The City of Bellingham, in Washington State, where I live, is a city of alleys. More precisely, the part of Bellingham that was built before the Second World War is a city of alleys, that portion of the city which lies more or less between the waterfront and the big highway that heads south to Seattle and north to Canada and Vancouver, arcing around the old core of Bellingham as it whizzes past us at 75 miles per hour.
The rectilinear city plan that gives rise to our alleys is as old as civilization. The first time a king decided to plan his city in the years before 2600 BC when Mohenjo-daro was built on this plan in the Indus valley, he drew in one great road from north to south, and crossed it by a second road of equal grandeur running between the east and the west, the rising and the setting sun. In ancient Egypt, it is said, the great roads represented King and God, and the two became one and the same in the plaza where the two roads met. The cardinal points, North, South, East, and West are well known to all early men who attended to the habits of the sun and the stars, and so this alignment of streets arises perfectly, naturally, aligned with the universe. From the crossing of the two great roads arises equally naturally a grid of smaller roads, dividing the city into rectangular blocks, themselves divided this way and that.
The alleys and lanes of the ancient world and even of the not-so-ancient world, though ubiquitous, differ from the American Alley. The lanes and alleys of antiquity, up into the 19th century, were made as accesses to, as it were, front doors of things. A narrow lane leads to a courtyard onto which spill the entrances of 2 or 20 buildings, another alley wends its way from one thoroughfare to another, providing access to a storefront here, a dwelling there, and so on. The American Alley, probably not unique in the world but at any rate distinctive, is not meant to give access to the front of anything, but rather to the rear.
There are hints that this alley structure is connected to slavery, or to the newfangled notion that cities might provide some sorts of services (garbage removal, and so on) to homes. It might simply have been a fad. Regardless of reasons, for some decades when cities and towns were platted here in the United States the blocks were made rectangular, the lots were made narrow and deep. These long slices of land fronted on a street and backed on an alley that ran the length of the block, parallel to the street, but removed from it, separate, hidden.
Old Bellingham, where I live, was built in that interval, after the American Civil War, and before the second of the Great Wars. My house was built in 1921. Ancient, by American standards; practically brand-new by the standards of everywhere else.
The rear of the deep lots was used for latrines, at first, and then when sewer lines were run, the plumbing of the house was led to the mainline buried in the alley. The rear of the lot stored heaps of junk, refuse, (it sometimes still does), as well as becoming a space for housing the poor. Landlords might build additional dwellings on the lot’s excess space in the back, the undesirable space, the hidden space, and rent it out cheaply. In some cities, shanty towns sprang up in and along alleys. This led, inevitably, to the removal of alleys from the design language of the modern urban environment here in the USA. The alley consumed space unnecessarily, reducing profits, and was anyways an unsightly, unsanitary, and altogether despicable space. The curved streets of modern coved design save even more paving and infrastructure cost, and together with the front-mounted double or triple garage optimize new neighborhoods for the automobile, for God, and for Country.
But back to Bellingham.
Old Bellingham has alleys, down the middle of every block. These serve as access paths for services: for garbage removal (trash, recycling, compostable waste, spent cooking oil), for stormwater drainage, for sewer drainage, for the delivery over standing infrastructure of natural gas, of electrical power, of telephone and cable television services. Some of the alleys provided routes for trolley cars for public transportation if the vestigial rails are to be believed.
My alley does not have rails. It does not have poles for power, or cable, or telephone. To be perfectly honest, I am unsure where the natural gas lines run. But my alley is not without purpose, without use. On the contrary, and paradoxically, it is more functional by far than the front of our house.
My alley is tee-shaped, I live on the vertical stroke of the tee which is about 480 feet long, and 12 feet wide. Added to the 12-foot width are setbacks of widths varying from a few inches to a few feet, but the concrete pad of the alley itself is 12 feet in width. The top of the tee parallels a major thoroughfare through Bellingham, and is about 290 feet long, and still 12 feet wide. While the alley feels rather wide and not very long, it is instructive to draw it out to scale, to see how narrow it really is, and how deep the lots are. It is in no way the plaza that it can feel like.
Because the park is thataway because Nelson’s Market is located at the end of my alley because school is thataway, we find ourselves exiting the house most often out the back door, across the shabby lawn, through the gate, and then this way or that up or down the alley. Downtown, and the other park, and the grocery store we favor is the other way. The front door is not unused, but less so.
The alley is the artery through which trash service is delivered. Each Tuesday morning, three alley-filling blue trucks, one after the other, grumble and snort their way slowly the length of the alley, with assorted bangs and clanks, with occasional rhythmic announcements of a truck in reverse gear. I like to imagine the show would delight Garfield Wood. In the first decades of the 20th century, Gar Wood was a builder of truck bodies and invented much of the machinery in use for trash collection, in between (and presumably to fund) his side business in building exceedingly high-performance racing boats. Many of the highly collectible and expensive “woodies” still roaring about the lakes of the eastern USA bear the name Garwood on the transom. My wife’s family has vacationed for four generations in Wolfeboro, on Lake Winnipesaukee, where there is a restaurant named for Garfield Wood, or perhaps for his light, fast, and very beautiful wooden boats. Gar held more patents than any other living American at one point in his prolific career. Gar’s career overlaps neatly with the history of the old core of Bellingham, it happens.
But, back to my garbage.
One truck is for ordinary trash destined to the landfill, a compactor truck with a hydraulic arm on each side for lifting and dumping the bins. The driver still has to hop in and out to align bins, but I dare say the arms conserve his energy. He seems to appreciate it when I put the camera down to straighten up a few bins for him. The “green waste” truck, collecting compostable materials, requires the operator to wheel the bins around to the back and hook them on to the dump mechanism. It is best for him if you set your bin out reversed, handle facing the alley. The truck for recyclables is, strangely, without lifts or compactors, relying on a burly young man to heft the bins up, dump them by hand, and from time to time climb up into the bed of the truck and compact the load by stomping on it.
The trash service and its collection of hungry bins require regular trips from the house to the alley with little bags and containers of various items to be disposed of, a more or less daily chore, another reason we find ourselves crossing that shabby lawn, opening the gate, and stepping into the alley.
Most of us, on our block, park a car in the rear, on the alley. Rarely in the garage, which is used for bikes, for storage. The garage can, invariably, be locked, for security. Many of the neighbors have a back yard garden that extends into the alley, at least slightly. A row of lavender outside the fence, an apple tree or raspberry cane that extends over the boundary, poppies, vines, irises to dress up an otherwise bleak wall.
I find myself often holding a bag or bin, talking to a neighbor holding shears or a trowel, a neighbor in the midst of coming, or of going. The weather, the neighbors, rumors of houses on the block selling, or might be sold, whether the new tenants in the place up the alley are going to be trouble. We step aside every few minutes for a car crunching slowly up or down, usually a resident, but sometimes an outsider cutting through, perhaps leaving from Nelson’s Market where the parking lot abuts the alley.
My neighbor across-the-alley tends to the stray cats. We have a number of rental properties up and down our alley, usually rented by the room to college students. Their comings and goings with cycle of the school year produce a side effect of leftover cats each spring, which really ought to be caught, spayed or neutered, and cared for. K, across the alley, has taken this on with a little support and assistance from some of the other neighbors. The cats are all amiable, but variously friendly. Regardless of mood and spirit and season the cats are always present.
The cats do become rather more scarce in the winter months. The days here are short in winter, 8 hours plus or minus a little bit, from November through January, during which months we are overcast and drizzling on most days. We get 6 inches or so of rain in each of those three months, usually in a constant drip but occasionally in one clamorous outburst of violent weather as a swirling low-pressure system strikes the mainland and bounces up the coast. The cats do not appreciate these conditions much, and so they are substantially less a presence in the alley.
The rain does present certain technical problems. There is enough of it, as well as sufficient groundwater, to make drainage a matter of constant interest. Stormwater is managed and collected as it gathers on our roofs, plunging down drain pipes at the corners to the ground. Failure to manage it past that point results, invariably, in watery basements. Therefore we direct it with french drains, with pipes, with grades and ditches, generally leading it either to the street in front or the alley to the rear.
The alley is shaped to direct the water down to the master drain at the end of the block. Our city’s code suggests that the vee shaped profile of our alley should have a 3% grade from edge to center, to channel water suitably. This works out to the middle of the vee, centered in the 12-foot wide slab, at about 1.5 inches lower than the edges. Ours is more like 3 inches, but it’s close enough, and this is but one of several ways our alley differs from contemporary engineering standards. Water flows out of drains and off the backs of the lots onto the alley’s cement slab, sluicing across it and gathering in the point of the vee and then turning 90 degrees to head downhill longwise down the alley and thence through the grate over the master drain at the mouth of the alley into the stormwater system of the city eventually to be discharged directly into Bellingham Bay and the sea.
In former decades, the sewer system and the stormwater system were one and the same, and one can apparently still see from the interior of the sewer pipes the filled-in attachment point. Given that something like 10 million gallons of precipitation falls on central Bellingham in each of those winter months it was wisely decided to segregate the two systems.
The sewer line that serves my home runs about 7 feet below the surface, right down the center of the alley. It is a pipe with an 8-inch interior diameter, and each house has a smaller pipe that leads to it. In these older homes, this is a ceramic tile pipe, laid a few feet below the backyard out nearly to the edge of the alley’s slab, at which point the line turns downward abruptly and plunges at about 45 degrees under the cement pad of the alley proper to meet the big line below.
These per-home lines are beginning to age out, being around 100 years old now. Tree roots are a problem, for lots fortunate, or unfortunate, enough to have trees. When these lines fail, as they eventually all will fail, they are replaced at substantial expense. If the line has failed underneath the alley, the expenses multiply as additional permits need to be pulled and paid for, and additional work to cut and then repair the alley to code is required.
This leads to a characteristic rectangular cutout shape from the edge to the center of the alley, a common sight when you know what to look for, each rectangle representing several thousand dollars of unexpected outlay following a no-doubt traumatic experience involving toilets that did not work, probably in one gruesome fashion or another.
Eventually, after my birthday, and after Christmas, and after what seem to be far too many days beginning and ending in darkness, spring comes with its lengthening days, and new growth and the people come out of their houses more often. Alley talks are less cursory, less abrupt, less cold and wet, and then again finally summer comes around again with strawberries and then with raspberries and then with 16 hour days stretching from 5 am to 9 pm, or a bit longer, until we’re all sleep deprived from the light and the apples are ripening again and the cats sleep all day in the sun waiting again for winter.