A Better Alley

Wanting to promote discussions around planning, policy and design in Long Beach, I look for topics people might find interesting. Recently, a youth journalism initiative entitled Voicewaves was launched in Long Beach as a partnership between New America Media, The California Endowment and the Knight Foundation. The project trains youth in multi-media journalism as a tool for civic engagement and to promote a healthier community. On the Voicewave website, a cadre of fledgling journalists write about topics ranging from policy to arts and culture.

What piqued my interest more than anything was their “Re-Imagining Long Beach” series, which is a forum for authors to observe the city and envision something better. To forge dialogue with the Voicewaves contributors, I spoke with the directors of the program, Antonio Ruiz and Prumsodun OK, about collaboration. On occasion I will use this column to respond to a Re-Imagining article, to further the discussion.

12:39pm | Recently, Jesus Hernandez explored the current state of alleys in Long Beach and pondered whether there might be opportunity for alleys to have more than just a utilitarian function. Instead, alleys could become a place for recreation and social interaction, with art, landscaping and positive activity populating these oft-forgotten public spaces. The image Hernandez painted was both vivid and familiar to me. It recalled past urban hiking expeditions in other cities, where I discovered creative uses of alleys and wondered where similar opportunities might exist for Long Beach.

San Francisco is a well-known case of a city where a range of alleys have been repurposed as pedestrian spaces. Maiden Lane is an intimate alley which runs for two blocks east of Union Square, in the downtown area. The block furthest from Union Square provides circulation for cars, bikes, and pedestrians. Many stores use this block of the alley for service access, but it also acts as the point of entrée for several boutique shops and restaurants (including a couple art galleries). The block of Maiden Lane closest to Union Square is largely limited to pedestrians throughout the day, when large portions of the alley are used as outdoor dining space for swanky bistros.


Photo courtesy of Luggage Store Gallery

On the opposite end of San Francisco’s socioeconomic spectrum, but no less interesting and beautiful, is the guerilla transformation of a half-block long alley in the middle of the Tenderloin district. The Tenderloin National Forest was created through incremental do-it-yourself (DIY) landscape and public art projects by a local arts organization. Once an alley that was arguably the scariest dark corner of the roughest neighborhood in San Francisco, the Tenderloin National Forest has become a vibrant community oasis, complete with vegetable garden, cultural event space, and seating area, as well as beautiful murals, metalwork, and mosaics.


Photo by Brian Ulaszewski

Back in Southern California, Pasadena has created vibrant public spaces from portions of alleys situated along the main commercial corridor, Colorado Boulevard. Towards the western end of the boulevard is One Colorado, a network of three intersecting alleys that have been rededicated to pedestrian use. Where they intersect at the center of the street block there is now a large courtyard, surrounded by restaurants with outdoor dining spilling onto the space. Events are regularly held in the central courtyard, including music, theater, and art exhibitions. Other revisioned alleys along Colorado Boulevard include Mercantile Place and Paseo Colorado, a formerly enclosed mall whose transformation harkens to the days when alleys were centrally for pedestrian use.

What can we learn from these examples in places like San Francisco and Pasadena? From the downtown area to the east side of the city and northward to Bixby Knolls, Long Beach has a dense network of service alleys. These alleys provide a range of creative opportunities in contexts ranging from commercial environments to residential neighborhoods. In wh the Central Area of Long Beach (between 7th Street and 17th Street, and from Rose Avenue to Alamitos Avenue), there are a dozen alley-courts with small California bungalows and Spanish Revival cottages flanking either side. Though only a few are designated landmark districts (specifically Toledo Walk, Brenner Place, and Minerva Court), these collections of single-family homes are largely historically intact.

In the historic Wilmore City neighborhood, just northwest of downtown, there are as many alleys as streets. Many residents use these alleys to access apartments, cottages and flats over garages; indeed, many postal addresses in this neighborhood list alleys, not street. As a result of this centrality of alleys to the Wilmore City area, it is not surprising that both the community and the city government has set about trying to improve them. This starts with basic maintenance, but there exists a framework to transform alleys in this area into beautiful lanes that could provide livability as well utilitarian access. Called the Courts and Ways in the Wilmore City Implementation Plan (PDF), the idea is to redesign many of the east-west alleys (the “Ways”) and the north-south alleys (the “Courts”) to include landscaping, public art, signage, social spaces and sustainable stormwater management facilities.


Courtesy of the City of Long Beach (David Magdangal)

In the East Village district, we can see the finishing touches underway on a beautification project between Linden and Elm Avenue on Alta Way (an east-west alley that runs between Broadway and First Street). This project involves converting this section of Alta Way from vehicular use to pedestrian space. Landscaping is largely complete and large stone table and chairs have been set in place: all that remains to be done is installing public art in the form of a large mural. This project was wholly a community initiative, with financial support from the City’s Neighborhood Services Bureau and Downtown Long Beach Association, along with whatever additional resources could be scraped together, and a lot of sweat equity. This certainly will not be a bad place to grab a coffee and relax on an afternoon.

These varied examples illustrate how alleys make up a significant portion of Long Beach’s public right-of-way space, and there is value in viewing them as more than a home for forgotten mattresses and rusted clunker cars. With some foresight and investment, they can become living lanes, lush with landscaping and filled with art, extensions of bike and pedestrian networks as well as the city’s public parks. It might take some vision to scratch away initial layers of grime, but we can find examples across California and beyond from which to draw inspiration.

This is cross-posted on Voicewaves.org. Thank you Jesus and the rest of Voicewave for Re-Imagining Long Beach.

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