Patching a Broken City
Page 2
Image: Beyond Black and White
Sara Catania
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.

A realist with an outsider's advantage, Blakely has heard the arguments that location-wise, at the bottom of the Mississippi Delta, New Orleans is a geographic mistake that should not be repeated and hence not rebuilt. His response is that the city should be rebuilt, but rebuilt better. So he walks the line between the ennui that holds sway over so much of city life, and the seriousness of his mission. "The level of stress here is so low it destroys the possibility of doing good things," he said, his bespectacled demeanor softened somewhat by drooping eyelids and a neatly trimmed salt-and-pepper moustache complementing his equally neatly trimmed hair. "I just have to keep it in mind."

Planner-speak can be as mind dulling as any specialized language, but Blakely has a knack for conveying his ideas in quick, often witty bites. During his early months in New Orleans, he has shopped aspects of his still-evolving plan to city council members and agency heads, to foundation boards and businesspeople, to college committees and community groups, as well as to the media. When explaining the importance of reducing the city's reliance on tourism, because the jobs it generates are mainly low-wage, he said, "We've got to stop selling T-shirts." When outlining his plan to woo lucrative new industries such as a biomedical center that would develop products and services for export to Latin America, he said, "It's not the beds that count, it's the biomedicine."

Blakely, 69, takes a scavenger's delight in finding new value in the city's neglected resources. He's working to boost shipping through the city's underutilized port ("We were the biggest port in the Gulf and we went to sleep on our assets."), and he's pushing for expanded cargo service at the eerily empty airport ("We're not carrying enough freight—that's where the real money is these days."). When Blakely learned that the city loses half the water it pumps each day because of massive leaks in the municipal sewer system, he saw opportunity. Why couldn't the city fix the leaks, capture that surplus and turn it into a commodity instead? And he wants shuttered housing projects repaired and reopened for 1,000 workers immediately, with a companion training program.

While singularly focused on putting the pieces in place to begin redevelopment, Blakely is not forging ahead in a vacuum. He's incorporating locally developed plans into his strategy, most notably the Unified New Orleans Plan, a $5.5 million proposal more than a year in the making that combines the work of dozens of government agencies and community groups. In the end, though, the plan he comes up with must satisfy his own vision for the city. "If you haven't built a city, you might want to listen," he challenges. "I'm not bashful about that."

"This is the biggest and most challenging reconstruction since the 1906 San Francisco Earthquake," said Gary Hack, dean of the University of Pennsylvania School of Design and member of the winning redevelopment design team for the World Trade Center in New York. A big part of that challenge for Blakely is being an outsider in the consummate insider's town. He refuses to partake in the good-old-boy approach, preferring to build his own networks in his own way. He golfs, plays tennis, bikes, and is a vegetarian, retaining the athletic physique of the erstwhile college quarterback who captained his UC Riverside team to an undefeated season (he was named Athlete of the Year in 1959 and later inducted into the university's Hall of Fame).

A wealthy man by virtue of a sustainable living community he helped develop in Southern California, Blakely said he initially refused the $150,000 annual salary for the New Orleans job, but Nagin insisted. "He wanted to hold me accountable," Blakely said. "He felt that by paying me I would feel more bound to the city."

Rule number one in the Blakely book of leadership—if such a thing existed—might be Act like you're the boss. Blakely refers to himself as New Orleans's renewal "coach" and asked a city council member who was formerly with the New Orleans Saints NFL team to arrange a photo op with the team during summer training. The message: "I'm here rebuilding the city and here rebuilding the team." During a January press conference, he and his 17-member staff appeared in matching purple polo shirts embellished with gold fleurs de lis (the logo of the New Orleans Saints football team).