Since Hurricane Katrina, the number of vacant housing units in New Orleans has doubled, raising the number of unoccupied houses to more than a quarter of the city's total units. It is an inescapable reality of life here, and lasting improvement is hard to see through: some owners fled the city and never returned, many others came back but remain financially paralyzed, and others are just intractable. I've passed by these former homes every day in my neighborhood for years, and I'm tired of seeing pieces of my community become dangerous ruins and expressing nothing but despair. It's time to flip the script.
But what can be done with a house where there is nothing left but the frames of its exterior walls? The answer is rather obvious to me - turn the open floor plan into a giant ball pit! A ball pit, 30 feet long, 16 feet wide, 4 feet deep full of balls to jump and play in - and rather than waste everyone's time with those weak, boring 3" balls you'd find at McDonald's, I'm going for it all: using thousands of 10" and 15" soft, bouncy playground balls. Yes, these!
How will it work? With the property owner's permission and for NO admission fee, the ball pit will be open to the public (or at least those members of the public willing to assume risk for the fun they'll have); supervised kids, adults - anyone, everyone - will be welcome to take advantage of this new community resource for outdoor play, neighborly engagement, and communal socializing. Open during the day and in the evening, there will be special events including live music, projected film screenings, and more, but most often the ball pit will be just an arena for glorious, glorious play. Netting will keep the balls in the pit, and foam padding on every exposed beam will make it safe and comfortable for everyone.
When and where? The ball pit will be ready to go by early May, with an official grand opening tentatively scheduled for Saturday, May 12, and will be open for about a month or six weeks - until it gets too hot, basically. The house is located at 2816 Burgundy St in the Marigny (that's New Orleans, LA, 70117).
Who are you and what do you think you're doing? I'm Josh. When I do things out loud, I mostly do them with film, the past several years in New Orleans with Court 13 - from directing Big Freedia's music video for "Y'all Get Back Now" to working in the art department for the 2012 Sundance Film Festival Grand Jury Prize-winning Beasts of the Southern Wild. I've never built a giant ball pit in an abandoned house before, and that's fine by me.
Call this an interactive art installation, a neighborhood development initiative, or just totally crazy - to me it's simply a giant ball pit. Silly, I know, but it is serious too! There's really important work to do to bring attention to these dangerous properties and the slow progress of improving them in New Orleans. Fortunately the only way I know how to fight these serious problems is to facilitate absurd, riotous joy with equal and opposite force.
This is a two step process: the first has been to secure and clean up a seriously exposed and threatening location (for example, we have repaired an entire exterior wall that has nothing to do with the ball pit itself, except for the fact that it is part of the house, and was in imminent danger of collapsing onto adjacent, lived-in homes; pictures of all progress are available here). The second step is to turn the newly safe and functional building into something worthwhile. And bringing neighbors together, just to have a little fun in the spring sunshine, particularly in a place that used to be a problem beyond simply going to waste; that's something that's worthwhile to me.
How you can help: This project is really as simple as it sounds - all I'm going to do is thoroughly clean and secure the house, put up the netting/padding, fill it up with balls, and create a comfortable space to visit and spend time. This all takes a fair bit of money, and all donations will go directly into these four tasks, and it really is a more-is-more situation: more funding means a more secure house, a more comfortable area to rest and chat in, and so on. Extra funds will be thrown into publicity and maintenance once it's built. If you're in New Orleans and would like to participate in ANY part of the process, you are more than welcome - a ball pit is nothing without all of the people in it, starting with making it actually exist.
This will be a truly memorable and exciting addition to the community, and serve as a reminder that our neighborhoods are what we make them. In New Orleans, we can continue to ignore decay and abandonment but I think it's time we transform the neighborhoods ourselves, using the best and most abundant tool we have here: communal joy. It's happening, and I hope you'll join me.
Embrace the craziness-- get involved, and find us on facebook here! And thank you so, so much--
WE HAVE HIT OUR GOAL. The outpouring of support has been overwhelming, empowering, and inspiring. Your clicks, likes, and especially your donations have brought us attention from Grist, Next American City, a whole lot from The Gambit, the local news, and more. That's just the beginning, and only in the last few days. So what will we do now? Well, the basics have been covered: making the house safe and secure, and purchasing the raw materials for the pit. Any other funds we receive will go into making the experience a comfortable and enjoyable one on top of the glory of being in a giant ball pit. First on our wish list is providing a bathroom on-site (wouldn't that be nice?), establishing/maintaing an effective and efficient rain contingency, offering comfortable seating, having refreshments available, the list goes on. So let's keep going - we'll be open in 2 weeks!!! WHOA! SEE YOU THERE!
- (20 days)