State by State

Apparently there is an entire country between Boston and San Francisco.


by Damian

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.


Bourbon Street swarms with green backpacks. Marked with a cross sign and a slogan we believe. Must be some cult. Yes, Lutheran teenagers are in town for National Youth Gathering - event held in New Orleans every three years and according to the press release bringing 25 thousand people. Looks like more than that from where we are standing. It is a bit surprising though. We just drove through a collection of Alabama and Mississipi towns that seem much better suited for prayer and thoughts of a better life. It’s easy to stay chaste in Thomasville, AL. It’s even easier to stay sober in Oxford, MS. There is nothing to envy in Kosciusko, MS. But New Orleans is a different matter altogether. Here young Lutherans descent on French Quater familiarizing themselves in depth with all cardinal sins. Lust, gluttony, sloth reign supreme in Vieux Carré. Hustlers invite people to barely legal gentleman’s clubs to see men/women acts. It’s impossible not to overeat. Drinks are not just accessible: they are practically required. Navigating all this is probably some kind of a boot camp. If 16 years old with their elevated hormone level survives Big Easy, you can send them to evangelize the hell out of the rest of the world.


We end up sleeping on a plantation. We do not plan this. To tell the truth I am not eager to visit any plantation at all. Of course it’s hypocrisy on my part. There is little difference between slavery and peasants’ serfdom responsible for grand houses of good old Europe. And Boston’s wealth wouldn’t grow without trade with slave based economies. But admiring the splendor of the plantation big house is to me something akin to admiring the architecture of a concentration camp commandant quarters.