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The Brad Pitt Homes of NOLA

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After visiting my son for the last time at Tulane University in New Orleans (he graduated!), I decided on this final trip to take a tour of the Ninth Ward and see the damage left in the wake of Hurricane Katrina six years ago. Without seeking it out specifically, the casual visitor to NOLA (like me) rarely sees any of the devastation.

This time I sought it out, and got a personal tour from a former French professor who has written a book about Katrina. I soon discovered I was far from the only one with the same idea. In fact, it's kind of disquieting how Katrina tours have become part of the landscape of New Orleans. It's marketed in brochures alongside the Cemetery tour and the Swamp Boat ride.

In a classic display of making lemonade from lemons, tours to examine what happened seem kind of good for business. There is so much demand that more than a few people are making money. Some of the local kids even sell brownies to the gawkers at $4 a pop, and who can blame them?

I was taken around in a private car but, along the way, I saw a group of bike riders and a bus, both stopped along the same route I was on. Honestly, it felt kind of tawdry to be on the Katrina circuit, walking into abandoned houses, snapping photos of the damage, and seeing the former home of Fats Domino who survived the hurricane on the second floor of his pink-lined mansion but it's the only way to see where the city stands today. You're not going to find any damage in the French Quarter, which is completely restored.

The most hopeful sign along the way was the so-called Brad Pitt houses -- homes that the actor financed with his own money, and reportedly built when he got tired of the constant delays in new home construction. The houses are full of color, different shapes and materials. Some look like tricked-out double-wide trailers but I had to admire the optimism they brought to an otherwise pretty bleak landscape.

And there is that pride of ownership. In his commencement speech given at Tulane, Thomas Friedman, the New York Times columnist, mentioned ownership as an important quality worldwide. "No one," he said, "in the history of the world ever washed a rented car."

Indeed.