The dark alley sat between two Bloomingdale rowhouses. Alex Caron-Schuler peered inside.
“I think it’s right here,” Caron-Schuler said softly. “Back here. They call it ‘the secret garden.’ ”
Caron-Schuler is 28. He is a government worker, a part-time bike messenger and an enthusiast for alleyways — behind-the-scenes labyrinths that are the veins of city neighborhoods.
Secluded and unpredictable, alleys were once feared as laid-brick hotbeds of bad behavior. But in a changing city, they are increasingly being re-imagined as repositories of communal whimsy.
Embracing the alleyway’s grit and intrigue is now viewed by the District as a possible path toward a more confident and vibrant urban life. A new city survey of historic side streets advocates leveraging the alleys’ special history and cultural significance to create community play spaces.
Already, alleys are the hidden sites in scavenger hunts. They are the sets for strange experiments by the city’s young creatives. They are the playground for middle-aged men who play childhood games. And they are usually busiest in the summer.
And, yes, there are secret gardens. On this muggy August night, the growl of traffic disappeared as Caron-Schuler walked up the alley. Before him was tranquil Crispus Attucks Park, bordered by bushes with small, purple flowers. Green grass glowed under city lights.
“Wow,” he said as he walked past a group of women sitting on blankets, eating humus and talking about the changing fabric of the city.
“This place didn’t used to be very nice, but the neighbors came together and cleaned it up,” Megan Woods, 31, explained to new members of the Lutheran Volunteer Corps. “This is where I met all my neighbors. One of them was named Shoes, and I have no idea if that’s his real name. I didn’t care to find out because I liked that his name was Shoes.”
Above a field of dried daisies, Caron-Schuler noticed another rare find flying above.
“Whoa,” he said. “Was that a bat?”
The invisible alleyways have long been tied to the city’s development. Historians note that alleys, conceived as outposts for horse stables and back entrances for affluent homes, became living spaces for unskilled workers and black residents during a population boom after the Civil War. Most of the dwellings built in them were cramped, rickety and had no indoor plumbing.
The conditions were a type of blight that civil rights activist Malcolm X once said he had seen nowhere else.
“I had seen a lot [of alleys], but never such a dense concentration of stumble bums, pushers, hookers, public crap-shooters, even little kids running around at midnight begging for pennies, half-naked and barefooted,” he wrote in his autobiography.
As the borders of the city expanded, federal officials demolished alley homes and dispersed those communities. Alleyways in Georgetown were spruced up. But as parts of the city decayed, alleys in neighborhoods such as Shaw, Capitol Hill and LeDroit Park became the turf of drugs dealers, gangs and prostitutes. The fruits of the city’s underground economy were harvested behind the neighborhood facade.
Those problems linger today, but Blagden Alley near Ninth and L streets NW is so popular that a developer is trying to build 140 microunits catering to single residents with six-figure salaries. The alley already features a fine-
dining restaurant with 24-course meals, a barre fitness studio and a gourmet coffee shop.
Alley life has become so intriguing that the city in May released a report looking at the alleys constructed as a part of the city’s original L’Enfant plan. The survey counted at least 1,240 alley buildings remaining west of the Anacostia. The district’s preservation office, which compiled the report, recommended naming the city’s alleys and using them for activities, fairs and playgrounds.
But residents have already started that.
Five years ago, Winston Hoy and his roommates in his group house, known as the Embassy to the People’s Republic of Free-Thinking Radistan, decided to spruce up a section of their alley in Petworth. They planted some potatoes and plants and installed a bench made of tree stumps and wood planks.
Within a week, the 26-year-old visual artist recalled, the bench had been flipped over and was surrounded by used condoms.
He and his friends removed the bench. “But we really wanted to find some good uses for the space, so we kept trying,” Hoy said.
A few years later, the Radistanians decided the alley would be the best place to make use of baked muffins so tough they might withstand the smack of a baseball bat. Turns out, they did. So the group started to play Muffinball. In the summer of 2013, they played a similar game with a loaf of bread.
Laurenellen McCann, 27, recalled thinking that alleys were so desolate that she could run a boulder down one without anyone interfering.
“And then I thought, ‘Is that an insane thing or is that awesome?’ ” said McCann, who is founder of a public art and technology organization called the Curious Citizens Project.
Two years ago, McCann applied for grants to buy an inflatable ball 10 feet in diameter. She wanted the ball to look like the boulder in the Indiana Jones movie, so she stapled some brown sheets around it and pushed it down an alley outside her Woodley Park apartment. Her friends ran in front of it, a la Indy Jones. Neighbors came out to chat. Children asked to have a turn running in front of the boulder. A crowd gathered; some people brought food.
“It became an impromptu barbecue,” McCann said.
“Adults lack play environments that aren’t sexual or related to alcohol,” she said. “In an urban environment, when there’s so much more potential, we do need some experiences that seem crazy but actually allows residents to create shared narratives — even if they are shared narratives based on magic.”
Through the experience, McCann learned about the life of the alley. Couriers skirted through on their bike routes. Trucks used them to make deliveries. Pedestrians raced through on shortcuts. It wasn’t just an empty, unused space, McCann said, but a durable part of the lifeblood of the neighborhood.
On Capitol Hill, families have embedded the alley into their lives. They sit there, read books there, garden there.
Attorney David Hall, 57, made birch boards with a single hole in them. He set them in his alley, near A Street and Seventh Street SE, and began tossing bags filled with two cups of corn into the holes.
A year later, a group of neighbors leave their homes when they hear the thud of bags to play cornhole. They bring their children, who play the game along with their parents.
“This is how we get to feel a part of community now,” Hall said. “We get together, play together and talk about politics and our schools. Especially the schools.”
“We’ll play for hours,” said Chris Floyd, 45, who works in the restaurant industry. “Until our wives start calling to tell us we need to come home.”
On the other end of the alley, teenagers are playing a round of cornhole on their own. Elementary schoolers buzz around. When one curly-haired child accidently threw his bouncy ball on top of a garage, he grabbed his face and yelled, “Why does this keep happening to me?!”
Whitney Paxson watched and smiled.
“So, seeing this is so meaningful,” said Paxson, a 38-year-old schoolteacher. She grew up two doors away. She remembered playing soccer on this block as a child — until a neighbor told the kids that the alley was no place for children.
Now, Paxson’s three children play there, laughing along with other kids and neighbors she trusts, reclaiming a neighborhood space that was once forbidden.