Online Extra: Q & A With Wayne Curtis, Author of "Block by Block"

A contributing editor talks about what it's really like in New Orleans today.

Q: How have you seen New Orleans change since you moved there last October?

It's been slow. When we were first looking for a house, there were streets like Carrollton and Claiborne, commercial strips where they had boarded up stores like Taco Bell and Rite Aid. They're still pretty bleak, but it doesn't look like a disaster zone anymore; it looks like any other rundown American city. For post-Katrina New Orleans, that's an improvement.

The second anniversary was interesting. People who fly in and don't really know it say it's a mess, but there were a lot of parts that were a mess before the flood. There's the upbeat reporting and the doom-and-gloom reporting. The perception when you talk to people who just read the AP stories is that things are still in horrible shape.

I'm more optimistic, and I think that was reflected in the story. There's a lot happening on the street level, bit by bit. My perception is that it'll take 10 years. If you look at it that way, we're 20 percent through a rebuild, and we're in good shape. There are a lot of [journalists] who are always incensed that the city hasn't rebuilt yet. That's sort of disingenuous because it's only been two years. If you look at it as a 10-to-15-year rebuild arc, things are in pretty good shape.

I've noticed there are a lot of younger people moving in, artists and writers, and there's a raft of entrepreneurs who see the city as a huge experiment. That's sort of exciting. There's a lot of reinventing going on.

Q: Why did you move to New Orleans after Katrina?

Part of why we wanted to move down when we did is that this was a city that was going to go through huge changes, and we thought it would be really interesting to watch. There's that perception that the city is lost, it's below sea level. ... My wife and I looked at it more long-term. People thought we were nuts, but it was a calculated bet. My feeling was, either we move down there and the city reinvents itself or it gets flooded a few more times and is abandoned, and New Orleans as we know it is gone. Either way, I wanted to be there. Obviously I preferred the first scenario, but the second scenario was interesting, too.

Q: What's your neighborhood like?

It's not in the flood zone. We're committed to the city, but we wanted to sleep at night, and I'm just not sure about the levees. We bought a 100-year-old hybrid; it's called a Victorian double shotgun camelback. (The first thing I did was ask how to pronounce the name of our street. It's like learning a foreign language.)

I bike four or five miles from our neighborhood to the French Quarter. The whole route is just amazing architecture, just this beautiful mix of houses.

Q: What areas of New Orleans aren't turning around?

Richard Campanella was quoted in an article recently and said the areas [that need the most help] are called the "back of town"—the areas that were developed in the late 19th-century, early 20th century—because they were the poorest before the flood. It's got some wonderful architecture: bungalows and shotgun-style houses. Those seem to be hurting. The renovations don't seem to be following the flood contour exactly. The Upper Ninth Ward and neighborhoods like New Marigny are really slow to come back.

Q: What couldn't you fit into the story?

This was a really hard article because there's such a sweep of activity under way. I think the article really mirrors what's happening with the rebuilding: We've got to start somewhere. Let's just pick a few neighborhoods and go.

What I wish I had put in the story—but it would've been a different story—is that everything that's happening in New Orleans is happening despite the government, not because of it. That was encouraging to me, but the flipside is it's discouraging that the government isn't being responsive. They're just killing it with bureaucracy.

After all the previous major disasters (for example, Hurricane Andrew), the federal government waived the 10 percent local match, but the Bush Administration, for whatever reason, has dragged its feet in waiving the match. These communities have been hammered. They're not going to come up with a match. That [policy] just recently changed, but that was two years of arguing. ... It's just been one thing after another of incompetence, largely at the federal level. All those projects [in the article] are really happening at the grassroots level.

Q: Tell us more about your bike ride with Ed Blakely, executive director of the city's Office of Recovery Management.

There were actually two. The first one was more intimate; there were only about 25 people, and he was much more at ease. In the second one, he was a little more like a rock star; he had two mikes on him, and there were cameras everywhere. It's good for him to be doing it because there's this longstanding perception that the bureaucrats are so far removed from the streets. A lot of what he's trying to do is to erase that. On these rides, people are allowed to talk to him and tell him their complaints. He's accessible.

The second [ride] was interesting because it was highly staged. Blakely ended up falling into the middle of the pack. He was talking to someone , and then he veered off and took half the bike riders with him. The people who were organizing the ride were scrambling. It was an interesting insight into his approach: He was willing to go and do what he wanted. He's an interesting guy. He fascinates the city. A lot of people are rooting for him. But he's reaching the end of his honeymoon period, and now he's got to deliver. The straight talk can only get you so far.

Contributing editor Wayne Curtis lives in New Orleans and Maine.

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