Main Streets 2016: Louisiana
From downriver to Uptown, St. Charles Avenue is famed in New Orleans lore, in American culture — even in urban transportation. Following the curve of the nearby Mississippi River, the avenue is the pathway for the distinctive green cars of the St. Charles Streetcar Line, the world’s oldest continuously operating streetcar route. The line has been running since 1835, which is about how long this avenue has been a colorful corridor through the heart of America’s most unique and musical city.
Known as Nyades Street in the first half of the 19th century, St. Charles Avenue begins “downriver” at Canal Street, on whose other side is the tourist-thronged French Quarter. The streetcar passes through the Central Business District, where riders see handsomely restored historic buildings, along with office towers and specialty and retail stores. The district wasn’t always an evening hotspot, but today it offers a wealth of clubs, restaurants, and nightspots, with many featuring the diversity of live music that fuels the city’s rollicking nighttime energy. For more than 150 years, Lafayette Square here has been a popular site for concerts by jazz bands, school groups and other ensembles. It’s the setting for a free summer concert series and a fall blues festival, both drawing top-level acts.
Next on the St. Charles Line is the Garden District, a beautifully preserved neighborhood where 19th century tycoons used their wealth from shipping, sugar, cotton and other businesses to build elegant homes in Victorian, Greek Revival and Italianate styles. Many of those heirloom houses are still set within the manicured gardens that gave this district its name. The Garden District also offers shopping, cafés and the Commander’s Palace restaurant, which has been a leader in the legendary New Orleans cuisine scene since 1890.
The St. Charles Line travels the length of Uptown New Orleans, whose historic district, replete with splendid 19th century architecture, is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The neighborhood is home to Tulane University and Loyola University, and across St. Charles from Tulane is the world-famous Audubon Zoo, home to some 2,000 animals — including an albino-like, blue-eyed alligator that has become a symbol of the century-old zoo. The avenue finally ends in the Riverbend area, known for quaint shops, thrift stores and a funky, old-time atmosphere.
Along the way and through the years, St. Charles Avenue has richly earned its reputation as the “Jewel of America’s Grand Avenues.”