Clearing snow from one of Chicago’s enduring design features: the alleys

Crews around here are still working on clearing snow. Even this morning, several days after the major snowfall, some roads have impassable lanes. But Chicago faces an additional challenge: clearing snow from the alleys of residential neighborhoods:

But snowplows won’t be moving down alleys, arteries that are no less important to city dwellers. Streets and Sanitation Commissioner Thomas Byrne says plows might do more harm than good, pushing snow up against garage doors. Garbage trucks, however, will try force their way down alleys to make tracks for cars, he said…

Indeed, while alleys are the last to see city snowplows, they’re first in the hearts of many Chicagoans.

If the Champs-Elysees epitomizes Paris and Unter den Linden boulevard is symbolic of Berlin, the alleys that bisect Chicago’s blocks are emblematic of Chicago, no less than touristy Michigan Avenue…

Other cities, like New York, lack alleys, which means trash has to be put out on streets for pickup. Chicago’s alleys are lined with garbage cans, yet also are the ultimate urban playground.

Years ago, alley games contributed to local patois. “No dibs on broken windows!” was the starting signal for softball games, an announcement that only the batter would be responsible for smashing a ball through a window. The alley version of hide-and-seek was kick-the-can, accompanied by the cry “Olly olly oxen free!”

Alleys were also traditional avenues of neighborhood commerce. Today’s alley vendors, primarily scavengers, prowl the backyard byways by truck. Their predecessors drove wagons pulled by horses.

In the midst of a story about plowing, the reader receives a short education on the importance of alleys for Chicago culture. It would also be interesting to hear about alleys as a planning feature: does it enhance or detract from life on the streets? Does it allow for greater traffic flows on roads when garages and garbage cans are pushed behind buildings? How often do alleys become more of problems than assets (like in situations like this)?

This reminds me of the prominence of alleys in the designs of New Urbanists. Their neighborhoods often place garages in the backyards of homes and buildings so that cars are not such a prominent feature in front of structures. This is intended to enhance life on front porches and front sidewalks as homes can then be closer to the public areas. But this article from Chicago suggests that the alleys can also become important areas for social interaction, interaction that is not taking place on the front stoop or in more visible, public areas. If the goal of New Urbanist design is to enhance community life and interaction, does it matter if this takes place in front or behind a home?

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