Ed Blakely is multitasking again, scheming and talking as he rides his mountain bike through Broadmoor, one of New Orleans' flood-ravaged neighborhoods. He pedals past a mix of early 20th century residential and commercial buildings, situated where the spokes of streets beginning at the Mississippi River converge in a long-drained cypress swamp. Behind the spry 68-year-old follows a string of about 25 other bikers, mostly local residents who've come out this showery spring morning on one of several bike tours Blakely has led since he reported to work in January as the director of the city's Office of Recovery Management.
He points to a collapsing house as he coasts by. “What we need is sort of a barn-raising—get the whole neighborhood out and rebuild a house, and then get a new neighbor to move in,” he says. “Just one house on a block would help jump-start things.”
The several-mile tour finishes up at the gutted Rosa F. Keller Library, a Mission-style former mansion that today is home mostly to echoes. Inside, Blakely takes note of an antediluvian sign facing an empty reading room: These premises are monitored by surveillance cameras. He puts on a lighthearted scowl. “That's the old New Orleans,” says Blakely, a California native. “Libraries should be welcoming places.”
The group soon drifts back outside, and from the side steps Blakely begins to wax visionary, saying the library will become a seed to regrow the neighborhood, creating a cultural cluster with schools and recreational facilities. The more he talks, the more he likes the idea. He's pointing to structures and conjuring up a new urban core where weedy lots and battered buildings now stand. With his arms waving, he's got the confident bearing of a conductor leading a grand orchestra.
Of course, New Orleans isn't known so much for its orchestras as its raucous brass bands and freewheeling jazz. And this sort of local improvisation has been going on, neighborhood by neighborhood, since the pavement was scarcely dry. Local groups have been scheming, planning, and carrying out their own rebuilding plans in many of the city's dozens of neighborhoods. One wonders: Can Blakely, an academic who arrived from Australia just eight months ago, adapt to the local beat?
If there's a single characteristic Edward J. Blakely has shown since taking over New Orleans' recovery effort, it's been his outspokenness. He got the city's attention early on when he unexpectedly demanded, at a Louisiana Recovery Authority hearing, that all recovery money for the city go through his office. He made some ill-considered remarks in speeches and interviews, referring to locals as “buffoons” and New Orleans as a “third-world country.” A Times-Picayune columnist dubbed him “Dr. Flakey,” and Blakely had the dubious honor of being dressed down for his off-the-cuff comments by Mayor Ray Nagin, whose own lips are often unbuttoned.
But as Blakely himself is quick to note—in his quiet, professorial, and vaguely irritated way—he is exactly the right man for this job. He has authored or co-authored several urban planning texts, is chairman of urban and regional planning at the University of Sydney in Australia, and is the namesake of the Edward J. Blakely Center for Sustainable Suburban Development at the University of California, Riverside. He got his expertise in post-disaster planning in his home state of California (he grew up in San Bernardino), where he was involved in rebuilding after the 1989 San Francisco earthquake and the 1991 Oakland fires. He also happened to be teaching at the New School University in Manhattan in the fall of 2001 and assisted with neighborhood planning after the World Trade Center attacks.
In speeches after he started work, Blakely put forth some big-ticket ways in which New Orleans could reinvent itself and rise above selling trinkets to tourists. (“We have an economy entirely made up of T-shirts,” he said in a speech last spring.) New Orleans should strive to once again become a trade and travel gateway to Latin America, he said. He hoped that well-orchestrated investments could build the city into a major bioscience research center. He'd like to see tax credits help revive the grand old theaters of Canal Street and create a “Broadway South,” just as tax credits have made Louisiana into Hollywood South. (It's third, after California and New York, in attracting moviemaking expenditures.)
And he believes the underused Mississippi riverfront, which contains some of the highest ground in the city, could become a centerpiece of development for the new New Orleans. After attracting entries from teams that included Zaha Hadid, Frank Gehry, and Daniel Libeskind, the New Orleans Building Corp.'s “Reinventing the Crescent” competition was won last December by the team led by architects Enrique Norten and Allen Eskew, landscape architect George Hargreaves, and urban planner Alex Krieger, who together will craft a plan to bring parkland and other public uses to a six-mile stretch of wharves.
But these ambitions are tempered by doubts that grand plans can ever take root in the culturally and politically fragmented Big Easy. (The New Orleans 1984 World's Fair is chiefly remembered for being the first to declare bankruptcy while under way.) “The last person who had a big idea was Huey Long,” Blakely says, mentioning the revered and reviled former governor of the late 1920s. “Big ideas are hard to swallow here.” A much-ballyhooed new jazz district, for instance, announced in 2006 by Nagin and corporate partners, has virtually disappeared; downsized plans now call for just a revamping of the Hyatt Hotel (Thom Mayne is the architect) with an accompanying small jazz museum.