We rolled into New Orleans without a plan, and only a few hours to spend. We expected to just roam around the Quarter for a while, but at the last minute we took a labyrinthine detour to the Lower Ninth Ward to see how they were faring six years out. In August and September of 2005 we, like most people, sat glued to our TV as the horror of the storm and its aftermath sunk in. Going to the Lower Ninth was a pilgrimage of sorts, and we expected to feel the deep, draining sadness we’ve experienced at Gettysburg or Antietam. We didn’t expect to be inspired.
We knew things were looking up as we came off the bridge and were greeted by a new sign, “Welcome to the Historic Lower Ninth Ward.” PR? Sure. But there was pride in that sign, and money being spent.
Then we turned onto Tennessee St. and entered another world. This is the epicenter of the Make it Right foundation, the one founded by Brad Pitt, and my estimation of him soared for putting his considerable fortune and influence behind this project.
All around us were the most beautiful new homes, and there were crews up and down the streets building more. The houses were modest in size, and simple in layout, with the elongated shape of mobile homes. But each one was different, with a distinctive roof line, or railing or decorative facing. They were colorful and fanciful, and even more, substantial looking, and put paid to the notion that inexpensive doesn’t have to be cheap and ugly.
It was midday and most of the residents were at work, but we ran into a young man working on his car.
“Is one of these houses yours?” I asked.
“No,” he said, and pointed to an especially beautiful house with a grand staircase leading to the front door. “That’s my friend’s grandma’s house.”
He said he was there when the storm hit, and eventually ended up in Houston where he stayed for two years. We could see how much it meant to him when he said he was glad to be back. New Orleans does that to you.
There’s still plenty of work to do, and people were doing it. We felt awkward about taking photos of the building crews, being all touristy and all, but there were sounds of sawing and hammering for blocks in all directions.
We left the Make it Right area and drove just a few blocks over. And that’s when the deep sadness hit us. What was once a community is now a ghost town, still.
There are reminders of the weeks of horror everywhere.
There’s building going on in other areas of the Lower Ninth, not just in the Make it Right section. And we noticed that wherever there was a little church, houses were sprouting up around them. It reminded us of the way cities grew centuries ago. There would be a church and people would build near it. Then as each little village grew, it would connect with the next and pretty soon you had a big city, with churches anchoring the neighborhoods. The Lower Ninth is a lesson in history, archaeology and human resilience all wrapped up in one. We’re so glad we went.