The Alley in History, Part II

Or the History of Alleys, if you would prefer. It turns out that there are many who have made passing reference to alleys in their urban histories, or urban critiques. But there is, in fact, no definitive history of the alley in North American city making.


Thanks to Linda Just for this alley image.

I have gratefully received suggested readings and sources from many readers, and many colleagues. I have enjoyed such texts as Grady Clay’s wonderful little pamphlet, “Alleys: A Hidden Resource,” from 1975. Mr. Clay makes a number of wonderful suggestions about the redesign of a handful of Louisville’s alleys, which, alas, were never implemented.

louisville alley brook and oak 02

Mr. Clay’s Louisville alley, behind Brook and Oak, sadly unimproved.

I have re-read old favorites, such as Witold Rybczynski’s “City Life,” from 1995. I have pored over “Civic Art” and “The New Civic Art.” I have thumbed through my well worn John Reps volumes about the making of urban America. It has been a most enjoyable search through old and new volumes.

And I am recalling the work we did in Washington DC to re-curate an exhibition, now gone, at the National Building Museum entitled “Washington Symbol and City.” We looked in great detail at alleys in that city: DC’s alleys are a central element of the city’s narratives of race, poverty, and segregation.


Blagden Alley, Washington, DC, 1923.

So alleys are rich places, filled with all kinds of stories about who we were, how we dealt with one another, what we cared about, and where we are headed. Today, in a handful of American and Canadian cities, alleys are being reevaluated, redesigned, revalued, and conserved as the substantial urban assets that they are.


From the Portland Alley Project, a design guide.

My brother, Doug Decker, has written wonderfully about alleys in his neighborhood in NE Portland, Oregon. You can find his work here:


Concordia alley, portland

An alley in Portland. Thanks, Doug.

Graduate students, this is it!! A thesis that could easily place you high in the urban history firmament! An overview of alley facts and alley history as a foundation from which to begin might include:

  • Probably you begin with William Penn’s plan for Philadelphia in 1682. (Oh, and note: there is almost no worthwhile alley material to be found outside North America. You should look, but I think you will not find much at all). Anyway, in Philly the alleys were not for service, which is the use that most comes to mind when the word alley arises. Instead, as a prelude to places like Washington DC much later, the alleys were for the poor. Perhaps this was the beginning of the clich├ęd impression that alleys were scary, often dirty and filthy places, where smart citizens were wary of entry.
  • Next you might want to head to James Oglethorpe’s plan of Savannah, Georgia, from 1733. Here, the alley was in fact used to service the “big house.”
  • Rybczynski suggests moving next to Ebenezer Zane’s plan for Zanesville, Ohio, of 1799.
  • After Zanesville alleys show up in short order in places like Columbus, Ohio, Detroit, and in 1830, Chicago.

Panama Street, Philadelphia

Panama Street, Philadelphia.


An alley in Savannah.

Zanesville alley

An alley in Zanesville, Ohio.

Chicago Hunter Alley 1901

Hunter Alley, Chicago, 1901.

After that, who knows. Alleys faded from the urban design repertoire by 1920 or so. You can tell us why.

And then you can tell us what happens next. Some of us have found all kinds of interesting developments underway. But what should we do, for example, in a place like Rochester New York, with its endless 1,500 foot long blocks with no alleys?

My hearty thanks to all those who offered suggestions about sources. Onward!



My brother Doug and I got into a discussion of blocks and alleys and urbanism on this Thanksgiving Day. He writes quite wonderfully about his neighborhood in Portland, Oregon: Alameda. You can find his work here: www.alamedahistory.org.

He said: “‘I am also working on something about alleys here in northeast Portland. The earlier neighborhoods (before 1911) have alleys. South of Prescott, we don’t have any. What changed, I wonder, to move away from alleys? Was this a national movement that coincided with the car? Hmm. Insights?”

Well, of course he is exactly correct. As the incidence of car ownership rose – and it did so really fast – the alley disappeared, developers platted lots back-to-back, and the American city block became just a bit poorer for the change. Here in Rochester we had 4,000 cars in about 1912, and 40,000 cars less than 10 years later. Simultaneously as the 19 teens unfolded, we had 250′ deep blocks, some of which ran/run on for over 1,500′ as the nascent city took shape.. A real urban mess.

Why a mess? Well long thin blocks means less access, of course less walkability and permeability, eventually less security, and certainly a crimp in urban mobility, whatever your means of locomotion.

Interestingly, it is not that hard to find developers saying, in the early years of the century of the car, that automobiles belonged in front of the house, not at the rear, like horses and carriages. Harrumph.

The gold standard for the American city block form, in my view, is the Chicago block (okay, I am a Chicagoan, but still….). 660′ long, and 350′ deep, from the center of the rights-of-way. This gives you 125’ deep lots, a nice alley, and useable streets.

Decker Typical Block (3).jpg

But similar conventional urban forms can be found in other cities. Even where the urban block form is very large – Salt Lake City comes to mind – there are internal means of movement, which if not alleys, are at least byways that promote some kind of porosity.


Salt Lake City block.

All of this left me wondering. I know that there are comparative typologies that examine the city block in American cities. One looks like this:


By Isomorphism3000 – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=23516392

Not sure what they were looking at when they did Chicago (it was probably the Loop, where the block form is anomalous), but this is a pretty good summary. In the end though, the sketches, and this entire conversation, beg a few really simple questions: where did the alley come from anyway, how did it work in various urban morphologies, when did it go away (always in the 1910s?), and what were the consequences?

I would have thought that someone would have written a history of the American city block, and the alley. Not so, that I can find.

Maybe you can suggest sources. Any ideas?





The Village

Once upon a time, North Water was a district that featured garment manufacturers, technology innovators, shoe makers, brewers and distillers, warehousers, and more than a few squatters.

From Main Street, North Water proceeded to Central Avenue and the railroads.


Most, though not all, of the buildings on the river side of the street were large masonry loft buildings, housing manufacture and warehousing for retail. In April of 1924, the Lawless Paper Company had a huge fire, and crowds gathered to gawk.


Lawless Paper burns, April of 1924. Note the house on the left side of the street, behind the crowds. That’s Marie Lappitano’s.

The small buildings, above, were destined for demolition to make way for an enlarged Chamber of Commerce, thanks to the largesse of George Eastman

And many of the buildings on the east side of the street – opposite the river side – were small, older, residential, and mostly removed, like the Marie Lappitano house at 88 North Water above, built in 1865 and about to vanish, in this view from 1922. The house disappeared by 1926 or so.

Here’s a map from 1962 that shows what Water Street and Front Street were like just moments before they disappeared into the jaws of urban renewal. (Thanks to M. Denker for this plan).

The idea was to replace all of the run-down, old fashioned and dilapidated urban fabric on both sides of the river with this:

Above, the Tishman proposal, and below, the I.M. Pei proposal.

And today:

Photo from Panoramio by Soxrule 19181.

In another city, Chicago, their riverfront revival looks like this:

Our work lies before us. If we can keep images of the rich and historic life that was Water and Front Streets in our imaginations, and if we can be cheered by what’s possible, we can make a better city.


Front Street interior, 1956, photo by Kenneth Josephson.

Hall Brothers Lunch, Main and Front, RPL.

Front and Central, now the Inner Loop, RPL.

Market Cottage, a hotel/boarding house, RPL.

Front Street denizens, 1960s, W.C. Roemer Collection.

Otmen’s (or Ottman’s) for jazz, down on the right at 45 Front (a former meat market), W. C. Roemer Collection.

“Urban Renewal Demands This Building.” W. C. Roemer Collection.

With as little commentary as possible, here are two views of our city. First, a view from the 1950s or 1960s.

Downtown Rochester. Main Street at the bottom of the image, the Genesee River, and Front and Water Streets on either side of the waterfront, running north and south.

And the same view in 2016.

The street running parallel to the river on the west bank was Front Street. On the ground, Front Street used to look like this:

I am old enough to remember when cities thought that tearing themselves down in the name of renewal was a good idea. I remember thinking then – I was in Chicago at the time, a city certainly not immune to defective thoughts about what it meant to renew a place – that the whole mental framework beneath the notion of “urban renewal” was defective. My classmates and I could see the failures everywhere around us, but there was no turning back for most places. Too late.

If we still had the city in the first image, and in the last images, we would be rich beyond words.