First, let me explain that I’m really using the “Chicago alley” as shorthand for everything outside and beyond the representative facades of buildings. Where the street frontage represents the social aspirations of its builders and inhabitants, the alley shows their everyday practical needs and desires. This is the world of decks, trinkets, exposed wiring sneaking loosely to where it’s needed. It’s the world of fences, trash cans and basketball hoops. This is where Chicagoans relax and play, and this is where they feel comfortable. In fact, the architecture of the alley is the architecture of comfort, more often than not to the exclusion of “good” taste. Still, the mixture is a potent visual feast of winding porch stairs, room additions, deck furniture and lawn fixtures. It’s the ultimate functionalist fantasy land of day-to-day human desires.
In fact, my fascination with the alley goes back many years. The alley was where as a kid you could find the most interesting stuff – it may have been gross at times, but it wasn’t manicured and “fake”. It was real. Where the street was nice and to a large extent uniform, the alley showed the glorious variety of its inhabitants. There was no overt attempt at uniformity there – one yard had tomato plants, another was a lounge, yet another might be somebody’s storage pile. Larger buildings were more orderly – but the porches never attempted to keep a straight line from building to building, and their inhabitants’ stuff tended to accumulate enough to provide a fascinating display. Variety was the name of the game.
Even formally the alley is more interesting than the street. The “alley zone”, taken to include exterior areas behind building facades, is just as “thick” as the “street zone”, and much more complex:
Of course this is a typical residential block, and the city’s alleys are as varied as its neighborhoods. Downtown the proportions are shifted towards the street, with the surrounding buildings squeezing the alleys nearly out of existence. Others, depending on interpretation, might be mostly “alley” – here some of the South Side’s blighted areas come to mind. Still, however you see it, the alley and its attendant areas are worth a look. And that’s what this whole project is going to be about.