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The Pitfalls of “Celebrity Architecture” in Post-Katrina New Orleans

Photo by JanetandPhil

For all of its great intentions, the Make It Right foundation doesn’t seem to live up to its name. The New Republic details the problems with the strategy of the organization, which was founded by Brad Pitt in 2007 to build homes in New Orleans’ Lower Ninth Ward, a neighborhood that was devastated by Hurricane Katrina. Providing homes for returning residents is a noble mission, but evidently, the effectiveness of the program in revitalizing the neighborhood is clearly in doubt.

The home designs are modern and extravagant, but unsurprisingly very expensive to build, costing upwards of a whopping $400,000 each. Part of the bloated expense is due to each house being designed to be LEED certified. Since 2007, 90 out of the originally promised 150 new homes have been built, and at a cost of  nearly $45 million. As a result, the organization is struggling to finance the endeavor and has gone so far as to offer up new homes for sale to people who didn’t live in the neighborhood before the storm. Even if the full extent of the program could be implemented today, 150 homes pales in comparison to the estimated 4 to 5,000 homes lost in the neighborhood in Katrina.

The MIR homes are concentrated in the western portion of the neighborhood, particularly along Tennessee Street and Deslonde Street. Below is the Streetview for Tennessee Street where you can explore a number of the MIR homes, whose sleek and modern design make them unmistakeable and in sharp contrast to the rest of the neighborhood.

On top of the questionable strategy of Make It Right, the economic and physical geographies of the area make the project seem all the more misguided. While residents have been trickling back into the neighborhood, local businesses and essential services, which were scarce even before the storm, have not yet returned, forcing current residents to travel far for basic errands like grocery shopping.

Additionally, the environmental characteristics of the neighborhood have not changed since the storm: it is still below sea-level, surrounded by canals, and in an area especially vulnerable to levee breaching. In a comprehensive rebuke of the program, TheArchitectsTake.com offers the view of Dr. Richard Campanella from Tulane University, who eloquently describes the physical and cultural geography at work in the site selection:

What I, as a geographer, can opine on is the decision to build MIR at that site, precisely in front of the high-velocity breach flooding, on land that is mostly below sea level and adjacent to two risk-inducing manmade navigation canals. This was a bold, high-minded, and morally majestic decision, but a foolish one. It reflects a romanticized notion of the relationship between place and people (culture). It indulges in the tempting (and popular) but problematic presumption that “place makes people,” whereas in fact the opposite is more commonly the case. It attempts to “save” the culture of that neighborhood by rebuilding in that exact spot, as if culture emerges from soil. The truth is that human beings adjust their place all the time. They move to different houses, neighborhoods, cities, states, nations, and continents incessantly. Most of the pre-Katrina housing stock near the MIR project only dates to the 1920s-1960s; residents moved there from other neighborhoods only a couple of generations ago, at most.

More troublingly, MIR’s site selection decision reveals a breezy arrogance (note the name “Make It Right”) and a misguided sense of defiance. At whom are they shaking their fists by insisting on making their statement at that unsustainable site? Global warming? Under-engineered levees and floodwalls? Centuries of delta urbanism and their deleterious impact on the landscape? The whole Katrina tragedy?

Looking at maps of the area confirm the misgivings Campanella lays out. As you can see in Google Maps and from this 2007 Army Corps of Engineers map, the Lower Ninth Ward (including the Holy Cross sub-neighborhood south of St. Claude Avenue) is surrounded on three sides by water: the Mississippi River to the south, the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway to the west, and the Main Outfall Canal to the north. In the ACE map, the Lower Ninth Ward is situated just to the left of the “Alternative 2” label.

Source: ACE via the Times-Picayune

The Make It Right foundation’s questionable tactics raise a number of difficult questions for New Orleans, with the ultimate one being a politically volatile idea: should the Lower Ninth Ward be saved at all? In a battle of geographic determinism versus the emotional push to rebuild, it appears the latter is winning.

Photo by John Donaghy

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