“I don’t even want to talk about it,” said the late twenty-something urban planning consultant sitting next to me at one of the many hip coffee shops cropping up in New Orleans’ Garden District. Typical of most college aged students on their spring break, by the fourth day of my visit to New Orleans, my group of friends and I had spent a majority of our time wandering about the French Quarter and old jazz and bar district. As we wandered about the meticulously preserved French-colonial architecture and enjoyed beignets in pleasant, green plazas, I grew more and more suspicious that these neat pockets of tourist friendly zones were a gross misrepresentation of the financially drained, slow to recover New Orleans I had read about. My spontaneous conversation with two quasi-public planners confirmed these suspicions. Assuring me that summarizing the realistic state of neighborhood recovery and reconstruction would take all day, they relayed that city government is an exasperatingly slow moving machine in regards to rebuilding public infrastructure and protecting land values in the worst affected residential areas. But I would have to see it for myself, if I really wanted to understand, they told me.
Fortunately, that afternoon, my friends and I were scheduled to take a tour of the Lower 9th Ward with Jordon Pollard, family friend and Design Manager of Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie’s ‘Make It Right’ organization. Given my quest for answers, this visit was well timed; Make It Right was founded by Brad Pitt in 2007, as direct response to the city’s failure to protect and rebuild one of New Orleans’ most challenged neighborhoods. Working in collaboration with the displaced residents of the 9th Ward and over 21 world-renowned architects, Make It Right has rebuilt over 100 homes to replace some of the thousands of homes destroyed as a result of failed human engineering when the levees broke during the storm. Relying on a variety of foundations and corporate partners to provide new housing to residents of the 9th Ward, the organization attests that they “… have learned valuable lessons about how to change the low cost, low quality paradigm… we’ve proven that you can build inspiring homes that are healthy and sustainable for about the same price as conventional low-income housing.” Having pledged to build 100 homes from the get-go, economy of scale enabled the organization to use materials and methods in compliance LEED’s Platinum standards, guided by the Cradle to Cradle philosophy that the built environment should honor the respect and dignity of the residents and produce more energy than they consume.
There is visible evidence of Make It Right’s commitment to rebuilding community- not just homes- when you walk around the Lower Ninth Ward. Children play in puddles in front yards, volunteers work in the community garden and parents sit on the front porches of their state-of-the-art homes. However, local frustration with the cities’ sluggishness to rebuild and the federal government’s failure to adequately support reconstruction is also tangible. Outside of Make It Right’s radius of permeable streets, bio swales and happy front porch dwellers, at least every other lot remains vacant and the streets are dotted with pot holes 5 feet in diameter. It’s disheartening to realize that Make It Right’s efforts are in some ways a micro chasm of what I witnessed in New Orleans historic and tourist districts; deliberate investment in the right places, by the right people can easily create the illusion that pervasive change is underway. But even residents of Make It Right’s new community aren’t buying it. In the front yard of Mr. Robertson’s* home topped with solar panels, a sign leans against the base of a poll bearing the American flag: “We want our country to love us as much as we love our country. The strength of our community belongs to us all… Rebuild New Orleans’ Lower 9th Ward. Cross the Canal AND Tennessee Street.” Pulling out of his driveway in his pickup, Mr. Robertson rolls down his window and stops next to my group. “You can take pictures,” he says.