August 28, 2006KR Blog

Drowning the Books

Among the many tragedies that took place along the Gulf Coast a year ago was the destruction of a program that offered young people in New Orleans a chance to re-imagine their lives and their city by writing books that documented life in their neighborhoods. The Neighborhood Story Project began as a response to a school shooting that claimed the lives of two students at John McDonogh Senior High in the city’s Seventh Ward, adding to a growing toll of victims of violence among young African-American men throughout the city and reinforcing a perception that life in the city’s historically-black neighborhoods was defined by drugs, gangs, and violence. Two teachers at the school — Abram Himelstein and Rachel Breunlin ??? launched the project to give their students a way to address that perception. In June of 2005, they published five books by high school students who used creative nonfiction, photography, and in-depth interviews to document the complexity of life in their neighborhoods. They sold almost 2,000 copies of these books through bookstores, corner stores, and block parties that summer, and they had raised money for an additional print run of 4,000 books when Hurricane Katrina flooded the city. Like the rest of New Orleans, the project has struggled to get back on its feet in the year since the storm, or even to republish the books lost to the flooding, and its directors have decided to refocus their efforts on organizing an oral history project about people’s lives in New Orleans, their experiences with the storm, and their hopes for the future.

While it’s hard to focus on one tragedy when confronting the vast suffering caused by the storm and bungled government response, I can’t help feeling that this program was a model for ways to empower young people to take possession of their lives in neighborhoods plagued by poverty and violence. The project’s motto, “Our stories, told by us,” offered a comment both on the way the media represented these students’ lives and on the fact that this predominantly-black city, which has such a rich musical tradition emerging from its African-American neighborhoods, has produced so little writing by and about the residents of those neighborhoods. Who will tell the story of Katrina? As someone who has written about that strange, tragic, and dream-like city, I have no doubt that the dual disasters ??? natural and man-made — which almost wiped New Orleans off the map will be the subject of countless books in the years to come, but I can only hope that some of those accounts will be written by the people who lost the most.

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