Over the weekend, we shared an article on our social media feed about how residents of New Orleans’ Lower Ninth Ward were suing Brad Pitt’s Make it Right Foundation over defects to their homes. The article referenced a People Magazine article which I’ve not read (and don’t care to). Without a photo of Brad Pitt and his name in the headline, this is probably not a story. Yet, here it is.
Hurricane Katrina is the tragedy that never seems to end. In that sense, it contrasts with Hurricane Harvey’s lasting impacts on the Houston area and, so it seems at this point, Hurricane Florence and the Carolinas. All three were devastating, but something about Katrina and New Orleans has been different.
I actually had the opportunity to visit the lower Ninth Ward and meet the people living in the Make it Right homes. Going in, my impression was not positive. It felt like the typical routine: celebrities pouring in during the moment of peak despair (and media coverage), sounding trumpets, offering up commitments that feel sincere but lack fortitude, and doing all of these experiments on the poor. It didn’t help that the homes themselves were circus exhibits, places nobody with a Beverly Hills zip code would be caught dead in.
Yet that’s not what the people who lived there thought. Their walls had pictures of them posing with Brad Pitt. I was (repeatedly) told he visited now and then to check on things. The people proudly showed me their homes, which were quite nice inside. I noted that they had escape hatches in the roof in case tragedy should strike again. And these were places residents owned outright—no mortgage, though they might have taken one out later on their own—thanks to Make it Right.
Given the depths of despair visited upon this neighborhood—there were still houses there with the infamous spray paint on the outside walls marking the number of dead within—the only thing these residents seemed to lack was the means to care for their homes. They were isolated, even more so now with the enormous population loss, and their neighborhood did not seem viable.
It’s not surprising to me that, given a climate that must be punishing on modern construction materials, these homes have not aged well. In the best of places, a home is an ongoing maintenance nightmare. That goes double in the hot and humid bayou. To maintain something like this, you need know how, people to help you, and some money. In other words, you need a neighborhood.
The Lower Ninth Ward is a place, but it’s not a neighborhood, at least not in the functional sense of the word. You cannot exist there without leaving regularly, just for basic needs.
On that same trip, I had an opportunity to visit the multi-billion-dollar flood diversion project. I’ve seen some huge engineering projects, but this one blew me away. And it wasn’t just the engineering; it was the sheer size of the area they opted to protect. Even before the post-Katrina population surge and subsequent population loss, this area would have far exceeded anything New Orleans—a struggling place to begin with—could ever hope to make productive use of.
As a society, we’re quite comfortable responding to tragedies like this in ways that professionals can easily manage. Infrastructure projects are complicated and, in instances like New Orleans after Katrina, their sheer size makes it hard to argue that we aren’t doing anything to respond. But are we doing the right thing?
I find it hard to fault Brad Pitt or Make it Right before asking a more difficult question: If we had spent those billions incrementally re-building neighborhood fabric instead of engineering overkill, where would New Orleans be today?
I don’t believe the Make it Right homes—circus exhibits that they are—would be nearly as fragile as they have proven to be if they were tucked into a functioning neighborhood.