Essay on Chicago’s alleys

You aren’t going to find too many erudite essays like this one on the subject of Chicago’s alleys:

Thus, alleys in Chicago, as in most other cities, evolved organically: as a general product of function and construction, but with modulations in dimension, materiality, position, and construction, readily changed to suit the needs of its neighbors and occupants. Fluxing along their entire lengths, they cut a byzantine pattern in the city’s figure ground, contributing to its unmistakable appearance in plan without serving as the primary warp and weft of the fabric…

The results are not always beautiful or orthodox, but they are usually interesting; alleys seen in this light could be conceived as both museums and laboratories for material combinations and adjacencies, methods of assembly and detailing. But in another light, alleys are urban canyons—broken glass, vegetation clinging to the fragile mortar joints, with a single swath of sky above: more products of time and erosion, with human intervention to architectonic formations what glaciers are to geology. Again: raw super-nature registered through a Kantian impression of the sublime…

And consider this: glamour in its modern manifestations is generally assigned to objects and places that are alluring, attractive, and special. Its secondary connotation is less positive; a permutation of Norse and Scottish words that tie it to illusion and obfuscation, spells of the eye meant to conceal true natures. In that vein, is it so difficult to see ordinary as glamour, and alleys as extraordinary? We would do well to keep ourselves open; there may be something truly remarkable lying in plain sight within the gravel and brick.

For those who know cities well, I suspect many of them could tell of places where they found something sublime in the non-glamorous places. Much of the attention paid to major cities focuses on major works (like skylines) while residents and others who take a longer and deeper look see a different side.

I was reminded of Chicago’s alleys recently when showing my class part of Mitchell Duneier’s video supplement to his ethnography Sidewalk. In the film, we see images of the subjects of his research – homeless street vendors – wandering through New York City’s garbage in order to find books, magazines, and other things to sell at their sidewalk tables. There was so much garbage simply piled at the curb, not exactly a glamorous sight. In contrast, alleys allow some of these basic functions to be moved behind buildings and open up sidewalks for more pedestrian and social uses.

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