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Friday, January 27, 2012

Clueless in College

Really???    Seriously???    Hello?!!!!???  Penn Institute?!!!??... We were there!

Dear Penn State Editors Birch & Wachter:

You say in your letter to the Times Picayune, published today, and regarding Ed Blakely's book on New Orleans Post Katrina, that:
"In decades to come, serious readers, scholars and other analysts will return to these works, making their own judgments about the people and the events that shaped history."

And STILL you  do not seem to realize that *THIS* is exactly why Blakely's book so incenses New Orleanians.  We know that "scholars and other analysts" will look back to this book. Can we say "Duh"? Specifically *BECAUSE* Blakely gets it WRONG, and you were too lazy to do the fact checking we should expect from a publisher, those who look back at history to "make their own judgments" (ABOUT US!) will get it WRONG too.

All we see in your response to James Gill's Opinion piece (thank you James Gill, again!) is a complete failure to understand context and NO (zero, not even a little) interest or respect for the facts.  For James Gill to be able to say "It would take another book to list all the errors in Blakely's" and your only response to be to say that Blakely's blather is "a revealing personal statement" all the while noting the potential that this book could have for future "research" is almost more insulting than Blakely's book.

Blakely was here, clueless, but here. You are making decisions, and not checking the facts, from the comfort of your not quite Ivory Tower. You have shown to be clueless too. And not just by publishing the blather but by your totally lame defense of it.  Do you really think that the people of New Orleans are too stupid to judge for themselves the potential long term impact of the book? We are not too clueless to realize that, years in the future, someone could someone pick this up and actually think it is something more than a "revealing personal statement, about Ed Blakely's ego. The thought makes us collectively shudder.

Shame on you Penn Institute for Urban Research. Shame on you University of Pennsylvania. You should have known better.

Above in repsonse to
New Orleans Times Picayune Letter to the Editor from Penn State Institute on January 27, 2012
Re: "Ed Blakely can't get anything right," Other Opinions, Jan. 18.

Penn Editors say that Blakely book is a personal statement

As coeditors of the University of Pennsylvania Press series "The City in the 21st Century," we stand behind publication of "My Storm: Managing the Recovery of New Orleans in the Wake of Hurricane Katrina," by Edward Blakely, who served in the Nagin administration's post-Katrina recovery efforts. And we offer a few clarifying points in reference to James Gill's column.

Voices of key participants in the extraordinary events in New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina are worthy of being heard. While these voices may be discordant, express differing points of view or make uncommon assertions, they add to the record by providing eye-witness accounts. In decades to come, serious readers, scholars and other analysts will return to these works, making their own judgments about the people and the events that shaped history.

Since 2006, Penn Press has published four other books on post-Katrina New Orleans and, more broadly, disaster research, all in an effort to capture the complexities of such compelling issues. These books reflect a wide variety of approaches, ranging from "Blues for New Orleans" (2006), co-authored by New Orleans's own Nick Spitzer, that captures the city's romantic spirit, to our own "Rebuilding Urban Places After Disaster: Lessons from Hurricane Katrina," which tries to show how economists, engineers, geologists, landscape architects, historic preservationists, educators and others set priorities in rebuilding disaster-torn cities.

We are delighted that Mr. Gill found "My Storm" coherent -- as did we -- but sorry that he could not appreciate the book for what it is: a revealing personal statement of the physical, social and economic challenges faced by one influential player in the story. But in an effort to place this book in context, and add to his post-Katrina library, we have put our other books in the mail, hoping he will consider them in another essay.

Eugenie L. Birch
Susan Wachter
Penn Institute for Urban Research
University of Pennsylvania
Philadelphia, Penn.

Above in response to:
Ed Blakely can't get anything right: James Gill
In the Katrina memoir he came out with last year, former Mayor Ray Nagin was finally able to reveal the true extent of his heroism and resourcefulness.

This was a great public service, because those of us who were here at the time had no idea that Nagin had single-handedly brought the city back while battling incompetent and obstructive state and federal governments. In fact, the general impression was that the pressure had driven him off his gourd and the recovery was botched.

Certainly, Andy Kopplin, who was chief of staff to Gov. Kathleen Blanco during and after Katrina, did not find that the opus squared with his own recollections. Kopplin, who is now Mayor Mitch Landrieu's chief administrative officer, said, "It's no wonder Mayor Nagin self-published his secret conspiracy theories, as any publisher would have required rigorous fact-checking before printing these delusional and offensive charges."

Kopplin was wrong, as Ed Blakely, who spent two years here as Nagin's recovery czar, has now conclusively demonstrated with his own memoir. Blakely found a reputable publisher -- the University of Pennsylvania Press, no less -- but no "rigorous fact-checking" occurred. Blakely's book is no less delusional than Nagin's. Evidently times are so hard that the Ivy League can't afford to hire an editor.

Not that it would require an eagle-eye, or any familiarity with New Orleans, to spot the howlers. It is obvious, as early as the second paragraph of the introduction, that Blakely has not the remotest idea of what he is talking about. There he concedes that New Orleans has produced "great artists," and sets out to prove it by naming five of them. A reasonably intelligent child from anywhere in the country could do that.

Blakely did get two -- Louis Armstrong and Mahalia Jackson -- right, but Tina Turner is from Tennessee, while Scott Joplin was born in Texas and Josephine Baker in Missouri. If Pennsylvania had an editor, that list would never have made it into print. It jumps off the page.
Where Blakely gets these screwy ideas is a mystery, but he evidently prefers making up facts to looking them up. He was always given to what Douglas O'Dell, President George W. Bush's point man on the post-Katrina Gulf Coast, termed "ethereal visions."

Blakely gets O'Dell's name wrong in his book, but probably not out of revenge for that remark.

Blakely gets everything wrong regardless.

When Blakely left town in 2009, he wrote that he and Nagin "parted as we started -- good friends and mutual admirers." Their admiration for each other, and themselves, was not widely shared and it is unlikely that their books will change any minds.

Those who have read both their books -- we are not a large group -- agree that Nagin's is even worse than Blakely's. Perhaps someone in Pennsylvania did read the Blakely manuscript, albeit not for factual accuracy, because it is more or less coherent. It is a mighty hard read, however, containing tedious recitations of his daily movements, and repeated boasts of the supposed successes in disaster recovery that preceded his imaginary triumph here. It is full of urban planning jargon and its tone is self-congratulatory, to a degree remarkable even in a memoir.

He confides that he has a "bad habit" of saying whatever is on his mind -- meaning, of course, that he is admirably fearless and candid -- but in his case, this really is a bad habit, because what is on his mind is such piffle. He does not allow his ignorance to undermine his confidence, however.
It may be that somewhere in these pages lurks an insight of value, but it is impossible to trust his conclusions when he can't be bothered to check the facts. He regales us with his expertise on the Mississippi River, for instance, while suggesting that Houma stands on its banks. No doubt local government could use an overhaul, but only Blakely could complain that the City Park Commission "collects and uses its own taxes without city supervision." The commission has no taxing authority whatsoever.

It would take another book to list all the errors in Blakely's. But it does have a fine photograph of Katrina damage on the dust jacket. The picture was taken in Slidell; Blakely could hardly be expected to know the difference.

James Gill is a columnist for The Times-Picayune. He can be reached at

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