NEW ORLEANS Plan: Get streetcars back on line
Leaders are planning to bring back the Canal Street line and are working to revive the line called Desire.
NEW ORLEANS (AP) -- Tennessee Williams and Marlon Brando immortalized the image of streetcars rattling through steamy nights in "A Streetcar Named Desire."
But the fabled olive-green streetcars that once stretched into every corner of this diverse city eventually faded from the back streets, reduced 40 years ago to a single line that runs past the mansions of St. Charles Avenue.
That's about to change. By October, a new residential line is scheduled to begin service. It will travel from Canal Street on the edge of the French Quarter through Mid-City, with its Italian restaurants and neighborhood bars, to within walking distance of cemeteries where jazz great Buddy Bolden and John Kennedy Toole, author of "The Confederacy of Dunces," are buried.
And city leaders are working on an ambitious plan to bring back a line called Desire to honor Williams' 1947 Pulitzer Prize-winning play that was turned into a movie starring Vivien Leigh as Blanche DuBois, a neurotic Southern belle, and Brando as Stanley Kowalski, a macho Polish immigrant.
The proposed line wouldn't follow the original Desire route -- the one that took Blanche down Bourbon Street to the seamy side of the Quarter where sister Stella lived with Stanley in a cramped and dirty apartment.
But the line, replaced by buses in 1948, would cross Desire Street and serve many of the areas the old line did: bohemian enclaves of renovated century-old cottages, music clubs and gay bars; and low-income and working-class neighborhoods pocked with abandoned, blighted homes and businesses.
Jim Amdal, a consultant who has worked on bringing back light rail to New Orleans, said the line would be an economic boon to the area, much as the old New Orleans-Carrollton Railroad, built in 1835, led to the development of what is now the Uptown area of New Orleans.
"It was developed because of real estate, speculation," Amdal says. "Realtors had property in the Uptown and they wanted to show that there was reliable connectivity to the Central Business District -- and voila!"
Coincidentally, that line remains intact as the oldest continuously running streetcar in the world, carrying schoolchildren, commuters and tourists down St. Charles Avenue through the city's Garden District.
Ran like bus lines
Once, streetcars rolled throughout New Orleans. There were dozens of lines covering over 200 miles.
"They pretty much ran like the buses do now, they ran all over the city," says Don Preau, who oversees construction of the Canal line for the New Orleans Regional Transit Authority.
Between about 1927 and 1964 -- when the Canal line was torn out -- the city did away with all but the St. Charles line.
A line was built in 1988, the Riverfront Streetcar, but it almost exclusively ferries tourists into the Quarter from the riverfront hotels and convention centers.
Bringing back residential streetcar lines, officials hope, will do away with polluting buses and reduce traffic congestion.
"When I was young, it was just the streetcar -- it was like the bus, you just jumped on," says Charlotte Kearney, who was born and raised in the French Quarter -- "on Bourbon St., 932."
Likes the idea
As manager of the classic Italian Venezia Restaurant in Mid-City, Kearney thinks bringing back the streetcars will do the city good.
"Right now, it's a pain in the butt because of the construction, but in the long run I think it's going to be good for business," she says. Her restaurant will sit on the new Canal Street line.
Carolyn Bell is hoping the Desire line becomes a reality. The car would come right to the doorstep of the Southern-style restaurant she runs in the Bywater neighborhood.
"Business, that's what I'm looking at," she says. "I close at 7:30, I'd like to stay open later, but nobody else is open. It's dark. People are scared."
But an unresolved funding squabble between the feds and local officials over the $160 million Canal line may kill Desire.
According to local officials, the U.S. Department of Transportation originally agreed to finance 80 percent of the cost of the Canal line. Now, they want to drop that to 60 percent. That means money tentatively planned for the Desire streetcar line might have to be used on the new Canal line.
"It took years to get the local share, and now that we got it done, they're telling us that's not enough," says Congressman William Jefferson, D-New Orleans.
"I don't know what the city can do -- it's broke," Amdal says.
For the time being, though, Desire is still on the drawing board.
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