Preservation ABCs: A is for Alley

Preservation ABCs is a series that will work its way from A to Z, bringing words into conversation that are relevant to historic preservation, whether it’s an idea, feature or vocabulary term. The idea is to help you see preservation everywhere you look and wherever you go. Enjoy! 

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A is for ALLEY

Elfreth’s Alley, Philadelphia, PA. Photo source: Library of Congress. “GENERAL VIEW OF NORTH (LEFT) AND SOUTH SIDES OF THE ALLEY, LOOKING EAST” Click to go to original digital source.

What is an alley? An alley is a small, narrow street between or behind buildings, mostly in urban settings. Some alleys are for pedestrians only, some are for automobiles to access garages. What does an alley have to do with historic preservation? Alleyways are part of our planning and development history, giving us clues to how people traversed cities and used space. Also, think of it this way: as a culture, we are more likely to spruce front yards, building facades and the most publicly visible spaces that we inhabit. Alleys have the potential to show what the building looked like prior to improvements or stylized additions. 

Alleys are also working corridors. Often these narrow spaces between and behind buildings exist for services (trash collection, deliveries, vehicle parking) and are less traveled than the sidewalks on the streetscape. Because they are less traveled, alleys hold mystery.

Want to visit an alley? Elfreth’s Alley in Philadelphia, PA is a National Historic Landmark.

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3 thoughts on “Preservation ABCs: A is for Alley

  1. Hi, I love your ABC idea. Alleys are a great place to start. I live near Waterford in Ireland, the oldest city in the country and there are some wonderful alleys here that stretch way back to medieval times. Really looking forward to following your journey through the alphabet of preservation.

  2. LOVE the ABC’s idea – fun and educational.

    As for alleys… I’ve always loved alleys. They feel like getting a “behind the scenes” look at a neighborhood. I recently learned an interesting tidbit about alleys. Early automobiles were a big fire risk and so parking cars behind the house some distance away at the back of a property (either in the open or in a garage) was the precautionary method against building fires (and sometimes required by insurance companies) – which explains all those neighorhoods seen with garages at the back of the property accessed by alleyways.

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