When Mayor Ray Nagin appointed Dr. Ed Blakely as New Orleans' "recovery czar" in December 2006, the city seemed to have cause for hope. Here was a man who had worked in rebuilding efforts after disasters in California and New York and was a professor at the University of Sydney for urban and regional planning at the university's internationally respected school of architecture. At first blush, the recovery czar seemed to be cast in the mold of Lt. Gen. Russel Honore, the "John Wayne dude" who stepped into the leadership void in the days after Katrina and brought order to the chaos. Now, some 30 months later, we realize that what we got was Ray Nagin II — a recovery czar prone to many of the same gaffes as his boss, including a fondness for travel and speechifying, a defensive arrogance and a habit of popping off at the mouth. Overall, in Blakely we got a lot more "czar" than "recovery."
Blakely often gave the impression that dealing with people, not concepts, was beneath him. He seemed happier talking about "sustainability" and other lofty goals than actually doing the work to get us there. His sometimes-disdainful nature didn't help. In April 2007, he told The New York Times he thought of himself as a doctor and New Orleans the patient. "But post-surgery, the patient, if they start eating hog maws again and not exercising, what can I do?" he wondered. He also hoped to attract new investors and residents to the city: "I think, if we create the right signals, they're going to come here, and they're going to say, 'Who are these buffoons?'" One month later, in a speech in Baltimore, he said, "Birth control is probably something needed in Louisiana." On other occasions, he compared the city to post-World War II Berlin and Dresden as well as modern-day Iraq. "If this plan fails, it won't be because I failed New Orleans," he told U.S. News & World Report. "It will be because New Orleans failed itself."
Such arrogance and insults might be forgivable if Blakely had delivered on some of his promises. He didn't. In a February 2007 interview with Planning, the journal of the American Planning Association, Blakely laid out his five "framework for recovery" tenets — "Continue the healing," "Ensure the safety of every citizen and every neighborhood," "Provide modern infrastructure," "Diversify the economy" and "Establish a modern settlement plan." He talked loftily about redesigning street grids, attracting high-tech industry and, most infamously, a sky full of construction cranes by fall 2007. None of it materialized; in fact, the cranes became a running joke.
As the city struggled to rebuild, Blakely accepted outside consulting contracts and traveled the world making speeches. (The New York Times noted that he "commutes between New Orleans and Sydney," as if Australia were just across the Causeway.) In early 2009, it was revealed that he drew half his salary from the University of Sydney during 2007 and 2008; shortly thereafter, he announced his intention to resign. Now he's back at the University of Sydney for good, hawking his book Dialogues in Urban Planning for Sustainable Regions.
Blakely remained arrogant and detached to the end. In his last appearance before the City Council's Recovery Committee, he touted his putative accomplishments — including expansion of the National World War II Museum and the rebirth of the Roosevelt Hotel, neither of which he brought about — and joked that "if you look, here and there you can see a crane." In a farewell interview with Norman Robinson of WDSU-TV, he insisted he had no regrets about promising New Orleans a future with construction cranes in the sky. "Cranes is a metaphor for starts," he said. "I didn't mean that necessarily literally." Too bad. We did.
Recovery isn't a metaphor; it's a long, hard, hands-on process, as every resident who returned after Katrina knows. Post-K progress has come not from big talkers, but via private investors, dedicated homeowners, generous volunteers and residents unafraid to get their hands dirty. We, not he, were the city's real recovery czars. Most of all, New Orleans will continue to pick itself up by its bootstraps, even as Blakely jets back to Australia — mission metaphorically accomplished.