NEW ORLEANS (AP) – Cajun music, live and lively, drifts onto Bourbon Street, where handfuls of people sip from tall mixed drinks or super-sized cups of beer as they stroll. Dozens of people throng the dance floor at Razzoo’s Bar and Patio, singing along to “We Are Family.”

A barker urges passers-by to take a look inside at nude dancers in Big Daddy’s, and in the Bourbon Street Strip-Tease store, Dale Juneau sells thong underwear to a young woman. He says the adult clothing and toy store has been busy since it reopened more than a week ago, particularly with sales to military and relief workers ready to return from their exhausting duty with something for their wives and girlfriends back home.

“Bourbon Street is Bourbon Street,” he says. “That’s why they come here, to party, to let their hair down.”

Each night, there’s a little more beat to the bawdy heart of New Orleans, the stretch of bars, restaurants, strip clubs and stores specializing in T-shirts with X-rated messages that is one of the city’s strongest tourist lures. For now, it’s visited by locals who have returned from evacuations and out-of-towners who came to rebuild after Hurricane Katrina, a project that remains staggering in scope a month later.

Fewer than half of the businesses on the strip have reopened, but by Friday night, there were a half-dozen live bands in bars and nearly as many open strip clubs.

If such merrymaking seems incongruous in a city hit by one of the nation’s worst natural disasters, one that took hundreds of lives, those who are trying to kickstart a revival welcome any signs of comeback.

“When you see some activity, that’s a sign of optimism,” said attorney Kim Boyle, a member of the “Bring New Orleans Back” commission announced Friday by Mayor Ray Nagin. “We can’t walk around looking sad and being in the doldrums 24-7. When I see people smiling, it makes me smile.”

While New Orleans has many other attractions, much of the nation thinks first of the French Quarter, and Bourbon Street in particular, said John Rodrigue, a history professor at Louisiana State University. Built on higher ground than most of the city, the French Quarter was spared the worst of Katrina, mostly suffering scattered wind and water damage.

“It’s significant both for the real importance of having some businesses open and also for the symbolic importance,” Rodrigue said.

The city faces massive physical reconstruction as well as the challenge of addressing social and economic issues highlighted by the disaster.

Resident Jim Perrier, checking on the Friday night activity on Bourbon, said he’s been disappointed that few neighbors have returned to the Garden District.

“They opened the city, and nobody came back,” he said. He suspects many residents are like his brother, whose children have started school in Texas after evacuating last month, and won’t be returning for months, if at all.

“Hopefully, it will get better,” Perrier said. “I think a lot of people will come back in December.”

Four young women from the West Bank area, beers in hand and dressed to party, hooted and waved at soldiers in Humvees driving up Bourbon.

“Can you tell we’ve been cooped up for a long time?” asked Tracy Knight.

Even piles of garbage and blasts of breath-stopping stench along parts of the street didn’t stop them.

“It smells worse than Mardi Gras,” said Nicole Todd. “But it’s Friday night, girls’ night out.”

“They said we wouldn’t come back, but we’re back,” Knight said.

AP-ES-10-01-05 1259EDT

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