The Desire Line: Streetcar Loss & Rebirth in New Orleans
Stop 3 of 9 in the Streetcars and their Historian Michael Mizell-Nelson tour
The Desire streetcar line gained widespread acclaim when Tennessee Williams' play, "A Streetcar Named Desire," was published in 1947. By that time, New Orleanians were quite familiar with the Desire line--many of them probably taking it to work, home, or the market--and were likely aware, if not prepared for, its impending replacement by bus the next year.
Begun by the New Orleans Railway & Light Company in 1920, for the majority of its existence the route ran from Canal Street and turned onto Bourbon. After traveling down Bourbon, it veered left on Pauger St.,and then went down Dauphine to Desire St. On the return trip, the streetcar traveled Tonti to France, France to Royal Street, and then followed Royal all the way to Canal.
At least as early as 1940, New Orleans Public Service, Inc. (NOPSI) and the city were considering transitioning streetcars in the French Quarter to busses after routine complaints by French Quarter residents. The Desire Line, as well as the City Park and Gentilly Lines, passed through the Quarter at that time. As stated in the Times-Picayune on July 27, 1940, "Principal complaint against the streetcars has been that their vibration is responsible for much of the property damage in that part of the city, and that their noise and difficulty in negotiating the narrow streets, especially during the busy hours, unduly disturbs the residents." Residents also disagreed with the modernity represented by the streetcars, which they considered "out of keeping" with the French Quarter. As was also noted, however, busses provide the same, if not more, sense of modernity and would be even more numerous than the streetcars.
In early 1948, an almost $14 million NOPSI budget was approved of which about $500,000 was set aside for the conversion of the Desire Line to a motor bus.
By April of the same year, French Quarter residents had apparently changed their minds (perhaps on the heels of the popularity that Williams' play brought to the Desire Line). The French Quarter Residents Association passed a resolution expressing discontent over the projected removal of the Desire Streetcar line. The Association argued that New Orleans would forfeit considerable amounts of publicity should they proceed.
Unfortunately, just over one month later the Desire Streetcar was no more. Beginning May 30, 1948, the streetcar was replaced by the Desire bus. A Kirschman's Furniture ad boasted that with the introduction of the buses: "… your waiting time is much reduced. It means that seating capacity is increased by 34%."
In 1967, almost 20 years after the last Desire streetcar rumbled through the French Quarter, New Orleans Public Service Inc. donated restored car No. 453-- a Desire Line-style car used starting in the early 1900s-- to the Louisiana Tourist Development Commission. Although never actually used on the Desire line, the car became symbolic of the line specifically and of New Orleans streetcars in general.
The car was moved to the French Market that same year. After sitting in this spot for 12 years and falling into disrepair, the Louisiana State Museum purchased the car in 1979 and announced that it would move the 14-ton car to the grounds of the U.S. Mint. In the early 1990s, No. 453 was returned to the New Orleans Regional Transit Authority (the company that replaced NOPSI), and the car now sits unused in Carrollton Station.
In 2003, a brand-new Desire streetcar line was proposed, although it would follow a different route than the older line going down North Rampart and St. Claude Ave. NORTA argued that it would bring economic revitalization to the corridor and attract tourists to the area. Unfortunately, federal funding was ultimately denied for the project.
As of 2015, construction has begun on a new line on the previously proposed North Rampart and St. Claude Ave. route, although it has not been called the Desire line.