365 NOLA Adventures

Adventure #6: Burying Desire

For 7 ½ years, I’ve lived on France Street, down in either the Bywater or Upper Ninth Ward neighborhoods of New Orleans. The year before that, I was living a block off of France Street. I’ve never had to rent a moving truck – I just kind of walk down the street with my clothes, my silverware, my books and my mattress.

All this to say, I’m familiar with the street. Six days a week, I’m jogging down it. Seven days a week, I’m biking down it. I know the best time and spot to stand to get a down-wind whiff of The Joint’s early morning grilling. I know its potholes from memory. And, still, every time I’m on it, between St. Claude Avenue and Royal Street, I wonder why there are these four parallel cracks running down the middle of the road.

Weirding out my neighbors on France Street, camera pointed in the direction of the lake.

Could it be from the constant weight of cars rolling over them? Could it be from some old street expansion project? Or – and here’s my theory — could it be old train tracks, buried under the pavement?

The streetcar reached its peak between the end of World War I and the start of the Great Depression. In 1922, N.O.P.S.I. was operating 225.364 miles of street railway, sending cars out to all corners of the city. (For comparison’s sake, a roundtrip ride, today, along the entirety of the St. Charles Avenue line is 13.2 miles.) In 1926, 148,000,000 (that’s million – 148 Million!) passengers rode along the city’s 26 street railway lines and five motor bus lines, before – in subsequent years – bus began to replace streetcars as the preferred mode of transportation.

There is evidence of our streetcar history everywhere we look. Many a cyclist has gotten a tire caught in the tracks on cobble-laden Erato Street, running by Barrel Proof, Courtyard Brewery and Bakery Bar.

On Erato Street, camera pointed in the direction of the river, between Barrel Proof and Courtyard Brewery.

Do the distance between tracks here (formerly the “Clio Line” operating from 1867 to 1932) look very different from the cracks that have emerged along France Street?

To get to the question of “Are there still streetcar tracks under France Street?” I think the first question to ask would be “Have there ever been streetcar tracks under France Street?” To answer this, I splurged and bought an online copy of The Streetcars of New Orleans, by Louis C. Hennick. This proved incredibly useful.

I read that, beginning in 1919, the uptown-focused “Carondelet Line” was extended downtown, all the way to France Street. The following year, the line split at Canal Street, and one of the downtown portions became the “Desire Line,” which ran until it was replaced by buses in 1948.

Upon learning this, I put on my sneakers and jogged (slowly – I had just eaten a hamburger) to the corner of France and Royal Street. And I found this.

On France Street, camera pointing toward the river.  The stop sign marks the intersection between France and Royal streets.  Observe the cracks making a turn, just as the streetcar once did!

Come on!

And, then, inspired, like Forrest Gump was so many years before me, I started runnin’. (Not across America. Just along the Desire Streetcar Line.) I ran up Royal Street, through the residential and pothole-laden Bywater, into the Marigny, watching neighborhood businesses increase in frequency. I ran across Elysian Fields, with its massive neutral ground, once home to Smoky Mary, who began her five-mile trek here at the river, transporting New Orleanians to resort communities along Lake Pontchartrain.

I looked for Stella and Stanley’s home.

“They told me to take a streetcar named Desire…” were Blanche’s first words in Tennessee Williams’ famous play. “…and get off at – Elysian Fields!”

“That’s where you are now,” she was told. “What number you lookin’ for?”

“Six thirty-two,” Blanche read from her slip of paper.

“Six thirty-two,” I read from the note I made for myself on my Samsung Galaxy S7 Edge.

And there it was!

632 Elysian Fields Avenue is now home to a bike shop appropriately named, “A Bicycle Named Desire.”

I ran across Frenchmen Street, where employees were in early, readying their bars for the night’s influx of music lovers. I ran up Royal Street, through the French Quarter, where tourists popped between art galleries, street musicians, and a silver-painted man pretending to be a robot. I looked at my phone, again, at a picture I had found of a streetcar rumbling up the 500 block of Royal Street.

royal st
The 500 Block of Royal Street, with the camera facing in the direction of the Esplanade Avenue-end of the French Quarter.  Note the “Desire Line” tracks in the middle of the cobble road, and the streetcar, in the distance, coming toward the camera.  Photo taken approximately 1900, courtesy of “The Streetcars of New Orleans,” by Louis C. Hennick.
The same area as above, taken yesterday by me.  Pretty cool, I think.

When I reached heavily-trafficked Canal Street, still the nexus of the city’s now-reduced streetcar operation, I made a right to Bourbon Street, formerly the start of the line, and made my way past the craziness: necks covered in beads, holding up excited faces sucking down giant green and red drinks. I ran across Esplanade Avenue, back past Marigny bars, and down Pauger Street, named after the man who originally created the French Quarter’s street grid.

I ran own Dauphine Street, back to the Bywater, and made a left onto Desire Street, in the direction of the lake. I ran on Desire, across St. Claude Avenue and St. Vincent de Paul Cemetery, as the density of tightly packed Bywater homes lessened; and then across Claiborne and Galvez streets, past Bunny Friend Park, abandoning functional sidewalks and most evidence of the gentrifying city so passionately debated closer to the river.

streetcar map 1926
A portion of a streetcar map from March 5, 1926.  I highlighted the “Desire Line” in yellow.  Map is from the New Orleans Public Service, Inc. (N.O.P.S.I.)

At Tonti Street, I make a right and run the eight bumpy streets toward France Street’s industrial zone on the Industrial Canal, and then make a right on France Street, which transitions from “industrial” to “run-down” to “up-and-coming.” I walk up my steps and into my house, just a few blocks shy of when “up-and-coming” transitions to “hip,” and just a few years before “hip” transitions to “quaint” or possibly something worse.

So I’m checking out these pictures I took, and it seems so unlikely that there aren’t tracks sitting under these cracks. But I’m not sure how to find out for sure. Any suggestions on who I can ask? Let me know in the comments section!

I was speaking with an urban planner about this over the weekend, and one of her questions was – if the tracks were one-way, which they were in this area – then why are there four parallel cracks in the pavement?

Transfer ticket for the “Desire Line” from May 28, 1948.  Courtesy of The Historic New Orleans Collection.

I don’t know. But I don’t think it would be possible to fit two streetcars side-by-side on narrow, ‘ol France Street

Any ideas? Anyone else you think might know? Do you have little New Orleans mysteries like this that make you wonder? If so, let me know in the comments section!


2 thoughts on “Adventure #6: Burying Desire”

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