"Blogger Karen Dalton-Beninato sent me this beautiful picture of the project Brad Pitt is working on..."
Five years ago, Arianna Huffington posted my husband's photo of pink tents in a planned green community in New Orleans. That was two years post Hurricane Katrina levee failures, and it often felt like New Orleans was stuck in neutral.
It was 2007 and the 9th Ward still looked like an overgrown prairie strewn with concrete slabs, all that was left of most houses near the Industrial Canal. Residents were coming back to FEMA trailers, if they could get one, and gutted out homes. In the years since then, Make It Right NOLA has assembled a living study in sustainable architecture for returning residents.
"After Hurricane Katrina, many people said the Lower 9th Ward could not be rebuilt, but the spirit of the Lower Ninth and its residents is vibrant and resilient," Brad Pitt recently said through his Foundation. "Today, the neighborhood is growing and alive with new homes, playgrounds, gardens and block parties. With the help of generous partners like Hyatt, Make It Right will fulfill our goal of building 150 sustainable homes for those in this community who lost everything in the storm." Pitt is hosting a March 10th MIR benefit at the newly reopened Hyatt Regency in New Orleans, and the Hyatt is underwriting the cost of the event so all proceeds go to rebuilding.
Why the focus on New Orleans, and Pitt and Jolie's move to the French Quarter? Robert Kinney described it as well as anyone in his 1941 guidebook, The Bachelor in New Orleans: "New Orleans is the lotus land, to which all travelers return -- once visited, it haunts you, calling your blood always."
"I'm from New Orleans, I love New Orleans and I love that Make It Right continues to help the people there rebuild their beautiful city," event co-chair Ellen DeGeneres has said of the project. "Brad Pitt is amazing -- not only for what he started, but also because, who else can make a hard hat look like a jaunty fall fashion accessory?"
DeGeneres will be joining NOLA natives Dr. John and Wendell Pierce at the benefit. And they will be joined by Drew Brees, Kanye West, Seal, Rihanna, Sheryl Crow, Randy Jackson, Josh Brolin, Chris Paul, Djimon Hounsou, Spike Lee, Blake Lively, Sean Penn, and Kevin Spacey, with dinner prepared by chefs John Besh, Giada DeLaurentiis and Emeril Lagasse. Aziz Ansari of Parks and Recreation is hosting the after-party. With all the celebrities expected, it would probably be shorter to list who's not coming.
The event will sprint the project to its final goal of 150 platinum LEED certified homes in its 16-block neighborhood, and eventually help Make it Right move into helping Pitt's home territory of Joplin, Missouri with what they've learned from rebuilding green in New Orleans.
Steve Ragan is MIR's Development Director, and he walked us through the neighborhood's homes. We started out at the one that was built to float, designed by Tom Mayne of Morphosis Architects. Modular construction was assembled at UCLA, shipped to New Orleans and reassembled as the first home in the United States permitted for a floating foundation. All the connections to utilities are flexible tubing and piping, and if the home did begin to float they would be safely cut leaving its two masts to support it, Ragan explained. "It's probably our most cutting edge design. If we opened our program up to young hipsters, it would have sold quickly." The home eventually sold to an older man who needed a smaller space than the multi-generational homes occupied by many of his neighborhood.
"The most important thing is the immediate good for people who live here," Ragan says. "Second most important is advancing construction of energy efficient homes. Third, if you can imagine, is having the final neighborhood of 150 homes designed by 21 of the greatest architects in the world. In 20 years the people who will be touring the homes hopefully won't be thinking of them as advanced technology any more, but because they're architecturally significant."
Landscaping is largely made up of indigenous plants that help soak up water. Make it Right has patented a permeable concrete with 100 percent drainage throughout the development, and Ragan pours his coffee onto the surface to show us how quickly it disappears. That drainage also helped along with gray water collected beneath the homes. One of MIR's contractor was at a funeral and thought of using concrete crypts under the residents' homes to collect gray water. It's the right size, half the cost of building a container and feels appropriate in a city where dancing at funerals is not out of the norm.
Homes are built at least four feet off the ground, but MIR encourages residents to go higher. Residents have skin in the game, typically paying $75,000 with the rest of the $150,000 subsidized with a forgivable mortgage. With solar panels, Energy Star appliances and every possible new green technology on hand, only two homes in the development regularly use more energy than they produce, and those are multi-generational.
"If we had not focused on one area, we would have been able to build faster but people would have been pioneers sitting on their own," Ragan said. He's seen the crawfish boils, family reunions and arrivals of other developers as the area came to life. The 9th Ward was at 80 percent home ownership before Katrina, families who had lived there before the Industrial Canal was built and passed their homes down through generations. Some former residents are now back home, with green rooftop decks offering a view across the river.
"Homeowners choose their home as long as it's something that through our assistance they can afford. They're treated with the same respect, able to make the same decisions about design as a private developer would," Ragan said. "You can see some differences between first of the homes and later. We've managed as we've gone along with every iteration of homes to increase energy efficiency and lower costs. It's great when you can get an academic architect to take pause and say, 'how did you do that?"
It's something to see, and the visitors are coming in ever-increasing numbers. "I counted tour buses one day, and we were at 48," Ragan said. That number will only grow, with the Hollywood of the South bringing even more tourists to New Orleans. The Pugh + Scarpa home we walked through had far more natural light than you would expect from the exterior view. Window direction adds to passive heating and cooling technologies, much like early Creole homes in the French Quarter. In the morning, the home is flooded with light. But by afternoon, the side with fewer windows, all hurricane resistant, cools the home down. Wireless lighting systems save on wiring costs, and directed vents at the top of the wall where hot air rises help cool the house faster. The architects are clearly familiar with Louisiana summers. Floors are reclaimed pine, and all the paint in the home is VOC-free. "We haven't had hard data, but anecdotally children who suffer from asthma have fewer problems once they move in." Architects meet with stakeholders early on, and the project has focused on residents who had lived in the Lower 9th Ward. One of the main design alterations requested has been larger porch and terrace areas for neighborhood socializing.
"I just love to come out here on a Saturday," Ragan said. "You've got construction crews working, you've got homeowners socializing, this neighborhood has come back to life. Architects talk about how architecture engages people. Tourists come outside, and a homeowner will come out and start explaining the home to them. Then another will come out and say, let me tell you about mine."
Plantings and mulch are available to community members. And the Make it Right playground, made of recycled materials, has wi-fi installed so children can compete with children in a playground on the other side of the world with the same system installed. Bayou Bienvenue backs up to the development, but its original cypress trees were killed off years ago as canals brought saltwater intrusion from the Gulf to the city. An older man walks up and reminisces about the years when the bayou was fresh water and the cypress trees grew. He talks about trapping and walking through the bayou, pointing to the stumps that now exist.
We meet Robert Green, a Make it Right resident and its unofficial ambassador. "I've been fortunate enough to be here when most people come by," he said. Green asked for the Waiting for Godot sign from the 9th Ward production starring Pierce, so the front of his house greets visitors with words by Samuel Beckett. Green often takes people into his home to show them construction, which he's proud of. His was the second lot in the program, and he bought the adjacent lot through the city's Lot Next Door program. He's considered putting in a gazebo.
Green was sent back from the Superdome when they couldn't offer adequate help to his mother who had Parkinson's Disease. So the family returned home, and the next day the water started rising. Green saved two of his granddaughters, but he lost his mother and granddaughter in the floodwaters that came through the broken levee on August 29, 2005. A marker for each rests in front of his home, under his Waiting for Godot set sign.
It reads: A country road. A tree. Evening.
Details on A Night to Make It Right are available at: nighttomakeitright.com
Photos by Jeff Beninato