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If You Rebuild It, They Might Not Come
March 20, 2013 3:25 PM   Subscribe

Brad Pitt's Make It Right foundation has committed millions to try and revitalize New Orleans' Lower 9th Ward by building 150 affordable, green, storm-resistant homes from designs by the likes of Gehry Partners, Morphosis, Kieran Timberlake, and McDonough + Partners. Thing is, the ward doesn't have enough residents to attract stores and services, so no one wants to live there. Meanwhile, the city continues to follow through on millions in commitments to rebuild roads on streets where no one now lives, and to erect police stations and schools for a lonely, "barren moonscape" of a neighborhood. About 90 households, primarily elderly people, are living in futuristic homes that most Americans would covet, and yet there’s not a supermarket--or even a fast food restaurant--for miles.
posted by DirtyOldTown (36 comments total) 22 users marked this as a favorite

 
That must be a totally weird life!
posted by Katjusa Roquette at 3:29 PM on March 20, 2013


I used to do volunteer work in the lower 9 (rebuilding damaged homes) when Brad Pitt's project was getting underway. These problems have been visible from the beginning. Make It Right poured millions of dollars into futuristic eco-houses, when what was needed was a functioning neighborhood infrastructure. The lower 9 is isolated from the rest of New Orleans geographically, economically, and culturally. The nearest grocery store is a Wal-Mart in the next town, and you can't walk into the main part of the city because there's a canal in the way and the bridges don't have foot or bike paths. It's like a limb with a tourniquet on it -- cut off from its source of sustenance, it is wasting away. It doesn't help that it suffered from multi-generational ingrained poverty and neglect stemming from systemic racism and corruption looooong before Katrina ever came along. It's hard to see a way out.
posted by Scientist at 3:43 PM on March 20, 2013 [16 favorites]


I am now envisioning Prince Charles rapelling from a helicopter to rescue flood victims. Possibly shouting 'Tally ho!'
posted by pompomtom at 3:46 PM on March 20, 2013 [1 favorite]


when what was needed was a functioning neighborhood infrastructure.

It's not an insane idea, at least prima facie, to think that if you can just get a sufficient number of people into the houses, the infrastructure to serve them will follow. This seems like an inherently chicken-and-egg problem.
posted by yoink at 3:47 PM on March 20, 2013 [5 favorites]


...and yet there’s not a supermarket--or even a fast food restaurant--for miles.

Sounds like the perfect opportunity for the world's first BrangelinaBurgers. Their motto is "The trendiest burgers, served with the most enormous plastic smiles".
posted by turgid dahlia 2 at 3:50 PM on March 20, 2013 [1 favorite]


Took me quite a few seconds to realize that this isn't the same Make it Right Foundation run by Mike Holmes, though he and his foundation participated in building one of those homes.
posted by fireoyster at 4:17 PM on March 20, 2013 [3 favorites]


The nearest grocery store is a Wal-Mart in the next town, and you can't walk into the main part of the city because there's a canal in the way and the bridges don't have foot or bike paths.

Actually the St. Claude Avenue bridge has both footpaths isolated from the vehicular traffic and bike paths drawn down the right vehicular lane giving bicycles the right of way in that lane. But it's still a couple of miles from the Make it Right homes to even a mediocre urban grocery store.

The other two bridges at Claiborne and Florida avenues are both high-rises with no foot or bicycle paths and the Florida bridge is out of commission more often than it's open to traffic.
posted by localroger at 4:18 PM on March 20, 2013 [1 favorite]


Man, the biggest part of the Lower Ninth, north of Claiborne and east of Torres Park, say, really is an economic black hole. Look at it on Google Maps: restaurants -- none. Groceries -- none, not even a convenience store. Barber -- none. Not even a nail salon or a liquor store or, apparently, any commercial establishment of any kind.

According to the 2010 census, there's 683 families left in the entire ward, which includes the somewhat more successful Holy Cross area. If all the money that's been spent there had just been parceled out in cash instead, not to the entire Lower Ninth, but just the north of Claiborne area, all of those people could have just bought houses in other parts of the city (or somewhere else).

Even in the better part, where there are a few amenities and a semblance of neighborhood life, it looks very close to the edge of habitable. Leaving aside hurricanes and levee breaches, the city is continually sinking. I found a hole in the road at Marais and Charbonnet, not far from Fats Domino's old house, which appears to show the level of groundwater just inches below the pavement. I just don't see how this is a sustainable place for people to live.

I understand the feelings of the residents that their culture is in this place, but the physical manifestation of that culture is mostly gone now. Rather than spending millions of movie star dollars here, shouldn't that money be directed at neighborhoods that have a chance?
posted by Fnarf at 4:40 PM on March 20, 2013 [4 favorites]


It's not an insane idea, at least prima facie, to think that if you can just get a sufficient number of people into the houses, the infrastructure to serve them will follow.

I've told this story before, but in the Summer of 2008 I spent a day surveying residents at a Lower Ninth Ward Homeowners picnic-type-event about their neighborhood needs. the #1 answer from everyone I talked to was that they needed their old neighbors back. Beyond that, they needed supermarkets, etc., all of the classic infrastructure.

This is a community that, pre-Katrina, relied on one another in order to get things done. Post-Katrina, the community was scattered and disparate and unable to function as it once did. I admire Pitt's efforts to get homes there, for people to move back into, because that is what that said they need, but it might not be working out that way, and it's not like the infrastructure beyond what the community provided for each other was there before the hurricane.

TL;DR - a good percentage of the people there don't have transportation. Not having a Supermarket, all by itself, makes life there somewhat untenable.
posted by Navelgazer at 4:53 PM on March 20, 2013 [1 favorite]


I found a hole in the road at Marais and Charbonnet, not far from Fats Domino's old house, which appears to show the level of groundwater just inches below the pavement.

First of all, that's almost certainly not "groundwater" but a leaking city water supply or sewer line. Second, the collapsing, unmaintained roadway and water system failure is an endemic problem throughout the city; if a water-filled hole in the road makes a neighborhood uninhabitable, then the entire city of New Orleans is certainly already doomed. In general, planning discussions like this seem weirdly detached from some of the realities of life in New Orleans, like the fact that a large portion of the entire city's infrastructure is near collapse, not just one token neighborhood's. The consequences of the city's failure to really rebuild really are visible everywhere, not just in the single weird situation of the Lower 9th Ward — and yeah, this has a lot to do with the failure to make the hard call not to rebuild every neighborhood post-Katrina, but that's hardly where the buck stops; it's also a consequence of a century of deep poverty, corruption, and mismanagement.
posted by RogerB at 4:56 PM on March 20, 2013 [6 favorites]


So, I wondered how the population size compared to naturally grown small communities (and the facilities that panned out over time). Based on the census Killin (my home town) currently has a resident population of 666 (much higher in the Summer with the tourist influx).

It has:

* one mid-sized Co-op (n.b. to outlanders - the Co-op is {among other things} a grocery chain).
* One outdoor-store/newsagent/bike rental/misc.
* 3+ Restaurants (exc. hotels).
* A hardware store.
* A grocery of the sort where everything is behind the counter and you have to ask.
* A butcher
* A baker/sandwich shop.
* A laundrette.
* A pound shop
* A chip van.
* An engineering/landscaping/forestry store
* A small bank branch
* 2 old peoples's home
* A number of pubs.
* A medical centre/GP
* A volunteer fire service (with engine).
* An ambulance station (possibly).
* A (fairly active) village hall.
* Quite a bit of other stuff I can't recall.

Admittedly it does serve a larger catchment area, so it's not just the six-sixty-six, but not orders of magnitude more.

Not sure that I'm really trying to make any point other than it is possible for small communities to thrive, even in the absence of major supermarkets (presumably there are also plenty of small supermarketless communities in U.S. America). It may not, however, be possible to rebuild a small community based on suburban assumptions.
posted by titus-g at 5:12 PM on March 20, 2013 [1 favorite]


Make It Right: Our Response to the New Republic
posted by madamjujujive at 5:13 PM on March 20, 2013 [7 favorites]


First of all, that's almost certainly not "groundwater"

Why is this almost certain?
posted by Hypnotic Chick at 5:15 PM on March 20, 2013


It's not an insane idea, at least prima facie, to think that if you can just get a sufficient number of people into the houses, the infrastructure to serve them will follow.

Because market-driven solutions often serve the poor and vulnerable so well...

Who'd have thunk that a celebrity convinced he can stop starvation in Africa by adopting a few children didn't have the bona fides to conceive of a holistic solution to Katrina's devastation?

Well-meaning starlets? I don't have the time...
posted by Catchfire at 5:22 PM on March 20, 2013


Why is this almost certain?

Because this happens all the time all over the city. About 50% of the city's treated water is lost to leaking and broken lines. If you don't live in New Orleans it's probably difficult to imagine how many water-filled holes in the road one encounters all around the city; the cause is almost always ground subsidence caused by a leaking or broken city water line, combining with and exacerbating the problems of streets largely unmaintained for decades.
posted by RogerB at 5:25 PM on March 20, 2013


To quote from the response madamjujujive posted (and is worth reading):
Many retail services are not available in the Lower 9th Ward yet, but our work is not finished. Our mission is to rebuild communities, not just houses. Commercial services will return to the Lower 9th Ward or we will build them ourselves. The author points out the lack of grocery stores and public services, then argues that the city should invest resources elsewhere, which makes no sense to us. The full impact of investments made by the city, private businesses and nonprofits will not be evident until commitments are made. Last week, the city announced plans for a new fire station and a rebuilt community center, just blocks from the Make It Right houses. Clearly we aren’t the only ones who believe significant investments such as ours will help ensure the long-term recovery of the community.
posted by titus-g at 5:30 PM on March 20, 2013 [1 favorite]


The water mains situation strikes me as a preview of what is to come in a lot of places people might expect to be in a better position, such as large swathes of pretty much every big North American city I've ever visited, if infrastructure investments maintain their current level.
posted by feloniousmonk at 5:31 PM on March 20, 2013


I am now envisioning Prince Charles rapelling from a helicopter to rescue flood victims. Possibly shouting 'Tally ho!'

That's his kid, in fact.
posted by rongorongo at 5:32 PM on March 20, 2013


Who'd have thunk that a celebrity convinced he can stop starvation in Africa by adopting a few children didn't have the bona fides to conceive of a holistic solution to Katrina's devastation?

Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie sold rights to the first photos of their children to magazines for more than seven million dollars, which they donated to charities serving African children. Pitt has since donated millions more of his own money.

He has committed $5 million to the Lower 9th Ward. These homes were built in consultation with the homeowners, incorporating their needs into the designs, and the houses were built to be hurricane resistant and reduce environmental impact. Pitt has also been responsible for bringing quite a lot of movie shoots to New Orleans -- a realtively low-impact undertaking that flushes millions into the local economy while raising NOLA's visibility internationally. Change takes an awful lot of time and can't be done by just one person or one group. Pitt has been one if the few to even attempt to revitalize the Lower Ninth.

He's not sbove criticism, but I think he's earned more than glib cynicism
posted by Bunny Ultramod at 6:01 PM on March 20, 2013 [64 favorites]


Thing is, the ward doesn't have enough residents to attract stores and services, so no one wants to live there. Meanwhile, the city continues to follow through on millions in commitments to rebuild roads on streets where no one now lives, and to erect police stations and schools for a lonely, "barren moonscape" of a neighborhood.

Horrible flashbacks to my early attempts at Simcity when I was 8...
posted by xdvesper at 6:02 PM on March 20, 2013 [1 favorite]


It's hard to see a way out.

Build a grocery store?
posted by DU at 6:45 PM on March 20, 2013 [4 favorites]


People I know from New Orleans speak positively of the effort Jolie-Pitt have put into the city post-Katrina. This looks like a complicated, problematic project but attach a celebrity name and it becomes a cynical chance to laugh and point fingers. TNR likely wouldn't run this story without the Pitt connection.
posted by chaz at 8:45 PM on March 20, 2013 [3 favorites]


Louisiana has a massive tax incentive program for film production. The State is practically giving away the store to attract Hollywood. This has brought in jobs, including ones for people I know and care about. But it likely won't lead to a permanent industry, and so many of thr jobs are freelance or low-paying. I am glad Pitt is on dear old NOLA's side, but picking Louisiana for a film production is not even remotely in the same league as the Make It Right project.
posted by raysmj at 8:45 PM on March 20, 2013


Why is this almost certain?

To add on to what RogerB said: I live and work in Mid-City and on my one-mile commute I can count at least three areas of permanent puddle, places where if you stop and look there's a slight flow of water up out of the ground. This is in a part of town where a big swath of development is going up and a new greenway is being considered. It's hardly a bad part of town. Leaking water is not a problem specific to poorer areas.
posted by komara at 8:47 PM on March 20, 2013


I am glad Pitt is on dear old NOLA's side, but picking Louisiana for a film production is not even remotely in the same league as the Make It Right project.

You may be underestimating the amount of money that a film can bring into a town. I attended one of the many educational opportunities created by Mayor Nagin when he was first attempting to attract the film industry, and the amount of dough even a small film will flush into a local economy is astonishing. The films shot in NOLA in 2010 brought in $360 million in direct spending. That's the entire amount approved for State Small Business Credit Initiative (“SSBCI”) funding the previous year. It's $10 million more than was made available for new projects in the state construction bill in 2012, and is $20 million more than the cost of the entire Hornets sports team.

I mean, it's not the biggest earning industry in New Orleans, but it has an impact.
posted by Bunny Ultramod at 9:26 PM on March 20, 2013 [1 favorite]


Linked from the main article, an alternative approach to the same project, which I thought was interesting. The unique, big name designer houses are great and all, but that doesn't seem like it actually scales to the size of housing an entire community. I like the idea of taking traditional designs and iterating on them.
posted by vibratory manner of working at 10:07 PM on March 20, 2013


[R]egarding Ms. Guy’s home: both the author’s original text stating that the home has three bedrooms and the correction stating the home has two bedrooms are wrong. Ms. Guy’s home has four bedrooms.
This is pretty great, on the other hand.
posted by vibratory manner of working at 10:09 PM on March 20, 2013


Did anyone consider if it was really wise to build houses on stilts for elderly people? Ain't no way you're building a wheelchair ramp for that.
posted by Soliloquy at 10:48 PM on March 20, 2013


Did anyone consider if it was really wise to build houses on stilts for elderly people? Ain't no way you're building a wheelchair ramp for that.

Yes, they have considered that:

Like the vernacular New Orleans shotgun house, the FLOAT House sits on a 4-foot base; rather than permanently raising the house on ten foot or higher stilts, the house only rises in case of severe flooding. This configuration accommodates a traditional front porch, preserving of the community’s vital porch culture and facilitating accessibility for elderly and disabled residents.

Apparently, 25 percent of the occupants of a Newark residency they built are disabled veterans. So they do have experience addressing disability issues in their designs.
posted by Bunny Ultramod at 11:03 PM on March 20, 2013 [3 favorites]


It sounds like Victoria Beckham needs to get involved.
posted by MuffinMan at 1:27 AM on March 21, 2013


The film A Village Called Versailles is a great case study of how one community did rebuild after Katrina. The largely Vietnamese neighborhood was able to return en masse because the local Catholic church served as a hub.

A clip played on the NPR interview described the first mass six weeks after Katrina at the Mary Queen of Vietnam Church in New Orleans East.
Ms. MINDY NGUYEN: This was a very emotional oh my God a very emotional mass and 300 people showed up. Like, people drove, like, five hours from Houston on Saturday night to make it, like, to church at 10 o'clock in the morning for the mass.

Father VIEN NGUYEN (Mary Queen of Vietnam Church): And the next week it was 800. The third week, we invited the rest of New Orleans East and non-Vietnamese-Americans as well. It was around 2,200.
Without the pastor's leadership and the physical space of the church to serve as a home base, even when people's houses were still waterlogged and uninhabitable, it seems unlikely that enough residents would have returned to rebuild businesses. As I recall from the documentary, a open-air market ran out of the church parking lot until grocery stores could reopen.

I don't know how you would get people to come home so many years after Katrina. Jobs, infrastructure, a sense that you could make things happen? Neighborland (an extension of the I Wish This Was... urban planning sticker project by Candy Chang) points to some of the missing pieces.
posted by spamandkimchi at 3:03 AM on March 21, 2013 [1 favorite]


I googled the phrase "what happened to public housing in New Orleans after Katrina".

This was the second hit.
posted by bukvich at 8:30 AM on March 21, 2013


Streets of New Orleans.
posted by asperity at 9:42 AM on March 21, 2013


Wendell Pierce, (Bunk from The Wire, Antoine from Treme) a New Orleans native, founded the grocery store Sterling Farms to address food deserts in New Orleans and elsewhere. The first location opens next week.
posted by Rangeboy at 9:44 AM on March 21, 2013 [5 favorites]


Rangeboy, that is an awesome story.
posted by madamjujujive at 10:58 AM on March 21, 2013


They're Tryin' To Wash Us Away
posted by homunculus at 12:46 PM on March 25, 2013


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