The houses look like nothing you see in the United Stated. They are colorful, interesting, inviting. They have unexpected angles, shaded terraces, outside staircases. This is modern architecture at its best. Cars roll slowly by and people stop to take pictures. Inhabitants, probably weary of constant attention, put up private property signs.
Each house is slightly different. The one common feature is that they are either raised on stilts or capable to float in case of flooding. This is after all the area that suffered most during Katrina: Lower Ninth Ward. In order to get here we drove through devastated streets surrounded by abandoned housing lots and ruins. This was also something we never expected to see in America. The contrast makes new homes even more surprising, but they would stand out in each and every neighborhood in this country.
Settling the Ninth Ward land was always a risky proposition. Risky, but not crazy. It was always below the water level. But the levees were protected by swaths of cypress swamps. When new canals, especially Industrial Canal, were dredged, they diverted the sediment carrying waters, the land sunk, the cypresses died. By the time Katrina came, unprotected levees gave up. The entire area was not just flooded but nearly washed away. It was not just water: at one point the large barge was carried over the damaged levee and floated into the houses leveling them. The damage was so great that the area was not reopen till January 2006, and even then it was under curfew.
One option was not to rebuilt at all. The park was proposed instead. We can easily see why. Even today - five years later it’s a scary, depressing picture. I can’t imagine how it must have looked like when water was pumped out. But former inhabitants wanted to come back and they started working on it even before the city and the planning commission acted.
This is where the story takes an unexpected twist. Turns out that in 2007 Brad Pitt (yes, this Brad Pitt) toured the neighborhood, got upset about government and city inaction and decided to do something. He talked a group of architects into designing and then donating designs of sustainable, green homes well suited for the area. The Make It Right foundation is in charge of marketing them to former residents. If you lived in the area before, you can select the design and buy such a house. The foundation helps financially but also offers courses in home ownership. The Atlantic article describes it in more details.
I am not sure this is going to work. The houses are designed better than 99% of houses currently on the market in the States. They not just look right - they are functional, smart and energy efficient: solar panels, double flush toilets, tankless waterheaters, rainwater harvesting, TimberSil treated wood. They are supposedly storm and flood resistant as well. But there is something naively idealistic in this visionary approach: communities built according to plan rarely work as well as those which grew organically. The modern aesthetics of the houses don’t appeal to some of the residents expecting more traditional look. And rebuilding before cypress marsh that protect levees are restored is like playing a Russian roulette with nature.
But even if this fails, at least someone tried to do the right thing. Bursting of the real estate bubble and higher energy cost are slowly turning America, the land of MacMansions into America, the land of suburban slums. This country is in dire need of some kind of action. It would be both ironic and welcomed if it started in a destroyed New Orleans neighborhood.