Brad Pitt’s sustainable architectural non-profit in the 9th Ward unfairly takes fire from the New Republic. After Hurricane Katrina destroyed the beloved New Orleans’ neighborhood, Pitt, who dabbles in architectural design, decided to help build homes that could withstand hurricanes and floods in the future. He started a non-profit, Make It Right, hired some incredibly talented architects, urban planners, economists, and locals and went to work.
Make It Right built over 90 homes throughout the lower 9th (a small fraction of the tens of thousands that were damaged or destroyed).
The author unfairly compares Make It Right - essentially a charity - to for-profit real estate firms and declares it a failure. It is unclear how anyone - let alone some of the best architects and planners in the country - could have predicted the recovery of a city, especially after a major hurricane.
What’s even more unclear is how the author got away with making such a lazy comparison. The New Republic got duped, in my opinion.
Most of the homes Pitt built are fantastic dream homes comprised of minimalist design and sustainable materials. The problem - so says the author - is that poor people do not deserve such ‘luxurious’ amenities. Racism aside, the fact that many families have moved away from New Orleans, with little expectation that they’ll return anytime soon, the author insists on blaming a charity for attempting to provide sustainable housing.
It’s true the economy is in the tank. But it is simply not true that one non-profit should have followed a different path. The author writes:
But there’s a Catch-22: The neighborhood doesn’t have enough residents to attract many stores and services, and prospective buyers end up elsewhere because the neighborhood doesn’t have enough stores and services.
So about 90 households, primarily elderly people like Guy, are living in futuristic homes that most Americans would covet, and yet there’s not a supermarket—or even a fast food restaurant—for miles.
It didn’t have to be this way, and it’s costing the city.
This is a flat out lie: “yet there’s not a supermarket—or even a fast food restaurant—for miles.” Utterly false. See above google map screen cap I took this morning. The lower 9th has dozens of restaurants and at least 10(!) grocery stores, including one locally owned co-op that features fresh fruits and vegetables.
And that’s just in the Lower 9th neighborhood!
The author uses the yellow home at the top (with the long stair case) as a prop for the story. This home was built 9 feet off the ground. It has solar panels, modernist features, experimental materials, and a small footprint. It cost around $300k to build, yet the author will have you believe that this is far more than anyone in the neighborhood could typically afford. Also false. A quick search on real estate site Zillow shows homes, condos, and townhouses average $250k in the 9th Ward, some top out around $750,000. See map 2. Clearly the New Republic does not employ fact checkers.
Brad Pitt’s project is still the darling of the sustainable architecture and resiliency crowds (and to climate adaptation folks like me). The New Republic will have readers believe that Pitt and his teams should have known better. That his non-profit charity work should become more profitable. This is disingenuous at best, and out right deception at worst.
The New Republic is wrong for comparing a ‘non-profit charity’ to traditional ‘for-profit’ real estate developers.
Founded in 2007, Make It Right’s mission is crystal clear: “To build safe, Cradle to Cradle inspired homes, buildings and communities for people in need.” Yet according this sloppy hit piece, it’s as if Pitt’s error was not fully adopting the commonly held philosophy by greedy developers: “build it and they will come.”
In other words, Make It Right was, is, and will always be a non-profit community development organization, not a for-profit real-estate firm. It’s like blaming an apple for not being a tuna sandwich.
The hit piece is nothing more than journalistic bedazzling. The article has that well researched, boots-on-the-ground journalistic feel. There are nice pull quotes from interviews, and the writer uses urban planning vernacular quite well. But the author used more speculatory “what if” scenarios than actual analysis, which makes the piece more in line with link-baity shlock.
For example, the writer faults Brad Pitt for not doing things that do not exist. ‘Pitt should have invested differently. Pitt could have built cheaper homes. Pitt could have rehabbed more blocks. Pitt should not include hurricanes in architectural designs.’ And, since Pitt didn’t do these things (which exist in the author’s head), the entire venture has failed. This despite the fact that Pitt’s foundation has the support from Louisiana’s politicians, some of the best urban planners, economists, and architects in North America, and the very people who live in the neighborhood.
Instead, we get paragraph after paragraph of utter speculation that serves nothing more than to stir up stern nods of disappointment:
Pitt’s foundation could have chosen to put its $45 million into a neighborhood where the compounding effects would’ve been remarkable, or at least one without the added risk and cost of building below sea level—like Branford Marsalis and Harry Connick Jr.’s Musicians Village on the other side of the Industrial Canal.
He could also have built several hundred perfectly serviceable, weatherproof, and efficient new homes, instead of the 90 he’s completed—like Barnes and Noble founder Leonard Riggio, who’ll build 200 new homes in a concentrated area in nearby Gentilly for about the same amount.
He could even have filled in more quickly recovering neighborhoods with higher-quality traditional designs, like New Urbanist patron saint Andres Duany. Instead, Pitt got an interesting architectural experiment, lots of gushy magazine coverage, and a place for Gloria Guy to remember what life was like before it all floated away.
Use of “could haves” and “what ifs” in cultural criticism are red flags. These signal that the author has an agenda. Reader beware. These are known as straw man fallacies - create fake scenarios that no one can test - and then shoot them down, all the while not addressing the original issue.
As you can see, the intention of these “he could have” speculations serve nothing more than to solicit your disapproval. This is journalistic trickery. Perhaps the writer was under deadline and needed to fulfill their word-count requirement. But, in my opinion, any good writer will know that presenting a critical analysis of a possibly failed project (this project has indeed not failed) s/he better present their case steeped deep in a fat vat of facts, not on a buffet of empty calories.
So, word to the wise, if you’re going to write a hit piece, do your due diligence. Address a problem that actually exists and present and contrast it to similar scenarios, scenarios that serve to provide appropriate context and understanding. Avoid filling space with empty speculations and bring some solutions to the table.
If you can stomach reading a biased hit piece, go ahead and visit the New Republic - if not at least for the slideshow.