A Helping Hand

New Orleans tapped planner Edward J. Blakely to lead in its reconstruction. He may be the only person who can do the job.

Nearly two years after Katrina, New Orleans is still floundering. Enter Edward J. Blakely, the veteran planner named as the city’s executive director of recovery management in January. It’s the job of a lifetime, but one fraught with political peril and hindered by entrenched ways of doing business that predate the disaster. Nevertheless, Blakely moved quickly after his appointment, unveiling a recovery plan two months later that concentrates on developing 17 economic clusters around the city.

The blunt 69-year-old seems uniquely qualified for this rather thankless job. Currently on a leave of absence from his ­position as chair of Urban and Regional Planning at the University of Sydney to lead a 17-member team in New Orleans, Blakely guided recovery efforts in Oakland following the 1989 earthquake and later ran for mayor, narrowly losing to Jerry Brown. Recently, executive editor Martin C. Pedersen spoke to the native Californian about the future of the Big Easy, his role in shaping it, and the pitfalls of business as usual.

You’re about a half year into your new job. Where is New Orleans right now?
We’re only six months into the recovery. A year and a half was basically spent getting the city stabilized. Now we have a plan, a fairly clear direction, and a cleaner set of targets than before. We anticipate certain kinds of funding, so we’re able to make a budget, and the momentum has picked up considerably with homeowners returning.

What is your role here?
Let me use three C’s here: Coach, that is to use my previous experience to provide knowledge about how this has been done in the past, how it can be done. The second is coordinator, getting all the city agencies to work together because the tendency is to do business as usual, and this is not a ­business-as-usual situation. And the third is cash, funding the programs to help the recovery work.

What kind of funding are we talking about?
Mostly private, but federal as well. I’ve been paying a lot more attention to private sources because they’re more flexible. They say local money has strings, state money has ropes, and federal money has chains. Federal money has many limitations. The hassle of receiving it is very difficult because you have to fill out five hundred thousand forms; and you have to account for it and all the specifications of where it can be used and where it can’t be used, and for whom it’s intended and for whom it’s not intended. Some of these federal programs don’t even allow you to use a city credit card. They get that silly.

How much direct authority do you have?
It’s more influence than authority. I have influence on how things are done across a number of agencies, which allows me to run with things that have citywide impact.

Given the city’s daunting challenges, can you provide an optimistic scenario where New Orleans defies all those harsh realities and rebuilds better than before?
If we don’t, then New Orleans doesn’t get there. There’s no sense in making a new house if we’re simply going to play by the old rules. We’ve seen this over and over again. We tore down Pruitt-Igo because we said the building was bad, but it wasn’t the building. It’s the social structures. So we have to attack not just the problem of rebuilding the physical structure. We have to attack the problems of building the social and economic structure.

Does the city have the political leadership to do that?
Leadership seldom comes from the political structure. It comes from the civic structure. You live in New York, right? I lived there for five years. The great thing about the city is its strong civic culture. At the New School we had meetings at 8 a.m. on things like garbage removal and housing. They were always packed. There are so many civic associations and institutions in New York that they can guide the government. When I first went to these meetings I thought nobody was listening to anybody, but a lot of issues were thrashed out because these organizations have a deep intelligence about them.

It’s sort of messy democracy.
Messy but informed. That doesn’t exist in New Orleans. Civic leadership is what’s needed. People here debate things in the newspaper and maybe on the radio, but when you want to reach out to a civic organization with an interest in planning—like the Regional Plan Association, in New York, or SPUR, in San Francisco—you can’t find it. If you want to reach out to an organization that has an interest in immigration, you can’t find it. In New York there are five or six of these organizations, each with its own staff working on immigration issues, and when you want to construct policy you can begin to engage them.

So how does one person, one office, fill a void here that in other cities is supported by whole cultures?
What I’m doing two or three nights a week is going out and having meetings with citizens and telling them: You’ve got to form these kinds of institutions before I leave. I am not your savior. Don’t hang on every word I say. You’ve got to have some thoughts of your own. I’m here to help you realize those ambitions, not to construct ambitions for you. You have to reach out and touch some­body who’s a different color, somebody who has a different income, somebody who approaches a problem from a different perspective. They’re not evil. They all want to reach the same goal.

How do you handle the sensitive issue of deciding which areas to redevelop and which ones not to?
Citizens are doing that on their own. These 17 areas are like magnets now. Over time people are going to start resettling them because we’re putting in institutions that they want: schools, libraries, police protection, hospitals, health centers. So they have to think for themselves: “I’m living in a place where nobody’s planning to put a hos­pital or a school—maybe I ought to reconsider this before it’s too late.” I went to the Road Home program, and that’s the first thing people asked at the closing: “Have any of my neighbors been in?” And when they hear no, the person often says, “Maybe I’ll take the cash.”

And the people who take the cash, will they stay?
Some say they will, some say they won’t. In a way, that doesn’t matter because those people who decide to leave New Orleans, it’s almost a situation where they say, “I don’t want to put my bets there.” If they’re going to come back and grouse about it, it’s almost better if they make another decision. Furthermore, their land is now available to us for a person who wants to stay, or it’s available because this is a dangerous area and we need to reconsider whether we should be having people living there.

So those decisions about leaving formerly occupied areas unoccupied are still on the table?
You have to be a real pioneer to go into unpopulated areas. You’ve got to spend more money to live there. So we’re using the reverse market. Water goes downhill. People are making decisions and saying, “Well, if a cluster of development is going over there, and all my opportunities are there, at some point my property here will probably not be very valuable, so I’d better move now.”

You pulled this plan together in about ten weeks. What were the logistics of that?
There were existing documents. The UNOP [Unified New Orleans Plan] documents were here. We went through those, and they were very good. But to be quite frank with you, I rode around the city on my bicycle. I’m a developer, and this is what my team does when we go to a new city. We ride bikes, drive around, walk, and find where the new opportunities are. That’s what I did, and then I had my staff doing the empirical thinking, going through all the documents, and finding the commonalities. I was within two areas of picking exactly the same places they did.

So you envision these 17 development nodes as seeds for regeneration?
If you do something in these areas, the spread effect will be tremendous. If you think of yourself as a general, you want to capture certain territory. Once you capture and occupy that space, you control everything else that happens. So if we control these spac­es, then there’ll be an enormous spread across the rest of the city. This is one of the reasons the citizens of the city, almost without exception, have said these were the right choices.

You have a thankless job. But even your opponents grudgingly gave you credit for this plan. Why do you think it was relatively well received?
Well, there wasn’t one before. That’s one of the reasons. The other reason is that I don’t read the blogs. I don’t listen to radio or television. I don’t even read the news­paper. That’ll throw you off. I know what I’m doing. No one’s saying to me, “You don’t know what you’re doing.” Some people don’t like my style, but I haven’t heard anyone say I don’t know what I’m doing. So I feel pretty confident, and that gives people a sense that it might be doable. What I try to do is provide the evidence.

Obviously, you go around to a lot of community groups. How is the plan greeted?
I’ve never been greeted hostilely, although some groups have said there was a lot of grumbling before I walked in. At the end people hug me. And when I walk through the airport or downtown, even in New York City, people come up to me and say, “Man, I’m glad you’re in New Orleans.”

Yes, well, none of us wants to see a great city die.
And I don’t either. People want to be critical of me, but if I leave, what’s Plan B? Some people say I should go home. And I say, “Okay, I’ll do that.” But what happens to New Orleans? I have that choice. New Orleans doesn’t.

How did Mayor Nagin find you?
On Google mostly. Some friends of mine introduced me to him, but he Googled me, researched my background, and talked to some people I know. My intention was to advise, but he said, “We need more than an adviser.” I signed a one-year contract that could be renewable for up to two more years because I’m a university professor. After three years you lose your tenure. So I have to make a decision at some point, but I’ve told people here I’m going to stay until I feel the job is done.

Is the New Orleans of pre-Katrina gone forever?
Some pieces are. I think its innocence is gone. It’s not going to be the Big Easy anymore. You just can’t lay back and say, “I hope good things are going to happen.” And I think deep within some of the criticism people have for me is the fact that I’m saying that. There is this whole notion of old New Orleans. But old New Orleans wasn’t all that good. My great-grandfather was a slave, and he said, “There were no good old days. They were just old.”

Is New Orleans destined to become less black, less poor, in the future?
Let’s hope that it becomes less poor. And I imagine whatever else it becomes, that’s fine, but it’s got to become more cosmopolitan and less poor.

How do you embed things in the plan that help preserve the city’s unique cultural heritage?
You can only embed things in the plan that help preserve the city’s unique architectural heritage. And you can try, like New York has, to provide the right environments for the private and public sectors. For example, cleaning up Times Square. Everyone wanted a place for music and art and so forth, but nobody wanted the seedy side of it. And that’s been accomplished, not by one organization or institution but by a whole system coming together and saying, “Here are the things we want to preserve, here are the things we want to get rid of—now how do we combine these to get the best result?” I think sometimes people here want a silver bullet. And there isn’t a silver bullet to preserving the past. You really need to work at it.

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