A Haven on the Block: Do gated alleys help or hurt neighborhood communities?

Neighborhoods in Baltimore have added gates to the ends of troubled alleys and transformed them into social spaces for residents.
By Stephanie Shapiro
Sunday, May 30, 2010

Junkies smoked crack in Lora Mayo's alley. At night, the space doubled as a public toilet. Once, a fleeing suspect tossed a gun onto Mayo's roof, and cops stormed up the rear steps. After someone tried to steal her charcoal grill, Mayo chained it to the deck railing.

In the 25 years that Mayo has lived in Baltimore's Washington Hill neighborhood, a short drive east of the city's Inner Harbor, nearby blocks succumbed to poverty and neglect. The ensuing tumult overflowed into her alley. Although she and her husband installed motion-sensor lighting and called police frequently, as did neighbors, nothing improved.

But about a year ago came the sounds of change, as artisans wielded a power drill to install graceful, wrought-iron gates at either end of the narrow passageway. It was the culmination of a 2-year effort to reclaim the troubled alley, abutted by the tiny back yards of eight rowhouses on one side and perpendicular to a single rowhouse on the other.

"When the gates came, we knew it was real," said Mayo, 56, an IT project manager for the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority. Once again, she could indulge in a favorite pastime -- reading on her second-floor, cast-iron deck.

Inspiration struck three years ago, when Mayo happened upon a nearby alley between North Luzerne Avenue and North Glover Street enclosed by handsome, custom-made iron gates. Peering in, she saw an inviting enclave with trees potted in colorful steel drums, park benches and well-tended gardens. Mayo recalled that she had read about gated alleys as an innovative buffer against urban ills.

When former neighbor Sharon Reynolds, who still owned and leased the house next door, sought Mayo's approval to install anti-climb spikes on the wall between the homes' back yards, Mayo proposed another solution: "Why don't we gate the whole alley?"

Reynolds, 35, readily agreed. She lived a mile away and diligently maintained the rental property on the vulnerable corner of East Baltimore and North Bond streets. Most of Mayo and Reynolds's neighbors approved of the gating idea, but not with the same ardor. It would take nearly a year of halting progress before the women discovered an invaluable source of support -- Community Greens, an initiative of the Arlington-based Ashoka, a foundation for social entrepreneurship.


Baltimore's nearly 600 miles of alleys -- originally conduits for the delivery of coal and other goods and services -- began to deteriorate in the 1950s, as middle-class families fled the city. For 40 years, a violent drug economy has flourished in that vacuum, destroying dozens of stable neighborhoods. Many alleys were left for dead. But where others see dead space, Community Greens sees potential for social renewal.

Piloting a program that it plans to replicate across the country, Community Greens promotes alleys as common ground where neighbors socialize, flowers bloom and children play. Gates are meant to define boundaries: Strangers are prohibited; residents have keys and are free to use the space. The alley gating process is designed to raise community pride and property values. Although no concerted alley gating campaign has emerged in the Washington area, Community Greens is supporting efforts among D.C. residents to plant greenways and rain gardens.

In Baltimore, there are 91 gating projects in development in three areas of the city undergoing concentrated gentrification. But proponents are finding that their brand of civic enterprise may not appeal to residents who say alleys are for trash collection, or to those skeptical of the activists' motives. In East Baltimore, an uneasy patchwork of destitution and affluence, a locked alley can signify different things to different people. Do the gates guard a sacred space or restrict freedom? Do they foster inclusiveness or exclusivity? Do they create a safe place for children or keep other kids out?

Mayo and Reynolds knew it wouldn't be easy to sway everyone, but the peaceful alleyway Mayo had stumbled upon gave them heart.

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