A World Within: Neighborhood Story Project's Letters from the Backside
When I moved to New Orleans last January, I would sit on Moss St. by glistening Bayou St. John and read--an oddity, to be sure, but an introduction to 70119. One day I was doing just that, and a man whose name escapes me, but whose dog had the memorable name "Rachel," happened upon my reading post and we chatted about my recent move to the city. He was delighted I had already "found" Mid-City. He said, of new New Orleanians, "It takes some people years" to discover the (to him, best) neighborhood. Yet, he insisted that I would not have truly arrived until I headed to Derby at the Fair Grounds in a hat. If Mid City is a world within New Orleans, the Fair Grounds is yet another world within, and the Backside of the Fair Grounds, yet another.
This past Wednesday, March 23rd, was a great night to be in Mid-City. As I approached, the sunset over the Fair Grounds rivaled the Super Moon. The Neighborhood Story Project's co-director Abram Himelstein presented the exhibition Letters from the Backside, featuring 17 writers who comprise the varied personalities and positions of horse racing at the track, including Agent, Cafe Owner, Chaplain, Groom, Horse Owner, Hotwalker, Jockey (or "Jock") and Veterinarian.
A former reporter for The Daily Racing Form, and having visited the track since high school, Fair Grounds Communications and Marketing Manager Jim Mulvihill said of his friend, "There really isn't anyone better than Abram to do this." The Fair Grounds sponsored the project with a grant to the NSP, and gave NSP access to the workers and site for installation. NSP conducted writing workshops and communicated with the workers, and ultimately presented clean, articulate posters honoring them. The posters will hang permanently at the Fair Grounds, existing in the paddock weather- and event-permitting.
The paddock, the labyrinthine enclosure where horses are mounted pre-race, and celebrated and unsaddled post-, is both the venue for the letters and the place where Himelstein introduced them. I love the chosen venue--the writers, who work insanely long hours and are largely behind-the-scenes, celebrated in the exact location where they work tirelessly to bring their horses to, safely and pridefully--the place where horses, and now their disciples, receive distinction.
The 17 writers are presented in 3 forms on each story box: handwritten letters, excerpts, and photos. NSP provided reproduced copies of the letters as keepsakes.
My first thought seeing the posters was that the builds of many of these heroic equestrians are superhuman, their musculature beginning to mimic that of the horses they ride. One of my favorite writers, Mike Williams, relayed this bodily connection: "Horses can feel your heart beat through the shank on their muzzle. They can feel your pulse from your fingers, and if your heart races, they'll look for what you're getting excited about, thinking to get excited themselves." Photos by Aubrey Edwards show the Backside inhabitants in their element.
The real meat of the exhibition is in the letters, which are among the most heartfelt you yourself could imagine writing or receiving. NSP may have been the impetus for these, but it is clear that the letter writers cherished the task. Raul Martin begins, "Although we talk every weekend on the phone, I thought I would write you a letter." NSP is not mentioned, just the strength of connections to the people addressed.
Read the letters in any order, and themes emerge; for example, he hardships of the racing industry, as in Martin Leon Brown's letter to his sister, "I've had a lot of broken bones in the last six years, but I keep getting up, dusting off, and getting back on."
The fear of damage to horses "keeps knots in a trainer's stomach," according to trainer Al Stall in a letter to a 30-years-forgotten friend who he looked up through Newman's alumni directory. "You do the very best you can to minimize their risks."
And as many of the writers share, one of the most important things is keeping the horses relaxed, a winner's priority--this dichotomy of extreme speed and extreme calm the horses must possess mirrors the extremity of the letter writers' life pursuits.
Many writers tell of a favorite horse-- like familial love, this is what keeps them waking up at 4am each day. Raul Martin's favorite, John Henry, "liked to have his forehead scratched, loved photographers, and had a terrible sweet tooth."
The amazing worth of the NSP is that in the gems of stories it promotes the preservation through education and publication. After reading the dreams, reflections and legacies of the people it empowers, it's hard not to think about who you'd write to, sharing passions and reflecting on what you've learned! Neighborhood Story Project plans to produce a book 18 months from now, which will feature the letters and photos of the project. Proceeds of the book, the 13th in NSP's series of written and oral histories in New Orleans, will go to a Fair Grounds workers' education program.
Head to the derby today and read all 17 letters. The 700 or so Fair Grounds workers will leave town after the big day to do what they do best in other places, and their stories are worth reading.