Wednesday, April 02, 2008

Come Crane With Me: An Ed Blakely Timeline

If you're visiting the Yellow Blog today, the odds are you're already aware that New Orleans's "Recovery Czar" and Australia's most famous imaginary crane operator, Dr. Ed Blakely was quoted in yesterday's New York Times delivering yet another Blakely-esque statement on the general ineptitude of the local populace and the insufferable hindrance it presents to Blakely's own righteous awesomeness... or something like that. Most Blakelyphiles know this drill by now.

Being an accomplished Blakely watcher myself, I'd be happy to jump right into the indignant fray over this latest choice morsel of received wisdom. But it has recently been pointed out that excitable commentary on the offensive or insulting rhetoric of local political celebrities amounts to favoring an interest in "outrage over discussion". (Don't know what those quotes mean, exactly, since I'm paraphrasing there)

So in the interest of balancing out the inevitable sensationalist outrage that tends to occasion every new Blakelyism, let us first take a moment to discuss Dr. Blakely's tenure in New Orleans and generate a little context in which to view the most recent statements.

  • On July 15 of 2006 (incidentally my 32nd birthday), Ed Blakely paid his own way from Australia to lobby for the creation of a recovery czar's office. Above all, Dr. Blakely urged that the individual chosen for this position "should not be a local person".
    Blakely said such a leader would be less likely to be influenced by historical, cultural and political factors that can sway the decisions of local residents on issues including which geographic areas, if any, should be off limits to rebuilding.

  • On December 4, 2006, Ed Blakely was introduced as the man to fill the position he had urged the city to create. At his first press conference as recovery czar, Dr. Blakely immediately displayed the flippant, and accusatory grousing behavior that has since become his trademark in his dealings with the media.
    In his first public appearance as a government official, Blakely, 69, was brutally blunt with some of his answers, vague with others and a bit testy toward the end of the news conference when asked to describe how he expected the city to look a year from now.

    "Come back," he said. "I'm not explaining any more today, because that, I think, is not a question that anyone can answer. What are you going to be doing next year? I'm not answering questions unless they're really questions. That sounds like a threat."
    The "threat" presser was an immediate red flag to some of us. It's never a good sign when your practically self-appointed consensus-building leader dude wants to cold cock the media on day one. There was a dissenting view at the time that Blakely was simply demonstrating his "No nonsense Quarterbaking" skillz. As it turned out, however, the addition of a self-aggrandizing "Quarterback" type to an atmosphere already flooded with similarly ineffectual primma donnas is exactly what you don't want.

  • In February of 2007, Blakely again exhibited his Jeff George-esque quarterbacking skills by throwing a temper tantrum before the LRA in Baton Rouge. Blakely declared himself so frustrated with the fact that his office wasn't in control of all state and federal recovery funds destined for New Orleans that "If I don't have it, I go home -- I quit." When faced with LRA board members' concerns about accountability for so much money going through a single office with very little if any oversight, Blakely stated glibly, "I want to be your accountability structure."

  • Blakely didn't quit. Instead, he showed up a month later with a partially disambiguated plan to "incentivize" investment in targeted "recovery zones" through "loans grants and other incentives" although neither the specific mechanics nor a clear explanation of the funding for this program was made clear by the announcement. When pressed for such specifics, Blakely again took the opportunity to snap at nearby reporters telling them
    "I have a very clear idea" of how the zones will develop, he said. "Developers make a lot of money by getting those clear ideas early and getting the jump in the game. And that shouldn't happen in the newspaper. You're a newspaper reporter, not a developer."
    Apparently only a "developer" can get a straight answer out of Ed Blakely in this town.

    Also never answered was the question of how much money would be made available for Blakely's mysterious projects through the use of "Blight Bonds"; that dubious process through which the city borrows against properties it has expropriated ostensibly because of their status as blighted or as "imminent health threats".

    While it has not been made clear how much if any money has been raised through the use of "blight bonds" the city has been marvelously successful at dispossessing individuals of their "imminent health threats" over the past two years. Placing that property back into commerce looks to be a wholly different matter, however.

  • In April of 2007 Blakely granted one of his greatest enablers in the national press, New York Times reporter Adam Nossiter, an interview where he made sure to explain that while any successes seen in New Orleans over the coming months should be credited directly to him, whatever failures occur will certainly be the fault of the city's own population of mostly backwards, racist "buffoons".
    Newcomers, pioneers willing to put up with the city’s present difficulties, could be the salvation of New Orleans and its future, Dr. Blakely suggested. New Orleans now is “a third-world country,” he said.

    “If we get some people here, those 100 million new Americans, they’re going to come here without the same attitudes of the locals,” he said. “I think, if we create the right signals, they’re going to come here, and they’re going to say, ‘Who are these buffoons?’ I’m meeting some who are moving here, and they don’t have time for this stuff.”

    The "buffoon" comment, which we all know made such a big splash locally, was a prime example of Blakely at his absolute worst. It played as much to the New Orleans self-hatred impulse as it did to Blakely's national audience. To the Times readers, Blakely was playing the martyr among the unwashed. Locally, he was taking advantage of familiar fault lines. Natives vs transplants, Dragonslayer reformers vs local pols, whites vs blacks, suburbanites vs city-dwellers, for a whole week everyone got to argue over who the "buffoons" were. This is the sort of thing that happens virtually every time Blakely opens his mouth. He pads his own ego and image while unnecessarily dividing the community he's charged with rebuilding. That's some nice quarterbacking there.

    As if to drive the point home, one month later Ed Blakely told US News and World Report "If this plan fails, it won't be because I failed New Orleans. It will be because New Orleans failed itself."

  • Also in May 2007, Blakely declared the day he officially took his position in New Orleans (Jan 8, 2007) to be "Day Zero" for the city's recovery. At that point we were only five months into the Blakelian Calendar and even the self-styled "quasi apologists" among us were beginning to lose patience.
    Blakely has many obvious weaknesses, but in a weird way I believe his strengths complement Nagin pretty well. I believe he won't hedge and spin if/when the results he promises don't materialize.

    But if, say, cranes aren't in the sky come September, and Blakely passes the buck or blames an undisclosed serious medical condition... then I might not be his quasi-apologist anymore.
    Blakely's promise of "Cranes by September" became a benchmark by which much of the city would judge his performance.

  • In June of 2007, it became clear that a large chunk of Blakely's plan involved half-assedly reshuffling pre-Katrina capital improvements projects so that they fall within his targeted "recovery zones" The legality of repurposing the bond issues for financing this work was in question at the time. And this is shoddy follow through by an amateur blogger, but I don't know if that question was ever resolved. Regardless, this Suspect-Device cartoon published around that time pretty much captures the strategy in action by this point.

  • On July 16, 2007 (incidentally one day after my 33rd birthday) Ed Blakely announced that New Orleans's recovery from Hurricane Katrina and the Federal Flood had "turned the corner." At that same press event, Blakely revealed that because large chunks of his expected funding was tied up due to the city's inability to produce a fiscal audit, he was looking into spending up to $150,000 more to hire a financial consultant.

  • On July 26, 2007 The Times-Picayune published a somewhat pointless but nonetheless hilarious op-ed piece from Blakely in which he told readers about a recent conference he attended where he learned that, because of the automobile, cities are bigger than they used to be. And that in the future they will be more diverse because there will be many immigrants born to the current cohort of people living there. No really that's what he said. He also used the prefixes "bio" and "eco" a lot for no particular reason.

  • The August 21, 2007 Gambit Weekly featured a cover story interview with Blakely in which he once again bashed the local political atmosphere of incompetence and corruption while simultaneously arguing that his job would be easier if rebuilding contracts were meted out by an elite "coterie of people" with broad emergency powers to ignore public input. Ignoring public input is indeed a favorite hobby for Blakely who is said to have once told a neighborhood organization, "I don't talk to little people".

  • On August 29, 2007 CNN's Anderson Cooper reported on the state of New Orleans two years after the Federal Flood. One of the CNN reporters asked Blakely about the whereabouts of his famous cranes. "They're here! They're here!" exclaimed Blakely who then directed the crew to where these cranes could be filmed. They didn't find any.

  • September 1, 2007. No magical cranes appeared to make everything better. Although luxury condo construction was proceeding unabated.

  • On October 12, 2007 USA Today reported that with much of his much ballyhooed "blight bonds" and capital improvements bonds not materializing, Blakely's office was scaling his reconstruction plans way waaaay back from a $1.1 billion dollar grand craning to a $216 million "first step" about which Blakely said "It's certainly enough to lay the first couple of stones." Former "quasi Blakely apologist" Oyster responded
    Lay "the first couple of stones"? This is what we get from this highly paid World Class Reconstruction specialist?! Two hundred million to lay a few stones, and "hope" that "more money will follow"? That's considered a good "first step" at this point? Really!?!

  • In December 2007, Blakely was given greater control over several city departments effectively consolidating the city's former Office of Development and Planning that housed Code Enforcement, Economic Development, Workforce Development and Housing Renewal. At this time Blakely said he finally would have the tools at his disposal to do... whatever it is he was supposed to have been doing all this time,
    "(New Orleans) had economic development activities but we didn't have a classic economic development function," Blakely said. "(The planning office) wasn't organized in the way I see an economic development office, (which is) to have sectoral direction. We were able to react to (a business) who came to town but we weren't necessarily able to make a business plan for the kind of businesses we wanted, how we were going to support them, what incentives we were going to have and how we were going to deliver them and that's what we're doing now."

In Monday's New York Times Adam Nossiter wrote
NEW ORLEANS — In March 2007, city officials finally unveiled their plan to redevelop New Orleans and begin to move out of the post-Hurricane Katrina morass. It was billed as the plan to end all plans, with Paris-like streetscape renderings and promises of parks, playgrounds and “cranes on the skyline” within months. But a year after a celebratory City Hall kickoff, there have been no cranes and no Parisian boulevards. A modest paved walking path behind a derelict old market building is held up as a marquee accomplishment of the yet-to-be-realized plan.

There has been nothing to signal a transformation in the sea of blight and abandonment that still defines much of the city. Weary and bewildered residents, forced to bring back the hard-hit city on their own, have searched the plan’s 17 “target recovery zones” for any sign that the city’s promises should not be consigned to the municipal filing cabinet, along with their predecessors. On their one-year anniversary, the designated “zones” have hardly budged.

After pointing proudly to a patch of grass on a neutral ground as evidence of some progress, Ed Blakely blamed the general inertia of the past two years partially on unrealistic expectations but also on... yup, the backwards people of this town whose attitude somehow continues to prevent him from saving them,
There have been some uniquely New Orleans hang-ups as well, said the recovery director; “lot of tensions in the staff,” revolving around race. “Black people have a hard time taking instruction from white people,” said Mr. Blakely, who is black. There is resentment “if a white person asks them to do something. It’s really bad. I’ve never encountered anything like this.”

We pick on a lot of folks here on this stupid blog. We pick on Chris Rose for being a ninny, Robert Cerasoli for being a cop, Reggie Bush for being a douche, Ray Nagin for being... Ray Nagin. But Ed Blakely really is the worst sort of toad in this collection. He is an imperious fraud who ultimately doesn't care if he does something nice for the city or something awful to it or nothing at all. Whatever happens happens pretty much by default or through the pained efforts of individuals, charities, and volunteers. All Blakely has to do is show up, hire some people to be know-it-alls, stick around long enough to write a book or a paper, update his resume and chase the next ambulance. Anything else that happens or doesn't happen is incidental to him being able to attach "New Orleans" and "Katrina" to his vitae.

Almost worse than the lack of anything positive accomplished by Blakely's presence is the damage done by his divisive comments and his condescending blaming of the local community. Assuming this latest quote derives from difficulties Blakely and his team of consultants have had running the city departments recently placed under his purview, we see the Ed Blakely blame and burn method of face-saving management is once again in operation. Here again, the "buffoons" are incompatible with Blakely's genius. Notice how no one but Blakely is without blame as intractable local racism leads to local blacks not trusting whites which means local blacks don't trust Blakely's wise consultants. Therefore any instance of the locals not trusting the Blakelys is inherently "Those crazy New Orleans black people don't know what's good for them because those awful New Orleans white people are so racist."

In response to Nossiter's article, Leigh wrote an excellent letter to the New York Times which you can read here. Unfortunately today the Times elected to print a less complete but perhaps more sensational response... likely because it parrots Ray Nagin's infamous "hole in the ground" gaffe.

Writing on her blog, Dangerblond was even more blunt.
Yes, little things are happening. Individual people are fixing up their houses, non-profit local groups organize clean-ups, volunteers, bless their hearts, still come down here from all over to help people gut and clean out the muck from their former homes. Nothing has been done toward New Orleans’ recovery that was not accomplished by individuals using their own money. New grass on the median? Kiss my ass, Ed Blakely.

There is also speculation afoot that Blakely may be resigning soon. Given that it was nearly one year ago today when he declared he was leaving "next year" this shouldn't come as much of a surprise.

Meanwhile, the cranes are showing up around town lately although not exactly at Ed Blakely's beckoning. Instead, they are here mostly to knock stuff down. They knock down schools. They knock down public housing complexes. They knock down houses. The magic cranes that build stuff are still much more difficult to spot.

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