#962: In Praise of Alleys

August 3rd, 2018

Sometimes they’re ugly.

Sometimes they’re dirty.

Sometimes they’re actually streets and once in a while they’re made of wood.

But I sing the alley electric.

Chicago came not to praise the alley, but to bury it. In garbage, in recycling dumpsters idiots keep putting plastic bags in, in rat patrol signs and plastic rat traps that appear to be Raid Hotels for the Templetons, Remys, Rizzos, ROUSes and NIMHbys of The Windy Second City On The Make, and, yes, a spot of pee when you’re coming back from the bars and home is just a liiiiiiitle too far away.

Chicago has 1,900 miles of alley, the city tells. For comparison, there are 4,000 miles of streets. If my math’s right, that means for every mile of street there’s 2,508 feet of alley. For every foot of road, there’s 5.7 inches of dumpster and rat trap.

We are the alley capital of America, sayeth a 2015 Curious City I would love to summarize here but even if you add a bunch of dumb jokes to someone else’s story it’s still plagiarism in my book I’m talking to you Jezebel and Gizmodo and that whole crowd.

But I praise the alley not for facts or figures but because the kids down the block had their dad spray paint a pentagonal home plate for Wiffle ball. I praise it because of the basketball hoops on odd garages and the old man down my block who spends weekends with the garage door open, tippling light beer and tinkering lovingly with his classic car.

I praise the alley for every hidden place it reveals, and for keeping our streets from being lined with garbage. I praise it because, dang it, that is in all cases the fastest walking route and at least the most interesting on bike.

A man was stabbed to death in the alley across from my office. He tried to take that shorter, faster route late at night and his family will pay for that forever. A secondary road map designed to hide all that’s ugly will catch ugly things. Rats crawl in alleys. The homeless die there. The same dark corners that preserve old painted signs and graffiti that glimmers with shine and promise can hide other things as well.

But people die in the streets too. And blaming an action on a feature of infrastructure incorporated into the city’s DNA since I&M canal commission hiree James Thompson platted an alley behind every not-yet-Chicago road in 1830 (OK, I’ll summarize the Curious City a bit) is a spurious bit of puff. Blaming a murder on an alley would be like blaming my neighbor kids’ love of Wiffle on the structure. An alley is a place both are made easier, but not the cause of either.

So I praise the alley and watch for the dark corners. I avoid the neighborhood pee and the downtown cigarette butts flicked from lips of office drones. I cut through on bike and foot and watch rats skitter by, knowing their equally diseased cousin the pigeon prowls the open air of more public avenues.

I like alleys because they feel like secrets and like the other half of what we are. The streets are what we try to be when we want to feel pretty. The alleys are who we are when we’re at home.

Read about a cabbie’s lies

Read about a Beverly bookshop

And about the time I found “The Jefferson Davis Coloring Book” in the alley behind my apartment building

Remember Templeton? “Charlotte’s Web”?

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