A decade from now, Lawrence Carr will drive back to New Orleans after earning two degrees: one in music, the other in computer programming. Justine Webster, a nurse like many of her aunts, will be caring for patients at her private practice. And Jasmine Melrose, an avid reader, will be Gentilly's favorite independent bookseller.
At least these are the places and professions in which these three Thurgood Marshall Early College High School (ECHS) seniors imagined themselves when the Neighborhood Story Project asked them to construct a narrative about who they will be in 10 years and how they will get there.
"Since I wrote it on paper, it was like I'm setting my goals down," says Webster, the aspiring nurse. "It's just up to me to carry them out."
All 50 narratives from the charter school's first graduating class will be sent to the printer in late May and come back as a book called 2020: A Look Back. It joins a growing collection of work the Neighborhood Story Project has transferred from notebooks to bound books since the nonprofit's start in 2004. That year, Abram Himelstein and Rachel Breunlin, then teachers at John McDonogh Senior High School, founded the organization to bring the stories of different New Orleans neighborhoods and their people, as told by members of those communities, to the rest of the city and the country. They have since published 12 trade books — most of which are written by McDonogh students — countless posters and a number of collections by students in other secondary schools. Some of the titles have gone out of print.
"Victims of their own success," Himelstein says.
The Neighborhood Story Project will open its doors at 2202 Lapeyrouse St. for its second annual Write-A-Thon on May 16. The project will provide a big desk and food; all the writers need to do is bring an idea. The organization hopes to get the sold-out books back in print and raise funds so it can continue to add to a body of work Himelstein describes as a love letter to New Orleans.
This body of work includes books like What Would the World Be Without Women: Stories from the Ninth Ward by Waukesha Jackson; From My Mother's House of Beauty by Susan Stephanie Henry; and Between Piety and Desire by Sam and Arlet Wylie. In these books, the student authors interview residents in their neighborhoods, take photographs and pen first-person narratives. Coming Out the Door for the Ninth Ward, which documents the return of a social aid and pleasure club after the storm, and The House of Dance and Feathers: A Museum by Ronald Lewis, about Mardi Gras Indians. Cornerstones visits spots across the city, from bars to barbershops, and explores "history through place."
Lea Downing, development coordinator for the Neighborhood Story Project, says there always has to be some element of struggle for the stories to be powerful and resonate with readers. The newest of the project's three-person staff, Downing has worked with the young authors for more than two years to help them through the writing and interviewing processes. Their stories sometimes involve drugs and violence, and the writers often explore delicate relationships between family members and friends.
"A lot of times you have to be really careful to keep certain details out, because you don't want to be part of any ongoing conflict," Downing says. "You don't want to carry forward rumors or ill will."
Daron Crawford, who co-authored Beyond the Bricks with Pernell Russell, wrote about growing up in the Calliope Projects in Central City.
"I told a story about ... things that go on inside the project like the killing and the drug dealing ... but I also talked about the after-school programs we had and about how they helped a lot of the violence stop, as far as our generation coming up," Crawford says.
Kenneth Phillips, who has been submitting essays to writing contests since he was in elementary school, wrote about his relationship with his mostly absent father in his book, Signed, the President.
"The longer I held it in, the longer I stayed mad ... but when I finally wrote it down, I started opening up," Phillips says. He interviewed his father's mother for the book, a grandparent with whom he says he is very close.
The Neighborhood Story Project sends all of its authors' interviews back to the interviewees for approval before they go to print. This makes for better and more accurate interviews, according to Himelstein, and helps establish a trust between the people in the books and the Neighborhood Story Project. It is a necessary trust if the organization is to reach his goal of creating a "body of literature that New Orleans would both want to read and feel well-represented by."
There has long been "large misrepresentations of parts of the city in film and print," Himelstein says. "The only reasons our neighborhoods made the newspaper was not for the reasons I lived in them."
The project is not bound to books alone. In collaboration with New Orleans Outreach and Young Aspirations/Young Artists (YA/YA), Downing is working on a series of posters with students at Samuel J. Green Charter School. These posters challenge the students to examine their relationship with food through writing about the experience of growing and eating it. But while the organization has its hands in different pots, a common thread through all of the work is the project's dedication to print.
"We are professional bookmakers coming in to demystify that process," Himelstein says.
The tactile nature of print means the writings can be read through posterity, Downing says. "It travels more than electronic media," she says. "You can loan it to people; it's a tangible thing. You can pass it around, it can move around and go into libraries. It has more staying power."
All told, the Neighborhood Story Project has sold 25,000 copies of its trade books, according to Himelstein. Coming Out the Door for the Ninth Ward was the One Book, One New Orleans book selection in 2007. Next year, the Recovery School District is adding five of the project books to its ninth grade curriculum citywide.
But not every sale is made through a major distributor or a bookstore. Kareem Kennedy, author of Aunt Alice vs. Bob Marley: My Education in New Orleans sells his work outside Walgreens in the 7th Ward. He once sold nearly 100 books in one week. Of the writing process, Kennedy says when he first put pen to paper more than two years ago, Himelstein and Breunlin told him his writing was too abstract; he needed to make his stories more concrete. So he wrote about standing up to a bully in seventh grade, his mother's struggles with drug addiction, and his Aunt Alice. His stories capture the St. Bernard Public Housing Development and the people who live there in a way demographic studies and brief news clips cannot.
"There is a lot of people telling other people's stories out there in the world," Downing says. "There is much less of people telling their own stories."
The Neighborhood Story Project headquarters is not just for its hired authors. Himelstein says he has worked with neighbors on book projects they have had sitting in their heads for years. Most are memoirs, he says, but he once worked with a man writing a mathematics textbook.
The annual Write-A-Thon is based on the notion that everyone has a book stowed away in their head, or at least something they have been waiting to write. It gives people the chance to have a space in an office all day and put their stories on paper. Last year, the Neighborhood Story Project raised $19,725 through donations and contributions, exceeding its expectations.
"More and more New Orleanians are engaging with the publishing process and becoming writers," Himelstein says. "Over time I have to feel like that bears real fruit in a city."
Lolis Eric Elie, a former Times-Picayune columnist, acted as a writing coach during the event last year.
"One of the problems that we consistently have in history is that the people who are participants ... don't tell their own story," he says. "You have to rely on writers and reporters to understand it, first, and be honest about it, second." Elie is the producer of the documentary film Faubourg Treme: The Untold Story of Black New Orleans and a writer on the HBO series Treme, a show with a stated mission of representing the real New Orleans. Elie says the Neighborhood Story Project has established itself as an organization that publishes work "written by people and about communities that are normally not the subject of work for professional historians."
The ECHS collection, 2020: A Look Back, is a departure from the documentary style of the trade books. It is a collection of fiction, but from the look of assurance on Jasmine Melrose's face, her Gentilly bookstore is a foregone conclusion.
"At first I was thinking about Atlanta," Melrose says, "but ... I wanted to bring something back to my own neighborhood in Gentilly."
After meeting author and screenwriter Dave Eggers at the Tennessee Williams Festival, Melrose became certain she wanted her bookstore in Gentilly because, she says, "[Eggers] was talking about bringing things back to his old community." The Zeitoun Foundation, founded by Eggers, recently joined other financial supporters and partners backing the Neighborhood Story Project, a list that includes UNO Press and the Lupin Foundation.
In late April, Himelstein handed back the ECHS seniors' first drafts marked up with suggestions for improvement. The most common? Write more.
"I cannot edit that which is not written," Himelstein tells his students. "You have to write. Do not presage disaster for yourself. Write yourself some struggle and write yourself some success."
- Left to right: Abram Himelstein, a teacher and co-founder of Neighborhood Story Projects, helps Thurgood Marshall High School students Daron Crawford, Lea Downing, Kenneth Phillips and Kareem Kennedy work on their writing and storytelling skills.