Actor launches massive reconstruction effort

Brad Pitt launched a campaign on Monday to bring to life blocks of New Orleans’ Lower Ninth Ward that are still languishing more than two years after the devastation from Hurricane Katrina.

Unveiling a series of designs meant to evoke the neighborhood’s rich traditions and at the same time push forward environmental building techniques, Pitt said that the first of planned 150 homes will break ground in March.

“When we get as far as we can here, this will be one of the greenest progressive communities in the U.S., on an affordable level,” Pitt said by phone from New Orleans.

Like other stars who have capitalized on media attention to shine a spotlight on various crises around the world, Pitt spent big chunks of the day on Monday giving interviews and holding a press conference, as well as introducing a vast temporary art installation of 150 bright pink structures meant to stand in for the community that will some day be rebuilt.

“The hurdles seem endless,” he said. “But right now, it is just financing. We can do this. This is happening at a grassroots level, and hundreds of people have been working on the ground to get to this point for a year now. I’m telling you, we can get people into their homes by the end of the summer.”

Pitt and producer Steve Bing have each pledged to match $5 million in contributions to the project, and are embarking on a campaign to raise money to finance the complete project. Many property owners will be able to put up insurance payouts, government funds or their own savings, but still fall short.

“We have to help people meet the gap between what they have and what it realistically costs to build a safe home,” Pitt said. “These houses will average about $150,000 each. We would like to raise that to cover the 150, and with the money that the residents will bring to the house we will then invest in building more homes.”

Via Pitt’s MakeItRightnola.org, donors are urged to finance entire blocks, individual homes, or dedicate parts of the home or even items, right down to doors and toilets.

Some eight families are participating in the initial phase of the project. Make It Right does not own any of the land or the homes, so property owners can build on their own. But if they do, they will be able to choose from designs submitted from 13 different firms, which donated their services.

Rather than try to restore the neighborhood to its pre-Katrina state, the firms came up with a variety of different three-bedroom homes, each with a front porch and, because of potential floodwaters, built off the ground.

For example, architect Thom Mayne of Los Angeles firm Morphosis came up with a home that would actually float. Another design, from Kieran Timberlake Associates, features a rooftop of solar panels and a side wall made up of vines, to keep the home cool.

Pitt said that they worked with neighborhood leaders in drawing up the plans to deal with specific needs.

“We called on the design minds and architects to deal with the challenges down here, in the Lower Ninth,” Pitt said. “It was affordability, safety, sustainability and aesthetics, but staying true to the rich culture of New Orleans.”

Pitt and his partner, actress Angelina Jolie, purchased a home in the French Quarter last year and are now part-time residents.

Since then, Pitt has taken an interest in helping the city rebuild, or to call attention to the big hurdles that residents have faced in returning to the Ninth Ward.

“We were the most massive force in rebuilding most of Europe (after World War II) and we rebuilt over half of it in this amount of time,” he said. “When you see what it looks like coming here, it tells you our attention has not been applied to this problem.”

Pitt says that he has “great hope” that New Orleans will be “a defining issue” in the 2008 presidential race, after the campaigns of Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama contacted them about the project.

Bing is one of Clinton’s early backers, and Clinton herself issued a statement on Monday morning praising the effort, and criticizing the Bush adminstration’s response to Katrina rebuilding. Reached later in the day, an Obama spokeswoman said that they “absolutely support the project.”

“I really hope this becomes one of the defining issues of the campaign, not so much as a tool for blame, but more as a tool for the problems of the country and how to redirect them,” Pitt said. “We can talk education reform and health reform, but if it is not made right here it is not going to work anywhere. So this is really a proving ground for many a policy.”

Campaigns have been touting their endorsement power, and courting various famous names, but Pitt said that he has not endorsed a candidate.

“I don’t know. I will if I feel someone really needs my help,” he said.

On Monday night, as Jerry Lee Lewis and Fats Domino entertained residents, the lights went on the pink art structures, giving the area a lighted glow it hasn’t had since the hurricane tore through the city in August 2005.

Why pink?

“I want people to draw from it what they can,” Pitt said. “Much like the lyrics in a song. To me, it screams the loudest.”

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