from the Independent
Failed by their government, forgotten by the insurance industry, the people of New Orleans' Lower 9th Ward finally have a hero to help rebuild their shattered lives
By Andrew Gumbel
A couple of weeks ago, residents of New Orleans' Lower 9th Ward – an overwhelmingly poor, African American area of the city hardest hit by Hurricane Katrina – flocked by the hundred to a locally staged production of Waiting for Godot.
Samuel Beckett's play was the perfect metaphor for a community that has done nothing but wait in vain – for politicians, for insurance companies, for home-rebuilding loans, for anything other than the weeds that have spread with abandon over the sites of former homes swept away in the floodwaters.
Yesterday, though, Godot came at last.
Granted, it wasn't Godot exactly. It was the Hollywood megastar Brad Pitt, whose motives and commitment have come in for some understandable close scrutiny. But Pitt is doing something no government agency has yet managed to achieve, more than two years after the worst natural disaster in US history: he is rebuilding homes in the Lower 9th and giving residents – many of them scattered around Louisiana and beyond – some tentative cause for hope in the future.
A foundation set up by Pitt, specifically targeted at New Orleans and called Make It Right, has commissioned designs for an initial 150 practical, low-cost houses from 13 of the world's more prominent architectural firms and plans to break ground on the first of them by early spring. The houses will have many flood-protection features – everything from foundations that can float to roof patios for relief from the next big storm – as well as state-of-the-art recycling and energy-generating installations to cut running costs and act as a potential model for future low-cost housing schemes.
These plans have been in the works for a couple of months, but yesterday the showman in Pitt made his first big splash. He accompanied reporters on a tour of a wondrous art installation set up by Make It Right around the neighbourhood: a collection of bright pink tent houses, boxes and blocks dotted at seemingly random intervals. The idea is to encourage big-dollar donors to sponsor the symbolic pink houses for $150,000 (£72,000) each – the estimated cost of each of the new real houses. Ordinary individuals can pitch in too – sponsoring just one item like a low-flush toilet or a solar panel.
The exhibition, which also features 1,000 lightbulbs to symbolise the approximate number people who died in Katrina's aftermath, will run for the next five weeks, the height of the holiday charitable giving season. Once it is over, the tents will be cut up and the pink fabric reused to make bags and T-shirts and other merchandise that will then be sold to raise even more money.
Pitt explained that the seemingly random placement of the houses around the gaping open spaces of the Lower 9th represented the capriciousness with which the floodwaters uprooted foundations, dislocated roofs and washed out street after street. "Right now, there are scattered blocks, like they were scattered by fate's hand, symbolic of the aftermath of the storm," Pitt told New Orleans' Times-Picayune newspaper. But the placement does in fact have a special significance, which will become clear at night when the pink houses will be fully illuminated and visitors will be encouraged to take drive-by tours. They have been laid out to mirror the position of the stars in the night sky on 29 August 2005, the day Katrina hit.
That notion may sound like touchy-feely Hollywood cosmic nonsense, but the neighbourhood has already seen enough of Pitt to know he is deadly serious. At an early community meeting, a resident begged him to "make it right" – and to underline his intention to do that he used the phrase to name his foundation.
The residents also said they wanted to be fully involved in the development of the homes, so Pitt organised regular meetings at which they could comment on the evolving architectural plans. They asked for back-up electricity sources to bolster solar roof panels, and they got them. They asked for wheelchair ramps up to the upper storeys, and they got them, too.
It's still early days, but for now Pitt's reviews have been remarkably positive. Vanessa Gueringer, a community housing organiser, said she couldn't believe someone like Pitt was genuinely interested in helping a battle-scarred neighbourhood such as the Lower 9th. "You're used to being stepped on. You're used to being misused. So, at first, you are a little leery," she told the Times-Picayune.
She is very close to being won
over. "I'm 80 per cent there," she said. "I guess I'll be completely sold when I see the first house on a lot over there. But they have done everything they could to make us understand that they want to see us see our neighbourhood come back."
New Orleans is a city where wealth and social status are determined almost entirely by sea level. The best, most colourful, most heavily frequented neighbourhoods such as the French Quarter and the Garden District were high enough to escape all but superficial damage in the flooding that followed Katrina. The Lower 9th, by contrast, is at the lowest point of the giant wash basin that New Orleans became in 2005.
Flooding was always a problem. It was inundated when Hurricane Betsy struck in 1965, leading to the biggest exodus of population until Katrina. It wasn't the hurricane that did the worst damage two years ago, but rather the flooding caused by breaches in the levee system designed to protect the city which many experts had been denouncing as inadequate for years.
The Lower 9th filled with fetid water from at least three separate sources. A neighbourhood that had long been a byword for inner-city problems – poor schools and health services, poverty, unemployment, malnutrition, drugs and crime – was all but wiped off the map.
Several people, including New Orleans' Mayor, Ray Nagin, have wondered aloud if the Lower 9th should be rebuilt at all. Some have suggested converting the entire area into parkland. Those uprooted by Katrina from the neighbourhood – a surprising 60 per cent of them owners of their own destroyed homes – have always vehemently disagreed.
That's where Pitt came in. The 43-year-old actor first came to New Orleans in 1994 to shoot Neil Jordan's Interview With The Vampire, based on a best-seller by the local gothic horror author Anne Rice. At the beginning of this year, he found himself back to shoot The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, due for release next year, and loved the place so much that he and his partner, Angelina Jolie, decided to buy a house in the French Quarter.
The couple are, of course, noted philanthropists, largely thanks to Jolie's advocacy work on behalf of children and other causes. Pitt has always been fascinated by architecture, which is why he chose to devote his energies to a socially conscious construction project.
He unveiled his plans for Make It Right in September at a meeting in New York of Bill Clinton's Global Initiative. He pledged $5m of his own money, as did Steve Bing, the film producer, and secured the services of several architectural firms enthused by the idea of showcasing good design for the sorts of people who usually have no access to it.
His key partners have been an environmental design expert called William McDonough, a Los Angeles-based architecture firm called Graft, and a North Carolina investment company called Cherokee which specialises in sustainable development. The designs are based on classic New Orleans architecture – the shotgun, the creole, and the camelback cottage styles.
Everything about the project is profoundly political. Hurricane Katrina, for Pitt, "illuminated the brutal truth that there's a portion of our society that we're not looking after, that we are marginalising. And that shouldn't be." In his vision, the new home-dwellers will no longer be getting "the crap materials that give your kids asthma, increase your health bills. They're not getting the cheap appliances that are going to run up your bills and keep that burden on you. It's a respectful way to treat people."
For the moment, eight families have been chosen to occupy the first houses to be completed. Some people have expressed concern that the houses could be a target for criminals – a concern that is very hard to measure with certainty until the houses are completed, although Pitt and his associates have been open to suggestions from residents and the local police on security measures and placement of windows and other features.
Pitt, naturally, has been accentuating the positive. "I am telling you, there are going to be families returning into homes, they'll be spending Christmas here next year," he said. "They won't have to spend another Christmas away from home."
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