Times Picayune – December 02, 2007


At the center of a buzzing construction zone in the heart of the worst-ravaged corner of the Lower 9th Ward, movie megastar Brad Pitt took a break Sunday afternoon to imagine the future.

Strewn around him a half-mile in every direction were hundreds of enormous pink blocks, 8-foot-high boxes and huge triangular wedges, representing the uprooted foundations and dislocated roofs that littered the area beside the Industrial Canal for months after Hurricane Katrina.

“Right now there are scattered blocks, like they were scattered by fate’s hand, symbolic of the aftermath of the storm,” Pitt said as crews installed more of the metal-and-tarp structures. “But we will be flipping the homes, essentially righting the wrong.”

In his first extensive one-on-one interview since moving his family to New Orleans last year, Pitt shared with The Times-Picayune on Sunday details of this next phase of his $12 million “Make It Right” project: a vast public art display to be unveiled today as a fundraiser to expand the project beyond its initial goal of 150 homes, and possibly into other neighborhoods and parishes.

Pitt, 43, also spoke of his years-long love for New Orleans, which he thinks will thrive again despite the propensity of some public officials to let the city “die on the vine,” and his hope that national leaders will use the ongoing disaster as an impetus to retool public policy with an eye toward the poor.

Katrina “illuminated the brutal truth that there’s a portion of our society that we’re not looking after, that we are marginalizing. And that shouldn’t be,” said Pitt, who watched the horrific televised images of the flooded city in 2005 from Calgary, Alberta, where he was filming the 2006 movie “The Assassination of Jesse James.”

Green-friendly homes

Steering the conversation away from himself, Pitt focused on Make It Right’s efforts to build affordable, environmentally friendly, storm-safe houses for residents of the Lower 9th Ward on the same lots where their old homes once stood. In announcing the project in September at a meeting of world leaders on global warming, Pitt and philanthropist Steve Bing pledged $5 million each to jump-start the project.

“This cannot be about me,” he said Sunday from inside a trailer at the project site. “I am fortunate to have a big spotlight in my hand, and I can point it in a direction.”

Today that place will be the section of the Lower 9th Ward best-known as the spot where a barge came to rest after floating through a fractured levee. Pitt is slated to lead news reporters on a tour around the area’s conglomeration of pink art pieces, then to issue a public call to corporations, foundations and church organizations around the world to “adopt” the blocks, for $150,000 each, to support his project.

Donors also will be invited to make smaller gifts — from $5 to $45,500 — to sponsor the individual elements of the houses’ eco-friendly designs, such as fluorescent bulbs, low-flush toilets and solar-panel installations. More information is available at the project’s Web site, www.makeitrightnola.org.

With the average house slated to cost between $100,000 and $174,000, planners expect participants to contribute some money, including insurance and Road Home proceeds, toward construction. But they expect most homeowners will fall about $70,000 short of paying off their new homes. To fill the gap, Make It Right plans to offer forgivable loans of as much as $100,000, with the caveat that applicants must have owned a home or lot in the Lower 9th Ward before Katrina.

Pink ‘screams the loudest’

Eventually, Pitt said, planners will turn the all-natural pink fabric covering into novelty items, such as bags, that will be sold to raise more money.

“Why pink? For me it screams the loudest,” Pitt said. “It says that this place, where so many people thrived, is still sitting there like a barren wasteland, and we can change that.”

In addition to being a tool for fundraising, the giant pink pieces will, Pitt said, become the ornamentation for a nightly driving tour in the style of City Park’s annual “Celebration in the Oaks” festival, albeit with a more somber focus. Expected to open to the public Tuesday evening and extend for five weeks, the tour will feature the large pieces interspersed with 1,000 smaller bulbs representing the residents who died in Katrina. All the lights will be solar-powered, he said.

In addition, the whole installation will be laid out in the precise pattern of the constellations as they glowed on the night of Aug. 29, 2005, he said.

Though the vast work of art aims to draw attention to the Make It Right project, Pitt said it also reflects the “vitality” of the city that he first visited in 1994 during the filming of “Interview with the Vampire” and adopted as his home a year ago, when he and his partner, actress Angelina Jolie, bought a house in the French Quarter.

New Orleans is “the only place that we could do something as crazy as what you see out there and it not be considered so crazy, that it (could) actually be fun,” he said. “This is the place of Mardi Gras. This is the place where I had a parade going by my house yesterday. I have no idea what for. It was at noon. I have no idea, but it made me smile.”

‘We love it here’

Saying he plans to spend the next several weekends in the city, Pitt reiterated a point he has made before: that New Orleans offers himself, Jolie and their four children uncommon tranquillity.

“We love it here,” he said. “And for some reason we can have some semblance of a normal life here. The folks treat us so well and give us space and let us be a family. We don’t have that luxury in other major cities.”

A prime focus of Pitt’s work in the coming months will be helping a team of nearly 200 planners, many working for free, turn Make It Right plans into reality. Tom Darden, the project’s executive director, said 13 architecture firms from around the globe that lent their efforts pro bono have finished schematic designs and are working on blueprints.

Eight pilot families have been chosen, all with lots in the three blocks of Tennessee Street between North Claiborne Avenue and Galvez Street, Darden said. Construction is expected to begin by the end of March.

“I am telling you, there are going to be families returning into homes, they’ll be spending Christmas here next year,” Pitt said. “They won’t have to spend another Christmas away from home. Next Thanksgiving: turkey dinner.”

Pitt acknowledged that even as Make It Right nears groundbreaking on its pilot homes, the project he first pitched to residents in February has faced hurdles, including the deep skepticism of a community where residents lived for years amid abandoned properties, failing public schools and escalating crime fueled by the illegal drug trade.

Cautiously optimistic, residents demanded full participation in the project. And they got it by way of weekly meetings in their neighborhood with architects and planners. Each time architects returned from their drawing boards, residents have said, their plans included more of neighbors’ suggestions, from the inclusion of backup fuel sources for solar-powered appliances to wheelchair ramps to reach elevated first floors.

“I come from Missouri,” Pitt said. “They call it the Show Me State. I grew up with the same nature. When you know the story here, (can you) question that the locals here would question some outsider coming in?

“Look at the way the freeways are laid in,” he said. “They’re just laid right on top of neighborhoods. It’s so clear some of them were laid out for the needs of a few and not the needs of many.”

‘A social justice issue’

Aiming to even the balance, Pitt — a professed “technology junkie” — has steered his curiosity about advances in environmental design into a requirement that any Make It Right house incorporate such items as energy-efficient appliances, south-facing roofs laden with solar panels, outdoor space for composting, and interior finishes made from products that are not harmful to residents’ health or the environment.

“This to me is a social justice issue, too,” he said. “They’re not getting the crap materials that give your kids asthma, increase your health bills. They’re not getting the cheap appliances that are going to run up your bills and keep that burden on you. It’s a respectful way to treat people.”

Broadly, Pitt said he hopes such issues will be raised during the 2008 presidential campaign. He also wants candidates to address directly the ongoing struggle of hurricane victims across the Gulf Coast.

“I would challenge all the candidates to focus on what’s going on down here, what’s not going on here,” he said. “We’re going to build some houses here, but there are bigger issues that need to get answered here, such as education and health. These need to be major factors of the campaign.

“My point is: If you can’t get it right down here, you’re not getting it right anywhere. This is the place to do it, and there’s definitely a need for it right now. I hope to see it become one of the major issues of the upcoming campaign, not as a tool to beat the past administration but as a real focus on the problems of this country.”

Even as Make It Right revs up, Pitt said he remains concerned about New Orleans’ future and criticized the failure of local leaders to make clear decisions, such as which parts of the city will be rebuilt and how.

“Someone said that it was like it was being left to die on the vine, and I couldn’t put it any better than that, meaning there’s no real effort either way,” he said. “There’s just been no clear line drawn.”

Public officials say, “¤’We want you to come back, but we’re only going to give you a little bit (of money) to come back.’ It just hasn’t been a strong enough, clear plan of direction,” he said.

Nevertheless, Pitt said residents’ resilience will pull the city back to its feet.

“The thing is, I don’t believe it will ever die on the vine,” he said. “There’s just too many seventh-generation families. They’re not letting this place go under.”