Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Pitt unveils program to rebuild swath of Lower 9

After taping an interview Monday afternoon with the TV magazine Entertainment Tonight, Lloyd and Rosemary Griffin headed back across the empty concrete foundations and weed-choked lawns of their Lower 9th Ward neighborhood to a giant party hosted by Hollywood star Brad Pitt.

More than two years ago, during Hurricane Katrina, the couple had clung to a neighbor's roof just blocks from this spot as the wind and rain whipped in the darkness. Rosemary huddled over their toy poodle while Lloyd shielded them both with his body.

"While we were on top of the other house, our house passed us up in the street," said Rosemary Griffin, 66, a retired hotel employee.

Now, brass band music echoed and cameras flashed as hundreds converged on one of the worst-wrecked neighborhoods of flood-ravaged New Orleans for the official birth of Pitt's Make It Right initiative to build at least 150 affordable, environmentally friendly, storm-safe houses on the same lots where residents' old homes once stood.

National media attention

The event drew national attention, with "The Today Show's" Ann Curry and CNN's Larry King milling around near a makeshift stage. Also on hand was world-renowned architect Thom Mayne, who had donated his efforts to the project. And local politicians, including Lt. Gov. Mitch Landrieu and recovery czar Ed Blakely, showed up.

Amid the frenzy, the Griffins, married 37 years, were becoming minor celebrities as one of eight families whose new homes will be built first, all on Tennessee Street, near the place a barge landed after floating through the levee.

The scene seemed almost unreal, said the Griffins, who after their harrowing survival spent two years in Tahlequah, Okla., about 60 mile east of Tulsa. Lloyd Griffin, 67, said that since they moved back to his niece's house in eastern New Orleans in August, he has driven daily to his old neighborhood to check on his vacant property.

"I drive down here everyday, and sometimes at night, and sit at my lot. I look at my lot, sit there with the parking lights on," he said. "It looked like no one wanted to help us until Brad Pitt came along."

Thanks to Pitt

The sentiment was repeated again and again as Lower 9th Ward residents took to the stage to laud the actor's commitment at a time when it appeared that some government leaders intended to let their neighborhood deteriorate.

Patricia Jones, the no-nonsense director of the Lower 9th Ward Neighborhood Empowerment Network Association, praised Pitt's sincerity in inviting residents to participate in planning efforts -- then actually integrating their opinions into the plans. Charles Allen, president of the Holy Cross Neighborhood Association, called the actor "a dear friend and brother to us in this community."

When he took the stage, Pitt shifted the focus from himself and issued a plea for donations to augment the $12 million already pledged to Make It Right, including $5 million each from Pitt and philanthropist Steve Bing.

At the heart of the fund-raising effort is a call to corporations, foundations and church groups to "adopt" 300 giant pink blocks that are part of an art installation that spreads a half-mile from the center of the project site at Deslonde and North Roman streets.

While the blocks cost $150,000 each, the average cost of a Make It Right home, Pitt also solicited smaller donations -- from $5 to $45,500 -- to support the cost of the individual elements of the houses' eco-friendly designs, such as fluorescent bulbs, low-flush toilets and solar-panel installations. Contributions can be made the project's Web site, www.makeitrightnola.org

"My hope is that we can get next door to Jefferson Parish, then we can get into Central City," Pitt said. "There is no reason that we can't do 1,000 homes, that we can't do 10,000 homes, that we can't do 100,000 homes."

Aid has started rolling in

By noon Monday, the aid already was rolling in. Pitt told reporters that just hours into the fund-raising effort, enough money had been raised to support the construction of six houses.

"Whether you can give a dollar or $10 million, all of that, I guarantee you, will go straight into these houses," he said.

With the average house price pegged at between $100,000 and $174,000, planners expect participants to cover a portion of the cost with insurance and Road Home proceeds. But they expect that most homeowners will fall about $70,000 short of paying off their new homes. To fill the gap, Make It Right plans to offer forgivable loans of as much as $100,000. Applicants must have owned a home or lot in the Lower 9th Ward before Hurricane Katrina.

Though the project's most significant impact surely will be felt by the families who end up in new homes, other local residents said that Make It Right's effects already are spreading through a neighborhood that but for the crash of bulldozers has remained mostly silent -- and vacant -- since the flood.

Tennessee Street resident Gertrude LeBlanc, 72, said Monday's party -- and the giant pink blocks scattered across the landscape -- already had introduced a hopeful new spirit.

"This is like letting them know that we're still here," said LeBlanc, who said a church group will help her rebuild her house using Road Home money. "Yes, indeed, honey, I have been praying for this. I have been praying for somebody to give us a break. I think this might be it."

Sitting at a table inside the party tent, the Griffins, who grew up as next-door neighbors in the Lower 9th Ward, recalled the house they lost to the flood: three bedrooms, a den, a living room, a huge backyard. Inside were photographs of the couple as babies, snapshots of their 13 godchildren and a set of dishes that belonged to Lloyd's mother.

"My house wasn't lavish, but it was comfortable," said Lloyd Griffin, a retired aluminum plant worker. "It was my home."

Though angry about the senseless waste of the house they bought in 1965, Rosemary Griffin's eyes filled with tears at the notion that, thanks to Make It Right, she and her husband will be back in a new home on their own lot next year.

"I'll take a house if I have to sleep on the floor, just to say it's mine," she said, then added, like a wishful child: "I want a house so bad. I want a house, a house, a house, a house, a house."