In 2004, Abram Himelstein was teaching high school in New Orleans’ Seventh Ward and thinking about how people didn’t know enough about their neighbors. The time that once was spent on the porch telling stories and playing dominoes had been largely replaced by staying indoors and watching TV. So he and fellow teacher Rachel Bruelin decided to offer their students a proposition: they would pay them to write a book about their block. “You’ll meet the last period of every day and you will get $1000 when your book is finished,” they told the kids.
For the next year the students wrote, interviewed and photographed, capturing the rhythms and personalities of their neighborhoods. In June, 2005, the Neighborhood Story Project, as the grassroots venture came to be called, brought out five books about New Orleans. Their publication was celebrated with block parties and the books went on to become local bestsellers.
From that informal beginning, the Neighborhood Story Project has expanded to work with writers all across New Orleans to create books about their communities. In keeping with its motto, “Our stories told by us,” contributors have ranged from public-housing residents to brass-band leaders to members of social aid and pleasure clubs to Mardi Gras Indians. Neighborhood Story Project books have sold some 45,000 copies to date, and are now distributed by the University of New Orleans Press, where Himelstein was recently named publisher.
A current Neighborhood Story Project undertaking close to his heart will document the Backside, the pop-up neighborhood that springs into life each horseracing season at the New Orleans Fair Grounds racetrack. Himelstein once covered this beat as a reporter for the Daily Racing Form and in recent years he has been helping grooms, trainers, jockeys, veterinarians, and others tell their stories about the horseracing world. “The best way to get a story out of somebody,” he explains, “is however they are most comfortable. Sometimes that’s in having a conversation. Sometimes it’s doing a formal interview. Sometimes it’s people writing chapters they conceive of themselves. In that case I function more like an editor, because the story has to work on the page.” No matter what form the collaboration takes, he says, “You want to draw a writer’s truth out.” When the book is published next year, proceeds will help fund a workers’ education center at the track.