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Character Witness 

A local oral history project aims to chronicle the soul of Central City

"There's so many stories happening in New Orleans," says Nick Slie, and he would know. In recent weeks, Slie, a cofounder of the local arts production company Mondo Bizarro, has been documenting stories from one area of New Orleans in particular: Central City. The 25 recordings captured by Slie and his collaborators are the first wave of a yearlong oral history project called I-Witness Central City. It's Slie's second such endeavor, following the I-10 Witness Project (www.i10witness.org), which launched in 2006 and continues to collect testimonials from Hurricane Katrina survivors.

"Politically and socially, we felt a real strong commitment to make sure the neighborhoods we thought were important came back (after Katrina)," Slie says. "Central City's a visibly changing neighborhood, and it's one of these New Orleans neighborhoods that could go either way, in my opinion. It could be completely developed, or it could hang on to some of the soul of the neighborhood."

For resident Bernard Jones, that soul lived in the story of the "Mean Green" football team, "a group of 9-year-olds running a wishbone offense," Slie says, which dominated opposing squads at Philip Park in 1971. "They had to paint their numbers on their jerseys because they didn't have enough money," he says. "Teams would laugh at them when they showed up at the park, but they would beat [them] like 72-0. They didn't have a team score a point on them that year."

In the case of artist Jeffrey Cook, the story was his own. "[He] took us down to the corner of Felicity and Carondelet (streets), where, if you look across the street at this tree in a gated, fenced-in area, you can see the steps from the old treehouse he built when he was 9 years old," Slie says. "He was from another neighborhood and some kid told him he couldn't build a treehouse there. So he put his little fists up and said that he would fight the kids for the treehouse.

'He described it that their fights were more like, "I'll dance you for it' or "I'll draw a picture better than you for it.'"

Such history lessons amount to character witnessing for a culturally rich area of New Orleans too often dehumanized today by reports of violence, Slie says. With the help of a grant from the state Department of Culture, Recreation and Tourism (DCRT), his project seeks to help restore Central City to its position of historical import using two methods: a virtual tour accessible via Mondo Bizarro's Web site (www.mondobizarro.org) and a physical tour through the neighborhood itself. At various "Story Sites," insignias bearing the words "My I-Witness Story" and a phone number will allow route walkers to hear the recorded tales straight from their tellers.

'We created a system where people who listen to stories can leave stories," Slie adds. "They can be in charge of their own content at those places."

A launch party, featuring readings by local poets and performances by dancers and musicians, is scheduled for 7 p.m. Tuesday, Oct. 28, at the Ashé Cultural Arts Center (1712 Oretha Castle Haley Blvd.). The party is the project's debut event, but it is also a reciprocation of sorts. One stipulation of Mondo Bizarro's grant application was that funded projects would take part in a much larger process — namely, as Passport events for the World Cultural Economic Forum, the brainchild of Louisiana Lt. Gov. Mitch Landrieu, whose office oversees the DCRT (see story on page 13).

'We put it in like every other grant application — expecting for it to come back and tell us, "We'll give you 30 percent of your request,'" Slie says. "We actually got 100 percent of the request. It gave us the shot in the arm we needed to really do this thing right."

Also appearing at the launch party as special guests are two parallel, likeminded projects: the VideoVoice Project, which recently equipped Central City residents with cameras and assembled the footage into a participatory documentary, In Harmony; and the Neighborhood Story Project, whose book Cornerstones identifies cultural landmarks throughout New Orleans. In keeping with the community focus of I-Witness, parts of the film will be screened, and copies of the book will be available for purchase.

'We have been talking really heavily of late, like, "Let's not do the old New Orleans thing, and—everybody do the same thing at the same time,'" Slie says. "We're trying to find a way to, where it fits, use everybody's resources and really stay in touch and keep reporting to each other what we're doing, so that when a partnership might emerge, we're there to take advantage of it."

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