Saturday, December 15, 2007

Big Easy Holiday

The St. Charles Streetcar on Canal Street near the French Quarter

Part One

This year in New Orleans, the holiday season arrived in the form of a streetcar.

A streetcar line named St. Charles, one of the oldest operating street railway systems in the world, resumed its route for the first time since Hurricane Katrina in the first weeks of November 2007.

Adorned with a red-ribbon wreath and garland on its front and rear, the St. Charles Streetcar first greeted me on my daily commute to school, a drive that takes me down Napoleon Avenue across St. Charles. It was truly startling and wonderful to see the festively dressed streetcar stopped on the St. Charles tracks for the first time since living in New Orleans, dizzying to see so many crowds crossing the street waiting to ride its historic route. I have never known St. Charles to be this way— having moved here post-Katrina, I am used to seeing joggers run on the vacant tracks, and the streets of St. Charles empty.

This sudden activity and color reminded me of how we all feel when the Christmas decorations first pop up in stores just after Halloween— we are startled the sudden flood of color and memories of past Christmases, surprised that it’s already “that time of year.”

Though I have no memories of the St. Charles Streetcar, every friend, acquaintance, and stranger in New Orleans does. The mere sight of it symbolizes recovery and return. Many New Orleanians find themselves startled to have such a symbol of Big Easy normality so suddenly back.

The St. Charles Avenue Streetcar, which earns the title for the oldest continuously operating street railway line in the world, dates back to 1835. It ran continuously, without interruption until Hurricane Katrina hit in August 2005. Newly opened, it now runs only half of its original route, from Canal Street to Napoleon Avenue. Its ride up South Carrollton is still delayed.

In addition to the St. Charles line, two other lines comprise the New Orleans streetcar system, the very system of cars that inspired Tennessee Williams' to write “A Streetcar Named Desire” in 1947. The Riverfront line, which has operated since 1988, is the youngest of the city’s three streetcar lines.

The Canal Street Streetcar, which runs from the French Market on Decatur Street to the New Orleans Museum of Art in Mid-City, first ran in 1861. Thought it was closed in favor of buses in the 1960s, it reopened in 2004 and its run was not interrupted by Katrina’s damage.

In our new New Orleans neighborhood dominated by above-ground cemeteries and shotgun doubles, we are close to the Canal Street Streetcar stop called “cemeteries.” The stop, located at the corner of Canal and City Park Avenue, is usually littered with tourists who have ridden the streetcar down Canal from the French Quarter to here, where they can freely wander a huge variety of dizzyingly large above-ground cemeteries with graves dating back to the 18th century. Locals find themselves among the tourists, talking about weather, the holidays, or the latest LSU or Saints game. This is the first scene we pass through, on the way to work, every morning.

Although we have called the city of New Orleans our home for a year and a half, there are many “essential” New Orleans experiences that I, as a New Orleans newbie, still haven’t had. For example, have not ridden the steamboat Natchez on the mighty Mississippi. I have not attended a single New Orleans Saints Football game. I have never eaten raw oysters.

And, until recently, I had never ridden the streetcar.

Viewing the sudden presence of the streetcar on St. Charles inspired me to finally ride the line down Canal. Two days after Thanksgiving, one day after Black Friday, Haz and I took a short walk down to City Park Ave. to the cemeteries stop. Locals looked cold and talked about Thanksgiving while tourists chatted in French, Spanish, and English while clutching cameras and waiting for the car to arrive. We couldn’t tell where we fit in— did we look like locals to the tourists, or tourists to the locals?

The wreath-wearin’ streetcar slowly pulled up with a screech at 12:30. We needed to catch it in order to view a movie downtown at 1:15. The ride was scheduled to take 30 minutes, even though a car ride of the same distance might take you as little as 10. An older African-American lady, an undeniable local, stepped nonchalantly off the car after the tourists poured out. She switched the sign around, fussed about the weather with some locals that could have been friends or strangers, and loudly and slowly tried to explain the need for exact change to a French tourist.

We grabbed a wooden bench somewhere in the middle of the car, between locals and tourists. As we pulled away, ever so slowly and lazily, the Canal Street I drive down everyday started to look very different. Buildings seemed grander, more exotic, while the decrepit houses on impoverished sidestreets looked even more shocking. The sudden presence of the homeless community, huddled under the I-10 overpass, sent a instant blast of cold through my stomach.

New Orleans looked so old, full of so many contrasts, and so unlike anywhere else. I was looking at it through the eyes of a tourist with the knowledge of home. Driving in your car, on the way to work, simply does not afford you the luxury of looking closely at a city that a 10 mph streetcar ride does.

The tourists on the car were predictably obnoxious and exaggerated. On the way downtown, Spanish-speaking children practiced English expressions while their parents talked loudly in their native tongue. College students joked about adventures on Bourbon Street. Adolescents from Baton Rouge made jokes about “Ho-bos” and “Nawlins” and yelled at each other in bad French. Locals looked annoyed but not surprised.

Once we were downtown, I felt much closer to “tourist” than local. I snapped a picture of our streetcar, and marveled at the streets which were filled with fans for the annual Bayou Classic game in the Superdome— a historic football rivalry between two traditionally African-American colleges, Southern University in Baton Rouge, and Grambling State University in Grambling, LA. Southern’s blue and yellow colors spoke almost as loudly as the red and green, and the loud hip hop blasting from souped-up cars with SU and GSU flags was almost loud enough to silence the screech of streetcars stopping on historic tracks.

The local newspaper, The Times-Picayune, tells us that the St. Charles line may soon resume its original route (to include South Carrollton Avenue)— maybe even before Christmas.

I can’t help but think that if a true Santa Claus ever visited New Orleans, he necessarily would ride a streetcar named progress powered by eight alligators across the tracks, cracks, potholes, and poverty of our city, all the while singing, “hope, hope, hope.”