Topic: Ed Blakely Profile
The Master of Disaster
Ed Blakely Makes His Move to Reconstruct New Orleans. Will it Work?
By J.B. Borders
One afternoon when Edward J. Blakely was 12 years old, he marched himself up to City Hall in his hometown – Riverside, California – and demanded an audience with the mayor. He was unaccompanied and he had not made an appointment prior to his appearance. But for him the matter couldn’t wait. Something had to be done about the condition of his favorite playground. He figured he could get the changes he needed if he just presented his case to the guy in charge.
The strategy worked. Not only did the mayor stop what he was doing and take the time to meet with his young constituent, he asked Blakely to take a ride with him right then and there to inspect the situation. Along the way, the mayor also took the precocious lad on a tour of other parts of the town and revealed his administration’s plans to fix parks and housing and to stimulate business development throughout Riverside. The mayor even asked the boy what he thought about the plans.
On that day, Edward J. Blakely’s ambitions came into focus. He knew then what his life’s work would be. He would dedicate himself to public service and to helping improve the quality of life for others through planning and leadership.
Of course, playgrounds and athletic fields would continue to be extremely important to Blakely for several years to come. He would, in fact, go on to become a star athlete in high school and at the University of California, Riverside, where he would captain and quarterback his team to a perfect season in 1960.
Blakely’s passion for service and leadership, however, were equally distinguished. “I was president of my class or president of the student body every year from first grade through college,” he recalls with obvious pride.
Blakely’s family had long been active in local political and social issues. His great-grandfather was one of the early settlers in Riverside in the late 1800s. Blakely’s grandfather was the first African American child born in the town, located about 50 miles east of Los Angeles, and his grandmother was the first black woman in the area to graduate from high school.
One of his great uncles started the local NAACP chapter and as a child young Edward was personally involved in breaking down racial barriers in a number of areas, from his part-time jobs to his accomplishments in the world of sports.
Today, at 69 years of age, there are few outward signs of the outstanding athlete Ed Blakely used to be. He is only of average height and weight by today’s standards. And the slight paunch around his waist suggests he isn’t obsessed with physical fitness these days.
Instead, with his eyeglasses, jowly cheeks, head of thinning grey hair, conservative suits and crisp speaking style, he looks and sounds like a college professor – which he is – or a business man – which he is – or a bureaucrat – which he used to be.
More importantly, since January of this year Blakely has assumed an additional role as director of the Office of Recovery Management for the City of New Orleans. It’s his job to guide the reconstruction of the city and to strategically position New Orleans for growth and viability in the future.
It’s a task for which this oft-described “master of disaster” is well-qualified. Blakely, who was serving as chair of the Urban and Regional Studies program at the University of Sidney, Australia, when Katrina smacked New Orleans into near oblivion, has worked on several major disaster major recovery efforts. He helped New York City in the aftermath of the 9/11 bombings; Kobe, Japan, and Oakland, California, after devastating earthquakes rocked those cities; and the Darfur region of the Sudan when genocidal civil war caused death and displacement for millions.
Nevertheless, in a life overflowing with important accomplishments, Blakely expects the rebuilding of New Orleans to be his final, and perhaps greatest, achievement.
“I will be here until I finish the job. The mayor and my wife have already told me I don’t have a choice,” he chuckles ever so slightly.
Blakely has already made a significant contribution to the rebuilding effort. His 17-person office has produced the first phase of a 15-year plan to strategically reconstruct New Orleans. The $1.1 billion initiative calls for publicly funded investments at 17 major commercial hubs around the city. The plan also calls for a major infusion – $145 million – to trigger the rebuilding of the Lower Ninth Ward and New Orleans East.
Some critics have described the plan as “disappointing” and “too modest,” but others have said it provides a clear, achievable starting point for revitalizing nearly all sections of the city. When the strategy was unveiled at the end of March, Mayor Ray Nagin noted that it already had received endorsements from City Council members, neighborhood activists, state officials and the local business community.
The funding for this first phase of the recovery plan still needs to be secured but concern over efforts to raise the money took a back seat to a couple of dust-ups that occurred after Blakely questioned the pre-Katrina population of New Orleans and then later told the New York Times that race relations in the city were comparable to those between the religious factions waging civil war in Iraq.
In that New York Times interview, Blakely also criticized some people who were using the principle of the right of New Orleanians to return home as a smokescreen for their own political and money-making purposes.
He added that the local ruling-class clique was “insular,” and that the economy was built on the import and export of t-shirts. He also charged that some of the folks trying to capitalize on the rebuilding efforts were “buffoons” who would turn off prospective new residents and investors.
The remarks were seen as divisive in some quarters and Blakely issued apologies for his errors in fact and for the abrasive tone of his characterizations. Just the same, the People’s Hurricane Relief Fund (PHRF), a grassroots community organization that has been among the chief proponents of the right to return, called for the mayor to fire Blakely.
Though Blakely explained that his comments were not directed at the PHRF but rather at some parties who had hijacked the PHRF’s language for self-serving ends, both the mayor and the president of the city council later called upon the recovery czar to hush his mouth and stick to the nuts and bolts of the recovery effort.
The incidents were just two in a string of attention-grabbing actions by Blakely since his first post-Katrina visit to Louisiana in October 2005. Before he was hired by the city, he argued that New Orleans needed a single recovery leader to direct the efforts. He also argued that this person should be an outsider with no political or personal stake in the outcome. Over the course of the next year, Blakely would make five trips to New Orleans at his own expense. When he finally met the mayor, Nagin asked him to help with the New Orleans recovery.
Blakely was hesitant at first. He already had a full portfolio of work and special projects to which he was committed. But it was his Dutch-born wife and colleagues in Sydney and China who urged him to accept the New Orleans assignment, he said. “They kept telling me it was something I had to do because I was the best person for the job,” he explains.
After he was hired for the $150,000-a-year job, state recovery officials were taken aback by Blakely’s demand that all recovery funds for New Orleans be directed through his office, not theirs.
Some members of the local business community were also unenthused when Blakely suggested that New Orleans should remake itself by becoming the nation's gateway to developing markets in Latin America and sub-Saharan Africa.
Blakely’s personal style also drew criticism in some quarters. Several people noted that he comes across as extremely confident, arrogant and even cocky – what used to be called uppity in bygone days. In some people’s minds, this is apparently a negative characteristic. Go figure.
Other citizens raised their eyebrows when Blakely took a 10-day “vacation” trip back to his home in Australia after just a few weeks on the job here. Later, he was quoted as saying he said he would only stick around to guide the recovery efforts for one year.
He has since explained that his original contract was for one year but that he will remain in New Orleans for as long as Mayor Nagin or his successor will employ him. And the recent announcements that several cutting-edge Australian firms will invest in New Orleans and establish business ventures here would seem to vindicate Blakely’s assertions that his visits back to Australia were working vacations.
Nevertheless, debate about Blakely continues and two central questions keep popping up in public and private discussions: Is Ed Blakely the supremely skilled, practically superhuman savior the city needs? Or is he merely a lackey of the capitalist fat cats intent on gobbling up New Orleans for the wealthy few?
The answer is: probably neither. There is, however, a smattering of truth in both views of Blakely and his role.
There is no denying that the brother from another continent “has all the credentials in the world,” as Councilman Oliver Thomas put it.
Blakely earned a BA with honors in History, Political Science and Economics from the University of California, Riverside, an MA in History and Development Studies from the University of California, Berkeley, a Master of Management from Pasadena Nazarene College and a joint PhD in Management and Education from the University of California, Los Angeles.
Before joining the faculty at the University of Sydney, Dr. Blakely was the Professor of Management and Urban Policy and Dean of the Milano Graduate School at the New School University, New York (1999-2004). Previously, he was the Lusk Professor of Planning and Development for the School of Urban Planning and Development at the University of Southern California (1994-1999) and served as Professor and Chair of the Department of City and Regional Planning at the University of California at Berkeley (1986-1994).
From 1977-84, Dr. Blakely was Assistant Vice President of Systemwide Administration for the University of California. In this capacity, he managed the faculty and academic personnel and policy system for more than 14,000 University of California employees.
In 1985-86, Blakely was the recipient of a Fulbright Fellowship. In 1994, he was a Guggenheim Fellow, another prestigious academic honor.
Blakely began his career at Pacific Telephone company (1960-65) and later did a stint as a U.S. foreign service officer (1969-71). He also enlisted in the Air Force in the early 1960s but resigned his commission rather than fight in Vietnam. Beginning in the mid-1906s, he worked in Ghana, Nigeria, Senegal and other parts of Africa on rural development initiatives.
Blakely also once ran for mayor of Oakland, California, losing to Jerry Brown in 1998. “I had fun with the campaign,” he notes, “but I have no plans to run for elective office ever again.”
Blakely is an internationally renowned scholar in the fields of planning, infrastructure, transportation and local economic development. He has authored eight books and more than 100 scholarly articles. One of those books, Planning Local Development: Theory and Practice, first published in 1989 and now in its third edition, has become a standard text in many university programs.
Blakely says publication of his first prize-winning book, Rural Communities in Advanced Industrial Society: Development and Developers, 1979, prompted representatives of the People’s Republic of China to seek him out and hire him as a consultant. He continues to serve as an adviser to the Chinese.
Blakely has also been an advisor to local and regional governments in Korea, Japan, Australia, Indonesia, New Zealand, Vietnam and France.
As befits someone of his stature, Blakely has served on the boards of such major professional and civic organizations as the American Planning Association and the Nature Conservancy. He also serves on the boards of such private firms as Environmental Science Associates and SE Corporation, a real estate development firm.
Blakely is especially proud of SE’s Dos Lagos development, a new 534-acre project in Corona, California, that combines a mix of residential uses with upscale shopping, dining, entertainment, live-work lofts, business and resort hotels, an 18-hole championship golf course and office space centered around two signature lakes.
According to Blakely, the development also provides housing for several low-income households. “The beauty of it,” he explains, “is that you can’t tell the low-income housing from the rest of the homes. It’s all high-quality construction. That’s the kind of thing I’d like to see in New Orleans.”
If Blakely’s involvement with and comfort around large-scale developers worries some advocates for the poor who think the master plan will eventually squeeze low-income families out of the city, Blakely says his long track record working on behalf of poor should help allay those concerns.
In 1963, he won the Sargent Shriver Award for fighting poverty in California. Blakely also worked as a community organizer in those days with the late Cesar Chavez, who successfully organized migrant farm workers.
SE Corporation has also received the Martin Luther King Award for its efforts to combat poverty.
In the early 1980s, Blakely helped launch Bridge Housing, which now claims to be the largest developer of high-quality affordable housing in California with over 12,000 units completed.
“Our definition of quality livable housing encompasses a range of services and amenities that support our residents and their communities, such as play areas, green space, education resources, childcare facilities, and new community services,” Bridge Housing officials say. “But we also look at the big picture and advance innovative solutions to larger challenges that face urban and high-cost areas. Our expanded development efforts bring jobs, economic activity, access to transportation, efficient land use and a safer environment.”
That’s the kind of development Blakely and many others would like to see in New Orleans. Unfortunately, Bridge Housing has no African American leadership at either the board or staff level. And for many Orleanians, the most important aspect of the reconstruction initiative is the empowerment of black folks at all levels and in all phases of the process.
In principle, Blakely agrees with this goal. He says the kind of development he wants to foster will hew to four key principles: “The first is, be really careful with the land. Second, equitable development means both the people and the place. The third is what we call health/wealth building. Every development should make the people affected healthier and wealthier. And fourth, all development must incorporate a spiritual component.”
In addition, Blakely says the reconstruction process in New Orleans will attempt to provide opportunities for black-owned businesses and to help them build capacity to tackle large-scale projects. But he said no standards will be lowered to accommodate these businesses.
Some observers say that’s a recipe for writing most black businesses out of the process. They add that large companies will prosper under such guidelines and that the rest will wither away.
Blakely thinks the most important thing is to create successes. “We have to build a new New Orleans,” he emphasizes, “not restore the old one. It’s too easy not to confront the issues” like racism, white supremacy, poverty and economic inequality. “We have an opportunity to make New Orleans a model for how to do urban redevelopment right – with quality and smart growth and equity.”
So if all goes according to plan, 15 years from now New Orleans will be home to 600,000 people occupying the same footprint it does now, Blakely says. The city will also be physically safe from the kind of flooding wrought by Katrina. In addition to built up wetlands along the Louisiana coast and stronger levees around the city, there will be more green spaces and canals to absorb water from storms.
Besides the increased activity through the port, the new local economy will be more closely tied to digital technology and to the international distribution of New Orleans’s world-renowned culture. “We have to be careful, of course, that we don’t turn it into Wal-Mart,” Blakely, a die-hard jazz fan, points out, “but we have to control more of the 9-5 aspects of the music business. Too many of our jazz musicians die poor. We’ve got to turn that around.”
Schools and libraries will also be much better in Blakely’s new New Orleans. Housing quality will be much improved, health care will be outstanding and good employment plentiful.
Playgrounds will also be outstanding in the new New Orleans. But if they aren’t, any concerned 12-year-old boy or girl should be able to contact the mayor’s office and ask that something be done. That’s the way Ed Blakely would probably have it.
After all, it worked for him nearly 60 years ago. With proper planning, it could work in New Orleans one day soon.