When I stopped by the site of the proposed Marigny ball pit house today, the project's leader, Josh Ente, was grabbing lunch. His friend Matt, who was visiting from San Francisco, was busy helping take down the back of the blighted Creole cottage to the wall frames. When they're done, they plan to wrap the whole structure in batting-cage plastic and dump plastic balls on the floor four feet deep. Then anyone - adults, kids, whomever - who wants to jump in is welcome.
Yesterday's blog entry about the ball pit project drew some serious (and sometimes scathing) discussion both on Gambit's website and Facebook page. Ente said he'd read it all, including the "Brooklyn-goes-to-Bywater" remark. Turns out that, yes, he is from Brooklyn (I had no idea), and, yes, he's lived in the Marigny-Bywater for fewer than two years. Ente is a filmmaker whose recently directed Big Freedia's music video "Y'all Get Back Now."
"I understand the concerns about privilege," he said, referring to comments like the one that accused him of "hipster Romper Room BS." As we talked, behind him, in an overgrown lot marked with HANO signs and discarded tires, a woman played with a young pit bull. Whatever you think of the project, it's true that Ente has put more sweat equity into a property he doesn't own than the city has put into adjacent property it does own.
The conversation only got really awkward once ...
Holy liability issues, Batman. If he can solve those, godspeed. Sounds fun to me
I can see it now, a huge pit filled with sweat, old beer, cigarette butts, rat droppings, balls and hipsters. Oh yea, that's a real good idea.
It's hard not to be hurt by such sentiments, and Ente was a little reserved. "Even if you don't think it's cool, you have to appreciate the fact that we're remediating this house," he said, showing me one wall that had been threatening to collapse into a neighbor's yard. He and his friend were working with power tools. An extension cord stretched across Burgundy Street into a neighbor's house. Ente said the neighbors were all for the temporary ball pit, which they hope will attract street activity and cut down on crime; "I've only been mugged once here," Ente said, "and it was right on this block."
The house itself was marked with NO TRESPASSING signs, but Ente said he had permission from the owners to construct his project there — in fact, he'd driven to their house in Zachary, La. to meet with them in person. As for the liability issues: he's not going to carry insurance in case anyone gets hurt. Those who want to play in the ball pit will have to sign waivers. "I just have to trust that anyone who is cool enough to want to do this isn't going to sue me if something happens," he said. "Leap of faith."
About that awkward moment: It came toward the end of our conversation when I asked if there was a larger point to building a ball pit in a blighted house. "Raising awareness," he said.
Of what? "Blight."
And, see, I told him, that's the problem, that's what sometimes sets people's teeth on edge — you don't think people in New Orleans are aware of blight, and have been aware of blight long before you came here?
He said he saw the point, and added that he was constructing his ball pit "for the community," and that he welcomed suggestions or drop-bys from anyone who wanted to help or contribute ideas. So there's your invitation.
- The ball pit house is at 2816 Burgundy St. in the Faubourg Marigny, just before the railroad tracks. Ente hopes to open it in mid-May and take it down when the weather gets too hot.