Friday, December 21, 2007

Assignment NOLA:
Maybe we should be more like Brad Pitt, Moses


Actor Brad Pitt, left, started the nonprofit Make It Right NOLA and erected a city of pink structures to resemble the destruction and gradual reconstruction of the Lower Ninth Ward in New Orleans. Moses McCown, 39, right, moved to the Crescent City from Cincinnati to become part of the effort and to lend his skills as an electrician. They both were on duty Friday on Deslonde Street, along the Industrial Canal.

Stuck for the first two days of my stay in touristy parts of New Orleans because of the weather, I decided to make a break for the residential sections when the weather broke today. Shortly after breakfast, Mother Nature turned its back on me again, putting a brake on my plans as it started to drizzle. Another dreary day in New Orleans.

I crossed the main streets of the Central Business District, then a detour forced me to pass through the center of the French Quarter and Bourbon Street, which is reserved exclusively for pedestrian traffic at nightfall. But even early in the morning, it's swarming with people - mainly fans of the two college football teams in town for the New Orleans Bowl.

Before long, my car was crossing the North Claiborne Avenue bridge over the Industrial Canal, and some pink structures caught my eye. It was Brad Pitt's "pink statement village," I have come to call it. The structures are rectangular and triangular pink objects: The triangular ones signify roofs; the rectangular things are the main floors of homes.

Hundreds were strewn about the landscape along the Industrial Canal, but as Pitt's fundraising effort (Make It Right NOLA) gains momentum, the triangular objects are stacked back on top of the rectangular ones, signifying the gradual rebuilding of the Lower Ninth Ward. The community was wiped out when the levee on the canal broke, pouring water into the deep bowl that is the Lower Ninth Ward, some of which is nearly 10 feet below sea level. "Mr. Go" (Mississippi River-Gulf Outlet) also spilled into the Lower Ninth.

Looking back across the canal toward central New Orleans, the skyscrapers were shrouded in fog, and the sky was dark. I pulled my car up a side street along the expanse of pink. I stepped out. The first thing I noticed was a grandstand with a grand person standing on top of it. It was Brad.

I casually walked through, snapping pictures of the pink statement village. I snapped a few of Pitt, but he was so high up on the grandstand that my 55mm lens wouldn't pick up much detail.

A young man with blond hair drove over next me and stopped. He was in a golf cart. "May I ask who you're with?" he asked me. His name was Jesse Estep, above.

"I'm with myself," I said, explaining that I was a blogger without a cause or a boss.

He explained to me how he was the only person living on Deslonde Street, a residential route that runs parallel to the canal and is marked with makeshift street signs, above, instead of the ones originally issued it by the city. Indeed, he was the only person living there, but many people were trying to repair or, in most cases, replace their old homes.

As I looked toward the dead end of Deslonde, where it abuts the bridge, I saw heavy equipment, pickup trucks, buses, shovels, wiring and, of course, lots of debris. Among it all were some restored buildings that serve as Pitt's headquarters. One is a Common Ground Relief center. Another is a place for green innovation: Pitt wants to rebuild New Orleans while showing care for the environment.

Many homes on the street were being restored or replaced. A quick ride through this part of the Ninth Ward shows that Deslonde is one of the most active streets as far as reconstruction is concerned. "It's starting to look like a real neighborhood," Estep said.

He was somewhat irritated by my presence. He said Pitt was on the local news that morning, so many people were showing up looking to either meet him or snap a candid photo of him. (Angelina Jolie wasn't around, in case you're wondering.) Estep said that if a security guard caught me photographing Pitt, I would be tossed out of the village. I explained my harmless motives, however. That seemed to assuage his worries.

So I made my way down the street. On the right, a yellow sign, above, welcomed Ninth-Warders.

A trailer seemed lonely at the end of a driveway where a home once stood, above.

On the left, two old bicycles, a forlorn tropical-looking tree and a Bobcat loader sat in front of Estep's home, above.

Behind large piles of dirt, construction workers were building a real home home next to a pink fake one, above.

Farther down, toward the end of Deslonde, workers dug in the yard of a brick home with a wrought iron fence, above. Too bad. It seemed like a home I would have called "cute" before the flood. Now, it has those infamous markings made by rescuers. But it doesn't look as though anyone died here. The workers told me, however, that the water level, at its height, was near the peaks of the roofs.

One worker, Moses McCown, 39, walked up to me and said, "Man, you're way too much." He was referring to my attire. I explained to him that it had rained the day before, and my other clothes were soaked. I had no choice but to wear (to a construction site, mind you) a sports coat, a classy cowboy shirt with metal buttons, striped gray slacks and black leather loafers.

But I had sheathed my tiny black umbrella and put it into a coat pocket. I also pointed out that Pitt was wearing a scarf. At least I didn't go that far, right?

He cut me some slack, and we began the chitchat. He said he had moved to New Orleans from Cincinnati. He felt compelled to contribute his skills as an electrician.

"I really wanted to do something that mattered," he told me. "So I came here. This is my new life. I'm here to stay."

McCown said it takes a grassroots effort to make a difference. People such as Pitt put a face to those efforts, and people such as McCown put in the labor to make it all work.

"We're here to end the ignorance on all sides," he said.

As McCown went back to work (he was obviously eager to do so throughout the interview), I strolled back toward where I entered the pink statement village. Pitt had finished his interview with a media outlet on the grandstand and was talking with some normal people on the ground, above. Then he drove a golf cart around the dirty, cracked street. Residents and volunteers hopped on, laughing and joking with the Hollywood celebrity. There must have been seven or eight people on the cart.

I all but ignored the entourage. I have no interest in joining the paparazzi ranks anyway. I was scared of being kicked out, too, as Estep had promised if I didn't behave. But the security guards seemed OK with my presence. It must have been due to my constant chatting with the regulars. I had developed a rapport in less than 30 minutes.

But then McCown came back to me, showed me two wallet-size photos and said, "My daughters don't believe I work with Brad Pitt. Can you take a photo of me and him, then e-mail it to me?"

I said, "Sure. I guess I could do that." I didn't really hesitate.

As we walked up to Pitt, a local man presented him with a gift, wrapped neatly in silver paper and tied with a purple ribbon. After the man left, McCown presented Pitt with the same two photos he showed me. Pitt bought it. They posed together. Click. Click. Click. My job was done.

I spent the rest of the morning criss-crossing the Lower Ninth. Once, a police cruiser pulled behind me and stayed on my trail for a few blocks. When you're traveling at 5 mph because the road is pocked with 6-inch holes and 3-inch cracks, a few blocks can feel like an eternity when the police are after you.

The cruiser eventually took a turn, and I went back to surveying the damage. House after house, each building seemed the same. A small home still standing next to a scraggly tree was destroyed, above.

A warehouse was destroyed, above.

I snapped photos of many buildings, but each one showed similar destruction. Thousands of homes and dozens of commercial buildings were once unique, but are now the same: They're all destroyed.

With such depression, it's amazing that these volunteers can even muster a laugh or that these survivors can even develop the resiliency to return home. But the attitude in their neighborhood is not one of helplessness or despair: It's about hope, about making it right. A sign, above, is stapled to a utility pole on the outskirts of the pink statement village. It says, "We might be crabs ... But we be crawlin' back Home!"

If the work of one man could bring all of these people so closely together, think about what hundreds, thousands of men and women could do. Of course, Pitt has many resources. But the United States is full or people with means to do good - whether it be with money, like Brad Pitt, or with manpower, like Moses McCown.

Video: Get a quick peek of actor Brad Pitt's artistic statement representing destruction and reconstruction of the Lower Ninth Ward of New Orleans, and a view of Pitt's limo, too.

Video: A look at the damage on a single block of the Lower Ninth Ward in New Orleans more than two years after Hurricane Katrina.

Assignment NOLA home page

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Was that really the extent of your interaction with Brad Pitt?