Patching a Broken City
In this story, originally published in the September/October 2007 issue of California magazine, Sara Catania profiles Edward J. Blakely, an urban planner and former UC Berkeley professor who came to New Orleans to take on the professional challenge of a lifetime: orchestrating the city's post-hurricane rebirth.
Image: Beyond Black and White
Sara Catania

It was just past seven on a balmy Tuesday morning last February, and the streets of New Orleans's moribund Central City were temporarily bustling. Barbecues hissed as hip-hop throbbed from car stereos and the open windows of seemingly abandoned homes. Residents displaced to Houston, Atlanta, and Baton Rouge had returned, filling vacant lots with folding chairs, card tables covered with floral cloths, and coolers. They'd come to witness the Mardi Gras return—after a one-year, post-Katrina hiatus—of the Zulu Social Aid and Pleasure Club. Founded in 1909 to provide African-American residents with insurance, the benevolent society is now known primarily for sponsoring Fat Tuesday's largest and most famous African-American parade.

When it comes to specific goals, Blakely is evasive. He won't say what, precisely, he intends to accomplish before he departs, or when, for that matter, he plans to take his leave.

At La Maison, a wood-frame house built in the mid-1800s and more recently converted into apartments, the celebration was in full swing. Partygoers ducked through a second-story window to a balcony overlooking the parade route through the old working-class neighborhood. Their host was tenant Edward J. Blakely, a soft-spoken urban planner and former Berkeley professor who had arrived in January to take on the professional challenge of a lifetime: orchestrating the city's belated post-hurricane rebirth. Before long the parade began, with New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin in the lead astride a chestnut mare. Nagin spotted Blakely and beamed. When announcing Blakely's hire in December 2006, Nagin could not have been more bullish, declaring, "We think he's the best in the world to help us get through this recovery."

Blakely's bona fides testify for his selection. He rose from an impoverished childhood in San Bernardino to earn a master's degree at Berkeley and a doctorate at UCLA . His 40-plus years of experience include advising governments in Korea, Japan, South Africa, and Europe, as well as two Oakland mayors; authoring or coauthoring four books; and chairing Berkeley's Department of City and Regional Planning. He has served as a dean at urban planning departments at The New School University in New York City and the University of Southern California. He currently chairs the Urban and Regional Planning program at the University of Sydney while heading a team studying urban climate change and global warming for the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy, a think tank based in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

And yet one of Blakely's strongest assets may have been pronounced in his early assessment of the challenge of putting the Big Easy back together: "There are forces here that would rather have failure than success." His trademark piercing candor, interpreted by some as the hubris of an outsider, is something that narcissistic New Orleans has rarely tolerated in the past.

Nagin's parade horse trotted off, and the "Province Prince" appeared. A two-tiered float fronted by a massive statue of a feather-clad warrior, it embodied a Zulu tradition that began as a counter to the exclusively white parades and evolved (some say devolved) into a spectacle of campy ethnic stereotypes. As the float trundled past, Zulus on board decked out in blackface and afro wigs hurled doubloons, beads, spears, footballs, and rubber snakes at the outstretched hands of the surging crowd.

One by one, Blakely's guests slipped down to the street, but Blakely had no interest in flying prizes or any other aspect of the parade. "Not my kind of thing," he said.

When it comes to specific goals, Blakely is evasive. He won't say what, precisely, he intends to accomplish before he departs, or when, for that matter, he plans to take his leave. He has suggested variously that he will leave within a year, that he will be done when the mayor says he is, or when the people say he is, or when he can't get access to the funding needed to keep his projects moving. Such responses acknowledge the perils of speaking with certainty about a future that is anything but clear. Since August 2005, when 480 billion gallons of water poured into New Orleans, covering 80 percent of the city and festering for weeks, more than 1,400 Louisiana residents have died as a result of Katrina. As of Mardi Gras 2007, much of the city that was damaged or destroyed was still in ruins. More than 200,000 New Orleansians remained displaced, and the city was operating with half its pre-Katrina budget and staff. The total cost of the disaster approached $250 billion. None of this was news to Blakely when he arrived. But after six weeks on the job, he was beginning to grasp the profound depth of the city's need. As he stepped away from the parade and brewed a fresh pot of coffee, he reflected, "It's like nothing I've ever done before."

Yet the magnitude of the mess is what appeals to him. As executive director of the New Orleans Office of Recovery Management, Blakely's goal is to amass enough funding to build large-scale housing and commercial developments that target specific high-visibility, high-impact areas. He has identified 17 zones for various degrees of redevelopment. The work ahead includes an overhaul of the devastated African-American community known as the Lower Ninth Ward, to include housing, commercial centers, schools, and community centers. Other projects range from an 80-acre regional, mixed-use residential, shopping, and hotel complex in New Orleans East, to a facelift for a modestly damaged commercial strip in Village de l'Est, the Vietnamese community on the eastern edge of the city. Smaller projects are scattered across the remainder of the incorporated area.

Initially Blakely had expected work to begin in September 2007, but by early summer he acknowledged that it was taking longer than he expected to raise the estimated $1.1 billion required to move forward. That funding includes hundreds of millions of dollars in federal disaster relief that must be wrested from competing recovery programs, as well as a sizable chunk that must be appropriated from recent city bond issues. Blakely remains confident that he can pull the money together and that the work will be underway by yearend. Once these "seed" projects are off the ground, Blakely's theory goes, they will boost public confidence and lead to private investment, which will lead to even more private investment and more development. Combine this "spread effect," as Blakely calls it, with the ongoing work of his agency, and the city will be on its way back.