Are the Brad Pitt Houses Making a Difference in New Orleans?
by Rebecca Schoenkopf
It’s been six years since we peeled our eyeballs off our TV screens and went on with the rest of our lives—at least those of us whose lives weren’t spit out by Katrina. More than 1800 people made the official list of the dead, but no one ever kept track of the missing.
More than 65,000 houses were deemed blighted in New Orleans, mashed to bits by the storm and covered in mold, and then left (particularly in the Lower Ninth ward) to rot; in the six years since, the number’s been reduced to a little over 40,000. According to the Greater New Orleans Community Data Center, fully 25 percent of New Orleans structures are blighted, topping Cleveland, Detroit, and Flint, Michigan.
So how does New Orleans look lately? How does it feel?
view from the Roosevelt
We had the immense pleasure of a trip there last month during the massive East Coast and heartland heat wave. The tourist-happy parts of the city are as shiny and packed with fun and beauty as ever—the French Quarter and the elegant hotels that serve it; the roiling Frenchmen Street (where I’m reasonably sure Steve Earle got murdered on Treme) on which you will see hundreds of people milling in front of someone playing a sidewalk show, with hundreds and hundreds more in the clubs; the fine dining and fine music and fine hotels and fine everything for those of us from elsewhere, and at cut-rate prices. At my hotel, the Roosevelt, a glorious vision of the 1890s that was refurbished by Waldorf-Astoria to exacting modern standards, actual movie stars* were hanging by the pool bar between shoots. A Baptist convention was meeting, meaning I got to see fabulous old ladies congregating in the lobby in outstandingly flouncy purple dresses and matching hats. But my very favorite moment might have been watching an old white bellhop carrying bags for a contentedly portly black customer. This, this is quite nice, no?
Our helpful concierge had many options at the ready for touring the Lower Ninth ward, along with the houses Brad Pitt and the Make It Right Foundation have been building. The very worst option, obviously, was to do it in a limousine, and yet that was his very first suggestion. We thanked him, but certainly not. Eventually, we just hailed a cab driven by a Haitian dude who took us in the rain to the verdant, almost tropical Lower Ninth, where there were more bare foundations than there were homes. He knew all the city’s stats, and those for the Lower Ninth. This must be a rite performed by every out-of-towner, like lighting a candle: a little remembrance, focus on others, a little penance for the decadence that will both precede and follow the pilgrimage.
More than 4,000 houses in the Lower Ninth were destroyed by the storm. The houses Pitt has commissioned to replace a few of them are beautiful: ultra-modern, funky, dual-toned in jazzy and bold complementary colors, updated with all the most progressive ecological amenities. Some of the homes in the tract clearly weren’t from Pitt and Make It Right—they were little vinyl-sided prefabs that looked like they might have been ordered from Lowe’s—and yet everyone in the neighborhood was house-proud. It was clear just driving down the little street that people who lived there were desperate to show that they lived there, they were not gone, they lived there yet. Every house that wasn’t abandoned had perfectly placed patio furniture out front, and the requisite cheerful doodads by the door.
The Make It Right Foundation has completed 50 homes, and they’re gorgeous, appealing to even the worst design snobs. There are plans for 100 more. But why is it up to one movie star to make it right? How much can he do? The Hyatt Regency gave $300,000 to Make It Right recently, which, good for them and etc. The Hyatt Regency also spent $275 million on its own redesign.
Make It Right home
Meanwhile, a federal program called The Road Home has only as of late 2010 managed to mete out three-quarters of the more than $10 billion that had been allocated for distressed homeowners by the feds, and with that same program, a court found prima facie evidence of discrimination: black homeowners had received markedly lower awards than homeowners in predominantly white neighborhoods.
Of course they did.
And with so very many properties impacted, rents have increased by half, making hard circumstances half-again harder.
People have been coming home to New Orleans—a lucky few of them thanks to Brad Pitt. But he can’t be our shelter in the face of all our coming storms.
We have broken the weather, and there will be more storms of worse intensity, and Republican House Majority Leader Eric Cantor doesn’t want to help anyone impacted by disaster unless we cut something from poor people elsewhere.
It’s time for action and to open our wallets. And if you’ve got to take a vacation somewhere, the folks in New Orleans are most excellent hosts. Just grab any old cab driver while you’re there. He’ll know just exactly where your pilgrimage starts.
*Well, Josh Duhamel. He was very nice! But I had so little interest in his Life As We Know It, where he and Katherine Heigl get them an orphan, that even though it was playing on the in-room movie mere hours after I’d met him, I still could not bring myself to watch it. I have watched it since. It is just as gross as you could presume.