NEW ORLEANS – It was a bittersweet moment for Brad Pitt, walking through the Lower 9th Ward neighborhood where families were preparing to spend their first holidays since Hurricane Katrina.
Those families are moving into the first six houses built through Pitt’s Make It Right foundation. One home was already strewn with green garland, lights, wreaths and red bows.
Still, Pitt is restless.
“I’m really happy for the families that are going to be here, but I can’t help but think about the families that aren’t,” Pitt said Monday. “It’s a push-pull for me. The excitement is that it’s being proven, that it’s working. The frustration is that we have a long way to go.”
Make It Right was launched by Pitt a year ago. The program calls for construction of 150 energy-efficient homes in a section of New Orleans washed away when Katrina broke levees Aug. 29, 2005.
So far, six homes have been built. Two more are under way, and construction on another 14 begins in early 2009. Pitt smiles, gets a little giddy even, when talking about where the project will be in another year.
“You’re going to see 100 homes here, mark my words,” he said. “It’s nice to see a few, but I’m anxious to see 100, 150, 1,000.”
Pitt said that by December 2009, the Lower 9th Ward should be one of the nation’s largest “green” neighborhoods.
“It’s amazing,” he said. “This place that suffered such injustice and so much death can become one of the primary examples of a high-performance neighborhood. It really is amazing.”
Inez Converse, 71, isn’t concerned about her area setting any records. She’s just happy to be back in the neighborhood she lived in for more than 35 years before Katrina. And she said she was glad she had the chance to thank Pitt personally.
“He didn’t have to do this,” she said. “I’m just grateful he is doing it.”
Monday was a busy day for Pitt and partner Angelina Jolie, who appeared at a screening of Pitt’s new film “The Curious case of Benjamin Button.” The couple — Pitt in a suit and tie and Jolie in a form-fitting cream L’Wren Scott dress — was the highlight of the red-carpet event.
The film, which also stars Cate Blanchett, opens Dec. 25. But because it was filmed in New Orleans in 2006 and 2007, Paramount Pictures and Warner Bros. held a special screening here.
“It’s a gorgeous, gorgeous film,” said Pitt, who in the movie plays a man who begins life as elderly and grows younger with time. “It’s a film that makes you want to hug your kids and call your folks.”
Pitt also described the movie as “a love letter to New Orleans.”
“There’s a sense of magic here, so it made this fantastic story almost believable,” he said.
Pitt said his fondness for the city led him and Jolie to buy an early-1830s masonry mansion in the French Quarter. Pitt said the home was recently renovated to accommodate the needs of the couple and their six children. He quashed recent rumors that the couple had sold their home.
While the homes built by Pitt’s project are more contemporary than the Creole cottages and shotgun-style homes typical of New Orleans, they incorporate some elements used in the area for generations, such as high ceilings and shaded porches.
The homes also have solar panels and other features that help cut energy bills by at least 75 percent, Pitt said. Other architectural elements addresses challenges of the area, including ventilation and mold- and termites-resistant materials.
“The misunderstanding of architecture is that it’s all about aesthetics,” Pitt said. “It’s not. First and foremost, it’s about function.”
The homes, costing $150,000 on average, are for property owners who can pay insurance and taxes. Monthly payments are based on applicants’ income and subsidized by Pitt’s foundation.
Pitt said his motivation to see this project through stems from a lot of things, among them his “love for architecture, a love for technology, a love for fairness and justice.” But it also stems from his love “for all things New Orleans.”
“There’s just something about this place,” he said.
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