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Excerpt: These Streets Are Ours

A new series of books, written by young people in some of New Orleans' poorest neighborhoods, chronicles life in the Big Easy prior to Hurricane Katrina.
 
 
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Ebony Bolding and Ashley Nelson are two of six students at New Orleans' John McDonough Senior High who participated in The Neighborhood Story Project, a writing program that documents and celebrates life in New Orleans -- the good, the bad and everything in between -- prior to Hurricane Katrina.

In Before and After North Dorgenois, Ebony Bolding examines life in the city's Sixth Ward. She reflects on the impact the media had on her community and talks to her neighbors on North Dorgenois Street about their lives and future hopes. In The Combination, Ashley Nelson paints a nuanced portrait of Lafitte, one of downtown New Orleans' oldest public-housing complexes.

Ashley Nelson recently returned to New Orleans and now works for the Neighborhood Story Project. Ebony Bolding has resettled in Houston, Tex., with her mother.

"Twisted Our Words" from Before and After North Dorgenois.

It all started in April 2003. Head was shot at the corner of North Miro and Dumaine. People said that Caveman did it, but who knows, you can't always listen to what the people say. People thought that Caveman killed Head because both of them had had a little beef, but the rumor was that they later on forgot about it and forgave each other.

A week later Caveman was shot in the John McDonough gym. I wasn't there and didn't see it, so I don't know how it happened. I was sitting by the gate at my high school, Clark, during the lunch break, when an undercover cop rolled up and told us to move from by the gate because they just had a shooting at John Mac and someone had been killed. I was hoping that it wasn't anybody that I knew. I rode the Broad bus home with my friend Brittany, and she came with me to my house.

By the time we got to my house most of the television crews had gone away, but there were still many policemen in the area. We were sitting on my porch just a half a block from the school when a white man with a notebook came up to us and started asking us did we know Caveman and Head. He was asking me about Head, because he knew we both went to Clark. Not realizing he was a newspaper reporter, we commented on what he had asked us, but it wasn't too much. He kept asking us if we liked Head and we didn't say anything bad because we really didn't know him that well. The truth was that I would see Caveman every time that I went by my Grandfather's house on Dumaine Street in the Fifth Ward. As for Head, I used to see him at school. I didn't have anything against either one of them. To me, they were cool people.

The next day they had a big write-up about the killing that included quotes from myself and Brittany. I couldn't believe how he twisted our words around. The reporter made it like we didn't like Head and Caveman. It was a big mess, and the reporter made more drama.

After the shooting, John Mac had got a bad name. Stories about the shooting stayed on the news for weeks and weeks, a big beef grew between the Fifth and Sixth wards, and Brittany and I were caught in between. People kept asking me, 'Why you said that about that boy, why you said this?' I would just tell them to mind their business, because everything you read in the newspaper is not true. The conflict got to the point that people were telling me that I should watch out, that people were going to do me something. My mom got worried about me, and Brittany's mom got worried about her, so they pulled us out of school for the rest of the semester.

The next year, Clark wouldn't let me back in because they said I wasn't in the district anymore because they had moved downtown. What I couldn't understand was how come when Clark was uptown I was in the district but now that it's downtown where I live I'm not in the district. When I switched schools I really didn't want to go to John Mac but I didn't have a choice. I was feeling nervous the day before school. I was saying to myself, 'People not gonna like me,' which didn't make a lot of sense because I already knew a lot of people that went there from middle school. I also thought there might be more drama over the newspaper article since Caveman got shot in the gym.

My first day wasn't like when you are in elementary and your mama brings you to school and walks to your class. I was all on my own. A friend of mine came got me that morning and we walked to school together. I got bubble guts when I first walked in the building and saw everybody looking all fresh with brand new everything. Boys with new haircuts and girls wearing roller wraps and braids. My first day was better than I thought it was going to be. It didn't take long for me to adjust because my friend showed me around. I saw a lot of people that I hadn't seen since elementary. They said, "You shoulda been came here in the first place."

Now that this is my second year at John Mac, I'm straight. I am familiar with a lot of people and a lot of people are familiar with me. I can show the new students around because I know how it feels to be lost and not know where anything is. People don't know the real John Mac. John Mac isn't all that bad, but when someone does have a fight, the next thing you know the news people are there filming with their cameras trying to make us look bad. Yup, they put us on beam when they show us on the news and you know they just tell one side of the story.

"Introduction" from The Combination.

If I could pick anyone to read my book, I think it would be my mom and my neighborhood, because they are my book. Every page and every story I wrote was for them. My mom always told me to be happy. You got to do what makes you happy, and for me that means writing. She would've been so happy to see this book because she always believed in me.

Neighbors' Porch in Lafitte, New Orleans
Neighbors' Porch in Lafitte, New Orleans

The Lafitte Public Housing Development on Orleans Avenue in the Sixth Ward is a combination of friends, family support and love, but it's also a place where a lot of people are scared to go. I wonder if they're scared of us and that's why they are afraid to spend time there, or maybe it's because our buildings aren't as beautiful as other neighborhoods. Either way, you wouldn't see someone from suburbs just walking through saying, "Oh, I was just in the neighborhood, thought I'd swing by." We do have problems in Lafitte, but damn, it doesn't mean you have to run away from us. The world has problems, and we are all a part of them somehow, even if people don't want to admit it.

Lafitte is the neighborhood I grew up in. It's the place where I went through a lot of different struggles in both my family and the larger community, but it's also a place where I learned about caring. As I began to write my book, I wanted to include stories that showed that Lafitte is a combination of both good and bad. The people know how to make it through the worst and still love where they come from. My mom got caught up in the bad part — the part that outsiders use to label the whole community. I used to get mad at her because I knew she was too smart for that. At first, I was afraid to write about my mom because I didn't want people to judge her or me. But as I wrote about the neighborhood, it was impossible for me not to write about her. I realized she is a part of the combination that is Lafitte.

I struggled most days I had to write because I had to put true emotion into my stories. Don't get me wrong: I love my book and my struggles because they remind me that I did. Oh, God, I did it! Sorry, I'm excited. When you read this book, don't feel sorry for me because I don't need it. I am in a place now that I feel comfortable sharing my memories. I've grown up, been through the worst and back, and still doing me and taking care of the family. Pity is the last thing that I need. Ya know what? If you feel me, figure out your own combination and unlock the world.

"Dooky Chase's restaurant: Interview with Leah Chase" from The Combination.

Have you ever met someone who had an effect on your life by the power of conversation? I just did with Mrs. Chase, the owner of Dooky Chase's restaurant on Orleans Avenue. … Some say that humanity died out a long time ago, but I think it could be reborn if we taught our children to love. Love is what we need in this world and Mrs. Chase helped me understand that.

Food and Community
[As told by Leah Chase]

You learn to cook a little bit from everybody. There's no better way to understand or learn about a person's culture than through their food. If you learn about their food, and take interest whatever their food is, you will learn a lot about that person. You will come close to that person. Some day's we'll do Chinese things on the menu. We have one day that we do that we call, "wok and soul." You know, Chinese use wok pots, so we do shrimp fried rice, sweet and sour chicken wings, or we may do peppered steak. On the other side of the buffet, we'll have greens, sweet potatoes and pork chops.

Leah Chase
Leah Chase

I am now about to take some time out on Saturdays and visit the Vietnamese village out in the East -- I have never been to their market -- to see what they use. I love lemongrass in chicken soup. I like that, but there are other greens and other things that we could learn to use, and learn about these people. … When people are coming, you can't alienate anybody; you can't do that. If they come in your community, you have to work with them and help them to learn about our culture and make them see our way of life, but that doesn't mean they have to give up everything that is theirs.

Neighborhoods are what you make of them. This business of leaving a neighborhood because this is happening or that is happening, I think that is -- I can understand you leaving maybe if you want a bigger house and if you have more children you want more space -- but people have to learn to start building their own neighborhoods. This restaurant has been here for more than 60 years. Nobody ever touches anything here. My neighbors look out for me. I don't have a guard. I don't need a guard. They aren't going to do anything here, and they aren't going to allow you to do it, because I treat everybody like human beings, and they are.

All of us have a job to do on earth, and that's to make a world better. To make our space better, and if you just don't look at the next person and help him to do what he's supposed to do, then you're missing the boat. People need to build their own community -- build 'em back up.

Stay tuned for more reviews and excerpts from these books in our youth-oriented section WireTap this week.