Times Picayune – August 25, 2010


The tragedy of Hurricane Katrina brought out the best in American volunteerism. Actor Brad Pitt, who has a home in New Orleans, responded with extraordinary creativity and commitment. The Lower 9th Ward houses of Pitt’s nonprofit Make it Right Foundation – individualistic and energy-efficient – are among the most inspired responses to the storm’s ravages. As the fifth anniversary of Katrina approached, Pitt spoke with historian Douglas Brinkley, his longtime friend, about his love of the city and his dreams for its future. Brinkley provided this exclusive interview to The Times-Picayune.

Whenever actor Brad Pitt is in New Orleans, he gets on his old thrift-store bicycle and tools around the city enjoying the architecture and ambiance. It’s his way of staying in shape. His favorite destination is pedaling across the retractable North Claiborne Avenue Bridge to the Lower 9th Ward to inspect his Make It Right Foundation houses.

The entire Make It Right saga is a “Hail Mary” pass that worked.

Starting in 2006, Pitt’s foundation commissioned 13 architecture firms to design affordable, eco-friendly houses. Pitt decided to build these houses — 30 at last count — on the exact spot where the Industrial Canal levee breached on Aug. 29, 2005.

Pitt is in New Orleans this week to attend Katrina anniversary events. A true Hollywood workhorse, seldom getting a day off, Pitt spoke to me following a brutal 50-hour-a-week production schedule on a Hollywood set. — Douglas Brinkley

Tell me about your love affair with New Orleans. You’ve become perhaps the city’s most effective booster. How did that happen?

I came to New Orleans back in 1994 doing the “Interview with the Vampire” movie, based on the Anne Rice novel, and fell in love with the city. It got under my skin. Everything was sexy and sultry. I’d ride my bike all over the place, amazed by the architecture. I’d return to New Orleans every chance I could. What can I say; it’s got the best people, the best everything. It’s the most interesting city in America.

Where were you when Hurricane Katrina hit on Aug. 29, 2005?

In Calgary, up in Canada, making the movie “The Assassination of Jesse James.” I couldn’t get my eyes off the TV. It was frustrating seeing all those people on rooftops screaming for help. It was abhorrent. I was gutted. I remember thinking we can do better in America. Everybody seemed to make mistakes at a federal, local and state level. I used to ride my bike around the Lower 9th — usually going to the Holy Cross area to look around. My instinct said that we have to find a way for those people to find a road home. New homes were clearly going to be needed.

When did the idea of Make It Right houses come into focus?

I got involved with Global Green and various Bill Clinton initiatives. I met a lot of smart people. But nobody was doing what I thought needed to be done. Look, I’m an architecture junkie. And the holy grail of architecture is finding ways to design sustainable urban communities. The Lower 9th had become a clean slate. Everything had been washed away. So quite naively — and I know I’m naive — I said let’s start at ground zero, the very historic neighborhood that got devastated by Katrina. We brought architect William McDonough into the picture and things took off. We started building prototypes. The Lower 9th is the iconic spot of Katrina. It’s where the levees breached. It represents a marginalized people stuck in a man-made disaster. I met Katrina victims who had been given FEMA trailers and had nothing to hook them up to. Others had formaldehyde problems. What was the message? We were telling people to come home and yet when they got back to New Orleans they were treated in a substandard way. I just thought it was atrocious.

How do you feel seeing those Lower 9th families living today, on the fifth anniversary of the storm, in beautiful Make It Right houses?

Great! I was in the Lower 9th for Memorial Day. Families were barbecuing and swimming in the little, you know, pop-up swimming pools. And families were coming together and saying hi. You know, the simple acts of kindness. A lot of residents no longer have only a cynical view of Katrina, they have a brighter perspective about life. And when I say kindness I mean Make It Right was built on the donations of people. Americans donated. That has a deep effect on the people living in these homes. We have solar panels providing the energy, and it works and fellow Americans paid for it. Not the government.

When you came down from Calgary to see the Lower 9th in person back in 2005, were you shocked?

Yeah. It was, like I said, a blank canvas. It was obliterationville. It was a blank, blank, blank canvas. A house sitting on top of a house on top of a house sitting on top of a station wagon with a boat jammed through it. It was, you know, shocking devastation. The place looked like a giant eraser had come in and just erased away those homes. You know, these weren’t just houses. These were people’s lives shattered. Families in pain, memories washed away, just obliterated.

A lot of people saw the devastation in the Lower 9th. But only you acted on rebuilding it?

OK, I was naive, totally naive. I credit naivete with our success. I was also an opportunist. I saw this land, it was available, and I thought we could make a difference. Starting from scratch has its benefits. Too often we give disaster victims cheap building products, slipshod materials, and then put on top of them the burden of energy bills and medical bills. You know it’s the badly built levees that destroyed these people’s lives. We needed, as a country, to do something right for them. A new paradigm was needed. The technology was available. So I thought, ‘Let’s build houses that answer all the problems.’ We needed to make amends for over 1,500 deaths. We had to fix the grave injustice the best we could. Let’s face the facts: Shoddy Army Corps levee work was the culprit behind the 2005 flooding of New Orleans. People in pre-Katrina had been sold cement slabs in the Lower 9th next to the levee. These folks were told it’s all right to build homes, for example, on Tennessee Avenue. They were set up. I mean not necessarily intentionally, but through the negligence of levee maintenance. But, lo and behold, the Lower 9th is now the greenest — I don’t even like the word green — it’s the most high-performing clean neighborhood in the world, according to the Green Building council.

Are you hoping this can be a pilot project or prototype community to develop elsewhere? Do you have a global vision?

Times-Picayune archiveActor Brad Pitt holds up a camera to take a picture of him and his wife, actress Angelina Jolie, with local children in December 2007. That was the plan. That was the plan all along. This thing could become a template for other communities to follow. And we’ve trained New Orleans contractors on how to build these homes.

When did you decide to be a New Orleans homeowner?

I’ve always wanted to have something there. I had looked into
some properties in the late ’90s and almost bought a home. But my personal life didn’t make it possible then. After Katrina, in 2006, it just became a need. I needed to be down in the Lower 9th and I wanted to make films in New Orleans because I love being in the city so much.

Let’s get down to brass tacks. What is your favorite restaurant? Or give a call-out to perhaps two or three.

Well, we used to eat a lot at the Verti Marte. Dirty Verti. It was just a little bitty market right there on Governor Nicholls. A little bitty market with great shrimp po-boys that I couldn’t get enough of. It recently had a fire problem. But after that, we like Irene’s a lot. Antoine’s and the Windsor Court. There are so many. But, in general, shrimp po-boys. I order them everywhere.

Can you still get around New Orleans on your bike? Do you put a sweatshirt hood over your head? Or does your facial hair serve as a disguise?

In New Orleans, the people are great. They leave Angie and me alone. Unfortunately, we drag paparazzi with us from other places in the world. They become a bit of a hindrance. We try to go out and all the locals are so great, and then these paparazzi ruin it. But otherwise, man, we can just live and breathe and ride bikes. We can take our kids on bike rides, and local people just give us a shout out—and let us move on. It’s very free for us in New Orleans, very nice for us. It’s like Venice or Rome; an essential world city. So we feel honored to be involved with the community. Everybody treats us like neighbors.

How do you feel about the grass-roots movement of Brad Pitt for U.S. senator or mayor of New Orleans?

Yeah, with my past? (Laughs). It isn’t going to happen. Oh, my, the skeletons that would come out of my closet. That’s a losing venture.

How about the Saints? Are they going to win the Super Bowl again this year?

Man, I’m looking forward to the season. I cannot wait, cannot wait. I cannot wait for Game 1 against Brett Favre — I can’t wait.

What did the Saints winning the Super Bowl mean for the city?

It meant no matter what adversity humans face, they can turn it around with hard work. It symbolized us picking ourselves up. I find it heroic. It just represents human nature at its best. That we can pick ourselves up when we’re down. It’s like the Book of Job. The Saints helped this city turn a great atrocity around by bringing people together. The Super Bowl in some way, I’m not exactly sure why, was about the human spirit prevailing.

Is there a particular Saints player that you’ve become fond of? Or maybe a few players?

Well, you have got to give it up to Drew Brees, the most accurate quarterback in the entire NFL, staggering numbers. I mean you also have got to give it up to the defense. It goes on the attack like gangbusters. And you have got to give it up to Sean Payton. The best coach in the NFL, bar none. We always like to see Reggie (Bush) in there. He did the job when we needed him.

Did something in your Missouri upbringing connect you emotionally to New Orleans?

Yeah, there is a strain of that. New Orleans holds a southern mentality but also an East Coast mentality regarding the importance of art and culture in life. Somehow Springfield, Mo. — in the southern part of the state — seemed more connected down the interstate to New Orleans than St. Louis or Kansas City. It’s a Southern thing in me.

When you’re working in L.A. or Europe, do you listen to New Orleans music?

Truthfully, my favorite sound in the entire world is opening up the balcony doors in the French Quarter and hearing four different sounds playing at once from the apartments across the way or down the street. Or, you know, behind our house. And it’s a balmy night, twilight, and I’m drinking a beer and this feeling just falls over me, of contentment. It gives me goose bumps to talk about it.

If you had a magic wand, what would you want to see happen in New Orleans during the fifth anniversary commemorations?

I’d like to see more people still be able to get back. More specifically, for our Make It Right project, I would like to expand our template to St. Bernard Parish. You know, out of all the Lower 9th homes we built, all are producing more energy than they are spending, than they are consuming. They’re all pollution-free. This is an amazing story to me. Many of our homeowners don’t owe anything for energy use. We can prove that low-income and high-performance houses work. No more antiquated building practices are needed in New Orleans; let’s put that one behind us. We’re on track to build more homes in the Lower 9th and perhaps in St. Bernard Parish. We are getting the prices down. All our safety measures are intact. I hope house experts will come look. I can back up what I’m saying. Our homes are affordable, high-performance, and safe. And there is an aesthetic to them all. Now I want to drive the price down. OK, that is fair to say, the price needs to come down. But any other criticism you hear doesn’t hold up.

What do you say to people who don’t think the Lower 9th is safe because the levees are still weak? How do you know the wall won’t collapse again in a Category 3 or 4 or 5 hurricane?

Sure, I have concerns. I mean it was the first question we had to ask: Are we putting people back into the danger zone? Well, there is a Road Home program. Nobody is giving them enough money to return safely. In our eyes, you’re setting people up for another catastrophe. Our houses are built high enough from the ground to endure flooding if the levees don’t hold up. As for the iconic Industrial Canal breach spot? It’s been dealt with by engineers to a large degree, dealt with better than the other walls. You know what my worry is? My worry is not the Lower 9th, it’s the upper 9th. Because that protection wall wasn’t dealt with. It’s a foot or two lower than the levee in our neighborhood. If the Army Corps would just have spent a little bit more time, put in a little more focus and a little bit more money and done it right the first time, New Orleans would be a far safer place. And it wouldn’t have cost the billions of dollars to fix what was wrong. And I find that inexcusable. So our Make It Right homes are built right. And that’s where the title came from: Make It Right. Just make it right for everybody. Make things fair to the people of New Orleans. Make it right.