Life in the Alley

Growing up in small town, rural Connecticut, the word alley conjured up dark, dank stretches of illicit goings-on in a big city such as, say, New York.

My six years in St. Paul, Minnesota rid me of that association. In St. Paul, like in our first Chicago neighborhood over in Lake View, alleys were clean, bright stretches of car-parking and garbage collecting. And that’s about it. I love the alley concept, I have to tell you. A residential block is so much more attractive sans driveways and garages, and how lovely not to have trash and recycling bins strewn along the sidewalk all day every Friday. When you are on a stroll with small children it is a relief not to have to punctuate every conversation with a screamed, “Stop at every driveway! Guys…that was a driveway!!” as I had to do in San Francisco.

But here in Rogers Park, in our little slice of heaven between Sheridan Road and Lake Michigan, the alley has an entire life of its own. I think it deserves its own book, but for now a blog post will have to suffice.

There are actual intersections – with stop signs! – in our alley, because alleys have been cut through between buildings, going north-south in addition to east-west. So it’s like a small neighborhood within the neighborhood. Pedestrians pass through at all hours of the day and night, presumably because it’s quieter to travel through our alley than to walk along Sheridan (and no traffic lights).

Some visitors to the alley are pleasantly quiet, just biking, jogging, or walking through. One warm evening we had the door to the deck open while I made dinner, and Baxter sat out there reading. A 3rd grade teacher happened to bicycle by and stopped to chat with him about what he was reading. I went out to see who he was talking to and had a nice conversation with her. Okay, so that was very nice, if surprising.

But others: not so quiet. On warm spring weekend nights, rowdy Loyola students weave their way back to campus or the frat house down the street, laughing raucously outside our window and we wake with a start. You see, our condo is on the first floor and our bedroom windows face the alley.

Drivers seem to think that they can avoid slowing down before reaching the sidewalk out front if only they honk 3-4 times as they approach it. Again, that approach? Outside our window.

This morning, as Matt got dressed after his shower, three homeless men got into a loud, cursing brawl just a couple feet away from him because, as one rummaged through our dumpster, another apparently stole his cigarettes. I heard the ruckus from the kitchen and hadn’t bothered to see what was going on, but Matt filled me in. And he said something that stuck with me all day: imagine this going on outside the window of someone living in the suburbs. Really. Imagine it – three down-and-out men in tattered clothes are rummaging through people’s trash, stealing each other’s cigarettes, and hollering expletives at each other. As Matt pointed out, the cops would’ve been called before those guys had even made it to the trash cans! But here? In our alley? I don’t even bother to go look out the window; I just keep making breakfast!

It’s not like it’s attractive out there, either. Most buildings, like ours, have their parking spaces out back along the alley. Buildings that have gorgeous facades on the street side look completely different in the back; the alley shows the seedier side of each house or multi-unit building.

And yet it really is a little neighborhood of its own. It’s where we are meeting all of our neighbors. Where I rendezvous with a friend for a 6:30 AM walk by the lake on a regular basis, and where the boys and I often wave up to little Anya on her deck when we come home at night. Quite often I choose to leave the house through the alley instead of the far grander front entrance because there are friendly people to talk to out there all the time, coming and going. They wave hello, introduce themselves, feed us tidbits about our new building and the neighborhood. Neighbors are washing their cars, heading out to walk their dogs at the beach, taking their kids out to play. Standing around talking with each other. The alley is the hub of neighborhood activity.

At any given moment, neighbors are chatting and – dare I say it? – actually building community out there in that alley. And you know? Just as I don’t imagine the homeless would be seen rummaging through the trash, I don’t see that happening in the suburbs, either.

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7 responses to “Life in the Alley

  1. Those stop signs? Installed by the very people who used to live in your condo unit (not the city!!). And the yellow lines painted on the street for said stop signs? Painted by Wally who lives in our building (first floor east side).

    Brawls? Well, we’re counting on those incidents to teach Anya her swear words, ’cause of course we won’t. (Ha, ha).

    Noise? All I can say is that 9 months later, I do not wake up anymore to the sounds of drunk Loyola students. And I’m a light sleeper! Amen! ANd at least our windows don’t open up to an “L” stop–can you imagine? Ding, Attention Customers, an Inbound train towards the loop is arriving shortly. Yikes!

    Community being built? Definitely. I can’t imagine the solitude of a spacious yard and lack of conversation (like the woman in the alley just today who told me she adores Anya’s curls) that the suburbs seem to offer. Its great for others, but its just not for us.

    Oh–and who would have let me into my house today had you not been in the ALLEY???

  2. Another interesting side effect is that, while I know all my neighbors across the alley, I couldn’t pick my neighbors across Columbia out of a line-up. If we had a Columbia Avenue block-party, I’d only know the people in our building.

    Also of note is that someone in our building threw out a double-basin sink this week. So now, every time a scavenger pokes around in our dumpster, they spend an extra few minutes trying to figure out if it’s worth hoisting the damn thing out of the trash. Which is loud. And often accompanied by mumbling and/or cursing. Note to neighbors: anything that might be salvaged should just be left next to the dumpster — it will make life easier for everyone.

  3. Oh my God! How did the Prells get those stop signs? They are real City of Chicago signs – did they steal ’em?? And we LOVE that Wally painted the stop lines – we call that a “Wally Stop” now. 😉 You’re right, it would be worse to live by an L stop. However, being on the first floor places us that much closer to the crazy folks in the alley – we could literally talk in our regular voices and have a conversation with them! So when someone shouts just a few feet from our bed – esp. with the windows open – there’s no way we’ll sleep through it!!

  4. Aaron Spevacek

    My favorite Loyola student moment… Two women, hopefully drunk, but otherwise just really silly walking down the alley singing their favorite Disney songs until one had to pee. There was a quick and loud discussion about what song would go best and we all got the senarenade.

    Aaron

  5. Christopher Tassava

    This post and those comments take me back! We had an alley in Minneapolis, but it was nothing special – just a way to get to your garage.

    On the other hand, our apartment in Lakeview overlooked a great dead-end alley that was teeming with life. I knew I wasn’t in St. Paul anymore when, one evening, I looked down from our landing and saw at least a half-dozen small animals darting around. Looking closer, they were all rats. Big, gray-brown Norway rats. Shoebox-sized rat traps appeared in the alley shortly thereafter.

    Some of the buildings that backed onto the alley had little gated courtyards that, come Cubs season, hosted loud libation-intensive parties. Plowing the alley out after snowstorms was an impossibility, given the dead-endness of it.

    And, yeah, every once in a while – often around the turn of a month, especially in the summer, when seemingly everyone moved at once – homeless and/or indigent people would comb the dumpsters for goodies. So would this filthy guy driving a rickety 70s-era pickup truck that he’d fitted with six-foot-high wooden walls – the better to take stuff like that sink, scrap ductwork, refrigerators, et cetera. City livin!

  6. Either the guy with the rickety pickup truck combs the whole north side every day or he has inspired his friends to do the same; we see a truck of that exact description every day. Just this afternoon we watched it drive by our bedroom windows and burst out laughing at the absurdity of it!

  7. This has nothing to do with alleys, but my favorite Loyola student moment was walking down Sheridan in about 1999. Two girls are looking at fabulous condos being rehabbed right on SW corner of Sheridan and Morse and discussing its fabulous sounding accoutrements.

    Student A: I could live there.
    Student B: Yeah, but you’d have to live in the ghetto.

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