MELISSA BLOCK, host:
The sound of hope in New Orleans' ravaged Lower Ninth Ward today.
(Soundbite of metal hammering)
BLOCKERS: Workers hammered together scaffolding to support giant, shocking pink cubes, some the size of houses. These pieces are scattered around the Lower Ninth, an art installation to symbolize the homes that once stood there before Katrina.
Mr. BRAD PITT (Actor): I think it's safe to say it's a small act of social disobedience, which makes a good front. It probably spans about 11 blocks and it represents the aftermath after the levee failure. It's a symbolic gesture of houses just being thrown by the hand of fate.
BLOCK: That's the actor Brad Pitt, who moved with his family to New Orleans a year ago. He's spearheading a project to start rebuilding the Lower Ninth Ward. It's called Make it Right. He has committed $5 million of his own money to get the project going.
Today, they unveiled 13 designs for houses, each about 1,000 square feet, all built off the ground with front porches and green features, including solar panels. Brad Pitt spoke to me from the Lower Ninth Ward this morning. He says the goal to start is 150 affordable homes.
Mr. PITT: Because 150 is just a job in the bucket. They are, well, 5,000 just in this neighborhood, and I don't want to be contained to just this neighborhood. This place needs help - everywhere. Every district needs help, and all along the Gulf Coast down.
We've been working on this thing for about a year now. We called on great minds and architecture to address the problems of this area, meaning safety, meaning sustainability, affordability, and aesthetics, meaning something that was true to the culture here.
BLOCK: Is the idea that these houses should be built off the ground in the event of flooding were to rampage to this neighborhood again?
Mr. PITT: They're raised, they're built to storm standards, and there are safety measures built in to the house in case someone where to be caught in the storm like that again.
BLOCK: What kinds of safety (unintelligible)?
Mr. PITT: Well, definitely access to a higher level - they're already raised off the ground, according to the FEMA requirements. And then, easy access to a level up above with still access to power, because these are all be powered with solar and green technology.
BLOCK: Let's talk about the money and the plan here. The houses are designed to be affordable, open only to people who lived in the Lower Ninth Ward, who owned property in the Lower Ninth Ward before.
Mr. PITT: Right. In - for our pilot program here, for the beginning, as I say, you know - we need to branch out. And this thing can go as far as the American people want it to go. But I don't want this to be looked at as just sheer charity. The families will be putting what they have available, everything that they have available into this homes financially. And we will help them cover that gap is the plan with the money raised here from the American people.
And I also want to add about, you know - in our Web site, there's ways for everyone to participate here if you feel the need. And that is by donating one solar panel or adopting a tankless water heater or, even a low-flush toilet. And if you do that with us, we'll send you something that you could then give to Uncle Jones instead of buying him socks for Christmas.
BLOCK: Oh, like a certificate, you mean?
Mr. PITT: Precisely.
BLOCK: You know, there's been obviously a lot of criticism of government response both at the city, state, federal level to rebuilding New Orleans. Do you think that in some way, this project takes the burden off of government to do what they should be doing, which is rebuilding the neighborhood?
Mr. PITT: I find it embarrassing if I was working in the government that it had to go this way. But at the same time, listen, I've been one of those who's been complaining for the last couple of years. And oftentimes, it takes the American people to rally, and government will follow if we lead the way. It should be people first.
BLOCK: Mm-hmm. What do you find the reaction to you is there? You're a new transplant to New Orleans. You've lived in the French Quarter, I guess, for about a year. Do you find that people trust that you have the interest of the city at heart and will stick around for a while? Or do they say, you know, Mr. Big Movie Star coming in with a lot of money, going to make a splash.
Mr. PITT: Well, I'm sure it's…
BLOCK: (Unintelligible) in five years.
Mr. PITT: I'm sure it's a little of both. And they're all fair questions. I'd be extremely skeptical. These are people you got to understand who, especially in this neighborhood, who were the last to get FEMA trailers, were the last to be rescued. There is no sufficient distrust or at least skepticism. And it's a fair question. And it just takes time and building a trust and so be it.
BLOCK: And how long do you figure before you see some of these homes sitting right there in the Lower Ninth Ward in New Orleans where you are right now?
Mr. PITT: I'm telling you, we will have families moving in these homes by the end of summer.
BLOCK: And do you have any sense of, I mean, you've donated a bunch of your own money. I know you have another…
Mr. PITT: I have no sense of - I absolutely have no sense of how people respond. I know there's been a weariness to the subject, even the name Katrina. It's tiresome, but this is still an open wound here. And there is very little that's been done. And it shouldn't be this way. And we, if it takes people on the ground to illuminate this problem and solve this problem, fantastic. So be it, but let's solve it.
BLOCK: Brad Pitt, thanks very much for talking with us today.
Mr. PITT: Yeah, thank you. Thanks for your time.
BLOCK: Brad Pitt, talking to us from the Lower Ninth Ward in New Orleans. You can find a link to the Web site for the Make It Right project at npr.org.