The antediluvian streetcar lurches down St. Charles Avenue, shuddering to stops along the way. You imagine little has changed since 1835, when this transit line, the oldest continually operated streetcar line in the world, originally opened. The air, heavy with the scent of rain and tarmac, rises up through the open windows as you pass Audubon Park. The mechanical clank of the engine pulses a hypnotic rhythm, pacing your thoughts along the slow progression toward the French Quarter. Lush estates and pillared porches give way to narrowing roads and shotgun homes. Southern live oaks provide a canopy of bead-strewn branches, remnants of the yearly Mardi Gras celebration.
Soon enough, you pass beyond the residential roads and into the town center. Circling the roundabout, the landscape changes, or rather disappears. High-rise buildings, some abandoned since Hurricane Katrina, tower along the outskirts of the historic quarter. At first, it all seems strange, these looming monoliths among the quaint homes. They are out of place, unwelcome. But before you know it, the streetcar halts one last time and the conductor kindly asks you to disembark. You’ve now reached Canal Street. The shadows cast from the sprawling hotels behind you stretch toward the French Quarter, urging you forward.
It doesn’t take long to completely immerse yourself in this new scene, and it’s immediately apparent that this part of town has its own vibrant personality — unbashful and boisterous, like a burlesque opera singer. You look down the road and see lines of dancing neon lights: “Best Oysters in Town,” “Home of the Hurricane,” “Girls Girls Girls.” Street performers gather to entice and entertain in hopes of lightening your pockets, ever so slightly. With something new to see around every corner, it’s easy to become distracted. Walking down Bourbon Street, you get a taste of the raucous spirit that permeates the neighborhood.
As you meander a bit farther toward the Mississippi River, past the galleries on Royal Street and the studious St. Louis Cathedral, you notice the rich and often dark history that marks the Vieux Carré (now called the French Quarter). Scattered throughout the streets, you find disavowed statues of old slave owners and gallows replaced by gardens where children play, their faces covered in powdered sugar from recently devoured beignets. You can’t escape the evidence of the turmoil that once besieged this tiny square. It’s unsettling at best.
Continuing along the bend of the Crescent City, you begin to hear the joyous din of jazz music reverberating off the Creole homes. You follow the melodies and end up on Frenchman Street, a place with a soul of its own. Here, every bar has a stage and every stage has its players. Rock bands perform the oldies, while the bellows of brass lace the humid air. The energy is pervasive and it fills you. Like a drink of water to the thirsty wanderer, it restores you.
Close your eyes and smile. You’ve found the heart of New Orleans.