I’ve always been interested in people’s ‘unlived lives;’ what other choices they might have made, still wish to make. I have many of my own ‘unlived’ possibilities. Never once have I thought about someone becoming an authority on alleys. Now I appreciate the value of this pursuit and the creative use of this space.
I wish I could have known Grady Clay. (1916–2013) I was intrigued immediately when I read his name. Grady Clay is such a Kentucky name. Never mind that he grew up in Atlanta Georgia. He was an American journalist specializing in landscape architecture and urban planning. Mr. Clay wrote a small book called Alleys: A Hidden Resource. It appears to be no longer in print. Clay said that back alleys represented Americana. After 1939, Clay made it to Louisville, Kentucky, where he actively wrote and gardened. He was a founder of the Crescent Hill neighborhood Community Association. Most of his professional papers were given to the University of Louisville. His journals and other papers going back to 1939 are in the archives of the Loeb Library at Harvard.
Clay’s 1978 book traced the history of alleys in this country. Prior to his contribution there didn’t seem to be much interested in the subject, which makes me laugh. That is no longer true. The wide trash-pickup-type alleys were actually unique to the United States. According to Mr. Clay, “To skulk through an American alley is to step backward in time, downward on the social ladder, and quickly to confront the world of trash collectors, garbage-pickers, weekend car mechanics and children.” In Evanston, IL. where I grew up, I regularly walked the alleys or rode my bike, with their garbage cans, back gates, and garages. I would have disputed this ‘downward social ladder-view’ to talk about short cuts to friends backyards, or our driveway off the alley into the garage at home.
Clay was among the first to propose that American alleys could and should be reimagined. They could be used as space for homes and businesses, predicting that commuting costs would increase and older city blocks would rise in value. Commuting costs have grown, many older city blocks have rebounded, and walkable neighborhoods have become some of the nation’s most desirable.
City planners have come around to Clay’s way of thinking. Advocates in many cities now seek to make alleys more hospitable and intriguing, as passageways that add commercial, community, and environmental design value.
Wonderfully recovered alleys in Elizabeth City, NC -Here is a great in-fill idea of green space
Elizabeth City turns the alley pictured below into a destination with outdoor seating, lights, charming use of space that draws people to gather. It takes imagination and purpose, and I know….money. We’ll talk about our alley behind the Davis Furniture block on Main Street soon. This post is dedicated to all who grew up with alleys as part of their experience and to people like Grady Clay and Daniel Toole, past and present advocates for these spaces.