Author’s Note: At Smith College last semester, my classmates and I had free reign over our final projects for the last American Studies seminar required for the major. Being in love with New Orleans and interested in longform journalism, I naturally gravitated towards something combining the two. Fortunately for me, around the time we were choosing our project topics happened to be the same time Lower Ninth Ward residents filed a lawsuit against Brad Pitt’s Make It Right Foundation (MIR). Although I wished I could be in the city to report about the incident firsthand, I did my best to glean a detailed sense of what was going on through the plethora of articles (news and academic) written in the fall, when the suit was filed, and through the years Brad Pitt has been connected to New Orleans. The result, which will be published on ViaNolaVie in six parts, is an admittedly strange mix of longform journalism, academic analysis, and personal narrative. I’d love to hear what you think; email me at Nora.Daniels@gmail.com.
So why do it? Why bring not just architects here but some of the world’s best?
“I’ll tell you why,” Pitt said, leaning forward and rubbing his hands together. “Because these people suffered a horrific event, and truthfully great injustice in the aftermath, and they’re still suffering that injustice. So what are you going to follow that injustice with? Crap houses with toxic materials and appliances that run up their electricity bills and may lead to a foreclosure? I mean, really. This to me is a social-justice issue. And to create something that’s equitable and fair and has respect and provides dignity for the family within is absolutely essential to rebuilding here.”
“Saint Brad,” Metropolis, March 1, 2008
The day before Saint Patrick’s Day in 2008, movie star Brad Pitt and former President Bill Clinton walked together through the Lower Ninth Ward of New Orleans, shaking hands, signing autographs, and taking photos with the jubilant crowds lining the street. Pitt danced with lucky bystanders to the quintessential New Orleans sound of a brass band before the two men, now armed with shovels, made their way to an empty lot, where they broke ground and posed for more photos. In one of them, the pair stands beaming in a small sea of black, brown, and white smiling faces, Pitt looking over lovingly at the former President, who stands a foot or so in front of him, in a moment of shared joy. Clinton, with an open-mouthed grin, is the only person in the photo looking directly at the camera.
The land where Pitt and Clinton stood on Saint Patrick’s Day has been home to poor and working-class families, mostly black, for generations. Relegated by segregation and inequity to lower-lying ground on the outskirts of the city, poor families of color have bought and passed down homes in the Lower Ninth for decades. The Lower Ninth’s rich culture—benevolent aid societies, brass bands, Mardi Gras Indians—is as strong as its tradition of homeownership, and also borne out of the shared history that runs like the mighty Mississippi through most New Orleans neighborhoods. In her book about communities coming together in times of disaster, A Paradise Built in Hell (2009), Rebecca Solnit reflects on the fierce sense of togetherness that’s immediately apparent to those not from the city. “I’ve had long wondered whether there was a society so rich in a sense of belonging and purpose that disaster could bring nothing to it, a society where there was no alienation and isolation to undo,” she wrote. “I found a little of that in New Orleans.”
The culture of the Lower Ninth held steady after Hurricane Katrina in August 2005. Its homes, however, did not. With its tornado-like winds and torrential rain, the storm was one of the worst hurricanes in history, causing massive devastation throughout the Gulf Coast. But lining several New Orleans neighborhoods, including Lower Ninth Ward, were levees that have since been determined to be improperly built by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers—decades-long, unfinished, projects funded by the public that caused what the American Society of Civil Engineers called “the worst engineering catastrophe in US History.” When those levees broke in the Lower Ninth,houses that had been in families for generations were crushed like sandcastles, peeled off their foundations by winds and gushing tides and swept down the street. When they could eventually return to their homes, those who could financially or feasibly afford to evacuate before the storm saw the disintegration and ruin of what they couldn’t carry: scrapbooks water-logged and unrecognizable, the family Bible disintegrated, decades of memories rusted, broken, or simply gone. Many of those of couldn’t afford to evacuate died.
It’s difficult to imagine a feeling worse than seeing one’s childhood home gutted like a fish by forces that could have been stopped, or at least lessened, had they been dealt with properly. But for many New Orleanians, particularly those in the Lower Ninth Ward, what happened after the waters went down was even worse. Though their recovery efforts were more swift for areas of business and a few choice neighborhoods (many of which were noticeably whiter and wealthier than the Lower Ninth), the support local, state, and federal government provided for displaced residents from neighborhoods like the Lower Ninth was sporadic best and nonexistent at worst. Those who had managed to flee the city to places like Houston, Minnesota, and Utah were separated from their families by a bureaucratic mess that left no paper trail. In the dead of night, the Federal Emergency Management Association (FEMA) pulled funding for displaced people who were living out of hotel rooms until they could return to their city, leaving them homeless. People in the Lower Ninth Ward were the last to be allowed back into the neighborhood to assess the damage to their homes, and when they could come back, several months went by before they were given a FEMA trailer to place where their homes once stood, despite the hundreds that were allocated for the purpose. The Lower Ninth Ward was the last to get back electricity and water after the storm. Just as homeownership in the neighborhood was once a generational tradition, so too seems to be the trauma of having that tradition stripped away: as of August 2018, the population of the Lower Ninth Ward is less than half that it was before Katrina.
The tragic disorder that followed Katrina wasn’t due to mere incompetence of the Army Corps of Engineers, the Bush administration, or the laissez les bon temps rouler-style politics of city and state government. Once they receded, the storm waters left an outline of a bigger picture that showed exactly what was most important to those in leadership after the storm: money. More specifically, above all else for those people in power was money via neoliberalism, the nonpartisan ideology built on deregulation and the privatizing of public resources in the name of economic, social, and political security.
In the days, months, and years following Katrina, the recovery efforts of every level of government painted a portrait of a system that valued neoliberal economics more than the lives of people on the ground. The Bush administration famously dragged its feet with storm relief, which in one case paved the way for a private company, an offshoot of the largest funeral provider in the world, to step in and handle the corpses accumulating on the streets of New Orleans, untouched a full week after the storm. Later, the White House contracted a subsidiary of Halliburton, the company Vice President Dick Cheney had been CEO of just five years prior, to help with hurricane recovery (which, coincidentally, relied on undocumented and exploited Latino workers get the job done). Kathleen Blanco, Louisiana Democratic governor during Katrina, hired for the city’s “security” a private military-services firm at a rate three or four times more than local police and then overhauled the district’s public school system with charter schools, firing 7,500 public school teachers along the way. Ray Nagin, New Orleans’ Democratic mayor, had announced two months before the storm that the city couldn’t afford to provide transportation for evacuation before a serious hurricane, and then, while the city was still underwater, fired 3,000 municipal employees. While the government worked to dismantle a public system that was shaky even before the storm (New Orleans had some of the worst-performing schools and the highest crime rates in the country before 2005), Lower Ninth residents remained scattered, without a house to go home to and any support to get there, if they did.
It is, perhaps, not that surprising that Brad Pitt’s was one of the loudest voices to speak out about the injustices suffered by New Orleanians, particularly those from the Lower Ninth Ward. The actor had a reputation as a humanitarian-minded progressive from championing human rights causes and climate change awareness across the globe, and his interest in sustainable architecture got him involved in Global Green, a non-profit environmental think tank.
And ever since filming “Interview with a Vampire” in the city, Brad Pitt loved New Orleans. Three years after the storm, it still pained him to see his favorite place undone by disaster, natural and manmade. The solution to his pain and others, he believed, was simple: he and a team of planners, architects, and contractors he’d put together would build a new Lower Ninth Ward, in the form of 150 sustainable, environmentally-conscious, cost-effective, well-designed affordable homes to be sold to Katrina victims from the Lower Ninth. (A common misconception is that Brad Pitt built and gave the houses away for free; though they were intentionally sold at a loss and Pitt’s organization helped residents with loans for their mortgages, the people who moved in still had to pay for their homes.)
Maybe it wasn’t a surprise, either, that Pitt announced the nonprofit he founded to follow through with his plan, the Make It Right Foundation (MIR), at a meeting of the Clinton Global Initiative (CGI). The timing was perfect: founded by Bill Clinton in 2005, CGI was a new organization dedicated to fixing large, multidimensional problems with big, bold, liberal ideas, and the devastation of the Lower Ninth Ward during and after Katrina was a problem marked by its very dimensionality. The elements that urged a liberal response were all there: economic insecurity, racial injustice, the erosion of the environment, and the Republican administration’s disregard for the poor, the black, the other. The Clintons’ association with Brad Pitt’s quest to “make it right” merely solidified the movie star’s vision as a progressive rebuke to the antiquated mode of politics orchestrating recovery efforts from the White House, Baton Rouge, and the Mayor’s residence.
What is a surprise, though, is how terribly Pitt’s vision has failed.
A note about sources: As mentioned in the author’s note at the beginning of this article, I did not do any on-the-ground reporting for this story. Being in school in Massachusetts, I relied on 35 pieces of writing–from national and local magazines, websites, and books–for quotes, descriptions, and the other details necessary to create a piece of long-form journalism. I am grateful to the reporters, writers, and academics whose work was vital to make this piece what I wanted it to be. The links embedded throughout my piece should serve as in-text citations for their work, and a full bibliographic entry (with page numbers, as necessary) of each source is listed below.
Blum, Andrew. “Saint Brad,” Metropolis, March 1, 2008, https://www.metropolismag.com/uncategorized/saint-brad/.
Celebrity. “Brad and Bill Make It Right in New Orleans,” Popsugar, March 16, 2008, https://www.popsugar.com/celebrity/Brad-Pitt-Bill-Clinton-New-Orleans-Lower-9th-Ward-1120533.
The Data Center, “Neighborhood Change Rates: Growth continues through 2018,” The Data Center, August 23, 2018, https://www.datacenterresearch.org/reports_analysis/neighborhood-recovery-rates-growth-continues-through-2018-in-new-orleans-neighborhoods/. https://www.thenation.com/article/why-the-lower-ninth-ward-looks-like-the-hurricane-just-hit/
Knabb, Richard D., et al., “Tropical Cyclone Report: Hurricane Katrina, 23-30 August 2005,” National Hurricane Center, 2005, https://www.nhc.noaa.gov/data/tcr/AL122005_Katrina.pdf.
Langhorne, Emily. “Why New Orleans schools just made American history,” Sun Herald, July 6, 2018, https://www.sunherald.com/opinion/article214380924.html
Lee, Spike. When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts, directed by Spike Lee (New York City: HBO, 2006), Swank Digital Campus via Five College Libraries.
Lovato, Roberto. “Gulf Coast Slaves,” Spiegel Online, November 15, 2005, http://www.spiegel.de/international/using-illegal-labor-to-clean-up-after-katrina-gulf-coast-slaves-a-385044-2.html
Nguyen, Cyndi and Paul Gates, “Company Hired to Handle Katrina’s Dead Has Tainted History,” WAFB 9, September 14, 2005, http://www.wafb.com/story/3851853/company-hired-to-handle-katrinas-dead-has-tainted-history/.
Nossiter, Adam. “New Orleans Crime Swept Away, with Most of the People,” New York Times, November 10, 2005, https://www.nytimes.com/2005/11/10/us/nationalspecial/new-orleans-crime-swept-away-with-most-of-the-people.html.
Pogrebin, Robin. “Brad Pitt Commissions Designs for New Orleans,” New York Times, December 3, 2007, https://www.nytimes.com/2007/12/03/arts/design/03pitt.html.
Reed Jr., Adolph. “Undone by Neoliberalism,” The Nation, August 31, 2006, https://www.thenation.com/article/undone-neoliberalism/.
Rivlin, Gary. “Why the Lower Ninth Ward Looks like the Hurricane Just Hit,” The Nation, August 13, 2015.
Roth, Lawrence H. “The New Orleans Levees: The Worst Engineering Catastrophe in U.S. History—What Went Wrong and Why,” The American Society of Civil Engineers, n.d., https://biotech.law.lsu.edu/climate/ocean-rise/against-the-deluge/01-new_orleans_levees.pdf
Scahill, Jeremy. “In the Black(water),” The Nation, May 17, 2006, https://www.thenation.com/article/blackwater/
Solnit, Rebecca. A Paradise Built in Hell (New York: Penguin, 2010), 268.
This is a guest post and originally appeared on ViaNolaVie.com. It has been reprinted here with permission. Part 2 of this series will appear on Monday, Feb. 11.