in praise of alleys

Jan 16.2012

It is obvious that as our cities become denser, the more important open space becomes.  But what defines urban open space?  Parks, plazas and greenways are wonderful expressions of sensitive and functional preservation of land for community use, but there are many unsanctioned spaces just as valuable. We have made it our business to seek out these untapped spaces and, similar to a collector of coins or baseball cards, amass them (at least mentally), waiting for their value to rise. Alleys are one of these untapped spaces.

Alleys are a city’s sleight of hand.  While we shop, dine or trudge off to work along streets, avenues and boulevards, alleys deftly conceal all the unsavory truths of our urban habitation.  Dumpsters, electrical meters, grease traps, smoke breaks, those that want to hide, and those that we want hidden. Alleys become little gray smudges in the urban experience that we observe from our peripheral vision, dark canyons into which we seldom pass. And though the alley and main street are spatially similar, their function differs so wildly that we are unable to see them as mirrored selves; and we are happy to ignore the alley.

Which is understandable.  Next time you find yourself walking with a few minutes to spare, turn towards that gray smudge in the corner of your eye.  Venture down that alley for a few blocks and mark what you see. Garbage, utilities, delivery men, loading docks, air conditioners, exhaust pipes. Note how truly unglamorous the alley is as it humbly accepts all that we need but don’t want to know we need. The esoteric exterior manifestations of interior functions. Delivery and removal of items that seem to exist without origin or grave. The gritty skeletons and organs of our urban lives.

And then look again.  Because we are so willing to ignore alleys, they become spaces available for other uses. Private places for conversation. The real entrances to buildings. Canvases. The impromptu living rooms of smokers seen in two vinyl chairs. Alleys then are not just infrastructure passageways but vital components of the urban landscape, rich and inviting.  And grimy, too. There is a reason we avoid alleys, but development pressure in our ever growing cities may force us to change our opinions of them.  What might they become then?