Every house I’ve lived in except one has been adjacent to an alley.
An alley is where I learned to ride a bicycle as a kid.
It is where as a pre-teen one of my chores was to take paper trash to a burn barrel and light it on fire. That was in prehistoric days before air pollution was an issue.
Alleys were the safe places to play as a kid, climbing fences and running between yards. It was where you raced other kids on your Sting Ray.
It’s also was where most people piled debris such as old lumber, tree trimmings, and discarded furniture before hauling it to the dump on Saturdays.
The first alley I lived on as a young kid in Roseville was a social corridor of sorts with families on the block going through back gates and knocking on doors to visit neighbors or dropping into back patios to shoot the breeze. If that sounds Ozzie and Harriet, it was in the early 1960s. Alleys were a part of your family’s life. It was rare for anyone to have a garage that wasn’t on the alley although a few modern homes – flat tops built in the late 1950s – had carports accessed from the street.
And that alley wasn’t much narrower than the streets. In retrospect narrower streets seemed more conducive to neighbors being neighborly, everyone keeping an eye on other people’s kids, prompted the planting of trees that eventually became stately with canopies that cooled the pavement and sidewalks in the heat of summer, and slowed traffic. Everyone wasn’t in a hurry.
Back then when you were on an alley, it didn’t mean you lived in the “older” part of town or “poorer” neighborhood. Our block had a banker, a gas station owner, a CHP officer, grocery store owner, railroad engineer, teacher, and an engineer at Aerojet.
The alley behind the home where I spent most of my life in Lincoln was initially just clay and dirt. Of course, there wasn’t much in Lincoln that wasn’t clay unless it was paved over. To understand how effective clay is, the city used it to fill potholes on asphalt streets for years. It was the perfect patch until a major storm hit.
There were three small homes on the alley in Lincoln. There were what folks today refer as granny flats. Two were rather cute small houses while one was a clapboard affair. The homes at various times were rented by young couples, an elderly woman, struggling families, and single adults. They were so quite you almost forgot there were three households living on the alley. Again, the neighborhood was a true melting pot. There were immigrants from Mexico and Portugal. Dust Bowl transplants. There were factory workers, teachers, business owners, welfare recipients, Caltrans inspector, retirees, a preachers, and a store clerk.
It was a big deal when the alley finally got paved. Even though it was a dedicated city alley that was used by garbage trucks every week, if people wanted the alley paved they had to all agree to a property assessment. Lincoln wasn’t exactly a wealthy town but it had more to do with the fact 90 percent of the homes in the community that had 3,400 residents at the time had alleys and none of them except the ones in the downtown area and in a few newer areas were paved.
The city took a tractor down the alleys every year or so using the bucket to knock down whatever weeds managed to grow up through the clay laden soil and to smooth out any rough spots. If property owners agreed to pay assessments the city crews would pave the alley and then the city would maintain the pavement. The Lincoln City Council’s position was simple: Alleys that were dedicated to the city in dirt form were what the city agreed to maintain. Those that were paved when they were turned over to the city such as in downtown were maintained as any other paved city right-of-way.
It was a big expense. Since our home had two lots it was going to cost my mom $300 payable over three years. That was a lot for a widow struggling to support four kids. But we were like perhaps 90 percent of the people that backed up to the alley: Either our garage was on it or they had a rental home where the alley served as the primary access.
My romanticized idea of alleys started changing when we bought our first home in Manteca. It was on a corner lot and our garage access was from the street. Garbage collection was also curbside.
The alley just a block of East Yosemite Avenue wasn’t paved nor did it create a dust issue. What it did was serve as a temporary flophouse for the homeless on occasion who had no problem using it as their toilet and leaving behind empty booze bottles.
I bought my current house in Powers Tract just before the city paved the alleys. I’m in the minority as I have a garage off the alley although I don’t park my Escape in it as I have a carport accessed from the street. The only drawback about the home was the ease that people walking down the alley could see into the backyard and my rear windows. I remedied that with a new fence and planting trees and shrubs.
Shortly after the alley was paved, it became a conduit in the wee hours of the morning for a drug house at mid-block that had more business after midnight than a 7-Eleven.
I could do without the alley but I can’t phantom not having one.
This column is the opinion of executive editor, Dennis Wyatt, and does not necessarily represent the opinion of The Bulletin or Morris Newspaper Corp. of CA. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or 209.249.3519.