25 things vanishing in America, part 2: Alleys

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Back in the days before playgrounds, dog parks, and play dates, city kids played in a space unmatched for variety, challenge and mystery -- the alley. When city blocks were bisected by these primitive roads giving access to back yards, garages, gardens, burn cans and trash, we lived in anticipation of the treasures, secrets and adventures we'd discover wandering the neighborhood alleys.

Today, virtually no housing developments incorporate alleys. The narrow pathways seem now to be a threat to our security, an intrusion on the privacy of our back yard, and an additional cost to the city budget. We proudly present our three-car garage doors to the street and hide our trash in wheeled green containers.

The city alley was not just a playground, however. It helped bring a neighborhood together. Shade tree mechanics working in the alley benefited (or suffered from) the advice of all those who could watch his progress from their kitchen windows. Gardeners could compare the progress of their tomatoes, cabbage and zucchini to their neighbors, and, if superior, mention it the next time they engaged in over-the-fence conversations.

The alley also provided a way to provide services without diminishing the appearance of the house's street face. Telephone, electric, gas and water lines all ran through or beneath the alley, and if major repairs were needed, the streets were not out of commission for weeks on end.

The greatest value of the alley, however, in my humble opinion, was that it revealed how neighbors really lived. A home owner can keep up a false front to the street, but the back of a house will infallibly identify the hoarder, the anal retentive, the sports nut, the non-recycler or the mystic. Those of us who grew up with alleys had fewer misconceptions about the expansive variety of human living habits.

There is a reason that alleys are mentioned so often in stories and legends. A street is just a street, but alleys can serve as touchstones for an entire society.

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