• Right up my alley
Some of my early growing-up years were spent in a little community that had what we could euphemistically call “quaint” ideas about class and status.
As I grew older, I recognized them for what they were: Mind-numbing rules of thought and conduct that assumed most people would know their place in society and not try very hard to rise above their station. This was a holdover, I presume, from the Great Depression, when anyone who had anything was jealously watched by those who went without. Perhaps even a bit of the old European classism mentality as well.
One of the major determinants lay in where one began. If you lived in the West End, chances were your house was a little bigger, a little nicer, and so you were presumed to be of a better class. If you lived on the North Side, as we did, chances were your house was small, your job was in a factory or on a farm and you stayed there unless you were visiting the neutral grounds of the sprawling town park that separated the neighborhoods.
Between these extremes were the people who everyone in every neighborhood looked down on. They lived along the narrow cinder streets generally referred to as “alleys.” A lot of their dwellings were tiny, sometimes ramshackle buildings tucked in between storage sheds and garages.
The few black families in town — far fewer than today — lived in such places, as did those from broken homes — also far less prevalent then than now — along with those who just didn’t succeed in the world. The common denominator was that they all were dirt poor.
I went to school with some of the alley kids. There were stretches when we weren’t much better off financially than a lot of them. I guess that’s why I didn’t pay much attention to status. In fact, our backyard led to a place called Apple Alley, where a couple of my baseball-playing pals lived, so I knew it well.
Today, it’s known as Apple Avenue, a gentrified area of cute little apartments, converted garages, neat gardens tucked into the former junk-strewn spaces, all because people realized it was a smart move to invest in every bit of property within walking distance of the ever-growing university campus on the edge of town.
I wrote about this a few years ago when a community group in Troy, the Upstate New York city in which I have long lived, decided to put its alleys under a microscope. The city has dozens of miles of such pathways. In essence, such groups here and in other localities are looking for ways to improve the alleys, which in some cases would mean clearing brush that blocks them, or recommending better security lighting or simply coming up with ways to make them more useful. Regretably, nothing much came of it
Coincidentally, for several years I have been unscientifically but common-sensically checking the city’s alleys and have come to various conclusions. Among them:
• Too many alleys have been allowed to become open-air dumps for the convenience of some people. The city, under several administrations, has been made fully aware of this yet does virtually nothing about it.
• Alleys are undervalued in Troy, as they are in most cities. Instead of continuing to see them as furtive places to be shunned, some entrepreneurial types might consider the example of Provincetown on Cape Cod. Many of its once-neglected alleys have been transformed into pedestrian pathways between neighborhoods. Buildings have been converted into charming little homes and B&B’s with postage-stamp gardens. Some spots have become home to clusters of tiny stores that put less strain for rent and utilities on small-business owners.
The latest examination of my city’s darker pathways has resulted in “Alley Action Project 2009,” an initiative funded by the Rubin Foundation. It has a bunch of people of all ages creating and completing alleyway wall murals to brighten the city.
I have my doubts that painting pretty pictures on the walls will do much to alleviate the piles of illegally-dumped trash and garbage, the cigarette butts, discarded Styrofoam coffee and soft drink cups, and other assorted debris — all dumped there on a regular basis and inexplicably tolerated by the businesses bordering the alleyways. Paint doesn’t go far enough to foster an improved set of sensibilities by the city that fails to demand a permanent cleanup and among the peope who live in the community yet turn a blind eye to the problem.
However, it that’s what it takes to get things rolling, my heartfelt encouragement is with these people.