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Dr. Will Bradshaw: Why I’m Supporting LaToya Cantrell for Mayor

LaToya Cantrell’s leadership in the recovery of Broadmoor makes her uniquely qualified to be the next mayor of New Orleans.

Will Bradshaw is the president and co-founder of Green Coast Enterprises, which recently renovated the historic Pythian Building. Bradshaw holds a Ph.D. from MIT in urban planning and sustainable communities; teaches in Tulane’s master’s program in sustainable real estate development; and has experience in working with affordable housing.

New Orleans is an easy place to love, but too often New Orleans doesn’t love us back. To become a community of choice, a place that rises to meet its challenges and grows, attracts, and retains the next generation of young families, we have to change that, and this mayoral race, the first one that is truly post-Katrina in its concerns, is monumental for that reason. And there is only one candidate in the race who has a record of community-building that has successfully grown, attracted, and retained young families to our City. That candidate is LaToya Cantrell.

To understand how this is true, one should start by looking at the Broadmoor neighborhood, one of the most popular areas for young families choosing to settle in our City over the last 10 years. It was destroyed by Hurricanes Katrina. Not a single house untouched, every resident evacuated, and the now infamous green dot plan designated Broadmoor and other areas as parkland to be razed to provide water storage across the City. Broadmoor, like scores of other neighborhoods, had to prove its viability, plan a recovery, and rebuild itself soup to nuts. What was different in Broadmoor speaks directly to Ms. Cantrell’s leadership.

My company, Green Coast Enterprises, cut its teeth supporting neighborhood recovery in post-Katrina New Orleans. We were directly involved in the development or redevelopment of over 1,100 housing units in the years immediately following the storm, and we worked in neighborhoods from Gentilly to the Lower Nine to Uptown. The Broadmoor recovery strategy had two basic tenets that were unique in neighborhoods we dealt with across New Orleans.

First, they focused immediately on activating and augmenting their existing communications to invite every resident back home and share information about the recovery. Second, they focused energy and investment on community infrastructure, which would support everyone’s efforts to come home rather than starting with rebuilding homes, which mostly supports the people living in those particular homes.

Rebuilding after a disaster of this magnitude is by its nature a collective effort. To make a good decision about whether you come back and try to rebuild, you must understand what’s going on around you. Are your neighbors coming back as well? What resources will be available for you when you arrive? What will life be like when you are here? From this context, utilizing an existing communications process to get information to everyone in your neighborhood is hugely valuable. And augmenting that so the information is fresh, reliable, and cumulative (i.e. the neighborhood remembers what its members have already done) is paramount. No one did this better than Broadmoor.

In the blockbusting era of the 1960s and 70s, Broadmoor successfully maintained its diversity in the face of pressure to sell and move to homogenous suburbs. One of strategies that helped Broadmoor resist blockbusting was a system of block captains that were responsible for reaching out and communicating with the other people on their block. That block captain system had been dormant for years, but Cantrell revived it to face the challenge of recovery, recruiting a neighborhood full of leaders whose job was to find every member of the community and invite them back home.

In addition, they created a partnership with the software developers behind Salesforce who built the neighborhood a database that could track the recovery progress of every structure in Broadmoor. As a result, if you lived in Broadmoor, you had a contact point who reached out to invite you home, and every 3-6 months you got up-to-date information about what everyone in the neighborhood was doing with respect to rebuilding. This level of communication and outreach made a huge difference that laid the groundwork for Broadmoor to outcompete every other significantly damaged neighborhood in the City.

There are two hallmarks of this process that are emblematic of Ms. Cantrell’s leadership. First, she employed existing resources (the block captain system and the energy of her neighbors), to get the job done, and she made those resources better by attracting specialized talent to a particular problem (the Salesforce developers). We need that thinking in New Orleans now.

The immediate instinct post-Katrina was to help people rebuild their homes, which necessarily sets up a system of winners and losers. The winners have their houses rebuilt first. The losers are somewhere further down the line. This is how almost every neighborhood managed its recovery. They tried to martial resources that would support home rebuilding. And it’s not that Broadmoor didn’t do this, but it wasn’t their focus.

From very early on, their recovery strategy focused on community infrastructure, which would help individuals make the choice to come back and rebuild themselves. Broadmoor wanted to rebuild their school, their library and community center (which remains unique across the City’s library system), to create a wellness trail, to build a community medical clinic, and ultimately to create the fine arts and wellness center. These things provided for residents’ basic needs, and helped create a neighborhood of choice that people would want to come back to. As the recovery process matured, they did turn to housing, but did it in a targeted way. They focused on a community-wide strategy to redevelop their most troubled properties and blocks. They knew where these places were in part because of the community database mentioned before, and they knew what people’s intentions were with them because they had been in touch with people several times a year since the storm through their block captains.

The last thing to point out about this strategy is that it was built on partnerships. Broadmoor tried to find the best people in the world to do a particular thing and invite them in to support that aspect of their rebuilding. They recruited planning support from Harvard’s Design School and the Kennedy School, which led to a partnership with the Clinton Global Initiative. They recruited development support from MIT’s Department of Urban Studies and Planning, which led to long-standing collaborations around recovery, and the creation of my company, Green Coast Enterprises. This again is emblematic of the way Ms. Cantrell works.

You can see this same spirit since she became the councilmember for District B. In the face of extraordinary opposition (and lukewarm initial support from the current mayor because the issue looked like a loser) she built a coalition to pass the smoking ban to help protect the health of hospitality workers. She did this because it was right, but her skill as an organizer and advocate made it popular. And after she had won that fight, she was playfully lampooned by Muses in Mardi Gras the following year. Among their throws that carnival season were enormous cigars with “Smoke this Latoya” emblazoned across the side. After the parade, I never saw more of those cigars in one place than I did in the Councilmember’s Office.

You can also see it in her work on affordable housing, an issue which she understands deeply and for which she has been a fierce advocate. It has been funny to me to watch some of the discussion of this issue in the mayoral race, because Ms. Cantrell has been hammered at times on her vote on the short-term rental ordinance. And this is taken as a sign that she’s unconcerned about housing affordability. Nothing could be further from the truth. She championed the city’s first density bonus rules, which provide a framework by which developers can create new affordable housing units without public subsidy. She has been leading the charge on the discussion of the Smart Housing Mix to figure out how our development process can spur further housing affordability through inclusionary housing efforts that require some affordability in every project. She is the only candidate who has any sense of the limits and opportunities inherent in our legislative process to build more affordable units, and she has worked through that process for years to achieve results for her constituents.

At this juncture, New Orleans sits at a crossroads. The energy and international interest that fueled the post-Katrina renaissance has mostly waned. People interested in supporting the rebuilding of a great American city can go to Houston, Miami, San Juan, New York, or any number of other places that have suffered major disasters in the last twelve years.

Now, we have to compete on the national stage for talent and investment.

We have a lot going for us. We have an incomparable culture – with a rich history in architecture, food, music, and celebrations. In many ways, the quality of life in New Orleans is off the charts. It’s a fascinating city with a rambling sense of mystery about it. We throw the best parties in the world. The weather is good, as long as you like it hot and a little steamy, and since the advent of inexpensive air conditioning, hot seems to be exactly how Americans like it.

There has been an enormous migration in the last 60-70 years from population centers in the Northeast and Midwest to cities and towns in the Southeast and Southwest, some (like Houston and Phoenix) built up in that time frame from next to nothing to become thriving engines of economic activity. We could capitalize on this continuing trend.

But we also have a lot to overcome. We are besieged by water. Lake Pontchartrain to the north, the Mississippi River winding through us, the Gulf of Mexico to the south and east, and our pumping infrastructure fails us annually, largely because the agency charged with managing drainage has proven time and again not to be up to that task.

Our school system, despite significant strides in twelve years, does not serve many of the children in our City.  Education reform has widened the base of people willing to send their children to public school, but it has also created a forgotten class of students, roughly 12,000 the last time I looked, who can’t meet grade level requirements. We kill each other at alarming rates, and our housing prices are rising much faster than our relatively stagnant wages. Our state incarcerates more people per capita than any other place in the world, many of them non-violent offenders who pose no significant threat to our neighborhoods. And we continue to be deeply divided over issues of race and equity, which have plagued us since our improbable founding nearly 300 years ago.

Our next mayor will need to marshal resources to address all these things at once. She will need the skills to be part consensus builder, part policy wonk, part compass for the City. She will need to know when and how to bring in talented outsiders to help us address our challenges, and when we can build the best solutions from within. As so many others have already noticed, no one is better prepared to do these things than Latoya Cantrell.

But what about the credit cards?

First, all of the documented expenditures that I have seen were easily in the bounds of City business and followed the rules as they existed on City Council at the time, something that her colleagues on Council have collectively echoed.

Second, the idea that there is anything criminal here has been fanned by two people who have much to gain or lose in the next election, our District Attorney and the State Attorney General. Neither of them are friendly to policies that Ms. Cantrell supports with respect to criminal justice reform, the treatment of immigrants in our community, and more. I would be more worried about the behind the scenes dealings that led to this “story” popping up, and the way it has played out between the Charbonnet campaign, Cannizzaro’s office, and Landry’s office.

Third, remember that the only reason you heard about this at all was because, in an abundance of caution, she personally decided to pay the expenses back. Long before this was news, and long before anyone noticed. These are not the actions of a crooked politician.

Finally and most importantly, in the eleven years I’ve known the councilmember, I’ve seen her in multiple situations where she had the opportunity to stop pursuing an issue for personal gain, and she never has. I’ve also seen her fight for what was right even when that fight reduced her support in ways that could threaten her own advancement. In working with her in Broadmoor, Green Coast, and District B, I have witnessed the strength of her moral character. She is the person we need to lead us forward.

I hope you will join me in voting for Latoya Cantrell to be our next Mayor, and lead us towards a New Orleans that loves us all back.

Publisher’s Note: We continue to welcome submissions from supporters of Desiree Charbonnet at submissions@bayoubrief.com

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