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May 16, 2007

It's All About the Alley

Growing up in small town, rural Connecticut, the word alley conjured up dark, dank stretches of illicit goings-on in a big city such as, say, New York.

My six years in St. Paul, Minnesota rid me of that association.  In St. Paul, like in our first Chicago neighborhood over in Lake View, alleys were clean, bright stretches of car-parking and garbage collecting.  And that's about it.  I love the alley concept, I have to tell you.  A residential block is so much more attractive sans driveways and garages, and how lovely not to have trash and recycling bins strewn along the sidewalk all day every Friday.  When you are on a stroll with small children it is a relief not to have to punctuate every conversation with a screamed, "Stop at every driveway!  Guys...that was a driveway!!" as I had to do in San Francisco.

But here in Rogers Park, in the fascinating world that lies between Sheridan Road and Lake Michigan, the alley has an entire life of its own.  I think it deserves its own book, but for now a blog post will have to suffice.

There are actual intersections - with stop signs put up by neighbors, I have learned - in our alley, because alleys have been cut through between buildings, going north-south in addition to east-west.  So it's like a small neighborhood within our neighborhood.  Pedestrians pass through at all hours of the day and night, presumably because it's easier and quieter to travel through our alley than to walk along Sheridan (and no traffic lights).

Some visitors to the alley are pleasantly quiet, just biking, jogging, or walking through.  One warm evening we had the door to the deck open while I made dinner, and Baxter sat out there reading.  A 3rd grade teacher happened to bicycle by and stopped to chat with him about what he was reading.  I went out to see who he was talking to and had a nice conversation with her. Okay, so that was very nice, if surprising.

But others?  Not so quiet.  On warm spring weekend nights, rowdy Loyola students weave their way back to campus or the frat house down the street, laughing raucously outside our window and we wake with a start. It's not easy to get back to sleep.  You see, our condo is on the first floor and our bedroom windows face the alley.

Drivers seem to think that they can avoid slowing down before reaching the sidewalk out front if they honk 3-4 times as they approach it.  Again - that approach?  Outside our window.

This morning, as Matt got dressed after his shower, three homeless men got into a loud, cursing brawl just a couple feet away from him because as one rummaged through our dumpster, another apparently stole his cigarettes.  I heard the ruckus from the kitchen and hadn't bothered to see what was going on, but Matt filled me in.  And he said something that stuck with me all day: imagine this going on outside the window of someone living in the suburbs, such as where our family live.  Libertyville? Buffalo Grove? Schaumburg?  Really.  Imagine it - three down-and-out men in tattered clothes are rummaging through people's trash, stealing each other's cigarettes, and hollering expletives at each other.  As Matt pointed out, the cops would've been called before those guys had even made it to the trash cans!  But here?  In our alley just outside our windows?  I don't even bother to go look; I just keep making breakfast!

It's not like it's attractive out there, either.  Most buildings, like ours, have their parking spaces out back along the alley.  Buildings that have gorgeous facades on the street side look completely different in the back; the alley shows the seedier side of each house or multi-unit building.

And yet it really is a little neighborhood of its own.  It's where we are meeting all of our neighbors.  Where I rendezvous with a friend for a 6:30 AM walk by the lake, and where the boys and I often wave up to little Anya on her deck when we come home at night.  Quite often I choose to leave the house through the alley instead of the far grander front entrance because there are friendly people to talk to out there all the time, coming and going.  They wave hello, introduce themselves, feed us tidbits about our new building and the neighborhood. Neighbors are washing their cars, heading out to walk their dogs at the beach, taking their kids out to play.  Standing around talking with each other.  The alley is the hub of neighborhood activity.

At any given moment, neighbors are chatting and - dare I say it? - actually building community out there in that alley.  And you know?  Just as I don't think the homeless would be seen rummaging through the trash, I don't see that happening in most neighborhoods in the suburbs, either.

(Originally posted at The Wonderwheel)

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