A pair of once-familiar sights are set to make comebacks this year in the Crescent City. One figures to delight visitors to the Superdome. The other may turn Mardi Gras upside down.
“Welcome to New Orleans. Come for the Super Bowl. Stay for Mardi Gras.”
That’s the pitch that the Crescent City is making to visitors in February. It’s an offer the city has made before, and one that hundreds of thousands of tourists will find impossible to refuse.
But those who take up that offer this year will be witness to a couple of street revivals.
New Orleans takes its traditions seriously, even the ones it periodically turns its back on, and two good examples of that are poised to return this winter to “the NOLA.”
The first is a new streetcar line through the city’s Central Business District that links the French Quarter to the Superdome. If all goes as planned, the new line should be ready to roll by Feb. 3, in time for Super Bowl XLVII.
But the importance of this line goes far beyond one over-hyped football game. It’s part of an ongoing effort to undo one of the dumbest things New Orleans city government ever did.
City Hall spent the better part of four decades ripping out streetcar lines — at least 15 of them that I can find — and replacing them with buses. New Orleans has largely regretted it ever since.
Maria C. Montoya of the News Orleans Times-Picayune probably put it best: “Tennessee Williams never would have written ‘A Bus Named Desire.’ ” (emphasis mine)
Preservationists managed, barely, to save the St. Charles Avenue streetcar line (seen above) that runs down through the city’s über-scenic Garden District. It’s now a working icon of New Orleans history, used and beloved daily by locals and tourists alike.
In the late 1980s, the city fathers reluctantly acknowledged what a lot of their citizens had been telling them for years, namely that when it comes to efficiently moving people around a city, buses are no substitute for streetcars. And as the St. Charles line clearly showed, they lend a character to a city that no bus ever could.
So they decided to bring them back.
The first came in 1988 with the opening of the short Riverfront line, linking “the Quarter” to the New Orleans Convention Center. But the real resurrection began in 2004, when streetcars returned to Canal Street, the city’s main downtown thoroughfare.
There are ambitious plans to restore other lines. Hurricane Katrina in 2005 temporarily derailed all of that, but now the revival appears to be back on track.
This actually is one of the ways I prefer to get around a major city when I travel. Definitely faster and more comfortable than a bus, and you get to see a lot more than you will on a subway. The streetcars (or as they call them, “trams”) in cities like Amsterdam, Geneva, Switzerland, and Lyon and Strasbourg, France are sleek, state-of-the-art dreams.
The New Orleans streetcars are still largely old-school in appearance. Their two major concessions to modernity are automated fareboxes and air-conditioning, the latter of which you will bless in the summertime. But they’re just as handy when it comes to getting around.
And the way IBIT sees it, any kind of public transit that can save me the cost of a rental car is a good thing.
THE BABY DOLLS
The other comeback this winter involves an all-but-forgotten Mardi Gras tradition — and I’m not sure if even New Orleans is ready for this one.
The Baby Dolls are back.
When the Krewe of Zulu rolls their parade to open Mardi Gras Day, Feb. 12, there will be a troupe of Baby Dolls among them.
Mothers may want to hide their children — and their husbands, too.
When blacks weren’t allowed to take part in the “mainstream” Mardi Gras parades and activities downtown, black communities promptly came up with their own ways to “laissez les bon temps roulez.” The Baby Dolls were one of them.
The original Baby Dolls were a product of Storyville, the infamous red-light district famed equally for its prostitution and its jazz joints.
In a sense, the whole thing grew out of one of those Uptown-Downtown rivalries common to New Orleans. When word got out that some downtown hookers were planning to stage a Mardi Gras parade, the working girls of Storyville took that as a challenge that could not go unanswered.
They took the nickname their pimps had given them and turned it into a fashion statement, literally dolling themselves up in bonnets, bloomers, knickers and what-not, and staged a parade of their own.
But these definitely were no Barbies.
Storyville itself was torn down during World War 1, but by then, the Baby Doll idea had caught on in black neighborhoods. Before long, first-graders, their mothers and even grandmothers were rocking the Baby Doll look.
You no longer had to be an “industrial debutante” to be a Baby Doll.
Soon, they were as much a part of the black Mardi Gras tradition in New Orleans as the Mardi Gras Indians, second-line clubs and Skeletons.
The Skeletons were the first to hit the streets in “the ‘hood” on Mardi Gras morning. Ghostly figures dressed head to toe in black-and-white skeleton suits and fierce-looking masks, they went from block to block, banging on pots and pans and yelling:
“WAKE UP! YOU NEXT!”
Then came the neighborhood parades, following no preset schedule or route, with their Indians and jazz bands and second-line clubs&hellip,and the Baby Dolls.
Over time, as other black Mardi Gras traditions gained recognition and acceptance from the mainstream, the Baby Dolls gradually disappeared from the streets — but not from memory.
Now, they’re making a comeback, updated to include one of New Orleans’ newer creations — “bounce music” and dance.
These days, you don’t have to be a prostitute, or black or even female. But it’s still a reach back in time to acknowledge the city’s baudy, insolent past…which returns to the present every Carnival season. You may be amused or you may be appalled, but either way, you won’t be bored.
And that’s the NOLA for ya.