New Orleans, Louisiana, was the third stop on our month-long search for inspiration across the country. Five years after Hurricane Katrina, NOLA has undergone dramatic change – the city’s population, which fell to 50% post-Katrina, has returned to nearly 80%; and the number of those living below the poverty line in Orleans Parish (which encompasses New Orleans) has dropped by 68,000. But as many institutions, experts and NOLAers are quick to point out, this revitalization is a result of factors beyond systemic improvement in the city’s ecology and economy. While new money, businesses and residents have helped pave the road to recovery for New Orleans, much of the population and history that were lost in Katrina will never return. The city’s growing numbers are made up less of returning and original NOLAers than new (and for the most part, wealthier) transplants. Many of the residents displaced by the storm remain so indefinitely, and the neighborhoods devastated five years ago still stand largely blighted, reclaimed by the wilderness that once grew around them.
We first visited the Lower 9th Ward, the area most affected by the hurricane, in February of last year. It was largely deserted then, a gray flatland of destroyed homes, rubble, and empty lots – a ghost neighborhood.
We returned a few weeks ago to see how things had changed. Driving in through the Bywater side of town, we were immediately struck by the vibrant color that now speckles the landscape. Shades of green and brown blanket many of the concrete lots where homes once sat - patches of unmanaged refuse conquered by grass and weeds. Barren blocks, left neglected and undeveloped, are returning to some sort of organic state, an allusion to the swampland they were built on centuries ago (and an eerie analog to Detroit’s feral houses).
Adding to the palette of the Lower 9th are the bright, starkly modern Make It Right homes. To this date, the Make It Right Foundation (founded by Brad Pitt) has built 50 sustainable, affordable housing units to serve the families affected by Katrina. The houses were concepted with safety, eco-responsibility, and design in mind – all are storm-safe, solar-powered, and follow Cradle to Cradle thinking. The creations of more than 20 top-name architects and firms (GRAFT, Thom Mayne), the houses range in size, color, and form. But despite their diversity, all are dramatic departures from the traditional architecture (and some would say, culture and heritage) of New Orleans – a fact that strikes some as problematic.