Actor Brad Pitt set out to make it right. Instead he made it wrong.
Seventeen years have piled on since Hurricane Katrina, so it’s easy to forget how some of America’s biggest names reached out to help a wounded New Orleans. They showered the city with benefits and big ideas, and in many cases, they left behind a lasting legacy.
One of those who pitched in to help — less successfully — was Pitt. His Make It Right Foundation pledged to build 150 homes for displaced residents of the Lower 9th Ward. The homes would be designed by some of the greatest stars in architecture and use environmentally friendly materials and building techniques.
Ultimately, 109 of the homes were built.
For a time, Pitt and Make It Right were the toast of the town, and other boldface-name celebrities showed up to help raise money. The homes burst forth in unexpected shapes and colors, and the project drew tourists downriver to inch their way along Tennessee Street as though it were St. Charles Avenue.
But the honeymoon didn’t last long. The houses could not stand the rigors of New Orleans’ steamy and stormy summers. Soon, lawsuits sprouted like weeds, involving the aggrieved homeowners and the people who designed and built and supplied the project.
Make It Right’s failure is rooted in mistakes of the heart, but the problem was that the organization offered a Rube Goldberg solution to a simple problem. New Orleans appreciated the help, but ultimately other housing alternatives, also built with love but lighter on the pizzazz, proved more durable.
Harry Connick Jr. and Branford Marsalis combined with Habitat for Humanity to develop Musicians’ Village, and Leonard Riggio, founder and chairman of Barnes & Nobles, and his wife Louise built homes in Gentilly. The simpler designs cost a fraction of what Make It Right spent per home in the Lower 9.
Brad Pitt’s philanthropy didn’t exactly have a Hollywood ending. But this month Make It Right settled with the affected homeowners for $20.5 million, which hopefully will be enough to make everyone whole.