Sunday, December 23, 2007

Brad Pitt. The Pink Project

Tennessee and Derbigny Streets
December 26th, 2007
Lower 9th Ward
New Orleans, La.

Dear Family and Friends,

Until recently, the daylit view off the Clairborne bridge was an unlikely inspirer. Looking towards the intersection of Tennessee and Derbigny, the residential lots blended together. Grazing grass replaced front yards.

What once was a lively part of the Lower 9th Ward had become an American eyesore that millions flocked to see. Devastation tours became big business.

Now, however, an artistic expression, a battle cry for sustainability, and a stab at correction is covering the most devastated area in New Orleans. The experiment is Brad Pitt's Pink Project. The Make It Right foundation hopes to build 150 homes here.

Over 400 scaffolded triangles and squares wrapped in pink are scattered across 15 square blocks symbolizing the homes lost in the Storm. It's an art installation on a massive scale, and I'm beginning to think the symbolic merit of the process will ultimately be its most important component.

The 150 homes rebuilt are a drop in the bucket in a neighborhood where over 5,000 homes were destroyed. This is not a save the City project by numbers. It's far more important from a spirit and upside outlook. The sounds of diesel engines and heavy machinery--not silence--give way to the crickets at dusk. When people drive through "ground zero" they don't think, "What's going to happen here?"

Too many Americans have left this neighborhood feeling angst, hopelessness, pity and shame.

The art component of the project is genius, really. We're a culture of extremes. If it isn't the fastest, the slowest, the youngest, the oldest, the biggest, smallest, the worst or the best it ain't a headline. For two years and four months, despite the truth that 80 percent of the City sustained considerable damage, these 15 blocks were the center of attention.

The Lower 9th Ward was Brad Pitt. We were the paparazzi.

Pitt called the project a small act of civil disobedience, citing pink as the color that screamed the loudest. The bright pink thingees have achieved what no guide or resident has been able to do--inspire.

Each time $150,000 dollars is raised by the Make it Right Foundation, the fragmented pieces of pink scaffolding will be joined to form a house in wrapping paper. Currently, enough has been raised for 52 of the 150 homes. At night the installation exhibits similarities of several pink jack-o-lanterns on a really big porch.

Pitt had 13 architecture firms submit designs for the homes, with sustainability a key concept.

“If you have this blank slate and this great technology out there, what better test than low-income housing?” Pitt told the New York Times. “It’s got to work at all levels to really be viable.”

"You can adopt a tankless water heater or a solar panel or a tree or a low-flush toilet,” Pitt told the New York Times.

And for those who've wondered whether Pitt is figurehead or real contributor--friends close to the project say it's the latter.



Donations can be made through the Make it Right foundation's web site:

Photo Credit: Lee Celano, Reuters.

Monday, December 10, 2007

Transplant indiscretion

December 10, 2007
CJ Peete (Magnolia) Housing Projects
New Orleans, La.

Dear Family and Friends,

The rumble in the green space between units at the Magnolia housing projects is gone now, replaced by the muffled sounds of the expressway nearby.

The physical structures are barracks-styled, they look much like a Northeastern boarding school or what servicemen might have stayed in during World Wars. There aren't many who'd say these public housing projects aren't built well. A joke down here is, "The only time people are running to the projects is when a storm is coming."

Jokes are funny. But they only work with little truths. People have always run from the projects. They run when crimes are committed. Or they run away pursuing a better life. Before the Storm, the public housing projects were centers of violent crime, poverty and poor education. Magnolia, in its pre-storm days, had developed a national reputation for its violent crime.

It has been locked since the Storm.

Magnolia and three other of the City's largest projects are due to be demolished beginning next week. Advocates of the New Orleans' public housing projects aren't going quietly. Last week, they marched on the City Council meeting. Today, recent whispers of human road blocks became yelps of intent. You see, many of the housing projects suffered little damage in the storm, and some, according to anti-demolition advocates, are move-in ready. Many public housing residents are still displaced and those who've come back returned to locks on their residences.

It's a bit of a paradox in New Orleans--tearing down usable buildings.

This is not an arena for me to tell you about whether I think the demolitions are right. The price tag is large and the outcome calls for mixed-income communities. There are passionate people on both sides.

The clash (read: human roadblocks) between government and grassroots arrives on December 15th. Until today, these advocates had played a flawless game of call-to-action and political dissent. Many of these human roadblocks will look more like me than the typical New Orleans' public housing resident. Thousands of young, mostly white and well-educated Americans have transplanted themselves here post-Katrina.

They are hip, socially-conscious and technologically fit, blogging, photoshopping and disseminating media to all corners of America and abroad. So today, when the signs appeared reading: "For every Public Housing Unit Destroyed, A Condo Will Be Destroyed," --I didn't see angry and powerless people behind them.

I saw transplants with far less invested creating a firestorm in a racially divided City already on fragile ground.

I was at City Hall when these signs appeared, and I've seen many of the socially-just post-K white well-to-doers at the protest on several other occasions during my time here.

After all, I guess I'm one of 'em. I might have even sat at their lunch table, if this was high school.

It was disappointing that transplants had become the story. Disappointing that, if this was a game, role players lept at an opportunity to become more important than they are. The fight between government and grassroots in an old city doesn't need newcomers with little invested inserting themselves into the dispute. The FBI is investigating. I believe it's propaganda produced in a corner coffee shop that went too far. I think most have the same attitude.

We are a generation of altruism. A demographic of go-getters and big dreamers. More so, I'd say than any who've come before us, given our development in relatively peaceful and prosperous times. Somewhere along the line, behind the big ideas and world-beating attitudes, a little narcissism crept in.

It took a lot of gumption to adhese these signs to City Hall and around the Central Business District. I think it took even bigger egos.

I've said it before and I'll say it again, this is not our place to become the story, or the world-changers. A guy told me the other day that he's a little tired of the idealistic transplants who think they've "come to save our shipwreck from itself."

I'm all for idealism. I'm all for world-beaters. But, we must all remember, the people from New Orleans are a courageous and competent bunch and we, the young transplants, will learn more from them than they'll ever learn from us. There is a delicate balance between learning, listening and serving a community and doing what you think is best.


Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Stuck. 8/26/05

December 2, 2007
Thomy Lafone Elementary
New Orleans, La.

Dear Family and Friends,

The silence is the scariest part.

All but one entrance has been boarded. Shattered glass and bent plywood rest in front of the door I've entered. If I'm caught, is it only and entering?, I wonder. After all, someone else has done the breaking.

My breath is loud. I try to quiet it, there could be people in here. It's funny really, I worry more about the people who may be mad about me getting in here and less about the people who may be living here. People who may have guns.

The walls of Thomy Lafone Elementary School are preserved as they were, Friday, August 26, 2005. Ms. Becknell taught in Room 233. Her lesson plan is still attached to the wall, just under the light switch.

8:00-9:30: Literacy
9:30-10:00: LEJS
10:00-10:30: Writing
10:30-11:30: Math
11:30-12:15: Lunch Duty
12:15-1:00: Language
1:00-1:45: Science
1:45-2:30: Social Studies

I'd like to find Ms. Becknell. I'd ask her what she's done since she left Room 233.

In another room on the second floor, a news-clipping montage is on the wall. When I read it from a far, I thought someone had put it up as a social, political statement for the post-K wander-iners of Thomy Lafone to read. The headlines, "New Orleans mourns" and "Darkest Day" and "This is a Sad Day in America" were what I saw from a distance.

They were September 11 clippings, there to remind the children of what had happened. Our language, as beautiful as it is, has limits of expression. The words we pull out in tragedies--they're recyclable, no matter how different the scenarios.

As I walk down the circular stairs that so many others have walked with backpacks and pencil pouches, scrunchies and Air Jordans, I get sad. It's an odd, selfish sadness though, about how I'd feel about the elementary school I went to going through what LaFone did.

Do you remember the kid who always picked his nose or the teacher who gave you candy when your spelling test was perfect? These are the memories of Katrina kids are making somewhere else now. Often in multiple places since the Storm.

I walk past a clock that looks like ones I used to visualize skipping forward until the end of the school day. But this isn't a place for fast-forward. If anything, New Orleanians wish they had a two-year-and-some change rewind button.

Even if we wanted to, we couldn't turn the clocks back inside Lafone.

None of them work.