The impact of Hurricane Katrina is still being felt in New Orleans. While on a recent trip there, we stopped by the Lower Ninth Ward to view any progress being made in rebuilding the area. We were pleasantly surprised, not at the fact that anything was being done, but rather how it was being accomplished.
Brad Pitt’s — Make It Right Foundation and a host of other organizations and volunteers are slowly adding affordable housing for those displaced. But the homes are not what you would expect. The structures are clean, modern, and green. All the homes we saw had solar panels, and most importantly, the homes were occupied.
We surmised and later comfirmed that there is debate raging on whether the homes fit the fabric and history of New Orleans architecture. But we say Bravo! We are firmly behind pushing the envelope as you well know, and building green is also on top of our desirables list. Besides, the progress is 100% more than anything the government on any level has built.
We found the “Make-it-Right” houses to be innovative, artful and eccentric, all attributes suitable to New Orleans culture. We also found them to be infinitely more practical than their predecessors. In our opinion — the designs suit their environment. But there is more than that. We think these homes represent the New Orleans “after”. There was a New Orleans “before” and it was a phenomenon, but that New Orleans is no more, and though that was, and is, one hell of a tragedy, there is usually, hopefully some good that comes from the bad. We think what these houses represent is larger than clever architecture — they’ve offered optimism in a neighborhood critical to New Orleans’ downtown culture that had become a wasteland. Now, there are people and families living again in the Lower Ninth Ward.
A city like New Orleans is nothing without its people. The Lower Ninth Ward was home to key contributors to the rich culture of the city. Knowing that these families have been able to stay because now there is a place to live is something that hits us deep in the gut. We get choked up just thinking about it. Why? Because New Orleans is special, and if there is anything even slightly misanthropic about you, upon your first visit the town gets under your skin.
On this visit, our first in some years, crossing North Claiborne to the southern part of the Ninth Ward is hard to take as the destruction and abandoned homes are still there; still so apparent. But some optimism exists around the area now as these newly-housed people go on with their lives. If you are there, make a reservation and stop by Ronald Lewis’ museum The House of Dance and Feathers and see what makes this neighborhood a real home for real people as opposed to whatever myopic perception outsiders have had of the area. Mr. Lewis, a Mardi Gras Indian, is deliberately vocal as he orates summary on all the non-profits coming into the area and, “Taking our personal information.”
“They’ve got us standing in lines and filling out stacks of papers. They’re making promises, collecting up our stories and then pocketing the grants from the data taken.”
New Orleans is not itself without people like Ronald. Our meeting with him made our trip more meaningful. His transcendence of this disaster is the best of the stuff this extraordinary place has to offer. When we asked Ronald what he wanted most, his response?
“I want my twelve grandchildren back.”
This of course, stuck with us as we made our way around the Crescent City and deeper into Creole Country…the fact that almost all of his family, who once lived in blissfully-close proximity, are now scattered to the winds.
He wants more tangible progress like the homes just north of him. We couldn’t agree more and urge you to contribute to the direct housing and rebuilding efforts.
New Orleans took a hit so large that it’s a wonder it still functions, but the people are so intrepid, so cool, they hold it together for themselves and for visitors like us. This city should not be forgotten. It is an American City, and yet the only city like it the world. It is a city that has danced to its own beat and blended itself miraculously and beautifully. We honor the people of The Crescent City, admire their dignity and hope you will too.
Michael Spurrier and Leah Spurrier.HighStreet.Cincinnati