Making it Right with Brad Pitt in the Lower Nine

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.

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Jazz Fest Highlights the Contractions of New Orleans

bicycle memorial on st. claude

bicycle memorial on st. claude

New Orleans     The annual Jazz and Heritage Festival or Jazz Fest, as it’s universally known in New Orleans, has become a big time event over the years.   I had folks come into town for a board meeting recently and trying to find a place the out-of-towners would like to try, several restaurants had special reservation requirements – and prices! – for what they called the “festival season.”  That was a new one on me, even though it makes perfect sense, because it used to be only the Sugar Bowl and Mardi Gras were the tourist scalping times, but now, it’s always open season for that, and French Quarter Fest, Jazz Fest, and other spring music-themed promotions have become huge.   We don’t mind partially because we always see old friends from around the country who make this part of their regular pilgrimage, and of course with Fair Grinds Coffeehouse only a couple of blocks away from the racetrack Jazz Fest venue, it’s wild there for a couple of weekends, sometimes even making an extra dollar to support ACORN International’s organizing because of it.

Fair Grinds for Jazz Fest

Fair Grinds for Jazz Fest

Having friends and foreigners around though, they always ask about changes in the city, and the standard, post-Katrina question, now almost 9 years on, “how’s the city doing?”  Well, there’s never a simple answer for example if you take the 9th Ward and Bywater, where I live and in following my book a couple of years ago, The Battle for the Ninth Ward:  ACORN, New Orleans and the Lessons of Disaster, an area of the city I keep a close watch over.

Bywater didn’t flood, meaning that rents and housing values skyrocketed, and an influx of hipsters, newcomers, and randoms, find the neighborhood under full-on gentrification assault.  The hipsters are not without humor and perhaps they are keeping some of the gentrifiers somewhat at bay.

couch on press street...keeping sense of humor

couch on press street…keeping sense of humor

On one hand we see infill construction, which ONLY happens in gentrifying areas, including a squeezed in project to build seven shotgun singles in the former parking lot of the old Frey meat packing plan.

infill construction of spec houses from Frey Meat Plant in Bywater

infill construction of spec houses from Frey Meat Plant in Bywater

But on the other hand, the same developers off-loaded the Plant and did so when they couldn’t convince anyone that they wanted to live in $400-450000 condos that they had proposed building in the Plant, so they’re now trying to sell the whole shebang for $3 million.

failed project to create $400000 condos in the plant

failed project to create $400000 condos in the plant

For its part, the City seems confused.  On one end of the neighborhood sits the rusting, fenced in F. Edward Hebert defense complex, waiting for a plan not far from the subdued, much delayed opening of the city’s Crescent Park.

abandoned F. Edward Hebert Defense Facility and Crescent Park along the River

abandoned F. Edward Hebert Defense Facility and Crescent Park along the River

The bridge over the railroad track is one of the highest climbs many New Orleanians will ever muster.

IMG_1182

the bridge climb

Farther down in the lower 9th ward, people are less happy about that park, because research done by A Community Voice, the former New Orleans ACORN, indicated that the money had been diverted for the park from recovery money designated for reconstruction efforts in the lower 9th ward.  Where Bywater between the 2000 census and the 2010 census saw its racial mix flip from 30% white and 70% minorities to 70% white and 30% minorities, the lower 9th ward, particularly in the areas hardest hit by flooding is still overwhelmingly African-American.  The Brad Pitt “Make it Right Foundation” and its architectural oddities have been curious additions, but not without their own contradictions, one of the most stark is an eyesore of an abandoned gas station near the bridge at the entry to the lower 9th which pretends to be for sale, but was bought by the Make It Right Foundation years ago, but shows no progress even after all these years.

gas station bought by Make it Right Foundation and still sitting abandoned 8 1/2 years later

gas station bought by Make it Right Foundation and still sitting abandoned 8 1/2 years later

The City of New Orleans is now the largest property owner in the lower 9th thanks to the buyouts after the hurricane, but their policies are nothing but contradictory.  On our ACORN Farm they whine if a piece of our grass, even where we have to hand cut, gets over 18 inches, even while other properties hardly yards away get the blind eye.

bushwacking at the ACORN Farm

bushwhacked at the ACORN Farm

a couple of blocks away

a couple of blocks away

All of which confuses individual homeowners who are still trying to rebuild on their own next to neighbors and an indifferent city administration who are still stuck at the storm.

trying to rebuild in the L9

trying to rebuild in the L9

rebuilding of your own

still stuck at Katrina’s door

So, how are we doing in New Orleans?  It depends on who you ask, where you are standing when you ask, and whether or not you really want to face the consequences of the answer.

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