NEW ORLEANS — Like the rolling tide to seacoast residents, the low rumbling of the streetcar is a nearly internal sound for citizens here, its absence since Hurricane Katrina a painful reminder of civic ill health.
The return in recent weeks of the distinctly urban noise of grinding wheels and brakes to St. Charles Avenue, with the near completion of post-hurricane repairs, has been an occasion for joy and not because, as boosters would have it, one more tourism feather has been added to the city’s cap.
The St. Charles streetcar line is that most valued local commodity, an unbroken link to the past: the same green tin boxes rocking at the same slow speed down the same tree-shaded avenue, unchanged since the early 1920s. Only a week ago, a crucial part of the St. Charles line, from Napoleon Avenue to Carrollton Avenue, was restored; other less damaged but less historic lines, along the Mississippi River and Canal Street, have operated for months.
But it is the line that connects Uptown to downtown and the French Quarter, via St. Charles and Carondelet Street, that is the city’s living, though wayward, artery. The satisfaction is huge.
“It’s all very, very much the way it’s been, for a very long time,” said Robert Michiels, a shipbuilding engineer who paid $1.25 to ride it the other day, just for the pleasure of riding it again, down the avenue.
The streetcar has represented something else besides the connections through time and space: the city’s living room, a privileged spot for tentative social encounters across lines of race, class and nationality, in a place not otherwise given to them. Thanks to an accelerated repair schedule, that meeting place, absent since the hurricane, is back.
But that raises a question: will there still be people for it in a city missing much of its population? Less than a quarter of prestorm riders are using the transit system, buses included. On a recent morning, tourists in town for a football game packed the streetcar going Uptown. But going downtown, in the direction of the jobs, the old wooden benches were sparsely filled: a maintenance man here, a construction worker there, a housewife or two and the odd professional.
Before the storm, the St. Charles streetcar was at least an image of the social ideal. Uptown lawyers in seersucker sat by weary-looking housekeepers going to the downtown hotels. Noisy schoolchildren jostled for space with tourists from France, Rome and Australia wondering about the solemn fellow on the column at Lee Circle. (That would be Robert E. Lee.) Prim suburbanites visiting from Nashville and Atlanta, and encountering public transportation for the first time, smiled nervously past muttering bums. No other city in the South entertained such a mix.
In the worn wooden interior, bathed in the smell of sulfur and the soothing racket of clanging machinery, the fractures in the stratified city melted, slightly. And what would be deficiencies in other places — improbable premodern slowness, the occasional surly conductor, unexplained lengthy halts between stops — were virtues. The conductor sang out, ingeniously mispronounced, the names of the Greek muses that double as street names here: MEL-Po-MEEN! (Melpomene) TER-Chicoree!(Terpsichore) You were getting somewhere, slowly. Complicated reading could be accomplished.
Excellent, as a rider named Cherry Gardon put it the other day, “if you’re not in a rush to get to work” — a widely held ethic.
Now, the St. Charles line has about half its daily prestorm ridership of 10,000, transit officials say. It remains distinctly, though recognizably, a shadow of its former self.
Still, for those who have come back, the memory of the old social model remains powerful. “The streetcar is not just something convenient,” said Manuel García-Castellón, riding it recently to his job as a professor of romance languages at the University of New Orleans.
He struggled to explain why something so irrational could also be so indispensable. “Sometimes, I think I’m in the salotto of my house,” he said, using the Italian word for parlor.
In July and August, the streetcar effects a miracle: benign contact with the superheated New Orleans air. All the windows come down, the sweet, thick air rushes in, and you are in a truce with the beast of the South Louisiana summer.
The streetcar’s reconquest of St. Charles Avenue after Hurricane Katrina has been fitful. The storm sent the avenue’s old oak trees crashing down on the dense network of overhead electric lines that power the cars, destroying nearly 13.5 miles’ worth. These had to be painstakingly rebuilt; one section on Carrollton of just over a mile, between St. Charles and Claiborne Avenues, remains out.
About eight of the 1923-24 cars are operating along the line, compared with 15 to 18 before the storm. “Our ridership base — many, many of those people — are not back in the city,” said Rosalind Blanco Cook, a spokeswoman for the transit agency, who added that officials were nonetheless pleased at the turnout on the St. Charles line.
Like other elements that have struggled to come back, this one — in the telling of the riders, at least — has an intimate connection with the biographies of everyone who is asked about it.
“Me, personally, I been taking it all my life,” said Derek Batiste, who was going to his job at Wendy’s. “I took it to school, that’s how long I been taking it. Not just for tourists, no. The streetcar, it’s like part of my family.” A computer technician, Samps Taylor, savoring his ride, said, “It brings it back to where you were.”
In other places, citizens move on, leaving the historic artifacts people here believe make up the urban fabric. The ties are personal. Past proposals to build new cars for the line have been vehemently rejected.
“Whole lot of history,” said Henry Carter, riding the streetcar to a construction job. “I been catching this streetcar since ’69. Been catching it a long time.”