The Alley behind your building might just be Chicago’s best feature


One of Chicago’s most under-appreciated features is our amazingly extensive network of alleys.  The alley may be unlovely but it keeps Chicago running smoothly and gives us our nice tree lined sidewalk street fronts. Chicago has 1,900 miles of alley – nearly the distance from here to Mexico City – and our city would be dramatically different without them.  Lets talk about why.  

Why do we even have alleys in Chicago?

CuriousCity featured the Amazing Alley last fall and addressed the reasons behind Chicago’s shadow city. Like most of the midwest, Chicago was laid out on property maps before it had been properly explored.  The easiest way for the young federal government to break up the land was section it into squares – townships 36 miles on a side – and then slice up the squares smaller and smaller until you got to blocks and property lines.  Unlike East coast cities which grew organically with far less planning, Chicago rigidly adhered to its grid.  Alleys were useful for keeping the working parts of urban life out of site. The idea faded from popularity as the city grew and you won’t find alleys in our ring city suburbs.

Alleys Make Chicago Better than New York

Not to put too fine a point on it, but alleys are one of the reasons Chicago is better than New York.  We may love to visit the Big Apple, but Chicagoans are always shocked by how much the City that Never Sleeps must be kept awake by the smell of trash sitting on the sidewalk.

alley trash copyTo quote “This will always be our No. 1 beef with New York: Your city stinks. In Chicago, we put our garbage in garbage cans, which sit in our alleys. This is how a civilized society disposes of trash.”

What your Alley can do for you

The Encyclopedia of Chicago points out the social implications of the alley in different parts of the city. “In middle-class areas, the street represented the respectable front, while the alley saw the servants and suppliers do the dirty work. In working-class areas, alleys provided space for small manufacturing, repair shops, rear houses, children’s play space, and, eventually, garages.”

Although we don’t tend to have milk and eggs delivered to the back door, we do keep our trash out back and run most of our power, cable and other utility lines through the alley corridor.

The alley – as a secondary public way – forms the back bone of our  transit system.  Think about it: outside the loop, most elevated rail lines run along alley corridors.  Only the newest construction – the green and pink lines – run over public street.  In general this provides quick and easy access, less congestion in the streets, and mid-block access for train stations – thus avoiding intersection bus and car conflicts.

Making Alleys Better … with permeable pavers

How can we bring the alley forward into the 21st century with us.  Now that we no longer stable a lot of horses outside the back door, what is their future.  Well we still run a lot of essential services through the alley.  People tend to miss them when they are incapacitated by snow.  But could the be doing still more for us?  Yes.

Alleys can serve as either harmful or helpful when considering how permeable our city it.  Remember that water hitting hard surfaces like asphalt and concrete runs off into gutters and – in heavy rains – can flush sewage into the Chicago River.  Yuck!

To prevent that, the Chicago Green Alley Handbook points out the benefits of permeable (and low heat) alley paving materials and recommends several alternatives to conventional asphalt.  Pavers, permeable concrete, recycled base materials, and even dark sky lighting can all help make our (many miles) of alley an eco boon rather than bust.

The guide is a pretty great document, complete with prices per smaller changes and information on cost benefit payoffs.   It’s a hard sell to persuade people that spending money on an alley is a good bet, but the payoff can be big if the project is done right.

What is even cooler than an old brick Alley?  A WOOD PAVED ALLEY

As always, Forgotten Chicago has the best weird Chicago history tidbit to share.  In the early 19th century when American cities were trying to outgrow their muddy thoroughfares and pave their streets with actual street, a Boston developer came up with the idea of making streets out of wood block.  It was better than mud, quiet and clean … but not exactly durable.  Still his idea caught on in Boston, and then traveled to Chicago where wood was plentiful and cheap.  In 1871, Chicago had 37 miles of wood paved street.

The idea eventually fell out of favor and wood block was replaced with brick or Belgian Block paving schemes by the 1890’s but … a few wood block areas remain.

wood block alley

Forgotten Chicago identifies three remaining alleys in Chicago that feature wood block pavers.

So take a spin down your local alley today – you won’t have to go far out of your way – and appreciate this fine feature of our city which adds access, keeps garages off the street and might even keep our river cleaner.  Salute to the Chicago Alley!