In the opening of Tennessee Williams’ famous play, Blanche DuBois arrives in New Orleans and takes the “Desire” streetcar line down Bourbon Street to Elysian Fields Avenue. There she enters the cramped apartment and lives of her sister, Stella, and brother-in-law, Stanley Kowalski. What follows helped remake 20th century American drama. However, New Orleans changed dramatically between Williams’ setting in the 1940s and “urban renewal” of the 1960s. By then, only the St. Charles streetcar line remained in service. Blanche’s mode of transit had become a bus named “Desire.”
Streetcars were making something of a comeback in New Orleans prior to Katrina. A short riverfront line opened for tourists in 1988 and a residential line serving the Central Business District and Mid City began service in 2004. But the working class neighborhoods and bohemian pockets of the Downtown neighborhoods were largely ignored. That is, until now.
On Tuesday, the city announced that it is investing $90 million to extend streetcar service down Rampart St. and St. Claude Avenue, with a spur running up Elysian Fields Avenue. Mayor Mitch Landrieu, city officials, and some forward-thinking developers believe that this “back to the future” approach might help revitalize these long neglected neighborhoods. Their goal is to complete the 2 ½ mile extension by the end of 2013.
And while the line won’t exactly duplicate the one that Blanche took Downtown, streetcar bells will once again clang through the streets of venerable neighborhoods like Treme, Marigny, New Margny, St. Roch, and the Bywater.