by Kelsey Willis
First, pan to the green-brown mass of North America,
towards its carved-out southeastern edge, then all the way to the fuzzy boundaries of Louisiana. Is that a glitch in the programming? A smudge on the screen? No - the closer you get, that smear of brown becomes the eroding coastline, defined by tracks of earth swirling into the gulf. Where those bits of brown could be now, who knows - their movements are preserved in a single pull of the current.
Keep zooming in, following the tangle of the Mississippi until the wetlands (green-brown, but speckled blue) turn into a knot of gray. Closer in, the city’s radial spread of roads start to emerge between the highways, highlighting its namesake crescent.
Now, pick a neighborhood - in between the dark lake and river is spread a wrinkled patchwork quilt of city blocks - their sunny colors not yet visible in the checker pattern that appears.
The closer you get, the more time begins to wrinkle as well: the folds and seams in satellite photos, so well-disguised distance, now show up as shaded stitches, seams splitting through thin sidewalks.
Looking down at single streets, time skips around. At one house, a telltale bright-blue FEMA tarp is still spread across its roof, a corner sliding off into a rubble-strewn yard - remnant of the months of pain and rebuilding following Hurricane Katrina. The home next door, perplexingly, has today’s green, trimmed lawns, and what seems to be children’s toys scattered in the backyard. The sprawl of rubble next door skews and then cuts off cleanly, this “wrinkle in time” building its own fence between the two connected spaces.
Disconcerting, too, is the appearance and disappearance of familiar buildings. New Orleans from above is speckled with overgrown paved lots, creeping grass and vines blurring the edges of the concrete spaces. There, as seen from above, seem to lie the overgrown remnants of long-blighted properties.
Today, though, these ghost lots may now be rebuilt, filled in with a new home or a community garden, as-yet uncaptured but the satellite eye. Or perhaps, following the usual path of entropy, the house next door now lies in disrepair as well, the cars we see parked in front long absent - plants coming to reclaim it too.
Such are satellite images - in a city that has changed so dramatically so many times within the limited span of the internet era, we can never be sure if what we see on the screen is fully real or another flash through time. These stitched-together snapshots serve to capture a land in constant transition. Much like the shifting (and elusive) ice of the true North Pole, standing at one place in this city is almost impossible. New Orleans’ climate, its environment, and, of course, its inhabitants create a place that precludes static understanding as its base settles and its edges wash out to sea, and its urban fabric is de-and-re-constructed, in tidal turns.