“The alley is the outback world of the unmentionable, if not the unwanted, the displaced of modern society,”
~ Grady Clay, Alleys: a hidden resource
Perhaps I will never be considered “from here”, having moved from Cincinnati nearly three years ago. I may not get invitations to house shows or hot dish socials, or share in stories of roaring twenty-somethings at the U. Despite lacking that native status, I have found welcome ears and minds in likeminded social camps – preservation champions, karaoke goers, walking advocates, etc. I spent the last seven years, including the past two-and-a-half locally, circulating through those arenas in Cincinnati and Minneapolis. While leading the Cincy-based nonprofit Spring in Our Steps (now remotely), I have been enthralled by learning as much as I can about the lesser known public spaces in cities.
Now, we may see ourselves as being part of the Midwest, here in the Cities, but there have been stark differences in how I see the eastern reaches of that amorphous, regional classification. Sure, the regionalisms include how people walk, talk, hold doors, and chew gum at the same time. How about where we walk? But would you expect spaces like alleys to be paved with stone, turn into public stairways that are not closed by late autumn, and operate as part of the street network? Would you expect them to have names?
“Names? You mean, like streets have names?”
Indeed, many alleys east of Chicago have names that guide users. And why should they not? Some may recall the back alleys of New York or Boston, or perhaps the narrow passages of Philadelphia or Savannah. Boston names and signs its individual alley segments meticulously by number [“Alley 521”], for instance. Alleys in Cleveland are named and paired with suffixes like “Court” and “Place”. Pittsburgh has its alleys appended with “Lane” and “Way”, and even “Steps”. My native Cincinnati has most of its alleys named, with most of them fearlessly called what they are: “Alley”. Even a couple alleys in Stillwater have names–and signs to show for it. But here in the Twin Cities, if it appears that alleys have an identity crisis, they mostly do.
Alleys in Minneapolis and Saint Paul are regrettably nameless. They are believed to act as pseudo-private spaces that are “by invitation only” or only public during a neighborhood garage sale, lest you risk a gaze with a queer eye. (That’s for another time. My own experiences in local alleys have rarely been faced with feelings of unwelcomeness.) The few with names tend to be found in areas with an industrial past or around the estates of the Historic Hill District in Saint Paul. Nonetheless, where they are found, they possess singular identities that are memorable. With a majority of alleys without names, we guarantee that no measurable experiences should be built in such spaces. The familiarity that one builds in such a space relies upon appearance alone, limiting the stories told and the scope of who can take interest in its future.
Where Official Alley Names Can Be Found
There are a few cases in each city where alleys do have names. And we remember them. Saint Paul’s Hill District has the unforgettable Maiden Lane, leading from Saint Paul’s Cathedral at Selby to Holly Avenue. Summit Court runs south from Summit Avenue at Arundel Street, then continues west as Summit Lane (originally Terrace Lane) before reconnecting with the Avenue shy of Oakland. Beyond that, pickings are slim. A segment of Crocus Hill is an alley (originally a part of Goodrich Avenue) east of 1 Crocus Hill to Lincoln Avenue. Acknowledgement of a short connector of Fairmount Avenue, from Crocus Place to Crocus Hill, seems inconsequential. Although several addresses call the brick paved Kenwood Parkway home, those historic residences face out toward Osceola Avenue, Pleasant Avenue, and St. Albans Street. There is an anomaly in Saint Paul’s Riverview neighborhood too. The discreet Hall Lane connects from a Hall Avenue to West Delos Street. Its L-shape is actually simplified from its east-west segment originally possessing the Colorado Avenue name. There are even a few homes along the alley, but they face out toward the bluff over Wabasha Street. Those views were once priceless but now are buffered with trees that hang on for their dear lives.
In Minneapolis, just two alleys have names. Azine Alley was formerly unnamed (and never previously existed, although platted on city maps) until the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis petitioned in 1997 that it be named after Sheldon Azine, its former senior vice president. The corridor was required as part of the project, in order to provide access to the site. Therefore, Azine Alley became first alley named in Minneapolis in 107 years. And the name seems to have taken on an identity of its own, being used for a large block redevelopment to its south. North Traffic Street, a short alley segment west of 3rd Avenue was named in 1890, after it was widened to improve access to the inbound and outbound freight depots of the Great Northern Railroad. Much changed after that single year, particularly following a legal settlement between railway companies, the streetcar operator, and the City of Minneapolis. This alley is a conversation starter about the impending growth of the Warehouse District.
Where Alleys Have Taken on Colloquial Names
In Minneapolis, only one alley has such a notable identity that its taken on a name among its frequenters. Loring Alley (sometimes called Loring Corners Alley) is bound by Hennepin Avenue, Maple Street, and Harmon Place in the Loring Park neighborhood. The association between the neighborhood name and the intrinsic alley qualities might have something to do with the gradual name acquisition. A black-and-white ghost sign can be along the side of an upper building story. Loring Corners LLC also owns several buildings on the block. The former Loring Alley Theater occupied an inconspicuous spot in the alley, described in a 2013 by the Aisle Say blog as, “a chilly concrete room also used as an indoor skateboard park, when not as a theater – is tucked away in the alley behind Joe’s Garage and Lurcat.” Alley Cat Cycles, now Cherry Cycles, was established in the alley around the same time, as was Minneapolis By Bike. Even the Loring Alley Rally, a collaboration between The Third Bird and Made Here Market, gave Loring Alley particular focus. It hosted dozens of craft vendors with musical performances, for seven consecutive Sundays in Summer 2015. Many conversations have featured fond memories of the overhead string lights, which seemingly disappeared from the alley after The Third Bird shuttered in early 2017. Each of these functions provided unique experiences in the alley, inevitably giving it a memorable identity.
The aforementioned Riverview neighborhood in Saint Paul has some odd, unnamed alleys. But we can deem the lost Green Stairs (1916-2008) as one of the more distinguished: a 20-foot public right-of-way extension of Hall Avenue that had a preceding wooden stairway, beginning in 1890. The now legendary stairway was always a pedestrian alley, connecting residents down to Wabasha Street. The path is almost certainly lost to history and neighborhood lore, as replacement plans fell through due to impediments in the state legislature.
Prior to my arrival as a resident of the Twin Cities, I regularly read Andy Sturdevant’s semiregular MinnPost column, The Stroll. One such piece in 2014 included a chronology of a diagonal alley in Saint Paul’s Hamline-Midway neighborhood, connecting Aldine and Wheeler Street, between Blair and Van Buren. Sturdevant, himself, deemed it Territorial Alley, highlighting its significance as a remaining vestige of the old Territorial Road. “This route has connected the steamboat landings in downtown St. Paul to the St. Anthony Falls in Minneapolis for over 150 years,” Sturdevant wrote, dating back to 1850 as a military road. While it certainly was not an alley then, this remaining segment certainly is. And it’s otherwise ordinary. Readership of his essays certainly have instilled names like Territorial Alley within the regional lexicon.
Contemporary Naming Practices: Learning from Other Cities
It’s never too late to start naming alleys. And there are good reasons why the Cities should consider it. Learning from other cities, we can better understand why.
Seattle has been the most concerted effort in alley revitalization, as the International Sustainability Institute initiated the Alley Network Project in 2008. The collaboration with Gehl Architects identified alleys in the Pioneer Square neighborhood as potentially great pedestrian spaces. In addition to creative programming in the alleys, a few of the spaces themselves were named. Nord Alley, for instance, was designated as a festival street by the City of Seattle, shutting it off to vehicle traffic on select days. Activating Alleys for a Lively City, the Seattle Integrated Alley Handbook, cites that ‘by naming alleys, we give them identity. From forgotten spaces, they become places in the community.”
Longtime Sacramento city councilperson Steve Cohn initiated public outreach in 2008 and 2009 to solicit feedback on potential alley names. His motivation for the process was such that residents could name the corridors more easily. Sacramento City Council amended the city’s addressing standards in 2009, so that they could include alleys in areas that were already fully developed. Council adopted the Central City alley naming resolution in 2011, desiring that names relate “to Sacramento’s history and character and to the multitude of influences that enrich Sacramento.”
And how about those cities that have historically named public alleys, like San Francisco, Philadelphia, or even Cincinnati? Those cities have alleys where locals and visitors alike have found their favorites. One of the Golden City’s most photogenic alleys happens to be Jack Kerouac Alley. The name certainly doesn’t hurt, having been renamed in 2007 after a longstanding proposal from the co-founder of a local bookstore. The proposal included conversion as a pedestrian walkway and lighting enhancements. More enhancements followed as it became a more celebrated space. The city’s Clarion Alley, located in the Mission District, has certainly gained a more prominent map marker, known for its plethora of political murals since 1992. The City of Brotherly Love has one of the oldest, continuously used residential streets in America – Elfreth’s Alley – paved with cobblestone and frequented by tourists as a National Historic Landmark. In my hometown of Cincinnati, a recent collaboration – between ArtWorks Cincinnati, Spring in Our Steps, and the community council – transformed previously unknown Bolivar Alley into a vibrant corridor of street art and mural works, which continues to evolve.
More Improvements Are Possible, Catalytic
We often think of alleys as where our trash, our secrets, and our privacy can be found. But, in order to improve the desirability of alleys for pedestrian use, there are several other methods that can be employed. Alley naming schemes can aid people on foot, particularly in commercial districts. They can help with crime prevention and reporting, as well as facilitating more targeted city service requests. Public art, a variety of paving techniques, and lighting can all transform an anonymous alley space into a place worth visiting. Alleys are can often be full of surprises, but we should embrace measures that will make these surprises ones that activate, captivate, and inspire.
I look forward to covering several more facets of public alley corridors in the Twin Cities, which may not seem as many, and how those lenses can be used to redefine their utility through walking, biking, and community dynamics. Future topics include shared streets/alleys, tactical urbanism, alley gates, accessory units, lighting techniques, historic paving, and maintenance.