In her final days volunteering in New Orleans, Courtney Crowder reports from the field …
The house that Common Ground Relief uses as its headquarters and volunteer sleeping area is on the banks of the industrial canal in the Lower Ninth Ward. Located next door is the tool storage and office space for Brad Pitt’s Make It Right project. Pitt founded Make it Right after visiting the Lower Ninth Ward post-Katrina. Upset by the conditions, he invested his own money into rebuilding the area.
To start, he covered all the destroyed houses with bright pink fabric. The goal? To bring attention to the area’s extreme challenges. Pitt then hired a team of architects to create affordable green homes that could be built quickly.
It all sounded great in theory, but my initial introduction to the project was when Pitt appeared on the Today show a couple of years back, holding a clipboard as he walked the grounds, talking about the community as if he had been born and raised there.
I understood the concept of using a celebrity name to bolster attention and funding, but seeing the Brad Pitt mug plastered on anything related to Make it Right seemed disingenuous, to say the least.
Pitt then launched an architecture competition to generate ideas for new sustainable homes. But the crazy house designs looked nothing like the old French heritage that makes New Orleans architecture so identifiable. The crazy house designs had awkward skylights, weird garages, and lacked any access to a roof or a porch.
Ironically, one of the main goals of doing service is to work within the community; to spend time with the people you’re helping and incorporate their input, rather than imposing your own ideals about what the community needs. To me, those designs seemed completely imposed.
But living next door to the project over spring break for the past four years, I’ve had the opportunity to see the foundation’s actual progress first-hand—not just based on media buzz. The pink-fabric-covered house fragments are gone and actual homes stand in their place.
The overarching mission of the organization is to be catalyst for the redevelopment of the Lower Ninth Ward. And I have to say the organization seems to be achieving that goal.
After some community-driven meetings, the houses were adjusted to better fit the heritage of the city. The architects made design changes like including large porches and areas with direct access to both sun and shade.
Besides using countless green materials, the organization also works with each family to create a payment plan that is the best fit for their situation. Make It Right families go through a process of proving ownership of their lot of land, so that their houses can be built on the exact location where they used to live. The organization is not only building houses, but also building a responsible and sound community.
Currently, there are six fully built homes and several other former residents working closely with the organization to make their dream homes a reality.
The once-barren Ninth Ward has life again.
And I guess we partially have Brad Pitt to thank for that.
Read more from this series …
- Notes from New Orleans: Battling Fraud on the Long Road Home
- Volunteering in New Orleans: Wading Through Wetlands With Common Ground Relief
By Courtney Crowder for PeterGreenberg.com