Ahead to the Past
Of Streetcars and Ferry Boats
Jason Raish illustration
New Orleans has become such an interesting mélange of what it used to be and what it’s going to be in the future.
In many ways, these are one and the same thing. In so many other ways we’re a city so different, so changed and so unrecognizable that it makes the mind spin. And yet, we’re also looking at New Orleans as it was in 1940.
First, there are the streetcar lines: When I moved to New Orleans in the summer of 1984, there was just one trolley line: the famed, beloved St. Charles Streetcar Line, a privileged destination for tourists and a lifeline for commuters who didn’t own cars.
Now, depending how you count and connect them, there are five or six streetcar lines, all of them finding a winding way to connect to each other from City Park to the train station to the French Market to Canal Street to the Convention Center to St. Claude Avenue and, of course, St. Charles Avenue.
And that’s great – by any measure. Despite Rampart Street and St. Claude Avenue currently looking like movie sets for the next Mad Max movie, the progress and progressive notions of these public transportation systems can only be considered a boon to a city that 10 years ago was placed on the endangered species list.
But the weird part about all of this is that we’re not building “new” streetcar lines, but simply rebuilding old streetcar lines that were perfectly functional during their times. We are, I suppose, undoing the mistakes of our past. There were, at one time – how many? – maybe 30 or 40 streetcar lines in the city?
All over town, in older neighborhoods, you can still see the remains of the old railcar lines under dilapidated roadways. What was our thinking when we tore them all up and relegated them to the trash heap of history?
And what’s our thinking now, that we spend billions of dollars to lay down new tracks where the old ones once stood firm before them?
Is this all done simply because we can get the federal government to pay a great part of the bill for it? Is it done for the convenience and better health choices of our local populace and a shrinking, walkable city? Or is it all done as part of a larger and perhaps more insidious idea of growing our tourism industry?
Hard to say, really. The answer is: Probably all three. But it does make one wonder why in the hell we tore up and paved over and destroyed all the streetcar lines we once had.
It is impossible to watch the gleeful rebuilding of our new streetcar lines (jobs! money! tourism!) while we witness at the same time the slow decimation of our ferry boat transportation systems.
We cut back their hours. We cut back their locations. We cut back their access to automobiles.
Can you, like me, imagine the day when our wise City Council and state legislators decide to invest billions of dollars to rebuild our ferry system? To make it like it used to be? To return New Orleans to its charm and nearly antebellum past? To reproduce the brilliant antiquated transportation system for which the city was once heralded?
The money wasted and then reinvested in these forms of public transportation is mind-boggling. The weird thing being that there was nothing wrong with them when we tore them down, broke them down and shut them down in the first place. It was just a new day. With new ideas. And bigger automobiles. And more people bitching about where they could park.
There is that famous saying: Those who forget the past are doomed to repeat it.
Well, look around you, New Orleans, as we rebuild the city in its former form, perhaps even one day tearing down the interstate that decimated the Tremé neighborhood and Claiborne Corridor, because we realize now it was all a big mistake. A big mistake at the cost of billions of dollars which, fortunately, the federal government seems happy to pick up the tab for because, well, we got the crap kicked out of us in 2005 and the Feds feel a (real and reasonable) responsibility for that and so move on, march on, streetcar on, into the future.
Without our ferry boats.
Surely some genius will come up with a way to revive and rebuild and revitalize those wondrous water vehicles that gave our region such distinction and charm during their marvelous decades of use. Hell, when I moved here in 1984, that’s how I got to work to Gretna every morning from Jackson Avenue.
Seems like a sepia-toned picture taken so long ago. And hopefully, it won’t be another natural disaster – just a disastrous view of the future and how to deal with it – that will bring us back to our senses. And our charm. And our streetcars and ferry boats Until then, you’ve got Uber.