The Mysterious Charms of D.C.'s Alleys Exploring the other city behind the streets

We often hear about how D.C. is divided: East of the river vs. west. Neighborhoods vs. downtown. National capital vs. independent municipality.

But the city is also divided into two worlds that are much more integrated with each other, yet entirely separate: Interior vs. exterior. That is, the face that buildings expose to the street, and the semi-private world behind them, accessible only through the not-quite-streets that trace through the center of a block.

Alleys occupy a special place in D.C.’s history. Unlike in older cities, where alley dwellings were constructed later as real estate pressures mounted, ours were built in conjunction with middle-class housing in the years of the city’s rapid expansion following the Civil War. They housed thousands of poorer residents in tiny dwellings packed into narrow lots that bore little resemblance to the tidy facades fronting the street. “It is a case of Dr. Jekyl and Mr. Hyde in brick and wood, a dual nature incorporated in a prosaic city square,” read a 1909 account of alley life.

Following the creation of the Alley Dwelling Authority in 1934—the city’s first public housing agency—most of these slums were swept away as new housing was created on the edges of the city’s core. Decades later, remnants of that history have been sanitized and elevated to treasured interior spaces, like Blagden Alley and Naylor Court in Shaw, which now houses the D.C. Office of Public Records.

Today’s alley exploration is an unpredictable enterprise. It’s easy to find entrances into the guts of blocks if you’re looking for them; you just have to take a hard right or left when an opening appears. It’s impossible to know where the twists and turns will lead. Backtracking is inevitable. Emerging on the other side of the block is disorienting—even familiar streets look entirely foreign when entered from a different angle.

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A willingness to get lost, however, is worth it—a neighborhood’s alleys tell its secrets. Those in Tenleytown are broad and uniform, with occasional glimpses of backyard luxuries: a trailered sailboat, a giant trampoline. Behind Sherier Place NW in Palisades, the street’s inner hippie nature is showcased as pastoral-feeling backyards blend into each other, fence-free. Those backing the taller buildings in the irregular blocks of Dupont Circle are like forests, enclosing zealously-guarded parking spaces. Then, of course, there are the airless caverns downtown, filled with cigarette butts and grease traps and last night’s trash.

But all of them are the more relaxed expression of this uptight metropolis, the spaces that the City Beautiful forgot and can’t control. From this perspective, even the most manicured neighborhoods are embroiled in home maintenance projects, their refuse spilling into walkways. Rowhouses are ramshackle, with awkward additions and rusting cars. On summer evenings, smells of dinner waft out from barbecues and kitchens, making it difficult not to walk up steep staircases and invite oneself in.

It’s that intimacy that separates D.C.’s alleys from its formal rights-of-way. Running into another human being while walking in an alley, you have no choice but to acknowledge their presence. You might also want to hurry on—their business could be personal.

Riding slowly through an alley behind Wisconsin Avenue NW in Georgetown, I come upon an elegantly-attired man leaning on a railing, smoking a cigarette and gazing at the ground in front of him. It’s a dead end, and I can’t escape before he spots me. “I’m just watching my dog,” he says, smiling, and gesturing at a small terrier.

Not sure what to say, I wish him a good evening and turn to find my way out.

“Happy Easter!” he calls out after me.

Photo Slideshow: The Other City

Our Readers Say

I'm so happy you mentioned alleys in the Palisades! I was driving through there the other night and was amazed out how out of DC I felt - lovely!!
Would enjoy this more if I wasn't having to clear away the pop-up ad on every photo!
Back in the mid 70's we would go "alley cruising" late at night with my friend Nickey B. The alleys were full of those old metal trash cans and he'd plow though them with his early 60's big cars without abandon. Kapow!
Wonderful article. I have been through hundred's of the alleys in DC (work related) and I have found this to be true.
These alley's are really fascinating now, but there is a period not mentioned in the transition from dwelling to alley way. During this period the allies were mostly used for dumping grounds by multible sources and were extremely rodent infested and very repulsive not to mention several other unhealthy conditions, it was through the efforts of the cities sanitation enforcement that people are able to enjoy today's alley ambiguities. Alley way's if not monitored can very easily return to those conditions.
LOVE THE "POOPY" SHOT!

MS. LYDIA WOULD HAVE LOVED FOR YOU TO DELVE IN A LIL DEEPER AND GIVE FOLK A LESSON IN DC HISTORY REGARDING ALLEY'S, THEIR ORIGNAL PURPOSE AND THE MANY INFLUENTIAL ALLEYWAYS & THRUWAYS THAT ARE HERE IN THIS CITY. HOWEVER I'LL SETTLE FOR THE QUICK EXPLORATION. NICE WORK!

YOU'VE BEEN KILLIN 'EM LATELY WITH YOUR SUBMISSIONS. LEAVING THE LIKES OF SEWERMAN AND RENDERING SMITH IN YOUR DUST. NOW DONT GET ALL WIDE EYED AND BUSHY TAILED LIKE MS. MANDY AND HOP YOUR ASS IN THE OPEN AND GET SNATCHED UP BY SOME HAWK.
Austin: We're still figuring out how to balance the ads with the photos in the gallery layout. Obviously we have to show you some advertisements to keep the lights on, but we don't want to be irritating either. They're beautiful photos and we don't want to detract from that. We'll continue to try to improve it. If anyone has feedback or suggestions about the layout, please feel free to email me: wmitchell@washingtoncitypaper.com.
This was quite interesting (loved "poopy"), but really, it seems that more than half of them are in Adams Morgan or the immediate surrounding neighborhoods. And only one from outside of Northwest! Come on people, there's a lot more to the city than the area right near City Paper's building. I live in Southeast, and love to go alley "picking" sometimes in the early morning on the weekends. Believe me, there are some things as interesting, and some far more so, in the alleys of NE and SE. You should send Charles or Darrow down to check it out.
Nice *pink* blurb. Didn't mention any of the SE alleys -- and that could include Cap Hill -- or da "soufside" alleys. The alleys of Ward 7 & 8 are different in ways that would have fit in with a real effort here. For example, there are unpaved alleys in East Washington that would have added a nice visual being it is spring. Can't we get an alley shot of Historic Anacostia? Those streets are actually older than the streets of Mt. Pleasant. But what makes you *pink* is the dependence and reliance on your existence being the frame of reference for all history.

Also, our pink writer made reference to a 1909 book. It's at (or was) Bartlebys for around $1000 but you can read on google here --> http://bit.ly/iGy4qx

Neglected neighbors: stories of life in the alleys, tenements and shanties ... By Charles Frederick Weller, Eugenia Winston Weller
The 1998 movie "Slam" captures an interesting aspect of daytime alley life in Eastern Market.
Thankyou Noodlez! You're right, there's a lot more to say about the history of DC's alleys. Here's a great book if anyone wants to learn more:

http://books.google.com/books?id=w3tYFbLx3bAC&printsec=frontcover&dq=alley+life+in+washington+james+borchert&source=bl&ots=lMfRjT5jyt&sig=NvbpyHaxPTCMZpjMN0i9Stjv1uQ&hl=en&ei=asy5TabhC-Lf0QGm9eHRDw&sa=X&oi=book_result&ct=result&resnum=1&ved=0CBYQ6AEwAA#v=onepage&q&f=false
Lydia: http://bit.ly/
CapCity, you sound like my daddy talking about "pink." LOL But you're right: maybe City Paper can't afford to send its reporters anywhere that's not near a Metro stop. Or hire any who've lived in the city more than 10 years.

I grew up in Woodridge, and alleys were our playgrounds. We rode our bikes there, played kickball there (always hoping that the ball didn't end up in a yard that had a mean dog or a mean grown-up living there), and drew our hopscotch grids on them.
wish you went to other places besides georgetown, palisades, dupont, logan, and adams morgan. there are alleys everywhere in DC.

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