Urban Planner Cites Hope, Anxiety In New Orleans Urban planning miracle worker Ed Blakely was brought in by New Orleans to manage recovery. Criticized for over-promising, he says funding has been a problem but there are bright days ahead. Blakely says New Orleanians should be anxious but hopeful.
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Urban Planner Cites Hope, Anxiety In New Orleans

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Urban Planner Cites Hope, Anxiety In New Orleans

Urban Planner Cites Hope, Anxiety In New Orleans

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This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.


And I'm Robert Siegel. Tropical Storm Gustav is churning toward the Gulf of Mexico. Forecasters say it could hit along the U.S. Gulf Coast as a Category 3 hurricane or stronger early next week.

People along the Gulf Coast will remember that Katrina was also a Category 3 storm when it made landfall three years ago tomorrow. In New Orleans, when the levies failed, 80 percent of the city was flooded. Now three years later, more than a third of the city's homes are still vacant.

BLOCK: A year and a half ago, New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin hired Ed Blakely to oversee the city's recovery, and last week in New Orleans I talked with Blakely outside one of his prime projects, a $13 million rehab of the massive Mahalia Jackson Theater. It was badly flooded in the storm and has been closed ever since.


BLOCK: Geese and ducks have made their home in the murky green pools outside. Parts of the façade are torn away. The theater looks like an abandoned shell. The construction work is going on inside.


BLOCK: Ed Blakely knocks on the door to see if we can get in, but it's late, after work hours.

ED BLAKELY: Are they open down there?

BLOCK: No one's there, so we sit down to talk by one of those murky pools. Blakely is 70 years old. He's wearing a tie with a streetscape of Boston. How's your day been?

BLAKELY: My day has been very interesting. We're in this point of our recovery where you can see what could happen, but it's just a little bit farther away than you want it to be, you know?

BLOCK: Well, let's talk about that. I mean you said you're a little bit further away than you would want to be. Some people in New Orleans would say a lot farther away than they would want it to be. Where do you think you are?

BLAKELY: Well, I think there are different kinds of expectations. Many people thought the city was going to be rebuilt, that the federal government would come in, and that was a promise the president made, and that every street would get paved, and you know, everyone's home would be new and sparkling and so forth. But the way the law reads, they can only restore you to what you were, and so what we're trying to do is something in between.

For example in our school district, we're not going to build as many schools as we did before. We're just going to make them better.

BLOCK: Ed Blakely is an outsider, born and raised in California. He teaches urban planning in Sydney, Australia. He helped steer the recovery in the San Francisco Bay Area, after the 1989 earthquake and then the wildfires there.

He's been criticized by many in New Orleans for promising too much, delivering too little and scooping up credit where it's not deserved. Blakely is in charge of rebuilding city structures from fire and police stations to the courts and jails to theaters and parks.

Where would we see signs of rebuilding that's under your authority in New Orleans?

BLAKELY: Well, right here at Mahalia Jackson. The building's closed right now, but certainly you'd see that. You'd see other projects. If you go to some of the parks and playgrounds, you'll see those things coming back.

You get down to the criminal justice complex, you see buildings coming back and coming up. The courts are up and open, and then many of the things that people take just as ordinary a year and a half ago weren't here. Streetlights weren't here in some parts of the neighborhoods.

There were places where the streets still had debris in them only a year and a half ago. So, all that's disappeared, and that's just bringing us back to normal.

BLOCK: I've read that you announced the plan for rebuilding.


BLOCK: You promised cranes on the skyline, famously or infamously promised cranes on the skyline by September of 2007. People joke about that now. They roll their eyes and they say there are no cranes on the skyline. I've seen a blog where they said we found the cranes on the skyline, and you see an image of origami cranes posted on top of the buildings. Do you think that was a mistake to have promised cranes on the skyline by September?

BLAKELY: No. No, no. I think two things about it. One, I was signaling that I really want things to happen, you know, and there'd be clear signs of it. Two, it put a bit of urgency for the whole city. Gee, we've got to start trying to live up to this.

So, I might have said something different, but it would have been in the same vein, that we're going to see some movement here soon because no one brought me here to relax or to look or to hope. I had to push.

BLOCK: What are the challenges in particular of working here in New Orleans? You have gotten into some trouble before with things you've said about this place, talking about a mendicant's mentality, comparing people here to buffoons. What do you mean by those statements?

BLAKELY: Well, I think the mendicant mentality is that people had their hands out looking for the federal government, and clearly there are some people who felt this was a game that they could, you know, basically run a game on the system, and I don't think that's right.

I mean, here we have a system that's broken. It's not your turn to get money from the government and not fix it. It's your turn to put your shoulder to the wheel and fix it and to deal with some of the underlying problems, problems of race, problems of class, problems of poor education, problems of an economy that only had one thing going for it, and that was, you know, beds and food and drink, and you have to have more, you know, more economic alternatives, more diversity.

BLOCK: More than just tourism, you're saying?


BLOCK: And who are the people whom you compared to buffoons?

BLAKELY: Well, I say those are the people who previously kind of ran the place and could do whatever they wanted and were kind of sitting around waiting for someone to give them money so that they could continue to run the place. But the citizens have taken over, thank goodness.

BLOCK: When do you think your work here will be done?

BLAKELY: This work is not going to be done anytime soon. I'd say we're talking about a 20 year and beyond, and at 70 I think that's something I can't really look forward to, but I can certainly set the place on the right track.

BLOCK: And what would be an end point for you? At what point would you say, yeah, I can leave here?

BLAKELY: Well, when the buildings are coming up, when the plan is in place, when all the programs and projects are moving forward, and the school district is running and humming; then I can say sayonara.

BLOCK: And when might that be, do you think?

BLAKELY: Oh, I don't know. I think, you know, like I say, I can see the corner. I don't know when we're going to turn it. But I'd say within six months we're going to see a lot more stuff happening.

BLOCK: What do you say, Dr. Blakely, to people in New Orleans, and I've heard from a lot of them since I've been here, of people who don't see that corner, they don't see the light at the end of the tunnel?

BLAKELY: Well, I'm not going to say anything to them. We're going to wait. We're going to wait, let it show itself.

BLOCK: And they need to wait.

BLAKELY: No, I'm not saying they need to wait. I want them to be as anxious and angry and so forth so when it does happen, they know it.

BLOCK: That's Ed Blakely, executive director of recovery management for New Orleans, speaking with me outside the Mahalia Jackson Theater. The theater is scheduled to reopen by January. Placido Domingo will sing. Blakely says he's confident they'll meet their deadline.

Tomorrow on the program, we'll visit devastated St. Bernard Parish, where shrimpers like Ricky Robbin(ph) are trying to hold on three years after the storm.

RICKY ROBBIN: Go throw that net in the water. Go catch you some shrimp. Go catch you some fish. Go catch you some crabs and put some money on the table. We're fishermen. That's what we're supposed to do.

BLOCK: This is NPR, National Public Radio.

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