WELL-HIDDEN from public view for nearly a century, virtually in the shadows of the nation's capitol, there existed an arrangement of alley dwellings, predominantly inhabited by black people whose lifestyle was universally scorned and neglected.
The need for housing in the District of Columbia grew rapidly in the mid-19th century, especially after the Civil War, but transportation was not sufficiently advanced to permit people to live beyond walking distance from their jobs. It was necessary to make intensive use of the available space, so that the powerful and affluent often lived in remarkable physical proximity to the poor and destitute, most of whom were black and either migrants or the descendants of migrants. Builders made use of the Federal City's large blocks by constructing middle-or upper-class houses on the streets; on narrow alleys behind these houses they built small dwellings that faced each other. This dichotomy, black/white, upper-class/lower-class, was a logical though significantly altered extension of the plantation-slave quarters arrangement.
The conventional thought of historians and social scientists has long been that the failure of these migrant blacks to adapt to the urban environment led to a breakdown of their primary institutions. James Borchert's daring, innovative and iconoclastic study, Alley Life in Washington, challenges that point of view. In his challenge Borchert systematically explores the world of the black alley dweller, examining the history of the alley dwelling, family, community, childhood, work patterns, religion and folklife. He bolsters his argument from many sources, using a large number of photographs, demographic studies, oral and written testimony, newspaper stories, government records such as health reports and building permits, and the studies of other academics. His central premise is that the black migrants maintained and adapted their life-styles, social organization and world view in ways that promoted continuity and survival in a harsh, insensitive and shamefully racist environment.
The alley family, Borchert convincingly illustrates, was characteristically a two-parent, male-headed household. Though employment opportunities for the largely unskilled favored the black woman, the confidence of the men was not necessarily undermined, because the women did not always accept the outsider's definition of the breadwinner. Similarities in income and living space did not prohibit variation in the outlooks, aspirations and values of the families. Down the narrow corridors of any alley one would likely find that "some are coarse migrants, some suspicious and bitter, and others gracious and "some are coarse migrants, some suspicious and bitter, and others gracious and poised," to quote a 1946 health study of four alleys in Washington. The sense of family among the alley dwellers was strong -- not weakened but strengthened by their plight. To manage, one of the most common strategies involved "taking in" relatives and friends, creating a network where bloodline, familiarity and friendship ranked equal with and become a functional definition of family. Such networks were invaluable and indispensable security valves in times of financial, emotional and physical stress.
The alley community was an important institution to those who lived there because it legitimized a value system that did not apply in the outside world. While it was difficult to find a place in the larger society, in the alley there was a sense of sovereignty and power as well as security. In the alley blacks were decidedly not invisible men, women and children. As one resident said, "I knows where I'm at here in the alley . . . . Most of us is poor and live in bad houses but we has a good time." The alley houses, much like the lives of their inhabitants, were not disorganized, Borchert explains. lRather they were often organized on the basis of function and utility. Using photographs to back up his point, he shows how single rooms were adapted: a bed could be made into a couch during the day; or a trunk might serve as the bottom of a bed, thus combining storage space and sleeping facilities.
Alley residents were able to maintain their old cultural patterns in the new environment, adapting and adjusting when necessary. Religious activity was active and grounded in a realistic connection between the sacred and secular worlds. "Like everything else in alley life," Borchert writes, "religion was a physical and emotional experience, as opposed to the more 'intellectual,' reserved religious services found in established white and black churches." Like the adults, the children often adjusted the culture of the larger society to fit their needs and to accommodate their values and ways of looking at the world. These song lyrics give humorous and insight examples of "cultural adjustments" made by an alley youth: My country 'tis of thee I Live in Germany My name is France Hot dogs and sauer Kraut Joe Louis knocked Schmelling out So what is there to cry about Let Freedom ring.
Alley Life in Washington is first-rated, definitive and a welcomed addition to that short shelf of books that places high value on black life at the folk level. It deserves the attention of all those seriously interested in black and urban life.