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.
“To my knowledge, I don’t think they’ve done anything to any of them,” said Cynthia Nolan, standing near a still-padlocked, derelict library in the once-flooded Broadmoor section, which is in the plan.
“I haven’t seen anything they’ve done to even initiate anything,” said Ms. Nolan, a manager in a state motor vehicles office who has painstakingly raised her house here nearly four feet. “It’s too long. A year later, and they still haven’t initiated anything they decided to do?”
The library still bears the cross-hatch markings made by emergency teams in the days immediately after Hurricane Katrina, to indicate whether any bodies were inside (there were none).
The city official in charge of the recovery effort, Edward J. Blakely, said the public’s frustration was understandable, but he suggested that bureaucratic hurdles had made moving faster impossible. Mr. Blakely said crucial federal money had only recently become available, the process of designing reconstruction projects within the 17 zones was time-consuming, and ethics constraints on free spending were acute, given a local history of corruption.
“It took us 11 years to do downtown Oakland,” said Mr. Blakely, an academic from California who specializes in helping cities recover from disasters. “This is a process of urban redevelopment. You cannot do this overnight, no city, anyplace in the world.”
Mr. Blakely has been given broad authority — a staff of more than 200 and jurisdiction over eight agencies — in a municipal hierarchy where the mayor, C. Ray Nagin, has adopted a hands-off role. Criticized last year for frequent trips to Australia, where he holds a university post, Mr. Blakely said he had not been there for some months.
The growing frustration points up what has been a recurring theme in New Orleans’s sketchy, on-again, off-again recovery from Hurricane Katrina: grandiose official promises, apparently made to lift the public’s morale, that soon prove unrealistic.
“They come up with these plans that look great and sound great,” said Sheila White, a Mid-City resident. “They give people hope. Then, they fall into the background. Promises are made, and they are not kept.”
Donna Brown, president of a neighborhood group in the Gentilly section, said she had seen no movement from the Nagin administration.
“I was told there would be groundbreaking Sept. 1, but I haven’t seen anything,” Ms. Brown said. “I’m not sure what’s going on. My neighbors are quite frustrated. I’m sure we’re all pretty much aggravated and frustrated about not seeing results.”
Many of the hardest-hit neighborhoods remain stuck where they have been for months, with a few houses on a block occupied and the rest in varying stages of abandonment or repair. In Broadmoor, one block might appear carefully restored by residents, while another will seem derelict. Vacant grassy lots newly pepper the city, ambiguous signs of progress: blighted houses recently sat on them, but construction has often not followed demolition.
The grim housing projects have started to come down, part of a federal replacement plan. But an acute shortage of low-cost housing spurred hundreds to wait hours in line for rental assistance vouchers in mid-March, the biggest crowd officials said they had ever seen. Financing for dozens of developments in New Orleans now appears uncertain, thanks to the national downturn.
Meanwhile, the repopulation of the city after the storm that emptied it has slowed notably. The Census Bureau’s latest estimate, 239,000, represents barely over half the former population — and well under what local officials and New Orleans demographers have been claiming for months. Unemployment is lower than the national average, at 4.1 percent, thanks largely to construction, but high-end jobs are few, more expensive homes sit unsold for months, and the biggest economic development project in sight, a medical complex including a new Department of Veterans Affairs hospital, is years away. The French Quarter, hub of the vital tourism business, is crowded on weekends but empty during the week.
Mayor Nagin remains an elusive figure, occasionally surfacing to take strong issue with local news media portrayals of him, but otherwise delegating much responsibility for the recovery to Mr. Blakely. In one recent venture into the public light, Mr. Nagin complained bitterly when The Times-Picayune published a photograph of him playfully brandishing an M-4 rifle at the police chief during a news conference; the newspaper then published a front-page apology.
Civic leaders are relatively unguarded in their criticism. “The question is, is he relevant anymore?” asked Rob Couhig, a lawyer who ran against Mr. Nagin and then served as an unpaid adviser to him.
“What does he do that the city couldn’t do without him?” asked Mr. Couhig, who is the secretary of the New Orleans Redevelopment Authority, a city agency.
“Obviously, Mayor Nagin continues to serve as mayor of this city, making him the leader of the recovery efforts,” a spokesman responded by e-mail, adding: “Just two weeks ago he led a delegation to Washington, D.C., to lobby Congress regarding our most pressing recovery priorities.”
In the city’s renewal plan, most of the 17 redevelopment areas still bear tentative designations like “preliminary design” or “planning” on a municipal Web site that officials say is up to date. In some areas, no development projects are indicated at all, and on the few that indicate “construction,” actual results seem small-scale — new paving on a basketball court and a new corrugated metal roof over it, in an otherwise forlorn playground, next to an empty, boarded-up school, in a neighborhood, Hoffman Triangle, full of abandoned houses and teenagers hanging out at midday. Another project under “construction” nearby involves replacing “damaged ceiling tiles” at a police station.
Mr. Blakely conceded that progress so far was “still light stuff. I think people were expecting they’d wake up one morning and it would be nirvana. But little things are happening, cleanups, fixups, and so on.” On a driving tour, he pointed to new grass in the median of St. Claude Avenue, and street improvements. Buildings on either side, though, were dilapidated or appeared unused.
Three weeks ago Mr. Blakely announced more projects, including playgrounds, ball fields and swimming pools, as part of the recovery plan.
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.”
His staff is under pressure from residents — “the people are on them every day, about when are things going to be done” — and the tension was evident in glum faces last week at a staff meeting presided over by Mr. Blakely in a downtown building.
In the neighborhoods, the verdict is still out on Mr. Blakely and his plan.
Leonard Montegut, asked for his assessment of the recovery director, said: “Right now, I can’t think of anything. I think time will tell.”
Mr. Montegut was mowing the grass in front of the apartment building he owns in the Hoffman Triangle, next to the playground that has been one of the few beneficiaries so far.
Stacy Head, a city councilwoman, said: “I’m trying to remain hopeful. I’m ready for some action. Their approaches are smart. But we’re still waiting.”