Patching a Broken City
Page 3
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.

For New Orleans, Blakely's methods are unprecedented. For Blakely, it's a familiar role, one that enables him to meld erudition and the real-world chops he's honed for years. While at Berkeley, he worked long and steadily in the redevelopment of Oakland and aided in the city's recovery from the Loma Prieta earthquake in 1989 and the Oakland Hills firestorm of 1991.

One has to wonder, though, in a city where power is cultivated through long-term personal relationships, whether Blakely has any real clout. Does anyone have to listen to what he says? The short answer is no, and Blakely is the first to acknowledge it. "It's like a doctor," he reasons. "You've got your patients. You hope they'll do the right thing. If they don't, there's nothing you can do about it."

The experience that probably best prepared Blakely for the sort of power-leveraging he needs in New Orleans was his tenure, post 9/11, on a citizen's advocacy panel called the Civic Alliance to Rebuild Downtown New York. As a co-chair, Blakely had a hand in nearly all the alliance's accomplishments, said Robert D. Yaro, chair of the alliance and president of the area's Regional Plan Association. A week after the terrorist attacks, when government agencies were swamped with disaster recovery, Yaro, Blakely and several others devised a $5 billion downtown transportation proposal that is now under construction. Later, Blakely took a lead role in quashing a developer's plan to site a suburban-style shopping mall at Ground Zero, helping to persuade the Port Authority to buy out the lease for $400 million. And Blakely helped secure and dole out millions of dollars in community redevelopment funds in the area. "Ed is the consummate professional," Yaro said. "He brings an authority and integrity to the process that is above the fray. We needed that in New York after 9/11, and New Orleans needs rogram."

When Blakely arrived in New Orleans in January, his City Hall office consisted of an empty, fluorescent-lit room furnished solely with 17 straight-backed chairs, one for each member of his staff. No matter. He didn't spend much time there anyway. He led neighborhood bicycle rides to meet with residents and community groups and seek input for his plan. He weighed in on renewal at every opportunity, openly criticizing programs that didn't work.

Regarding state and federal aid, he told business leaders, "We are ... not going to kiss anybody's ring—or any other part of the anatomy," and said he would help the city generate investments from private sources. When a television reporter asked Blakely if he would incorporate green space into redevelopment projects to guard against future flooding, he replied: "What I'd like to see ... is spaces that produce green dollars. ... It's a lot better to have a small factory knocking down a surge than a blade of grass." In Blakely's first meeting with the state-run Louisiana Recovery Authority, when the body wavered over granting his request for control of a $117 million infrastructure fund, his response was unequivocal. "If I don't have it, I go home," he said. The agency acquiesced.

At times Blakely's impatience crosses the line into snobbery, particularly when his verbal barbs veer away from the politics of the city to its people. He noted that the city pumped $100 million into this year's Mardi Gras while blighted homes and piles of debris still dominated neighborhoods. He concedes that trying to stop Mardi Gras "would be foolish," because "there's something too deeply ingrained in the culture not to spend the money. But would I invest a lot of time and money in it? No."

But by assuming responsibility rather than dodging blame or public outcry over his perceived insults, Blakely has won the support of city leaders as he sells them on the transformative effect a good urban plan can have on wideranging city woes. For New Orleans he devised a five-point recovery strategy that reads more like a wishful cure-all: Continue the healing and consultation; improve safety and security in all communities; develop a more diverse and robust economy; build an infrastructure for the 21st and 22nd centuries; and establish a smart and sustainable settlement pattern. Blakely sees these points more as guiding principles than concrete goals—a way of trying to shape and manage the fast-moving, scattershot approach that had been driving city development. "This is a train," he said. "We're going to be riding on the side of it, but there are things we can do from here to improve it."

Of course, none of the rebuilding will make any difference if the levees fail. Blakely is as aware of this reality as anyone. "If we have even a small breach on those dikes," Blakely said, "it's over." He is working with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers on elevation plans and other ways urban design can increase the safety of New Orleans residents. In the short term, he wants to eliminate the "low house/ high house" phenomenon popping up around town. "You've got one house up here, another down low," he said, gesturing. "As soon as the surge comes, the low house just knocks over the high one. It's like a bowling alley." But, he said, overall redevelopment in New Orleans can't wait for an unassailable levee safety guarantee. "If I take all that stuff into consideration I wind up doing nothing," he said. "I don't have time for that."

Originally published in the September/October 2007 issue of California magazine. Copyright © 2007 by Sara Catania. Reprinted with permission from the author and California magazine.