The Atlantic Cities interviews Daniel O’Toole, the author of a book and a blog about alleys:
How do you define what makes an alley?
I think an alleyway in the American context is something specifically set aside as infrastructure. It’s never meant for pedestrians, it never receives any facade remodeling. But with that infrastructure designation comes a true story about the city. It’s all about function so you get to see the street at the ground plane and on the wall plane. There’s a lot of rich history there, from the brick paving peeking through, to the layers of graffiti and dirt, to all kinds of electrical and gas conduits. It’s really messy— there are loading docks, all the stuff you don’t see on a main street.
What’s interesting to us is how the history of alleys in D.C. differs from the norm. As Lydia DePillis wrote last year, alleys were home for the city’s poorest residents:
Alleys occupy a special place in D.C.’s history. Unlike in older cities, where alley dwellings were constructed later as real estate pressures mounted, ours were built in conjunction with middle-class housing in the years of the city’s rapid expansion following the Civil War. They housed thousands of poorer residents in tiny dwellings packed into narrow lots that bore little resemblance to the tidy facades fronting the street. “It is a case of Dr. Jekyl and Mr. Hyde in brick and wood, a dual nature incorporated in a prosaic city square,” read a 1909 account of alley life.
Following the creation of the Alley Dwelling Authority in 1934—the city’s first public housing agency—most of these slums were swept away as new housing was created on the edges of the city’s core. Decades later, remnants of that history have been sanitized and elevated to treasured interior spaces, like Blagden Alley and Naylor Court in Shaw, which now houses the D.C. Office of Public Records.
Photo by Darrow Montgomery