Essay Review: The Neighborhood Story Project
by Amy Starecheski - May 11, 2006
In the summer of 2005, the first five books of the Neighborhood Story Project, written by students at John McDonogh Senior High, were released in New Orleans and became bestsellers in the citys independent bookstores. Almost as soon as these five slender volumes were sent out into the world, the world they describe was lost forever when New Orleans was flooded in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. From a post-Katrina world, the reader looks back through a lens, not of changes accumulated slowly over time, or of cultural difference, but of catastrophic loss and destruction. This community documentary program became a project of archiving, of history-writing, overnight. Even if the teenagers who wrote these books knew that their work would shortly be one of the only windows into the precise worlds they describe, they could not have done a better job in fixing those worlds on the page. Through words... (preview truncated at 150 words.)
In the summer of 2005, the first five books of the Neighborhood Story Project, written by students at John McDonogh Senior High, were released in New Orleans and became bestsellers in the citys independent bookstores.
Almost as soon as these five slender volumes were sent out into the world, the world they describe was lost forever when New Orleans was flooded in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. From a post-Katrina world, the reader looks back through a lens, not of changes accumulated slowly over time, or of cultural difference, but of catastrophic loss and destruction. This community documentary program became a project of archiving, of history-writing, overnight.
Even if the teenagers who wrote these books knew that their work would shortly be one of the only windows into the precise worlds they describe, they could not have done a better job in fixing those worlds on the page. Through words and photographs each of these five books brings to life, in sparkling detail, a tiny part of New Orleans: a block, a family, a housing project. It is a testament to the quality of these young peoples fieldwork that their books are important both to the general readerbecause they are compelling stories told from the point of view of people not often given access to mass mediaand to researchers interested in the cultural geography and traditions of downtown New Orleans.
The Neighborhood Story Project was founded in 2004 by Rachel Breunlin and Abram Himelstein, teachers at John McDonogh. Based on a critical literacy approach to reading and writing, the projects methodology recognizes that although many of our students come from communities that have low levels of literacy, there are other resources, knowledge, and skills that are important to acknowledge and learn more about (Neighborhood Story Project, 2006a). Students worked for their last period of the day and after school every day for a year and were paid $100 each in advance royalties when their books were published.
The Neighborhood Story Project websites methods page describes the intensive process of story circles, writing workshops, and fieldwork that underlies these five books. Educators may find themselves wanting more details about these processes. It is clear from the brief description of methodology provided online and the long list of acknowledgements in the back of each book that the keys to the success of this project were significant inputs of time and money, deep engagement with the students communities, and mutual respect between the youth and adults. Part of this mutual respect was that the authors brought their transcribed interviews back to the interviewees to edit, following the best practices of professional oral historians and guarding against possible exploitation or embarrassment of their subjects.
Between the covers of each Neighborhood Story Project book is a year in the life of a New Orleans teenager; often a year of looking into the past, but still a dynamic year of teenaged life. The authors become parents, lose parents and friends, move, graduate, and grow. Amazingly, and with intensive support, they also found the time to write books. Although the tone throughout the series is casually conversational, blending first person narrative, transcribed interviews, essays, and the occasional poem, the prose is polished. It is easy to imagine co-director Rachel Breunlin editing until everyone is exhausted (Neighborhood Story Project, 2006b).
The title of The Combination, by Ashley Nelson, refers both to the combination of strength and hardship Ms. Nelson finds in the Lafitte Housing Project where she grew up and to the metaphorical combination that unlocked her story through the process of writing her book. The death of Ms. Nelsons mother from cancer is the crux of the book, which describes the culture of Lafitte and the struggles of its residents.
Before and after North Dorgenois, by Ebony Balding, examines life on Ms. Baldings block, near John McDonough High School. Ms. Balding skillfully weaves together the voices of her family and neighbors with her own voice, orchestrating a conversation on violence, gentrification, and community on one 6th Ward block.
Waukesha Jacksons What Would the World be without Women: Stories from the 9th Ward is packed with rich interviews with women: bartenders, activists, dancers, and mothers, bracketing a devastating interview with Ms. Jacksons mother, a drug addict. As in many of the other interviews in these books, the authors interview questions are included. This decision, to make visible to readers the dialogical nature of the interview, adds tremendous depth and value to the work.
Like most of the Neighborhood Story Project books, Jana Denniss Palmyra Street showcases descriptions of New Orleans unique culture, in this case the Golden Arrows Mardi Gras Indian Tribe (of which Ms. Denniss family are members). Another highlight of Ms. Denniss work is the creative vignettes about life on Palmyra Street, from the sounds of a porch haircut to the dances of little girls, dispersed throughout the book.
Between Piety and Desire, by siblings Arlet and Sam Wylie, is the only co-authored book in the series; Sam is the only male author. The Wylies grew up above a store on a rough corner of St. Claude Avenue, between Piety and Desire Streets. By the end of the book, Ms. Wylie has moved with her mother to a quieter block, but Mr. Wylie has decided to stay on St. Claude with his father. The Wylies book is driven by a narrative tension that makes it perhaps the strongest in the series. As the book is being written, their mother is deciding to leave their abusive father for good, and Sam is dealing with becoming a father at seventeen. Through their prose, the reader hears, sees, smells, tastes and feels life on St. Claude.
The Neighborhood Story Project sets a high standard for student publications. The editing, design, printing, and writing are of professional quality. As of May 2006, the message posted on their website just after Katrina remains unchanged: In the aftermath of the destruction, we are in the process of re-envisioning our work and our city. Please stay posted for more information (Neighborhood Story Project, 2006c). Only one of the six authors, Ashley Nelson, is back in New Orleans, teaching for the Neighborhood Story Project (Young, 2006). The rest are scattered throughout the South. The books they have written will certainly engage and motivate other young people and the educators who work with them. Perhaps they will also inspire the people of New Orleans, themselves the inspiration for the books, as they work to re-imagine and rebuild their city.
Bolding, E. (2005). Before and after North Dorgenois: Growing up in the Sixth Ward. New Orleans: Neighborhood Story Project.
Dennis, J. (2005). Palmyra Street. New Orleans: Neighborhood Story Project.
Jackson, W. (2005). What would the world be without women? Stories from the Ninth Ward. New Orleans: Neighborhood Story Project.
Neighborhood Story Project. (2006a) Methods. Retrieved May 5, 2006 from:
Neighborhood Story Project. (2006b). About the project. Retrieved May 5, 2006 from:
Neighborhood Story Project. (2006c). The neighborhood story project. Retrieved May 5, 2006 from: (http://www.neighborhoodstoryproject.org).
Nelson, A. (2005). The Combination. New Orleans: Neighborhood Story Project.
Wylie, A., & Wylie, S. (2005). Between Piety and Desire. New Orleans: Neighborhood Story Project.
Young, A. L. (2006). Our stories, told by us: New Orleans teens write lively books about neighborhoods now lost. Retrieved May 5, 2006, from http://www.whatkidscando.org/studentwork/neighborhoods.html