The Debate Over Making It Right in the Lower Ninth Ward

The Float House / Morphosis, Make It RIght © Iwan Baan

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…

Lower Ninth Ward, © Irina Vinnitskaya

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.

Lower Ninth Ward, New Orleans © Irina Vinnitskaya

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  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”.

Lower Ninth Ward, New Orleans © Irina Vinnitskaya

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.”

Lower Ninth Ward, New Orleans © Irina Vinnitskaya

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 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.

Lower Ninth Ward, New Orleans © Irina Vinnitskaya

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.

Cite: Vinnitskaya, Irina. "The Debate Over Making It Right in the Lower Ninth Ward" 08 Apr 2013. ArchDaily. Accessed 24 May 2015. <>
  • ygogolak

    $24,000,000 / 86 homes = $279,000 EACH for low income housing. That is a failed effort to me to properly serve the community.

    • maury hale

      279,000.00 per home is absurd for these traditionally low income-resident homes. Nature will ensure that this area gets inundated with flood water again. Why not build in a safer area? And make the lower ninth ward into a nature preserve and memorial to all those who perished in the storm?

  • Frank

    Several points. One, the Depillis article has a lengthy post-article corrections section. Always beware an article/author who had to make so many corrections after publishing. Second, the Make it Right houses are about modern design. If a homeowner doesn’t want it, then they don’t buy it – it’s a market solution, despite the private sector subsidy. I’ve seen the “traditional” designs for both Katrina and Sandy that are being built by developers for other aid groups. They are cheap profit driven solutions offered by developers to desperate people/aid groups who need houses quickly. These are houses that take advantage of people and undermine the historic districts in which they’re built, but the aid groups building them don’t know enough about architecture to know it, and they’re so focused on rebuilding quickly that they don’t care to learn. I respect Pitt for taking the time to learn about architecture and embrace progressive solutions to modern ecological problems in architectural honest ways. In the vacuum created by our society’s mistrust of government and the conservatism in government this breeds, Pitt stepped in. The only criticism one can make is that he gave the families too much of what they wanted, but even that wasn’t his choice and he had no power to correct the problem. As the Depillis article mentions, success would have necessitated public intervention and denser reconstruction, including lot swapping. But that isn’t possible without state and federal programs, which don’t exist. The reality is that nobody can get it to work right, because our government is far too conservative and focused on profit for developers and preserving the libertarian rights of people to live where they want, over public planning and creating healthy neighborhoods. And that’s not going to change in the U.S. any time soon, even though many responsible people in California (yes, including actors and contemporary architects) are urging the country to evolve. In the end, most people want traditional solutions to modern problems, even though they don’t work. Even losing their homes and everything they own doesn’t change this. They’re so hungry to remain “like the Jones’s” and return to conventional lives approved by their neighbors. Ultimately, when it comes to the design of homes in the U.S., design in general for average people, it’s all just extremely self-conscious, and not at all focused on solutions that work, but rather stroking the egos and desires of individual home owners – that’s the hyper-capitalist approach our country has chosen, although it’s a proven failure. Pitt’s group did the best they could given those crippling social conditions in my opinion. And all of this applies to Katrina and Sandy. When it comes down to it, the desires of the poor and the desires of the rich aren’t that different when it comes to their homes – very very traditional conservative solutions, that really no longer work, and if they do certainly aren’t anything approaching architecture – just cheap, fake, plastic imitations of historic buildings with integrity (which also no longer work and aren’t particularly safe to live in or eco-friendly).

    • Jimmuh

      Spot on Frank!
      Everyone striving for unworkable answers.
      Will we learn?

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  • Laurel

    Should the Lower 9th be rebuilt? The loss of this neighborhood and its history is a tragedy, but the geographical realities of this area lead me to believe that it will only flood again. I think this is at the heart of the reluctance to return.

  • Richard Bryant, AIA

    While “Make It Right” had a noble and publicity laced begining, the evidence that many of the folks, manufacturers, star-architects, and out of control organizations like LEED are actually failing consumers and harming the “green” movement in the process. How did the Katrina housing in New Orleans ever manage to achieve LEED Platimum certification? Now we see that promised “green” lumber (Timber SIL) imported from Carolina is failing and will have to be replaced with more traditional lumber that hopefully will achieve the real intent of sustainability – start by buying local and use time-proven materials and systems that the “Locals” know will work in the New Orleans climate rather than products designed for the climates of LA and Arizona. Time to pull the plug on LEED.