Finding Home In a New City

From time to time we like to invite community members to contribute to our blog. Jesse Tolbert is an actor, play-write, and a former Boston and Somerville resident. On a warm September morning, he walked into CultureHouse HQ in Union Square and asked us about our work. Interested in the arts, civic leadership, and community change, he stayed in touch with our team. Jesse recently moved to New Orleans and in this post, shares some reflections on home and the challenges and opportunities of his new home city.

I moved a few months ago to New Orleans, Louisiana. There wasn’t a particular reason or justification behind the move — I did it because I needed a change. The cold city can become a strange collection of wide-open streets and few places to hide or find respite for city dwellers. I lived in one of these very cities, working but not finding much. I’d made a few friends, but we kept our interactions casual, mostly to tell the friends we didn’t want that we had someone else to go back to. Whether this was true or not was also up to determination. Whatever.

I think a lot of the eventual reason for my move was that I was finally getting fed up with scenarios such as this one — tired of searching for affection that history and city stone can provide only in theory, never in practice. So, I made a phone call I’d been putting off for a long, long while, and I took the train into town, then I got on a considerably larger train and found myself about the furthest away from all that I’d known within a few hours, miles and days.

A shed with an American flag under a large tree.

I don’t think it’ll surprise you that a place like Louisiana is somehow exactly like every other place in the world — though, there’s a feeling here that when you walk down the closest street, without really worrying yourself too much, you’ll find your way home. Now, as a Bostonian at heart, this worries me all the same, and for reasons probably more closely connected to vanity, I guess, because I start to think: if I started walking home in a place like this, wouldn’t I find myself lost forever?

The conversation of ‘home’ comes into play here. I find it interesting that in a place riddled by its second most disastrous hurricane in less than twenty years and the sweeping panic of the coronavirus pandemic, the people of New Orleans and its surrounding parishes seem virtually undeterred. It’s something like running barefoot and backward through a cornfield, where everything has already been declared unfit to eat. Yet, the people here are still hungry and rolling up their sleeves to replant the earth. The world “admirable” does little to achieve a truer meaning in the effort.

A rundown small building overgrown with plants.

There is a profound historical definition of what home should be, and it can be felt in every facet of this place. In a city where you can’t walk more than a quarter-mile before you find a residence or vacant storefront left by a family, tenant, or business owner who saw the storm coming and got way out of dodge, just in time — things like timing become more significant and purposeful. It’s harder to believe that some folks simply didn’t return — harder still to think that sometimes when it comes to home, we sometimes forget the importance of returning to where we are most needed, in the ways we are meant to.

What’s interesting, too, is being here, you can almost feel an immediate need for an organization like CultureHouse, for about every reason up to and including the fact that ‘culture’ and ‘home’ are some of the prevalent topics of conversation here. Each abandoned storefront holds the promise of community, reconnection, and forming new stories.

A man sitting on a milk crate on the sidewalk.

There is something to the Old South — the pace and the ways that “silly old things” are handled here that I find bring new meaning to the established hustle and bustle of the world outside of these country lines. Here, the faces of buildings, though shuttered and vacant in some places, still smile with the memory of centuries spent gleaming within the basking glow of revelry and jazz! The streets here are not so empty, hardly cold — even in the midnight hours, where, should it rain, it’s hard to choose which French Quarter cafe or corner restaurant to duck into to dry off and have a cup of something to warm the bones.

I’m beginning to feel like the definition of importance has changed, not the laundry list of things that we still hold near and dear. What can we learn from our neighbors? Well, for one, taking our time with things, trying not to let the things we can’t control get the best of us — coming together to find purpose in the solutions that will prove to stand the test of time — this matters so much more now than it ever did before.

“Where do I fit in,” I can’t help but wonder, and where do any of us find the capacity to effect a change that may be just a little further than our reach?

Well, let’s look back to CultureHouse. Let’s think about repurposing and replenishing inactive American spaces and giving them the gift of renewal.

It’s silly to think that we’re running out of promises or time to take action or reasons to care: no, we are more capable now, in a time when the world is more rapidly changing than it ever has before, to step forward from our smaller-minded opinions, and do something that will keep alive the things we value most.

Jesse welcomes your thoughts and ideas as he forms a new home in New Orleans. Feel free to be in touch with him at unionavenue1@gmail.com.

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CultureHouse

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CultureHouse improves livability in local communities by transforming unused spaces into vibrant social infrastructure.

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