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 clichéd 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!

2 thoughts on “The Alley in History, Part II

  1. Howard,
    I have a partial day in DC, loose and easy. Learned to see that you are long gone. Me, I am now 95% retired from precast. If I ever get near Rochester I will try to contact you. If you are in or near Chicago, try me. I am sometimes there, often elsewhere… (eight-four-seven) 226-0930 leo at

    I am a big fan of alleys, like to walk them. Last walk was near Logan Square and you could see the gentrification by the number of big sliding gates that fenced off the backyard.

  2. Leo! What a great thing to hear from you – sorry we could not connect. Stay tuned here – more will follow eventually.

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