Ever since the New Republic published Lydia DePillis’s piece entitled “If you Rebuild it, They Might Not Come” - a criticism of the progress of Brad Pitt’s Make It Right Foundation – numerous blogs and journals have been in a uproar, defending Make It Right’s efforts at rebuilding the vastly devastated Lower Ninth Ward and presenting a much more forgiving perspective on the progress of the neighborhood since the engineering disaster that exacerbated the effects of Hurricane Katrina in 2005. To date, 86 LEED Platinum homes have been designed and constructed by world-renowned architects, including Frank Gehry and Morphosis, at a cost of approximately $24 million. Make It Right has promised to build up to 150 such homes, but DePillis‘s article points out that amenities in the neighborhood are low and the number of residents returning to the neighborhood is dwindling. Make It Right has made a commitment and the debate that ensues questions whether it is going far enough in delivering its promise to rebuilding community.
Read on for more on the Make It Right debate…
Since August 2005, New Orleans, and the Lower Ninth Ward in particular, has received a massive amount of attention, first for the devastating effects of hurricane, then for the vastly disorganized emergency services and now for its recovery efforts. Many foundations have been established in the city to address the needs of residents who have struggled to recuperate the tragic losses after the destruction of homes, communities, and the disruption of everyday life. Some of these programs have been government sponsored, like FEMA, while others, like Make It Right, are privately funded efforts to address specific circumstances.
The goals of Make It Right are simple, just take a look at this infographic: regenerate the neighborhood of the Lower Ninth Ward, which not only dislocated a substantial population through the loss of homes, but lost any semblance of stability and security. The emotional trauma cannot be measured in the tangible loss of the neighborhood as a result of faulty levees and severe flooding. Make It Right, when established in 2007, pledged to build 150 homes that former residents could return to – houses that were designed for their specific needs and that were built to sustain natural disasters.
A tour through the neighborhood today is startling when realizing that this was once a populated portion of New Orleans; if the pictures don’t tell the full story just take a look at this map produced by WhoData.net. Vast stretches are completely vacant with a few houses scattered throughout. Along some streets, new homes are being constructed, but for the most part what has retained since the flooding are homes with “death marks” scrawled on them by first responders indicating that they are unsuitable for use. These have been abandoned and are gradually decaying from lack of maintenance over the course of seven years. Those that have been destroyed or demolished, a startling number of about 4000, have left hardly a mark on the lots, which are now overgrown with weeds and brush. In some cases, a foundation is visible, a reminder that this land was once occupied by a developed neighborhood. The Lower Ninth is tragically under-serviced and suffice it to say – since we have all bore witness to the news coverage, photos and prolonged debate over recovery efforts – New Orleans and specifically this neighborhood, which once had the highest density of African American home-ownership and incidentally the highest poverty rate in the country, got the short end of the stick in that disaster.
In light of how vastly undeveloped this neighborhood has become, DePillis’s criticism and dismay at the slow progress of Make It Right is understandable. The 86 homes, all of which have gained a LEED Platinum rating according to Make It Right, are grouped in a small portion of the Lower Ninth just above Claiborne Avenue along the Industrial Canal. This development stands in large contrast to the rest of the neighborhood. These tree-lined streets are bustling with activity of the residents. The compactness of these new homes, though still sparse in density in relationship to other neighborhoods throughout New Orleans, has a much more exuberant community feel. Rather than living beside an abandoned or dilapidated home, these residents have neighbors and lawns that haven’t been tackled by weeds. They even have a solar powered playground and established community gardens with the help of Make It Right – according to Martin C Pederson of Metropolis Mag in an article entitled “In Defense of Make It RIght”.
Yet, navigating these streets also has its downside – once you leave the enclave of Make It Right, you return to a much more desolate place. There are few amenities to speak of here. Run a quick search in Google for grocery stores and you will only find three listed. Walmart, which is a mile and a half out of the bounds of the Lower Ninth Ward, technically outside of New Orleans, is the closest store that can provide all of the residents’ needs but is most easily accessible by car. Otherwise there are small grocery stores and gas stations along Clairborne Ave, once a commercial corridor, but these too, are sparse. Amenities have been slow to recuperate here, which is one of the main arguments in DePillis’s piece. So far, while Make It Right has delivered 86 thoughtfully considered, sustainable and resilient homes, it has been unable to reach out to the elements that revitalize a neighborhood – amenities. DePillis brings this to light and questions whether or not these high-design homes are a legitimate use of the foundation’s resources, which has raised $45 million since 2007 and has already spent $24 million according to a rebuttal by Make It Right’s Executive Director, Tom Darden.
DePillis poses legitimate questions that address the management of such a vast problem as the redevelopment of a neighborhood struggling with its own high rate of crime and poverty before Hurricane Katrina. But Pederson makes a poignant response to DePillis’s critical analysis of the foundation: “Make It Right was aspirational from the start. It was never about building the most houses, the most expediently; never about rebuilding an entire neighborhood. FEMA and the Road Home were supposed to handle that. It was about building for returning residents 150 affordable LEED Platinum houses by some of the world’s best architects. It was also about creating a model for sustainable development.”
Pederson makes a fair point that Make It Right is looking to set an example for redevelopment – aiming for high quality in an addition to already established recovery efforts. The census indicates that the population of the Lower Ninth Ward is growing and even though visually it still appears stark and desolate, people are returning in small numbers. Other programs that DePillis mentions, such as Barnes and Noble founder Leonard Riggio’s plans to build 200 homes on a similar budget, Providence Community Housing which has built 1,800 homes and apartments and lowernine.org which has put 60 families back in their homes for a fraction of Make It Right’s budget, operate under a different set of guides for reconstruction.
There is pessimism abound about the Lower Ninth’s recovery, after all, New Orleans is always on the verge of natural disasters, battling nature’s intent, yet the city has stayed afloat all these years by its cultural resistance and tradition. Its culture is a reminder that a place is more than its geography and New Orleans, its natives and its transplants, live by that principle. The city is growing, not just as people are moving back, but as new people settle in, drawn by its culture. DePillis’s article certainly hit a nerve with the staunchest defenders of New Orleans, the Lower Ninth Ward and Make It Right. Just as she writes: when the Urban Land Institute proposed relocating people to concentrated areas of redevelopment as the population returned, residents rebelled against the plan wanting to return to their old homes and rebuild.
So far, Make It Right’s homes have proven to withstand the deadly weather of hurricane season with Hurricane Isaac’s hit last September. But as the number of residents signing up for Make It Right’s campaign is dwindling, the foundation has opened its roster to first responders and teachers. This may prove to be the jump-start necessary for the neighborhood to introduce the proper amenities for neighborhood redevelopment. Despite DePillis’s criticism and scrutiny, and the superseding responses to her piece, Make It Right is one program among many that are making valiant efforts to recover neighborhoods and communities after the destructive forces of Hurricane Katrina. We are still talking about this seven years after the disaster because these efforts take time, they take money and they take commitment. Make It Right and its many counterparts have at least shown that the Lower Ninth Ward is a neighborhood worth rebuilding, that environmental and social justice is still a priority, and that despite the struggle it is worth the effort.