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2006 07 22
Philosopher’s Walk II: A Natural History of the Alley

When it rains, I think of the laneway behind our Junction area home as a creek, flowing intermittently like those sunken runnels at the edge of rural cow pastures, shaded and stagnant in the midsummer heat but swelling to gurgling fullness after a rain. Alive with frogs, whose deep grunting utterances are low echoes of the high trilling voices of peepers in the spring.

It isn't like this in reality, of course. The laneway is poured concrete and slopes between storm sewer gratings designed to catch runoff before it can muddy and undermine the sills of the wooden garages lining the alley like so many weathered boathouses. But when it rains, the alley flows, briefly, like a creek, and eddies at the detritus left along its banks: beer bottles, shopping carts, bike tires, and (by rumour) the occasional syringe. And if it does not teem with frogs and minnows, our alley does produce its share of wildlife. At twilight a family of raccoons descends a nearby Manitoba Maple and gorges on the kibble we put out for the local cats, and sometimes a skunk makes its passage through the undergrowth, silent and invisible until surprised by a foolish and regretful dog. A colony of carpenter ants has occupied a garage down the lane: during walks at night last summer we would stop and listen to thousands of jaws chewing its timbers, leaving a fine dust on the concrete below.

In Emerald City: Toronto Visited (Viking, 1994) John Bentley Mays (art and architecture writer and Toronto's original psychogeographer) notes that most of Toronto's 233-odd kilometres of laneways were built between about 1850 and the 1930s to serve functional rather than aesthetic purposes. Notwithstanding the current romanticism among some urban planners and architects for laneways and mews, Mays observes, "if you do have a lane out back, it's fairly certain you've bought into what was and may still be a workers' neighbourhood." And in this sense, laneways may be understood as a consolation for properties too narrow to accommodate a proper drive, providing needed breathing channels in neighbourhoods where sometimes only a stray cat can slip through the space between houses.

But it is clear that Toronto's laneways have become consolation for so much more. Not only have Toronto's laneways begun to draw interest as desirable sites for residential intensification, they have become sites of considerable creative interest as well, particularly for photographers fixated on recording the city's graffiti, its most urban art. And it seems to me that graffiti artists themselves (or vandals, if the canvas chosen is your own garage) favour alleys not only because they are secluded places where such acts can be completed undisturbed, but also because alleys are a kind of incompletely claimed territory, a resonant urban canvas drawing in creative energy like a vacuum attracts air.

And if the city is understood as a living archaeological site, then its alleys are the layers most visible below the tip of the tel. They are liminal spaces, neither fully private nor completely public. If the front facades of most Toronto homes are carefully and tidily maintained, alleys provide a view of real life: discarded plastic furniture, dirty rear windows covered by a bedsheet, piles of bricks from unfinished projects, abandoned hockey nets, a car on blocks, all providing a glimpse into the real and often messy lives lived all across this city. Alleys gather the city's detritus together into organic and slowly flowing channels, objects that resurface months or years later like runoff at a spillway in the spring.

And it is my view that our current fascination with urban alleys has a lot to do with a desire to reconnect with those solid pieces of our past, discarded or hidden but not entirely forgotten. If the city is a site of destruction and renewal, a plastic locale in continual shift, then alleys may be seen to reflect entropy and slow change. There is something solid, something tangible and corporeal and organic, about a somnolent urban alley lined with ancient wooden garages sagging gently on their sills in the afternoon heat, or flowing with forgotten bits of the city's passage after a rain.

Alleys are the causeway of the city's memory.

(The above Toronto alley photograph was taken by Erin Pryde and is used here under the aegis of a Creative Commons license.)
[email this story] Posted by Amy Lavender Harris on 07/22 at 09:08 AM

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