NEW ORLEANS — In the two years and several months since the calamity of Hurricane Katrina, I've heard it said many times — by reporters, government officials and relief workers — that the worst of the storm's devastation had to be seen to be believed. And even though by this point there is no American who has not seen footage of the destruction, no image on a screen quite prepares you for the sight that unfolds as you cross the Claiborne Bridge over Industrial Canal and witness what is left of New Orleans' Lower Ninth Ward.
By most accounts, the Lower Ninth has come a fair way since the storm. But by all accounts, the pace of rebuilding the area has been too slow — certainly too slow for residents hoping to return to the community they once called home. Block upon block remains in ruins. Here and there, a salvageable home is being rebuilt, or an entirely new one is rising. Mostly, it's achingly slow. At least one superstar is doing his part to expedite it: Brad Pitt.
From the bridge, one can make out another more bizarre sight in the neighborhood these days — there amid the moonscape of rubble, only yards from the levee that was breached during Katrina (sending a huge barge that crashed into the neighborhood), are clusters of hot-pink houses. Not real houses, mind you, but something akin to life-size Monopoly houses, which serve as place-holders for what will be 150 new, environmentally sustainable homes. Some are complete and some are in pieces, waiting to be assembled as donations come in. This is the Pink Project — a most unlikely Christo-style art installation designed to bring attention to, and raise money for, Make It Right, the rebuilding effort spearheaded by Pitt.
You've got to hand it to this guy. For the past month he has worked it — managing to take the massive media attention that he, his wife and kids command with their every move (why, I just recently saw it breathlessly reported that the family picked up some lunch at a McDonald's drive-thru in New Orleans) and shift it onto something that actually matters: the restoration of the Lower Ninth.
"Hey, guys, thanks for coming down here," Pitt greeted us as he bounded over from his trailer. Larry King, "ET," the "Today" show — they have all talked to Brad from the building site in recent weeks — but usually via satellite. "Most people don't actually make the trip," he said.
Oddly, after all these years at MTV News, I'd never met Pitt, but I'm happy to say he lives up to all the advance press: friendly, low-key, down-to-earth and genuinely excited about and inspired by this project.
Wearing a black jacket and the Caputo cap he's been sporting lately (check out the merchandise section of his site, MakeItRightNOLA.org, to get one just like it), Pitt sat down with me in a couple of hot-pink director's chairs. Oh, and speaking of hot pink, the sneakers I wore to the shoot matched the houses perfectly — a good ice breaker, and an inspired choice, if I do say so myself. Converse should do a deal with Make It Right.
In 45 minutes or so, Pitt and I covered a lot of ground: the origins of Make It Right (it began with his work with Global Green's reconstruction of NOLA's nearby Holy Cross neighborhood); the Jolie-Pitt family's embrace of New Orleans ("We're nomads. I don't know if we will ever live in just one place. But we love it here."); his and Angelina's social activism ("It probably had something to do with us getting together"); and, of course, the importance of making these new homes in the Lower Ninth attractive, affordable and environmentally friendly.
Pitt's willingness to go above and beyond for New Orleans has clearly won him a ton of goodwill from his adopted hometown, and fueled some speculation that maybe one day he might trade in movies for politics. On that point, he couldn't be clearer.
"No way," he said. "I've got way too many skeletons to ever do that. Put it this way: I did inhale."
He also downplayed recent press reports that he may in time back away from acting. In fact he already has a Coen brothers movie ("Burn After Reading") in the can, a Terrence Malick film shooting in a couple of months and several others in the works.
But rest assured, potential Lower Ninth returnees — Pitt says he will continue to keep much of his focus on your community and on this important work. New Orleans is clearly facing a housing crisis. Only the day before we interviewed Pitt, an ugly scene played out at the city council chambers, where housing rights advocates loudly protested a decision by the council to raze thousands of public housing units. Every bit helps, and Make It Right's contributions are critical.
As he walked us through the streets of the Lower Ninth and showed us models of the planned houses for the area (some on stilts, and one model designed to float), Pitt said he hopes to have construction under way by late spring or early summer, and to have families back and enjoying next year's holidays in brand-new homes. Now that's the Christmas spirit.