Even on a particularly airless late-summer evening, the appeal of the Bywater, a once-working-class New Orleans neighborhood just downriver from the French Quarter, cuts through the oppressive humidity. Rows of century-old shotgun houses and Creole cottages'some brightly painted, others romantically disheveled'line overgrown blocks crisscrossed with telephone wires. On some weeknights, ramshackle corner bars serve free red beans and rice as musicians hold court in packed rooms. Every now and then, a train whistle echoes through the otherwise sleepy streets. The whole neighborhood has long had a languorous, tumbledown charm.