The Shadowy back alleys of Brooklyn
August 11, 2009 9:08 AM   Subscribe

The Unnamed Streets of Crown Heights. Another scintillating journey through NYC's back alleys with the movie scout from Scouting NY.
posted by mattbucher (25 comments total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
It's always interesting to go street-hunting in big cities. Out in east-end Montreal I came across an alley between two avenues with a small cul-de-sac and a sign for "Av. Winnipeg" - the street sign was off the alley, so it wasn't even like Avenue Winnipeg intersected with the other streets.

On further inspection, I found a Rue Winnipeg on a recent Montreal map, the street being broken up into segments over three blocks -- I believe the street used to be an alley but eventually got overtaken by new developments. The Avenue Winnipeg I saw might have been one of these segments, but as it stood it's still isolated from the surrounding traffic grid.
posted by spoobnooble at 9:24 AM on August 11, 2009

Neat, thanks. There are a few similar "hollow blocks" here in DC: I live on a block with essentially a wall of taller apartment buildings around the perimeter, while the inside has a really sketch alley and some decrepit townhouses and one- or two-car wooden garages from decades ago.
posted by Inspector.Gadget at 9:24 AM on August 11, 2009

This is a cool blog post, and it's not surprising that a vaguely curious urban cyclist would stumble into unmarked shortcuts. Alleys are far more common in older towns built to accommodate a pedestrian lifestyle and offer a more covert place than the street to dump one's garbage. Too bad the new McMansion mega-complexes cut off foot traffic with 8-foot tall shrubs and concrete partitions so residents have to hop in the car in order to travel half a mile. However, I was under the impression that most alleys don't have names. You don't deliver mail to alleys, and they don't see traffic because they can only admit one car at a time, if that. It's like asking why a driveway doesn't have a street name, or a path in the forest.
posted by zoomorphic at 9:30 AM on August 11, 2009

Very cool. I love laneways, as they seem to be called here in Ontario. (Do they call them laneways in New York too? Are they just "alleys"?)

There's a (possibly out of print) book about Toronto's laneways: Site Unseen: Laneway Architecture & Urbanism in Toronto.

Toronto even has laneway tours!
posted by smably at 9:34 AM on August 11, 2009

Interesting he wants to call them by a British word: snickelways; because they're not snickets or ginnels to my mind, though yeah, maybe alleyways. The proper name over here is tenfoot, and they don't have names because they have no fronting properties, no postal addresses, and aren't always rights of ways.

Of course, these streets may have originally had names that were simple derivatives of the main street they were on, such as "Back X Street". Nobody records the names on a map because "everybody knows" how to work out their names. Yet once people do forget, the names disappear.
posted by Sova at 9:45 AM on August 11, 2009

Baltimore and Melbourne (also heard laneways, there, which I'd never heard in the US) were two of my favorite cities for what spoobnooble calls "street-hunting" and I call "possibly getting myself into trouble." Nearly all of them were named - in Baltimore, often named streets, actually, as in "25th 1/2 Street," one of my favorite names. I've rarely failed to find something interesting down an alley.
posted by EvaDestruction at 9:48 AM on August 11, 2009 [1 favorite]

Awesome. This is this season's "thing that makes me want to move back to New York".
posted by dirtdirt at 10:12 AM on August 11, 2009

Too bad the new McMansion mega-complexes cut off foot traffic with 8-foot tall shrubs and concrete partitions so residents have to hop in the car in order to travel half a mile.

Although some of the McMansion setups do have presumably unnamed alleys behind the houses. I think I saw it in Texas? It's so you have someplace to put out your garbage that doesn't dirty up the main raod. And so you have a bit of space between your back yard and your neighbors.
posted by smackfu at 10:28 AM on August 11, 2009

At friend's place in Boerum Hill, Brooklyn, there clearly used to be an alley behind the house. At some point the backyards of the houses on the block grew to take over the alley space. From the street, there is still a mysteriously empty lot where an entrance to the alley would be.
posted by exogenous at 10:34 AM on August 11, 2009

New York, nothing. I live in a town of 7500 people and most of the town's commercial and residential areas have alleyways like this. They don't get names because they aren't thruways. They're just . . . alleys. Garbage men know them like the backs of their hands.

I also find them really interesting to walk/drive down because you're seeing the side that people don't usually see, the side that's not supposed to be seen. Like driving behind the grocery store at a strip mall.
posted by cyclopticgaze at 10:36 AM on August 11, 2009

I guess Chicago is pretty lucky. Almost every block has an alley. They're used for garages, garbage, drug sales, mail burning, screaming kids, and rats.
posted by @homer at 10:46 AM on August 11, 2009 [2 favorites]

you're seeing the side that people don't usually see, the side that's not supposed to be seen. Like driving behind the grocery store at a strip mall.

Coincidentally, this is one of my favorite things about train trips - the fleeting glimpses of people's backyards. It's banal, and yet fascinating.
posted by EvaDestruction at 11:00 AM on August 11, 2009 [2 favorites]

This is my neighborhood. I've always wondered why Google Maps even considered the alleys we have as streets in any way.

It's actually interesting how they work; they essentially belong to the homeowners on either side of the alley. Some of them (bet. Montgomery and Crown, Kingston and Albany) are well paved. Some are decent for half of it (Bet Crown and Carroll, Kingston and Albany). Some are wrecks (Carroll/President/Albany/Troy). They're narrow and dirty, so although anyone can use them as shortcuts, nobody does. They're basically just access to garages. The nice ones get that way because someone gets it together and collects (usually about $3-400) from each of the neighbor with access to smooth and pave it.

Some are marked as going through, but don't (gates and other things blocking). Then there's Clove, which although named, is far worse than many of the alleys!
posted by mhz at 11:02 AM on August 11, 2009

Much more on New York's alleys:
posted by AJaffe at 11:22 AM on August 11, 2009

I looked up my neighborhood on Google maps, and saw that some alleys are mapped, and some not--I guess it's just a matter of where the magic Google car actually drove. My alley is not mapped. It's sort of as exogenous describes--the long-past owners of my yard and the ones on either side fenced off portions of the alley and trucked in dirt. Apparently, we own only about half of our yard. When we replaced our fence, we found that we had about 8 inches of soil on top of old pavement, which explains the terrible drainage issues we have. There are also random patches of non-paved areas that belong to someone; one neighbor found that he owned a patch after he bought his house, and now has a nice garden.
posted by MrMoonPie at 11:36 AM on August 11, 2009

I, too, am kind of surprised that he's surprised that the alleys don't have names. Unless there's a residence whose primary or only entrance--in other words, where the mail gets delivered to--is on it, there's no need for a street name. (A neighborhood where the former carriage houses are converted to residences might need to have the carriageway given a name, in other words, but where they remain garages--as in the Chicago alleys that @homer mentions above--they're just utility passageways.)

I've seen some streets in Memphis that looked more like alleys--one lane, unpaved--but they were the streets that served the former servants' quarters behind nice, big old houses, so you'd have tree-lined boulevards alternating with these little streets with shacks.
posted by Halloween Jack at 11:43 AM on August 11, 2009

Most streets in the residential parts of Pittsburgh have an alleyway running between them and they all have names that are all "[Something] Way". A lot of garages are built behind houses and face on the alleys and mostly garbage pickup is done back there. They were mostly laid out in the 19th century as places for carriage houses and stables and helped enable the social rules of the time. Middle class homeowners lived on the streets and entered houses through the front door and servants, drivers, tradesmen and delivery people used the alleys and entered houses from the back kitchen door. Often there are small two bedroom townhouses stuck back in the alleys in neighborhoods where big houses face the main streets.
posted by octothorpe at 12:12 PM on August 11, 2009

Dat's our neighborhood! We actually live adjacent to one of the alleys circled in that post. It's a strange and almost unbelievably multifarious neighborhood. We've only lived here a year, and haven't explored even half of it, but I am consistently amazed at how MUCH there is to Crown Heights, which is one of those neighborhoods you don't even hear about too often, you know?

Very nifty blog, too. Thanks for calling it to my attention.
posted by Dr. Wu at 1:47 PM on August 11, 2009

I like these sorts of articles, if only because it's a way to better know some place that's "not here" but still in the same country. This is especially true of things like alleys, manhole (personhole?) covers and other oddities of urban living that nobody seems to notice until someone points it out to them.

Down where I live, each subdivision whose houses have the garage on the back of the house obviously has an alley, but they are deeded to the city and are public access. The city (or county, as the case may be) keeps them paved, cleared of trees and signed. None of them, however, are named but most carry speed limits. Whether or not a group of houses has an alley varies depending on the paranoia level at the time the houses were built about the hidden dangers of having the garage on the back or, more often, whether the developer and the city were able to come to a suitable bribe amount zoning deal on a variance to delete the alleys from the required zoning plan and, thus, use the same amount of land for more houses.
posted by fireoyster at 3:03 PM on August 11, 2009

Philadelphia is a great city of alleys, with many of them actually exceedingly tiny residential streets, home to tiny little rowhouses that around here (and probably elsewhere) are called Trinities. Many of them are incredibly charming.

A perfect example is Elfreth's Alley, reputed to be the oldest continually inhabited residential street in the country, and a treasure of 18th working class housing stock.

One of my favorites is shady little Quince Street (where Google Streetview gets hopelessly confused). Some alleys are even still paved with wooden blocks.

These make for some great long walks in the Fall.
posted by deafmute at 4:04 PM on August 11, 2009 [1 favorite]

Boston's Back Bay has a ton of these alleys, but they're all numbered, for example, Public Alley 422.

The neighborhood was the last in the city to get cable TV because the cable company wanted to string the cables along existing telephone poles in the alleys, but the Back Bay Historical Commission refused to let them because it would detract from the historic nature of the alleys - which are used mainly for storing trash cans and Dumpsters - and by rats and homeless people as a source of food and possible valuables. The commission won and the company put the cables underground.
posted by adamg at 8:25 PM on August 11, 2009

Only the dead know Brooklyn thru and thru...
posted by From Bklyn at 5:17 AM on August 12, 2009

"Several gardens abutted the road, and I was surprised at how much green there was overall - trees, bushes, vines, and plants seemed to be flourishing, another unusual find in Brooklyn."

Um, no. I live in Brooklyn and there is greenery just about everywhere.
posted by Splunge at 11:46 AM on August 13, 2009

Alley's have names?
posted by Pollomacho at 11:54 AM on August 13, 2009

allies. wow. It's the end of the work day.
posted by Pollomacho at 12:04 PM on August 13, 2009

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