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The city behind the city

By Craig Smith
Sunday, March 5, 2006

Pittsburgh police Sgt. Michael DelCimmuto recalls learning early on about the city’s alleys.

“When I was a rookie 17 years ago, an old-timer came up to me and said, ‘Kid, if you want to stay sane, stay out of the alleys,’ ” said DelCimmuto, 39, who works in the Hill District.

“All the crap happens in the alleys,” he said.

But that’s no longer necessarily so.

Once the domain of garbage trucks and hooligans, the lowly alley is undergoing a transformation. Alleys in cities from Manhattan to San Francisco — Pittsburgh included — are being revitalized.

A number of cities are designating alleys for walkers, and some restaurants now set up outdoor cafes in them, said Maria Riley, 34, a landscape designer with the Downtown firm of Klavon Design Associates.

“I love alleys,” she said. “It’s sort of a subgrid in the city that allows people to move around in a different way.”

Pittsburgh has more than 500 alleys that, if laid end to end, would almost reach Edinboro University of Pennsylvania in Erie County.

In them, DelCimmuto has seen the good and the bad over the years. “I’ve seen alleys where you thought you’d catch some disease just being in it, and others where you say, ‘Whoa, this is here?’ ”

Bill Siess likes the old-fashioned feel that alleys give his neighborhood and says they can reduce speeding in a low-tech way.

“They’re full of potholes, so you can’t go too fast,” said Siess, 48, an engineer who lives in Lincoln Place.

The intricate system of alleys around his Stock Street home is more than just a web of pedestrian walkways. The alleys are places where neighbors congregate, kids play and new moms push babies in strollers.

These “intermediate spaces between two worlds … function as the equivalent of the backyard fence,” said Northwestern University sociologist Albert Hunter.

Hunter, himself a fan of alleys, said they provide “a voyeuristic backside view” of everyday life.

“It’s in the alley that you see the workers taking their cigarette breaks. It’s the backstage,” he said.

Social spaces

The Institute of Traffic Engineers and the Federal Highway Administration later this month will unveil new design standards for urban thoroughfares — from alleys to interstates. Pittsburgh will review the suggested standards to see how to incorporate them into its development planning, said Patrick Hassett, the city’s assistant director of planning.

“Alleys are a crucial, very important part of any urban environment,” said Hassett, 51.

Frank Yenca and his wife, Marita, prefer walking the alleys over the main streets near their Wilkinsburg home. The alleys have more character, he said.

“You see things that aren’t the public face,” said Yenca, 41. “It’s a little more real.”

Until recently, these “social spaces” full of ambiance and energy had been forgotten, said Riley, the landscape designer.

“Real life traditionally occurred in alleys, and we’ve lost that,” she said.

Alleys are appealing because they are small, intimate, out of the way spaces compared to the skyscrapers around them, said Jonathan Cox, 48, director of operations at the Pittsburgh Downtown Partnership, which launched a revitalization project for Strawberry Way, a four-block alley used by more pedestrians than any other in Downtown, according to the Pittsburgh Downtown Partnership.

Riley is one of the designers working on the Strawberry Way project. The alley, which stretches from Liberty Avenue to Cherry Way, links the city’s cultural, retail and government districts.

Strawberry Way someday will be lit by lights embedded in the pavement and have art, information displays and limited vehicular traffic, said Riley. The project carries a $2 million price tag.

Art destination

People have been coming to Sampsonia Way, the small alley in front of exiled Chinese poet Huang Xiang’s home in the North Side, for almost 10 years to see the poetry he has written on his house or to hear his readings.

His “installation art” attracts visitors from all over, said his wife, Jhang Ling, who serves as his interpreter. The couple fled China in 1997 and came to Pittsburgh in 2003. He opened the “House Poem” in November 2004.

Meredith Knight, spokeswoman for the nearby Mattress Factory Art Museum, said Xiang’s work and that by artists Diane Samuels and Ruth Stanford are transforming the alley from a mere roadway into a destination.

“A sense of community is being fostered there,” she said.

The work of Samuels, who lives on Sampsonia Way, has chronicled each crack of the 828-foot-long street. Stanford has restored a home on the alley to provide a glimpse into the lives of generations of former residents.

These types of projects “show alleys being used in a new way,” said Arthur P. Ziegler Jr., president of the Pittsburgh History and Landmarks Foundation.

The city at one time had an unusually large number of houses on alleys, which became part of “a shared backyard,” he said. Many of these homes remain in neighborhoods such as Lawrenceville, the South Side, Bloomfield and Lincoln Place.

Alley renaissance

Not everyone is a fan of these often-brick or cobblestone roadways.

“They’re not well-lit,” said Jim Sholtes, who routinely searches for treasures in the trash of others.

“There’s days you find things worth a lot of money. Other days you don’t,” he said during a recent search in Edgewood, where he found wire snippers and socket wrenches.

Sholtes, 38, of Oakmont, devotes about three hours a week to his hobby of sifting through what others throw away.

“A lot of people worry ’cause there’s thieves. You don’t have to steal. There’s so much junk,” he said.

Alleys remain a low priority for those who maintain them.

“When we plow, they’re the last routes we get to,” said Pittsburgh Public Works Director Guy Costa. Alleys also are low on the waiting list for paving.

Alleys first appeared about 2,500 years ago in Greece and became a fixture in the United States as it expanded westward. Planners said there were practical reasons for alleys. They allowed streets to function more for display and lessened the amount of manure on a city’s streets.

Alleys were essentially eliminated from American residential planning in the 1930s, but some designers have attempted to restore a measure of the alley’s social connectivity by creating some type of backyard-accessible commons.

“New urbanism” planners are bringing back alleys to make streets more pedestrian.

David Ginns, a transportation specialist with Sustainable Pittsburgh, said the alley is an idea whose time has come — again.

“In terms of smart growth, they do make sense,” he said. “The idea of getting away from cul-de-sacs.”

These new alleys likely would be a far cry from the one in lower Lawrenceville that a young Michael DelCimmuto walked to get to Freddy’s Market, the neighborhood store down the street from his childhood home.

“My mom would give me $2 to get a pound of jumbo, a pound of American cheese, bread and pop,” he said. “The pop cooler door was broken. It was held shut with a 10-penny nail.”

Craig Smith can be reached at or (412) 380-5646.

This article appeared in the Pittsburgh Tribune Review © Pittsburgh Tribune Review

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