RIDING THE RAILS IN THE BIG EASY

The Globe and Mail April 2004

New Orleans is planning a party, which isn’t out of the ordinary in a city whose motto is ” laissez les bon temps rouler.” But the celebration in the works this spring is special because it’s in honour of a streetcar.

This month, for the first time since the 1960s and in time for the city’s jazz festival, New Orleans’s legendary electric streetcars will be humming along Canal Street, ferrying passengers from the banks of the Mississippi River, through the downtown business district, past the jazz and blues bars, cafés and nightclubs of the city’s French Quarter, and out to City Park.

In the early 1900s, streetcars travelled nearly everywhere in New Orleans. More than two dozen lines snaked through the city, including the Desire Street line, made famous by the Tennessee Williams play A Streetcar Named Desire. Over the years, though, the electric cars were replaced by speedier diesel buses on all routes but one, St. Charles Avenue, which links upscale residential areas with the downtown business district (and now also boasts the longest continuously running streetcar line in the world). The frequently photographed, olive-green St. Charles Avenue cars, with windows that open, are national historic landmarks.

The 24 new cars built for Canal Street look much like their traditional counterparts on the Charles Avenue line, but are clad in eye-catching red. They also feature a couple of contemporary touches: air conditioning and wheelchair accessibility. For the thousands of citizens who commute to work by bus on Canal Street, the reintroduction of streetcars, which run along the meridian between inbound and outbound traffic lanes, will improve both traffic flow and air quality. The new system also means it’s now possible to combine a streetcar excursion — a consummate New Orleans experience on par with eating oysters on the half-shelf — with a tour of many of the city’s most interesting sights and attractions.

The Riverfront Streetcar, which opened in 1988 (the first new line in the city since the 1920s), weaves along the Mississippi River on a short, 3.2-kilometre track with stops at the Convention Centre, Aquarium of the Americas and the French Market.

Follow the nutty aroma of freshly baked pralines into the market to buy jambalaya spices, gumbo seasonings, an unfathomable variety of hot sauces and French Market coffee (blended with chicory). The outdoor tables at Café du Monde, in operation since 1862, are considered the quintessential place in New Orleans to sip café au lait and sink your teeth into a warm, sweet beignet, the Creole doughnut that’s impossible to eat without spilling icing sugar on your clothes, newspaper and, if the weather’s breezy, your dining companions.

The streetcar drivers, by the way, are amazing resources, and not just for tips on transit routes. On a recent trip, a Riverfront driver told us where to buy the best muffuletta sandwich in the city and explained how to get there. (It’s at Central Grocery, an Italian import shop that claims to have invented the salami and provolone-stuffed specialty. Get off the Riverfront Streetcar at Dumaine Street, head up to Decatur Street, and look for No. 923.)

On the Riverfront route, you can connect with the new Canal Street line, slated to open on April 18. Hop off at Bourbon Street and follow the music. This notorious strip of bars and clubs borders the French Quarter, a neighbourhood of European and Creole buildings, balconies and courtyards where the city of New Orleans was born. The Canal Streetcar also zips out to the cemetery district, a popular attraction. (Because of the high water table, New Orleans’s dead are buried above ground in rows of crypts known as “cities of the dead.”) The final stop on the Canal Street route, the New Orleans Museum of Art, is just a few blocks from the Fairgrounds Race Track, which hosts the annual New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival.

Historically, Canal Street was the divider between the French Quarter and the American section of New Orleans. (You’ll notice that in New Orleans, meridians are referred to as neutral grounds. The term originated on Canal Street, where the meridian represented the “neutral ground” between the Creole and American communities.)

Transfer to the historic St. Charles Avenue line to take a tour through the oak-lined streets of the Garden District. This neighbourhood (originally a plantation) was developed by the first Americans to settle in New Orleans, and travellers have been commuting between here and the downtown business district since the early 1800s, first on a steam engine, then on mule-drawn carts, and since 1893, by streetcar. On the 21-kilometre trip, you pass the area’s famous gardens, along with some of the city’s most impressive mansions, including the childhood home of best-selling author Anne Rice (2301 St. Charles Ave.), who sets many of her vampire and ghost tales in the Garden District.

If you go

The Canal Streetcar is set to begin service April 18, just before Jazz Fest 2004, which runs April 23 to May 2. One-way fares are $1.25 (all amount in U.S. dollars) on the St. Charles Avenue and Canal Street lines, and $1.50 on the Riverfront line. If you’re planning a city tour by streetcar, ask the driver for a $5 day pass, which offers unlimited rides on city transit.