Those Brad Pitt Houses: Amid a Deluge of Avant Garde Sustainable Housing, New Orleans' Lower Ninth Ward Community Is Clinging to the Ideas of Home and 'Hood

Article excerpt

AS WE CROSS over the Claiborne Avenue bridge from the Upper Ninth Ward on Gray Line International's "Hurricane Katrina-Americas Greatest Catastrophe" tour, local artist Brad Dupuy informs us in his rich voice that we "are about to enter what is known famously as the Lower Ninth Ward." What makes the Lower Ninth Ward notable, at least for Gray Line and the rest of the world, is that this is where Hurricane Katrina hit the hardest. According to Dupuy, the Lower Ninth "saw a tremendous amount of media attention largely because this is where you would have seen our highest numbers of fatalities, where you would have seen the highest numbers of people in need of being rescued from their properties." It is also the place where the most people lost their homes when the levees broke in August 2005.

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Looking north from the Claiborne Avenue bridge, we can see the spot where the Industrial Canal levee breached, flooding the Lower Ninth Ward. In all, 4000 homes were lost in the Lower Ninth. As we tour the area in 2008, most of the debris has been cleared and all that remains are a few brick houses scattered amongst the skeletal foundations of countless others. Katrina virtually wiped this neighbourhood away, literally knocking houses off their foundations.

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The bus turns in to what was once a neighbourhood near the levee, and we are greeted by the remains of brilliant pink canvas structures. They were part of an art installation called The Pink Project. Dozens of tent-like buildings had dotted the landscape, denoting the spots where houses once stood and, presumably, would stand again. Our guide informs us that superstar Brad Pitt and the Make It Right Foundation had launched The Pink Project a few months earlier. As we drive by Common Ground Relief, a non-profit foundation that initiated the gutting of houses in the Lower Ninth and assisted residents after the Hood, a sign greets us: 'TOURIST Shame On YOU. Driving BY Without Stopping. Paying TO See MY PAIN. 1600+ DIED HERE" My companions and 1 take some solace in the fact that, despite taking part in Americans Greatest Catastrophe tour, we aren't really tourists. It's reading week in Canada and our group of university students has come down to help out by giving media support to Common Ground Relief. We're volunteers and we are staying in the thick of things where Make It Right homes are going to be constructed.

Thorn Pepper, the operations director for Common Ground Relief, tells us excitedly about how Pitt's Make It Right, in collaboration with community stakeholders, is planning to build 150 new, LEED-certified homes in the seven-block area next to the levee. Make It Right has tracked down 90 of 150 property owners, and 75 are interested in having new-homes. Even from our bus, we can feel the hopeful enthusiasm that pervades the air. It will take more than the biblical three days, but this part of the Lower Ninth Ward, it appears, will rise again.

Before Katrina, there were two views of the Lower Ninth Ward: that of the general public and that of residents. Relying on local and national news reports, the public believed the Lower Ninth to be a dangerous and isolated place, racked by high rates of crime and homicides. Residents, who for years chafed at this portrayal, saw themselves as a community of activists, rich in family networks, embedded in stable neighbourhoods, anchored by affordable homes and a deep Christian faith. As we learned, there arc a lot of churches in the Lower Ninth, a lot of homicides and, at 60 per cent, the highest rate of home ownership in all of New Orleans.

In her 2007 article, "The Forgotten People of New Orleans: Community, Vulnerability, and the Lower Ninth Ward," published in the Journal of American History, Juliette Landphair noted a "fierce loyalty among residents to their neighbourhoods" that encouraged "civic activism focused on strengthening municipal services. …