). The Historic New Orleans Collection, which awarded it the Williams Prize for Louisiana History, described the book as “exhaustively researched and documented[,] illuminating the Louisiana connection with one of the nation’s greatest presidents.... [Campanella has] produced excellent New Orleans studies in recent years that will be cited for decades to come.”
Richard Campanella lives with his wife Marina and their son Jason in uptown New Orleans. His next book, The West Bank of Greater New Orleans: A Historical Geography, will be released by Louisiana State University Press in 2020.