Whether the site he selected for a capital was the best choice, given other possibilities, will remain eternally debatable. The Bayou Manchac alternative still seems viable from the vantage point of three centuries, though part of that area collapsed into the river in the early 1800s. But with proper engineering, it offered continuous waterway access to the Gulf of Mexico. It was higher and drier too. There would have been physical space for inhabitants to move north and east, away from the river and the diseased swamps taht would make New Orleans the great necropolis of North America. Of course, the Bayou Manchac site got passed over; and maybe in light of what the city became, it is a good thing Bienville's guile won out in the end. New Orleans developed into something greater than a mere entrepot for a continent. It became a state of mind, built on the edge of disaster, where the lineages of three continents and countless races and ethnicities were forced to crowd together on slopes of the natural levee and somehow learn to improvise a coexistence whose legacy may be America's only original contribution to world culture. For that legacy alone, we owe Bienville some measure of gratitude.That sounds nice and romantic and everything. But I'm becoming a bit weary of all the academic talk about New Orleans' "original contribution to world culture" Is there even such a thing? "World culture" is an ongoing conversation where everyone borrows ideas from everybody else, repackaging them, and selling them back to one another. The New Orleans and really the entire American experience with those interminable "melting pot" and "gumbo" metaphors speaks to this quite plainly. Isn't the quick and dirty definition of the word Creole jumbled up bullcrap from the Old World, recycled and "repurposed" over in the New? That's what we've been up to for 300 years. From a "world culture" perspective, it's probably been several thousand years since anything truly original was ever contributed.
As to the question of whether we'd have been better off 300 years later having put the city 40 or 50 miles to the west, I think the answer is becoming more and more obvious every day. Whether we sit here and worry about our sinking firmament and the encroaching, petroleum spoiled Gulf or we sit there worrying about our proximity to an expanding toxic, possibly radioactive, hellmouth, it's pretty much pick your poison in any case.
Aside: Lawrence N. Powell will be speaking at an upcoming event on the campus of Xavier University September 22.