urban alleys 1

This might just be the most desolate alley in Denver.

Under the Evans Avenue Bridge and a stone’s throw from the railroad tracks, this is an absolutely forgotten urban place, complete with the requisite tires, mattresses and beer bottles amidst the waist-high tumbleweeds.

Most of Denver’s 4,000 alleys have been paved, and there are plans to pave the remaining 150 unimproved alleys by 2016. But the alleys are home to tens of thousands of dumpsters, which in turn attract illegal dumping, which in turn means plenty of scavenging.

But change is afoot. Last fall, the Rialto Cafe organized Brewer’s Alley, a beer-tasting event, in the alley behind the restaurant. Several plans are in the works to activate downtown alleys off of the pedestrian 16th Street Mall.

Urban passageways

urban alleys 2

Elfreth’s Alley, Philadelphia. Photo by Kjetil Ree.

Of course, alleys haven’t always been unkempt urban voids. Alleys are as old as cities themselves, and they started off as public spaces. Dating to the early 1700s,Elfreth’s Alley in Philadelphia is the oldest residential street in the country.

The word alley is more than 600 years old, owing its origin to the French alee, meaning ‘walking or passage,’ and aler, or ‘go.’ Walking and going are rarely what modern alleys are all about — but they inherently remain passages.

While U.S. cities have largely eschewed alley uses that don’t involve garbage or garages, pre-automobile cities all over the world have historic alleys that were meant for people, complete with housing, stores, restaurants, bars and parks.

It follows that many cities are trying to activate — or re-activate — their alleys and make them human-scale places, sometimes with restaurants, retail and outdoor art. Cities from Los Angeles to Washington, D.C., are activating alleys for temporary special events as well as making aesthetic and functional improvements for the long haul.

To read the rest and learn about Detroit’s alleys go to Southeast Michigan Startup!