The word “alley” conjures up images of secrecy, maybe something mysterious, forbidden or illegal. Sneakin’ Sally through the Alley just doesn’t work with “street” or “lane”, would it?
Alleys are an integral part of the landscape for cities like Old Town but don’t always get the respect they deserve. Alleys “are something that have been overlooked in city planning,” remarked Michael Commisso, Historical Landscape Architect for the National Park Service.
“What’s remarkable about the alleys,” said Lance Mallamo, director of the Office of Historic Alexandria, “is their social history,” explaining that alleys were where servants could talk freely. I’d love to know what they said. And the stories – every alley has some. For example, just how rowdy were the Irish partiers who prompted owner Robert Brockett to create a street – Brockett’s Alley between Washington and St. Asaph Sts. – to break them up?
Commisso led a volunteer group that painstakingly inventoried approximately 100 alleys in Old Town as the first part of a larger study. The next step will be to assess the integrity and condition of the alleys.
He sees an opportunity for the final study to help the environment. For alleys found to be in bad condition and lacking their original historic integrity, more permeable materials such as sand-based brick could be used to restore them, reducing the amount of stormwater runoff.
Runoff is a huge issue for Old Town and, frankly, kind of a gross one right now. Part of Old Town is served by a single pipe for stormwater and sewage; in heavy rain, the pipe overloads with polluted water. This mixture of stormwater (about 90%) and raw sewage drain into local streams. Yuck. The state is requiring the city to fix this, but it will take several years.
At a recent forum in Alexandria, the volunteer group offered several recommendations to preserve the city’s alleys and boost their visibility, including:
- Improve the preservation ethic among city officials and citizens
- Update the National Register document
- Use the study to inform future development
- Restore historic alleys
- Give each alley a name
- Resolve ownership issues
The last item is pivotal. A fire in 1871 destroyed city records so it’s a bit hazy sometimes who owns what part of the alley. “It takes enormous research to determine ownership,” said Al Cox, Historic Preservation Manager for the city’s Board of Architectural Review. Whether an alley is private or public has largely been determined by an extremely basic rule developed years ago: can a trash truck drive down it? If so, it’s public.
In some cases, alley fights end up in court. In 2011, Old Dominion Boat Club challenged the city’s right to issue a license to a restaurant to build an elevated deck on Wales Alley; the deck would have obstructed a large portion of the alley. The state supreme court ruled that the license issuance violated the terms of a private easement.
While charming and important to the city’s social history, residents tired of dealing with bumpy cobblestone pave over the alleys, or the city does, hence the recommendation to improve the preservation ethic and clarify ownership. What prompted the recent study was an uproar over damage done to an alley between Lee and Gibbon Streets from utility work. Clear delineation of boundaries could help prevent surprises to those who want the alley to remain the way it is.
Boundaries can be a good thing.