Monday, December 15, 2008


Alleys get a bad rap in our culture: darkened alley, back-alley, alley cat, blind alley. Criminals are always lurking in them, or trying to inveigle respectable folk into them. It never seemed so to me, growing up in a mill city. Alleys were the semi-public area of the neighborhood. If it was your neighborhood, it was a friendly place – a shortcut where everyone was familiar. In other people’s neighborhood things were a little dicier, not because it was a haunt of thieves, but because you were a bit of intruder. You were allowed to use any alley; it wasn’t like cutting across someone’s yard. Your presence was suspect, however.

For reasons obscure to me, there are many more alleys in my childhood city, Manchester, than in its sister cities to the north and south along the river (Lowell, MA may be an exception). Most only extend a block or two, but several run for five blocks or more in the central city. Any alley that didn’t connect all the way through to the next street wasn’t an alley. I don’t know what we called it, but it wasn’t an alley. They are from a common era, when people had stables/garages in back, and few people had yards. Turn-of-the century through the 20’s, I think. Just a little later and folks had driveways to the street instead. Cars instead of horse, I imagine. The exterior back staircases of triple-deckers or apartment blocks emptied onto an alley more often than to a side walkway.

Several Manchester alleys have graduated up, becoming named streets: Berkley St, Nutfield Lane. I suspect that happens for addressing purposes, when a back-door or delivery door downtown becomes a front entrance and needs an address. It doesn’t happen out in the residential sections.


jlbussey said...

My grandparent's neighborhood in Englewood CO was built in the 1950's and it has alleys. Most people had front driveways put in later, but the alleys are still where you put out the trash and where milk delivery used to be. I never saw alleys like that anywhere else and always enjoyed playing in them.

Chris said...

We have alleys in the rural Midwest. They are mostly gravel, and often run the entire length of the street they mirror. The trash goes out there, and any unwanted items go on display for the alley rats who look for the ultimate bargains. Many older houses have their garages in the back of the lot, opening onto the alley.

They're certainly not blind or dark, but you will probably be barked at.