Remembering New Orleans

Two days before Hurricane Katrina blew ashore New Orleans on Aug. 29, Ebony Bolding and her mother Henrietta were cooking food all night in preparation for a block party in the Sixth Ward.

They planned to celebrate the release of Ebony's first book, Before and After North Dorgenois. Through interviews, photography and personal reflections, the book documented the good, the bad and everything in between in Ebony's block of this vibrant New Orleans neighborhood. Ebony's book, and four others written by her classmates, were the #2 best sellers (trailing Harry Potter) in New Orleans.

On the same day, four blocks down the street, Ebony's high school teacher Abram Himelstein -- who had encouraged her to write the book -- was monitoring the approaching hurricane online. Abram and his wife Shana had never left the city for storms before, and they didn't want to cancel this block party. It had taken a lot of courage for Ebony -- a shy teen from a troubled family -- to make her innermost views public. But as the day progressed and the eye of the hurricane moved right over New Orleans, Himelstein and the Boldings canceled the party, packed their cars, and left New Orleans for Houston.

Hours later Ebony's home, filled with freshly cooked food and party drinks, was submerged in water. The cars left behind on the block ended up on neighbors' rooftops. In just a few hours, the daily life that most of us take for granted -- neighbors lounging on porches, children playing in the streets, women calling kids for dinner -- was swept away by wind and water.

But thanks to Ebony and her classmates, some of the most inspiring stories from New Orleans' oldest public housing neighborhoods -- neighborhoods that rarely got attention from the media unless there was a shooting -- continue to live on inside the pages of five books published by The Neighborhood Story Project.

The Neighborhood Story Project was founded in 2004 by Abram Himelstein and Rachel Breunlin, teachers from John McDonough Senior High School in New Orleans. They felt that media representations of their students and their neighborhoods were usually one-sided, focused almost exclusively on the weaknesses of these largely low-income black communities. Himelstein and Breunlin knew their students had the aptitude and skills to write more complete, honest stories -- ones that people in predominantly white, middle-class America would otherwise miss.

Most of the books' original prints didn't survive the hurricane, but fellow teen author Ashley Nelson managed to save a disk containing the files, and the Brooklyn-based publisher Soft Skull Press recently reprinted all five volumes, with all book sale proceeds benefiting the project and its writers.

As the Gulf region recovers from the flood damage and governmental inaction, the stories from the Neighborhood Story Project live on as a testament to the endurance of the people of New Orleans. We kick off this commemorative series by talking with Abram Himelstein, cofounder of the Neighborhood Story Project, who recently returned to New Orleans. Abram spoke to AlterNet from his temporary home in the city's Seventh Ward.

Kristina Rizga: Could you tell me how the Neighborhood Story Project got started? What motivated you to do it?

Abram Himelstein: Rachel and I were teachers at the John McDonough Senior High School [in New Orleans], and we were frustrated with the stories that the media told about our school and our students' lives and our neighborhoods. We knew that there were much richer and more truthful ways of telling the stories. So, we thought of the idea of having our students tell these stories of their neighborhoods, and we thought about what would work and how to motivate them.

Social Aid and Pleasure Club Parade in New Orleans, December 2005
Social Aid and Pleasure Club Parade in New Orleans, December 2005

We got an office across from the high school, and the students started coming to us every afternoon for their last period of the day and then staying all afternoon. An important part of it for us was also that we were paying students. We weren't paying until the books were finished, but that students could envision this as their afterschool job. One of the things that happens differently for wealthy kids in America is that they have afterschool internships, and they get to do intellectual work after school and I really believe strongly that intellectual work should be a part of our lives, not just the domain of the wealthy.

KR: What were some highlights of the process of writing these books?

AH: I think with each book there was a turning point. We read this book, called Our America: Life and Death on the South Sides of Chicago, that was written by two Chicago teens. That book began the process of students being able to envision themselves as authors of these books. They thought, "Oh right, these teenagers did it and we also can do this." And that's a pretty large intellectual leap to move from being a reader to being an author, for all of us.

We had excerpts published in the weekly newspaper here and I think having that moment was huge. And when they saw their work announced on a poster that looked professional I think there was this kind of gathering moment, and they began to believe in the process. I know Ashley [Nelson] -- she wrote The Combination -- had a lot of trepidation about being a writer in her community and coming in with a microphone and a camera and release forms. So that moment -- where the community began to get excited about this book -- was the moment that book came to be what it was going to grow up to be.

It happened kind of differently and kind of organically with each book. With Waukesha [Jackson], she writes about how she began to talk with her mom about her mom's struggle, which in a way were her own struggles. And there's that really powerful interview where the two of them go over their relationship and the role that her mom's struggle with drugs has played in her life, and after that you know there was no stopping that book.

KR: And then you sold them around the neighborhood?

AH: We sold about two thousand a month. Almost all of them in New Orleans. It was incredible! We had the whole city book release party, which was phenomenal, and then each student had their own block party. It was just the greatest time of my life. Waukesha and her mom danced together, and it was like you had a feeling -- things are becoming right again. That people had been through some stuff, but are becoming right again. These were the best parties I'd ever been to.

KR: Where were you when hurricane Katrina hit, and what happened to you?

AH: Ebony Bolding's block party was scheduled for Saturday. My mom had evacuated on Thursday. I had seen what the hurricane had done, and that it was going westward, and it hit me that we were now in the Bull's Eye. As the hurricane became stronger, we started boarding up. Rachel [Breunlin] and her boyfriend and me and Shana left for Houston.

The People's Hurricane Fund hosting a march for the Right of Return, December 2005
The People's Hurricane Fund hosting a march for the Right of Return, December 2005

Ebony told us she was leaving town. Ashley [Nelson, another author] stayed and Waukesha [Jackson] left. And Kesha's grandfather -- who she lived with -- stayed, and that's an amazing story. He is OK, but he busted out of his attic, got on a boat and was eventually airlifted. Ashley had been Rachel's student for the past five years and we called her every day. We know mostly everyone had left.

After five days our phone rang, and Ashley was in Baton Rouge in a shelter. And it was not a good situation. She had driven out in a car that I had just taught her to drive -- so it was kind of frightening that she had driven out a in car. My mother-in-law had an empty apartment in Houston where we were staying and phones didn't work at all. But when the text message came through... She was the last person that I knew and I was really worried about.

Ashley's family is still in Houston, but she is back living in her father's house on the West Bank and going to high school. She is the only one who is back in New Orleans.

We are in regular contact with all of the writers. Kesha and her mom are actually happily in Austin, Tex. And she is thriving. Her church booked them up. Her mom was in the drug rehab program, and I think it was facilitated by that. But both of them are doing really well. They are not planning to come back.

Sam and Arlet are in Shreveport. And Ebony and her mom are living in Houston in an apartment complex. Jana and her mom just bought a house in Lafayette. Jana is planning to come back to go to university, but her mom has moved there. And Ashley is working for the Neighborhood Story Project. And she is thriving. She is doing really well.

KR: What is Ashley doing for the Project right now?

AH: Research, interviews, learning how to edit, and teaching two classes in two middle schools.

KR: Where are you staying now, and what's happening around you?

AH: I've been staying in Rachel's house, which is totally intact. The roof failed a little bit, but they've done a good job of repairing it. It didn't flood, and it's beautiful and tranquil. This is in the Seventh Ward, and I lived in the Fifth Ward. My house didn't flood, but there is no roof really.

In our neighborhoods there is a lot of work, because the houses here are mostly not flooded. We are talking just hurricane damage, which is totally different than flood damage. These neighborhoods are going to be back.

With the neighborhoods that have been flooded, it's been on and off. There's been a real lack of leadership, starting with the president, and unfortunately not mitigated much by the lower levels of government. The abdication of responsibility went all the way to the top. And whether there will be a New Orleans still remains largely in question.

KR: So, you don't really feel like there is a clear presence of government there trying to repair and rebuild?

AH: No, there is really no plan right now. I'll put it this way: the government works for those it has traditionally worked for. And unfortunately it works [the least] for those who need it. Like, places of ground that were the most intact during the hurricane have received the most assistance. People's access to government hasn't changed because of the hurricane and the flood. Those of us who had problems accessing governmental help continue to have that problem.

It's a lot about having the skills to navigate the bureaucracy. And insurance companies are only interested in their bottom line. And I say that being one of the fortunate few. I feel like my finances will somehow work out. But it was an incredible fight for me. And what other people are going through is really indescribable. It does not feel like the system is working at all.

KR: Can you give me some personal examples?

AH: The insurance company told me three different stories, and after a while they claimed I only had a dwelling policy. My house was pretty much destroyed, and they tried to settle for $17,000. And it was actually Kafkaesque, completely surreal, to be going through that. And I have been turned down for all of the loans that would have paid for a staff to help me get started earlier, like, working on my house. But there were four months where it just sat there.

My brother-in-law said it best. He said, "Everybody got knocked three rungs down the ladder and for some it meant being knocked completely off the ladder." And that's really the most accurate way I could put it. It's a mess and it's hard to explain.

There is a whole group of people uptown whose lives are not fundamentally different at all except that they had to get new refrigerators.

I ran into this woman last night, who worked at the alternative weekly newspaper. And I hadn't seen her since the hurricane, and I was so glad to see her. And I asked, "How are you doing?" And she said, "I'm doing good, and I'm very lucky." She had just bought a house, and it had been destroyed. I asked her if she had insurance. And she said it turns out to have been deeply underinsured. And she lost her job too.

I asked her, "What makes you say you're lucky?" And she said, "It's recalibrated my sense of what's important." And no one except for people who lost loved ones will tell you that they are suffering the worst of it. I feel really lucky, and it's been the struggle of my life so far.

KR: What about the most basic things, like food and shelter and health care? Where is that coming from when you there's no income and no economy?

AH: There is a lot of economy now, actually, because of reconstruction. And it's boom times for some people now. But there are no places to stay, and they just kicked 20,000 people out of hotels.

KR: Where will they go?

AH: I don't know. I'm so overwhelmed right now. We are all so overwhelmed right now. Normally, when your house gets burned down, you go to your neighbor. But right now, your neighbor got nothin' and his neighbor got nothin', and it's like that for miles and miles. And it's the kind of stuff that pictures can't help you understand.

Imagine 80 percent of your town is gone. And from that 20 percent, which is incredibly overcongested and overpriced, we are trying to rebuild. That 20 percent also got a lot of damage, but they are bearing the rest of the city. And those 20 percent are experiencing boom times. If you want to get groceries, you gotta go to that 20 percent. If you want to go to a restaurant, you go to that 20 percent. Nothing is working. It's slowing everything down. And then you are spending a lot of time dealing with the ill effects of government.

KR: What are some things that you and your neighbors need the most right now?

AH: Honestly, we need levees. We need people to commit to levees. That's what we need. We need Americans to say with one voice that these people have the right to live where they want to live. If America gave us that -- there are other things that would be helpful -- but if America gave us levees, this would work. It might not work perfectly, but we need to finish them as quickly as possible and as well as we possibly can.

KR: Any other things that would be helpful right now?

AH: You know, [rebuilding is] a marathon. This will be happening for the next 10 years, conservatively speaking. So, we can't really be yesterday's news.

My wife Shana says, "The catastrophe is still going on." And we have 20,000 people that are being put out of their hotel rooms in the middle of it. These are people who have lost everything. And they are probably here because they are trying to work here and maintain their presence here. The businesses need them here. And they need to be here, so they can start getting their lives back in the order. And that's a huge thing.

Do we have the right to live here? If you are not going build the levees properly, tell us now. And just be honest that, "You are on our own. This country is not rich enough to maintain this city."

And there are other things. We need to be a part of people's consciousness. It's a hard struggle. And it's hard to tell people who are here how to get involved in that. But there are days here when I feel like this will be a city. And then there are days when I feel this is like a removal of Indians from their land.

The question is: for whom and by whom is New Orleans being rebuilt? And this is going to be a serious fight. My friend Kalamu says that "this is the only African city in America." And people can get distracted by [Mayor Ray] Nagins, but the real question is -- what would justice look like here? Anybody who wants to come home, can come home. And all you need to do is show up and say, "I want to go to my home."

And the government should work from this point to make a realistic plan to repatriate that person. We need that level of service. We need housing while we work on our houses. But the main thing we need is levees. This is some serious trauma that people have been through.

If Bush actually comes around one day, we want America to say with one voice, "We need levees -- the strongest levees that can be made." It's been such a stall. What we are talking about spending on levees is a fraction of what we are spending on homeland security. But this is what levees mean. This is my homeland, and I want security. And if it can't happen, just be honest with us.

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