New Orleans The Lower 9th Ward became iconic as part of the story of catastrophe, struggle, and recovery in New Orleans and around the world after Hurricane Katrina. Now there are new candidates in more cities where climate and nature have combined to expose humanity at its rawest, weakest, and sometimes best. Here, the L9 is in the news again, still in the shadows of Katrina, over issues with one of the most widely publicized of the rehabilitation projects, Brad Pitt’s Make it Right Foundation.
Pitt and his wife at the time, Angelina Jolie, had stepped up in the wake of the storm to use their star power to raise money to build new houses there after the storm. For a while they had a house in the French Quarter and were seen here and there. Pitt, an architectural aficionado, had commissioned famous architects, here and abroad, to design the homes, and more than one-hundred have been built. In my book, The Battle for the Ninth Ward: ACORN, the Rebuilding of New Orleans, and the Lessons of Disaster, I have some issues with Make It Right based largely on planting high-priced, subsidized houses in the L9, designed more as showpieces than structures that fit in with the vernacular of the area or were sustainable. Nonetheless, I never questioned Pitt’s sincerity and in fact when pushed by ACORN, including our organizer Tanya Harris and ACORN leaders to do the project in the real heart of the L9, rather than the rapidly gentrifying Holy Cross area near the Mississippi River, he quickly agreed and lived up to his word. Harris in recent years has worked for the Make It Right Foundation, which also says good things about it.
In recent days some Foundation homeowners sued the operation because of shoddy construction, water leaks, system failures, black mold, and an array of issues. One of the local papers, the New Orleans Advocate, did an editorial recently calling on Pitt to Make It Right. Now the Make It Right Foundation has sued the architect, John C. Williams, for $20 million for design flaws that caused these problems, alleging that Williams and his firm have known about the problems and failed to correct them. Maybe there will be a trial, but likely they’ll settle, which might work for the homeowners, but will leave the citizens less informed than they might need to be about John Williams and his practice. Based on our experience with Williams, I’m siding with Pitt and the foundation on this one.
Williams in my book was the classic case of a believer in the mantra that a crisis is an opportunity, mainly for someone like him to cash in. ACORN would run into him like a car passing a vulture on the highway at one hearing and meeting after another. With some skullduggery he unraveled a contract won by ACORN and our associates to be the planner for the 9th Ward recovery with false allegations and charges of conflicts of interest, after we beat him in the competition, so that he could in fact be both planner and architect in a full-bore conflict of interest. Maybe he did some good work, and maybe he did some bad work, but he was a corner cutter, back-room-whisperer motivated by total self-interest rather than commitment to the community. Brad Pitt versus John C. Williams is a no brainer: Pitt at least wants to “make it right,” while Williams often has no idea of “what is right.”
Vanessa Gueringer, long time ACORN leader in the L9, chaired an event a local church there to discuss my book when it came out several years after Katrina. John Williams showed up for a hot minute. Shook a few hands and bought a book to see if his name was in it. He got his money worth. He was mentioned in the book. I doubt that he liked what was said about him there any more than he is going to like having to defend his work in the Lower 9th Ward now that the houses he built are already crumbling around him.