I will start with a confession: I was part of the fawning media swarm that lauded and applauded the accomplishments of Make It Right, Brad Pitt’s bold attempt to rebuild a portion of the Lower Ninth Ward in New Orleans. The project was, it seemed once, one of the few post-Katrina success stories coming out of that flood-ravaged community.
I still believe the project played a role in helping the neighborhood. But along with everyone else, I was very dismayed by recent events: a class action suit by unhappy residents as well as total radio silence from an organization that once prided itself on community engagement. Late last week, Bloomberg published “When Brad Pitt Tried to Save New Orleans’ Lower Ninth Ward,” an excellent and even-handed account by journalist Rob Walker. (Full disclosure: Steven Bingler, co-founder of Common Edge, is quoted in the story. His firm, Concordia, designed 10 Make It Right homes. According to Walker, “The 10 homes his company designed—with a pitched roof and prominent, New Orleans-style front porch—have had only routine maintenance issues.”) Prior to that article’s publication I talked to Walker—author of the forthcoming book The Art of Noticing—about his Make It Right reporting and the lessons for social design that we can draw from the story.
MCP: Martin C. Pedersen
RW: Rob Walker
You live in the Lower Ninth and have watched Make It Right evolve. Tell me about your experience with it as a resident.
I had seen early stages of it, before we moved back to New Orleans. And as a development, I thought it looked really strange. Then when we moved back four years ago to Holy Cross—another section of the Lower Ninth Ward that’s a short bike ride away from the Make It Right houses—I had a change of heart about it. It looked pretty good. But this was literally based on me riding my bike through the neighborhood.
That is research of a type. You managed to find a resident who had done a fairly detailed study on all of the homes. Talk about how that happened, and then we can talk about her findings.
To set it up a little: The turning point that made me want to take a closer look at Make It Right was the news, over the summer, about a house that had become so blighted they had to demolish it. This was noteworthy, let’s say. There are an awful lot of blighted houses in New Orleans, especially in the Lower Ninth Ward. But this house was only eight years old. And the idea that it was in such bad shape that it had to be destroyed was a little eyebrow-raising.
The resident you’re talking about, Constance Fowler, lived next door to the demolished house. She was disturbed at the state that it was left in. The roof had been removed and it was just tarped—for months, apparently. She was concerned about mold hazards and other issues. She made the complaints to the city that led to Make It Right agreeing to the house’s demolition. And she has since become a de facto neighborhood activist involved in critiquing Make It Right.
Was the lawsuit filed after the house was demolished?
The lawyers were involved with another individual in the neighborhood, but the blighted house and all of the subsequent local press inspired them, as I understand it, to pivot to a legal tactic that would leave open the possibility of a class action suit. When the lawyers filed, they had two named clients. I don’t know if they have any additional ones right now. That suit is in legal limbo: Make It Right is trying to have the venue changed, from state to federal court.
The organization itself has sort of dropped off the planet. Who is Make It Right at this point?
This question became the core of what I was interested in. In the local press coverage, I noticed that Make It Right never commented. They weren’t even issuing statements. It was mystifying, because as someone who had a workaday exposure to the project, I thought: there has to be a counterpoint to what was being implied here. The stories made it sound like it was this crumbling favela of a neighborhood, which is not the case.
I spent a lot of time and effort chasing down leads, to get anyone from Make It Right, anyone associated with them, to talk. I had some off-the-record conversations, but nothing close to being an official voice of Make It Right. That’s what I was looking for. I wanted to hear their side of the story.
Apparently, they haven’t filed their requisite tax forms since 2015. Anecdotally, residents who have problems get no response from them. I had at least one former vendor tell me, “They still owe me money.” It just seemed like they ghosted the situation.
When did Tom Darden, the original executive director, leave?
My understanding is at the end of 2015, the beginning of 2016.
I’ve written a lot about Make It Right in the past and got to know Darden. I like and respect him, and I believe he was genuine in his concern for the neighborhood. One of the threads in your piece is the implication that things at Make It Right went a little bit off the rails when Tom left—that there was “nobody home” after he left.
I can only speculate. But I do think that when he was involved, he was at least an articulate voice on behalf of the project. Residents I talked to had the impression that he cared.
But some of the other people I talked to who were exposed to him were less impressed. I don’t really know what the cause-and-effect is here. Did he leave because the project was winding down? Or did the project wind down because he left? I would love to know. I was unsuccessful in locating him.
You did get some solid information from Constance Fowler on the condition of the houses.
Constance was a school teacher, and she’s a gardener and still does educational work, so she’s an educated person, but I don’t think she ever set out to do this sort of research. She had a graduate student—visiting from Germany, I believe—who she worked with. The student was doing a thesis on Make It Right. And they worked together on doing this amazing, very detailed analysis. Things like pulling permit data, creating a spreadsheet that I believe is the best overview we have of the Make It Right neighborhood.
According to her research, 44 of the houses underwent, in your words, “notable renovation or repair.” An additional 17 experienced mold and rot. And six houses are vacant. When you start adding those numbers—about 60% of all the Make It Right houses—it’s alarming.
Yes. That’s a lot. There was one big issue, with 30-some houses, around this material called TimberSIL.
That cropped up during Darden’s tenure. Make It Right sued that manufacturer, and they fixed those houses by replacing the material. What percentage of the houses involved that material?
It’s 30-some houses, but a number of those houses had other issues as well. To me, the most eye-opening fact was learning that six of the 109 residences—there were 106 buildings, three of them duplexes—have been vacant for years. That was shocking. What were they doing with these properties? It’s not like there’s been an alleviation of the need for affordable housing that was at the heart of the program to begin with. Under what possible rationale can we defend six vacant houses in this neighborhood? Are those all so messed up that they need to be taken down? And, if so, maybe it would be better to just admit that? It’s hard to understand what logical reasons could explain those vacancies. They keep the lawns mowed, and I’m told that they keep those houses painted.
Where does the fault lie here?
This is where you would wish that Make It Right had a voice in this, where they might say, “Well, you’re talking about X number of houses that had these repairs and renovations, but we did those repairs and renovations. And if these houses are properly maintained, they should be fine.” It would be interesting to hear that case made. I can’t make it myself. I just don’t know.
Circling back the question of “fault.” The fault is in them disappearing. At one point, I say in the story, Make It Right had 27 full-time employees. And another 10 or 12 independent contractors. This is for an organization dealing with 109 residences. That’s a little ridiculous.
Strikes you as a trifle overstaffed?
That seems like a bit much. I’m not saying they needed to maintain that, but they need to maintain some level of responsibility. Now, when you buy a house, it doesn’t mean you earn to right to have someone fix that house for the rest of your life. But given the nature of the way this program was positioned, it would have behooved the organizers to think hard about what the long-term relationship of this project was going to be to the community it was intended to serve. A lot of social design suffers from a flashy debut—and then no maintenance. This is a cultural thing. Everyone loves innovation. No one loves maintenance.
The piece is pretty even-handed. You could have totally thrown Make It Right under the bus, given the damning data, but you didn’t. Why?
Enough people have done that already. And I felt like it had become a typical scenario: It got a lot of excitement when it debuted and, when the cycle changed, you build it up and now you tear it down. Things start to go wrong, and you have Page Six of the New York Post chiming in to say, “Brad Pitt’s thing didn’t work!” It’s never that simple in the long run. Make It Right probably has a story to tell.
Do you think this is beyond fixing? What would have to happen to fix it?
It’s certainly not beyond fixing. I don’t really know what the depths of the real problems are. Certainly, the plaintiff’s lawyers, who are suing Make It Right, are painting the most dire picture, suggesting that every house is fundamentally flawed in one way or another.
And you didn’t find that to be true?
I can’t prove it one way or the other. But I didn’t find what I read in the lawsuit to be fully persuasive. Of any given 100 houses in this city, there are going to be problems. I talked to enough residents who said, “There is nothing seriously wrong with my house. It had this one problem, and I fixed it myself.” They’re not all panicking in the streets. Now maybe they’re wrong, and maybe there are issues with every, single house. There’s just no way I could know that.
But my suspicion is, there are probably a certain number of houses that are fundamentally flawed. And it would be embarrassing if they had to go in and fix them. But I think they should. They made a big deal about how they were experimenting, and some of these experiments failed. Maybe they should figure out a way to recompensate these people, maybe build them a more conventional house.
With a pitched roof and a nice porch?
Yes. Someone in the story says that this basic set of issues was probably clear in 2014–2015. Make It Right had some problems, but instead of stepping up and fixing them, they did it in a kind of piecemeal basis—rather than say, “OK, we have some issues, but we’re going to be communicative.” It’s a classic case. If someone is complaining and you don’t respond, eventually they’re going to go to the press. Then a lawyer reads it, and all bets are off. You’ve lost control of the discussion. You’ve lost the trust of the people you were trying to help.
Many people in the architecture world can’t wait for the “innovation-first” ethos of this project to be exposed as fraudulent. Do you think this is a litmus test for “Architecture with a capital A”? Or is it such a one-off that it’s a one-off?
The lesson that should be taken from it is this: It’s fine—and even admirable—to experiment, but if you’re going to say, “We’re going to be bold and take risks, experiment, and push the envelope,” then you are also obligated to say, “And we will bear the consequences for what doesn’t work.” “We will hog the glory for what does work, but we’ll take the consequences for what doesn’t.” There was a lot of glory connected to Make It Right in the first five, six years. But if you’re going to spend a half-decade enjoying the limelight, then you have to spend a lot longer than that picking up the pieces for everything that doesn’t go right. That’s a bummer. No one wants to do that. But it can’t just look good in a portfolio. It has to work in real life.
Featured image of a blighted Make It Right house, via Nola.com.