Alley, Alley in Free

(Library Of Congress Photo Via Associated Press)

By Karen Tanner Allen
Special to The Washington Post
Saturday, January 7, 2006

Dorcas Adkins loves the alley behind her Tenleytown house; she knows more alley neighbors than people across the street.

In contrast, Ursula McManus and other residents of a Northwest Washington neighborhood not far away say their alley is unpaved, unkempt and dark, and they want it closed.

"It's no longer useful," said McManus, who lives at 38th and Jocelyn streets NW, and has been active in the petition drive to close her alley. "It's home to a mother and father raccoon and four babies, one possum with one baby, and it's very overgrown."

Long a fixture of D.C. residential life, alleys are gaining in popularity in the "traditional neighborhood developments" in the wider metropolitan area. They also show up in parts of some older suburban communities, such as Alexandria and Arlington in Virginia, or Laurel and Hyattsville in Maryland.

Alleys aren't usually on the checklist of features prospective homebuyers consider, according to real estate brokers.

"It's not a big enough deal, if you find the right house," said Don Denton, manager of Coldwell Banker's office in Capitol Hill, a neighborhood laced with centuries-old alleys.

But they become a factor when it becomes time to actually live in a house. Denton, for one, appreciates that the narrow pedestrian alley behind his own Capitol Hill house gives him direct access to his rear yard. Without it, he would have to haul 30 bags of garden mulch through his house twice a year.

Historically, alleys were integrated into city grids to provide access for garbage, emergencies and vehicles. Many houses built with alleys behind them have -- or had -- detached single-car garages in the rear. In older parts of the city, including Georgetown and Capitol Hill, there are still signs of stables, servants' quarters and carriage houses that had been located on alleys and have been converted for other uses.

From the Civil War and into the 1930s, alleys became dwelling areas for the District's poor; at one time as many as 25,000 people lived in slums on alleyways, according to some accounts. These areas were generally without water, heat, electricity and sewerage service. By the turn of the last century, most alley dwellers were African Americans who worked in low-paying jobs in construction or as domestics. Congress enacted the Alley Dwelling Elimination Act in 1934, which included a provision to build alternative low-cost housing elsewhere, and alley housing was practically eliminated by the mid-1950s.

Today, you can walk the city's alleys and glimpse behind-the-scenes Washington: gardens, as well as rear additions where people stow their stuff or play.

Over the 25 years that Adkins has lived on Albemarle Street NW, the alley has been the site of block parties and progressive dinner parties, where residents just stroll out their back doors for their next course. Many residents have rear gardens, and the alley gardeners trade notes, shovels and dirt. Adkins uses her bicycle frequently -- she works for the Washington Area Bicyclist Association -- and often rides through the alley to or from her house.

"We really come and go completely by the alley," said Adkins, who raised three children in Tenleytown. "I know all my alley neighbors and I know very few of the ones on [my] street." She also appreciates having space along the alley for her car, in a part of town where street parking can be hard to find.

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