Our neighborhood has alleys. They’re cool. In some areas they’re paved, but most of them are not. When we moved in forty years ago, the garbage trucks used to come down the alleys. Before that, antique people used them to deliver milk too. It was handy and orderly, a bit of The Commons. There wasn’t a lot of room for error with those garbage trucks. Almost everyone had a crappy garage on the alley with nothing holding it up but force of habit, and they’d sag into the right-of-way in a stiff breeze. The neighbor kid burned ours down long ago, but the few still remaining have been claimed by moss and mold and an army of microorganisms and are trying to be one with the earth again. But the garbage man always made it through.
Somehow something happened on a city level in the way of improvement and the garbage route territories got parceled out and everyone got city recycling bins and yard-debris bins and the trucks got so large and fancy, to handle all the new stuff, they quit using the alleys and started coming down the streets.
The alleys started to change. It seemed to happen organically, but that’s not really true. Individual homeowners made decisions, big and small, that changed the alleys, and they began to meander, like streams pushing into soft silt. Or like a toddler with no supervision. Or a drunk. Ours, for instance, is no longer straight. Some of the neighbors sensed an opportunity to enlarge their yards. Some didn’t care. And alleys have feelings too: they shrink away from aggression and lean toward courtesy. Our alley sidles toward our yard, where Dave put up his masonry wall well within the property line just to be polite. But if you want to grab a few inches of the alley for yourself, you can just go ahead and do it. It’s supposed to be a public right-of-way but nobody’s really in charge.
Others are impassable altogether. One was altered at the end to accommodate an RV and people to the south can’t get through. Some people decided to grow vegetables in the alley and other people decided it was a great place to stack up all their garbage. Sometimes neighbors consult each other, and sometimes they collaborate, and sometimes they just do whatever they want. Some of the alleys have been taken over by roving gangs of blackberries.
This is what freedom looks like, people. Some folks get tomatoes, some folks get extra parking, and some folks just get screwed. But nobody’s getting milk anymore. God bless America.
"nobody's really in charge"
That might change in the future when old people move out, new people move in and someone starts questioning boundary lines, then the local council gets brought in and there's a whole new kerfuffle over who owns what.
We took a good foot from the neighbor's yard already when we miscalculated the fence.
So we bought their house.
I guess that solved THAT problem!!
And all true.
I like your solution, I guess they were ready to sell. Myself, I wouldn't care about a foot, but I might make a fuss over a couple of metres.
Metres. Them's like cubits or farthings or something, right?
Long ago when I lived in the Big City we had an alley, too. It was my preferred way of recycling things I was too cheap to pay to get rid of at the city dump. Why pay $11 to throw away a mattress when putting it out in the evening will guarantee its disappearance by morning? This worked for broken furniture and numerous other used up household items.
We use the street for that. It's hard to get rid of a mattress that way in this rainy town.
We don't have an alley behind us but there is a drainage ditch that the town owns. It's like a little river in spring and it's a cool shady spot in summer. Not much good for gardening, walking, garbage containment, or anything else humans like to do, but the birds seem to like it, and that's worth quite a bit.
That is a much overlooked bit of worth, there. It's why I don't clean up my garden in the fall. Or take down my dead tree.
P.S. As always, your writing is a joy to read.
I miss those alleys. They were wonderful to wander down. And are gone here. Completely.
…roving gangs of blackberries. I like that.
Well it ain't like they stay put.
Hoo-boy! I am a staunch defender of alleys, and just looking at these pictures made my blood boil. Alleys help make densely populated areas function more efficiently, by taking slow-moving delivery (or collection) vehicles off the streets. And if the garbage trucks have become too large to navigate the existing alleys, then order smaller ones that can! Alleys contribute to the orderliness of neighborhoods — they eliminate the need to drag trash cans to the front curb and spill garbage onto the sidewalk and lawns. Think of the human being — pretty stuff (food) comes in the front, and stinky stuff (poop) gets expelled out the back. And there's some kind of old saying, "You don't sh*t where you eat." Its just that fundamental, people.
And you're in D.C. I remember the alleys behind my brother's house! All concrete and properly slanted to disperse the waters. We have a few of them here but most are like mine–gravel and grass. We use ours, so it stays functional.
God, you're such a wonderful writer. I just love the bejeezus out of this piece.
Darn big compliment, coming from a writer like you.
I don't remember ever living on an alley but there are some in Galveston. I prefer to walk through the alley ways over the streets. You get to see what people are doing with their back yards. Pretty nice walking too, since they are not paved.
Now I'm wondering how common alleys are in this city altogether. Real common in this neighborhood.
When I was little, every block in town had alleys dividing the blocks along the back fences, these were for the 'nightmen', they'd come along with their carts in the early morning hours and remove the full cans from the opening of the backyard dunny (toilet) and replace it with an empty can. Cleaned of course. If you happened to be sitting there doing your business or just daydreaming you'd get a sudden cold breeze around your nethers when the can was whisked away from under your wooden seat. The alleys were otherwise used for kids to play cricket or learn to ride their bikes safely away from the roads.
My god, River, how the hell old are you? [Bowing in reverence.] Don't let that story get away.
This is freedom and evolution and moving on. It is what it is.
Yes. If The Commons are to be preserved, it must be done deliberately. And it can be, for those who value it. We are not in those times.
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